“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” Caroline Bingley and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8
It is well known that Jane Austen was a voracious reader. Her father George Austen’s library contained over 500 volumes, and having been home schooled by her father and her brother James, both ‘Oxford men’, she had at hand the resources for a solid education and a varied library from her father’s shelves.¹ In the last year of her life, she wrote to her eight-year old niece Caroline Austen who was a budding writer and recommended that she should, ‘cease writing till (she) was sixteen; that she had herself often wished she had read more, and written less in the corresponding years of her own life.’²
We see books and novels discussed frequently in her works as social and moral commentary. If you will note, many of her characters who read or collect books are often portrayed in a more sympathetic light; — Fanny Price in Mansfield Park with her affinity to poetry, Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility who “had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library“, and even Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, that Gothic fiction obsessive, all have their faults, but are overall portrayed postively, learn and grow throughout the story, and by the conclusion are endearing to the reader. On the opposite side of the spectrum, those characters that are negligent readers are unsympathetically slighted; — the odious Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice who “often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit“, Emma Woodhouse in Emma who “has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old”, Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion “who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage” and John Thorpe of Northanger Abbey who thinks novels are “the stupidest things in creation“. These, with the exception of Emma Woodhouse, all have a less favourable end.
With so much praise and admonishment on reading peppered about, it is amusing to ponder if Jane Austen’s character Mr. Darcy from her novel Pride and Prejudice is the moral voice of the authoress when he states that all accomplished women must improve their minds with extensive reading! Much to our benefit, the level of education that Jane Austen’s received was not the norm for ladies in Georgian England. There were some who felt that educating women was a waste of money and resources. Is Mr. Darcy’s progressive attitude working Jane Austen’s personal principals? Is she projecting here?
For those unfamiliar with the context of Mr. Darcy’s remark, the heroine Elizabeth Bennet is a wary guest at Netherfield Park, the home of her neighbors Charles Bingley and his social climbing sisters Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst. In-between attending her ailing sister Jane Bennet, Elizabeth must eat meals and socialize with the Bingley’s and their other house guest, Mr. Darcy, a very wealthy and arrogant gentleman whose previous encounter with our heroine Elizabeth mortified her pride by indifferent remarks about her beauty. When Caroline Bingley (who is keen on Darcy) begins her speech about the qualifications of a truly accomplished woman, she is attempting to subliminally recommend herself as an appropriate wife to Mr. Darcy by stating attributes that she thinks that she has already attained, and he will admire. She forgets to mention knowledge from reading, which Mr. Darcy quickly tacks on to her soliloquy.
This statement by Darcy is certainly thrown out to complete his faithful assistant’s grandiose list for Elizabeth’s benefit, but the fact that Caroline omitted reading as an accomplishment is an underlieing admission of Austen’s view of Caroline Bingley’s perspective and values. Mr. Darcy picks up the omission immediately. He is a well read man, and Austen drops a telling clue for us to value him – for with books – as Austen tells us repeatedly throughout all of her novels, “the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language“.
Ironically, Caroline Bingley later attempts to recover from her obvious blunder by winning Mr. Darcy’s respect and affection with an interesting attempt at a ‘do over’!
Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” Pride and Predjudice, Chapter 11
Again, through Caroline’s toady actions, she reveals her true nature. She pretends to read, because Mr. Darcy is reading; yawning and bored by a book, she sets it aside and proclaims “that there is no enjoyment like reading!” More Austen clues to alert us to the final outcome of those who read, and those who do not. Next time you read an Austen novel or see one of her adaptations, watch out for who is reading, and why, and by doing so you will “add something more substantial, in the improvement of (your) mind”.
It pleases me to think that Jane Austen would approve of my reading habits and enjoy perusing my little library which I have lovingly collected over the years. Some say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I beg to differ, and proclaim books are a more telling blueprint to an owner’s personality and interests. “I would rather be poor in a cottage full of books than a king without the desire to read” Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859). You can visit my humble collection at Library Thing
1. Austen-Leigh, William, Jane Austen a Family Record, pp54
2. Austen, Caroline My Aunt Jane, pp 10