Contributing to some inane survey of extreme contrasts, I'm now sitting in a laundromat in Louisville thinking about Pride and Prejudice. Digression: how can anyone ever allow themselves to smoke in a laundromat? How can it not strike one that it would be rude or inappropriate to smoke up the clothes that someone else has come here exactly to get clean? I am nowhere more tedious, I know, than in my exploration of the subject of smoking; so I will leave it here.
But even without this tornado-bait trailer trash vantage point, you could hardly contrive a greater contrast than between 19th Century middle class English society and a 21st Century urban laundromat.
I'm still not finished with P&P, but it's not really the final unfolding of the plot which piques my curiosity (or at least my urge to blog)--everybody knows the story anyway. (Translate: I'm not going to have anything more interesting to say at the conclusion of the story, so don't y'all wait around for it.) The story is obviously wonderfully contrived and detailed, and the plot artfully combines all these varied threads and contingencies, gaining in interest from each. I can't really add anything that wouldn't be obvious to anyone who would read the book themselves.
For blogging purposes, I'm more struck by how society--English-speaking, Western society--has changed in the succeeding near-two centuries. I have this same reaction when I read anything about our own colonial period (like David McCullough's wonderful recent biography of John Adams). Our present society traces so many of its conventions back to the England of Jane Austen, and from a time period not long before this book was written. But everything has changed, however much we can see traces of what we have now in what existed then.
The characters of this book seem so weighed down by the suffocating etiquette of polite society, and even the most elementary communication seems nearly paralyzed by cumbersome conventions toward decorum and nicety. Only Lizzy and her father seem to have anything like what we would now consider direct communication. The need to adhere to what seem now to be quite arbitrary social conventions--things like HOW a person was asked to a ball, or in what manner a dinner was served, or in what order women were asked to dance--were sources of real weight and consequence to these people. Mrs. Bennett's life seems to have been almost entirely absorbed by these details. People addressed each other stiffly and made great effort to hit all of the expected points of protocol--inquiring after the health of one's family (whether or not one cared), for example. We do many of the same things today, true, but they seem greatly simplified and unencumbered in comparison.
(This all leads to a tangent on reciprocal altruism and Anatol Rapoport / Robert Axelrod's experiments with a social modeling computer program called tit-for-tat, wherein we can see that some social mechanism for testing people must be contrived, and preferably one enabling us to test people without expending many resources. The current domination of our species on the planet belies what a razor's edge of advantage we may have ridden in ancient history to arrive at the present day. And if everything comes down to survival, it's fascinating to see how far afield our behaviors have evolved, still, presumably, in the service of that goal.)
It would be an interesting exercise, though it would deprive me of the stupefying eloquence of Jane Austen's miraculous prose, to recast this book in modern vernacular. At the very least, I'm convinced before examining the idea that the book would lose a third of its length. But what I'm trying now to figure is whether the importance of this flowery eloquence extends only to linguistic convention & nicety, or whether there is some greater depth of feeling or detail of cognition underlying the difference. To be sure, the long statements, often burdened with subordinate clauses and other little perambulations to the hinterlands, often arrive home having collected all their wayward children admirably--(this is one of the things that also makes Virginia Woolf's writing so thrilling). And a restatement in a modern mode which hit all the same bases and details might be nearly as long-winded. But some of this is just way over the top. Is this just convention, or does it serve a useful purpose?
I will refrain from quoting Mr. Collins, whose presence in the book is to deliver comedy relief exactly by way of this over-elocution (which, of course, shows how aware Austen was of a nuance that probably seems far less clear to us today). But honestly, so many social situations which develop in the book had me screaming during paragraph after paragraph of decorum (while envisioning someone rolling their hand forward in a gesture of impatience) "Get the fuck on with it! What's on your mind, Chuckles?" (Actually, I have it on good authority that this very line was expunged from the original document after the Fifth Earl of Sandwich-shire protested its "brutal brevity and debased coarseness, not to exclude our shocked countenance at such abashed intercourse at coition.")
So, plucking a paragraph almost at random--say, from Elizabeth's upbraiding of Mr. Darcy in the middle of the book, which is brimming with period parlance--I will take it upon myself to offer before and after versions--translations, if you will.
"This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But, perhaps these offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination; by reason, by reflection, by every thing. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?"
And our transliterated rendering:
"I should have kept my mouth shut! I had a bad feeling about you, and fuck if I wasn't right! You can't cross the tracks. Your family are a bunch of laundromat-frequenting trailer trash and you're a bitch!"
It's only a matter of time before Austen's prose passes into the functional netherworld of Old English, as Chaucer has done and Shakespeare is doing. We're lucky to have this link to a distant past that is still accessible to us without lots of specialized training.
I guess I can take my clothes out of the smoker now.