Background: Novel of Manners
Throughout the nineteenth century Jane Austen was applauded for craft, finish and elegance; even critics who scorned her lack of passion found want of force compensated by "all the minute attention to detail of the most accomplished miniature-painter". She is famous for her exceptional portraits of society and concern with manners; the relation between social standing and behaviour. Thus the novels are permeated with the language of politeness, gentility, class-consciousness and social values. She presents the world she knew from acute observation: its smooth veneer, social distinctions and with that its commercialism and snobbery.
Whilst Austens novels conclude with traditional Cinderella endings - in the happy marriages of her heroines - we cannot escape the ironic treatment of the marriage market throughout her novels. The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice typifies Austens ironical attacks on the commercialisation of marriage. Such an opening pinpoints and compacts of the dual urges in society: the subsurface of aggressive marital contests and the surface of polite manners and civilized conventions:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" Pride and Prejudice.
Marriage means a complex engagement between society and the individual; it is not just feelings but property that get exchanged. The language of economics is littered throughout the novels in the words, fortune, property, possession and establishment. In this way, marriage becomes inextricable from financial issues:
"About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronets lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it" (Mansfield Park)
In Austens novels, then, this ironic tone is distinctive and provides a method of both attacking and distancing herself from the critique. It can be seen as a technique consciously employed as a means of self-defence, a mask to hide behind, a means of maintaining novelistic authority whilst also limiting subjective involvement. It is this tool which allows her to ridicule the aristocracy and the gentry who she both writes about and for. Deeply conservative as Austens novels appear, her infamous ironic wit allows us to see a double consciousness as she both revels in depiction of polite society and exposes its hypocrisies. It is a tool that Harding comments on as "regulated hatred" as she scrutinises the monster inside the skin of the civilized animal.
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