'Wit' and 'Impertinence': The Elision of Class Difference in 'Pride and Prejudice'

Alan Urquhart


Traditionally, criticism of Jane Austen has tended to celebrate her 'harmonious unity ... of the internal and external approaches to character' and 'her sense of social order, which is not achieved at the expense of the individuality and autonomy of the characters'. Ian Watt, in these words, attempts to summarize the historic nature of her achievement in resolving the problems of the eighteenth-century novel bequeathed by Fielding and Richardson. If this harmony is threatened by moral or social problems such as pride or prejudice, want of sense or excess of sensibility, then Jane Austen is supposed to plot to overcome these obstacles. Major characters, such as Elizabeth and Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, are considered to come to an understanding of themselves in such a way as to 'arrive at self-knowledge' and produce the expected harmonious result, which, in the words of Douglas Bush, is 'the appointed end of comedy, marriage'. Yasmine Gooneratne expresses it thus: 'Elizabeth makes mistakes and corrects them as part ofthe emotional education that prepares Jane Austen's heroines for adult responsibilities.' Such criticism highlights the moral and intellectual superstructure of the book. It tends to assume, in the words of Giulia Giuffre, that 'Jane Austen was able to combine the stuff of the novel, everyday life, with the matter of the sermon ... But with such skill that any seams remain invisible'. Yet the invisibility of these 'seams' is nearly always asserted rather than proved. Giuffre, like most other critics, concentrates on the 'moral patterns' and ignores such 'stuff of ... everyday life' as the novel's socio-economic background. Robert Heilman, in fact, states that Jane Austen 'eliminates the class issue by having virtues and vices easily surmount all social barriers'. Yet perhaps the combination of 'the matter of the sermon' and 'the stuff of the novel' is not so seamless.

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