Conversation in Jane Austen
The carefully crafted, clever and witty dialogues are certainly one of the most appealing elements in Jane Austen novels. Jane Austen loved the theatre, and as she embraced the new and still developing novel format she was strongly influenced by the dialogue she heard on stage.
This is particularly true of Pride and Prejudice: Andrew Davies stated that, in writing the script for the first episodes of the 1995 adaptation, he hardly needed to adapt the text at all, since so much of the background and setting was conveyed in the conversations between the Bennets.
However, as Franco Moretti makes clear in his essay ‘Kindergarten’, on what moves the reader in ‘moving literature’, the dialogue in Pride and Prejudice functions as more than simply entertainment. It is what ensures that Jane Austen’s novels are comedies in the modern, but also in the Shakespearean sense: it makes possible the happy ending that makes her texts so satisfying. He states, ‘Conversation is the most carefully tended part, as it were the summit, of Jane Austen’s work.
Attention to language, and the ability to use it and decode it with propriety, is in her world the highest guarantee of ethicality. It indicates respect for and command of the social mediation par excellence, a perfect sense of the community and its multiple nuances.’ (from Signs Taken for Wonders, 2005:172, emphasis in original)
Without the conversations and letters in Pride and Prejudice, Moretti argues, pride would not have been softened and prejudice not dispelled. Elizabeth and Darcy are proud and/or relenting enough to explain themselves to each other, and this is what allows the plot to be resolved. I would argue that this focus on conversation not only gives an accurate reflection of the behaviour of the leisured classes in Georgian society, but also reflects the mutual trust and respect between Lizzy and Darcy, and that this is why their relationship still holds such appeal for a modern reader: Lizzy and Darcy communicate at a level that presupposes them to be equal, even while the difference in their social status still looms large.
Darcy and Elizabeth - Darcy's Second Proposal
Pride and Prejudice (1995): resolved in conversation
It is this focus on, awareness of and skill in writing conversation, Moretti argues, that distinguishes Jane Austen’s work from the ‘moving literature’ which his essay analyses: the pathetic tragedy that became so popular during the Victorian period. The tragedy in these novels, he argues, derives precisely from the lack of communication in them. Their pathos often centres on ‘a simple misunderstanding which – not being resolved in time, like that in Pride and Prejudice, with a wealth of letters and conversations – ends up festering and literally degenerating into tragedy’ (172, emphasis in original).
In other words, the dialogue in Jane Austen is responsible for making her books comedies in both senses of the word, and this is what makes them so hugely enjoyable: they provide both the humour that entertains us throughout the story, and facilitate the happy ending we crave.
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