Originally published 1/12/2006.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Thus it begins, Jane Austen's classic tale of love and romance. Or is her famous story more about morals and manners, and how people interact with others? I do not propose to put forth one proposition over the other. However, I should like to investigate one aspect of the book which I definitely believe is present, and that is the appropriateness of certain speech, and the impropriety of much else. Having known for some time my own deficiencies in this matter, I hope, by God's grace, to learn something of propriety and to learn better what is that “word in season.”
Before I begin, I will make a distinction that is hopefully unnecessary to the reader. I distinguish between Jane Austen's comments on various events, and what her characters themselves say about certain events. Moreover, amongst Jane Austen's comments on various events, we must learn to distinguish between sarcasm or wit, and serious teaching. It is not my impression that Austen makes much use of the latter, whereas the former permeates the book, and gives it so much of its shine.
The book opens with this sarcasm. Austen sets the stage for all that follows, and especially sets up the character of Mrs. Bennet with her opening salvo. The first two paragraphs are most definitely sarcastic, as evidenced by Mr. Bennet's comment, “Is that his design in settling here?” Mr. Bennet is poking fun at the unreasonable idea that any young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Are Mrs. Bennet's comments here appropriate? Surely her first few comments are acceptable. She has news she thinks will be of interest to Mr. Bennet. Her motives, we can see, are not pure, since she is thinking seriously of inflicting one of her daughters onto the new tenant. This ulterior motive Austen brings out very subtilely in the beginning by comments such as “This was invitation enough.” However, Mrs. Bennet shows her true colors very little later when she says, “What a fine thing for our girls!” The irony not three lines later is that it is she who is being tiresome in automatically thinking she can foist one of her daughters on Mr. Bingley. Her statement that it is “very likely that he may fall in love with one of them,” shows her to be perhaps overly proud of her daughters, and also focused on externals.
The next few lines engage in the old-fashioned manners of introduction. It was considered proper for the more important or older person to be introduced first to the younger, less important person. Both Mr. and Mrs. Bennet recognize the importance of the covenant head of a family being introduced (or introducing himself) before the rest of the family. Mrs. Bennet evidences this by saying, “for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not.” Mr. Bennet evidences this by actually being “among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley,” as Chapter Two begins. In the meantime, however, Mr. Bennet has a bit of fun at her expense, by the whole interchange concerning Lizzy. Mrs. Bennet, not being terribly clever, does not understand him, as Austen herself points out in a rare candid moment in the last paragraph of Chapter One.
At the end of Chapter One, therefore, what do we know about Mr. and Mrs. Bennet? Mrs. Bennet has already given notice that she will be more or less unable to say anything appropriate. She will be unacceptably forward, even while recognizing certain forms of manners. Mr. Bennet knows what is appropriate, but as is shown later in the book, takes no pains to instruct his wife in these matters, and rather makes fun of her. He is little better with his daughters, though he does see that it would be advantageous to get them married off. He would probably have agreed with Charlotte Lucas, whose thoughts Austen records as follows in Chapter Twenty-Two: “Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” Mr. Bennet is really rather an abdicating man, and in many ways is not an ideal husband or father.
It will be left to Elizabeth and Jane, Charlotte Lucas, and Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, mostly, to give for us the example of proper speech. Even Mr. Darcy says many things that are inappropriate.