Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and died on July 18, 1817. This year marks the 200th anniversary of her death. It’s strange that we mark the year of her death with conferences, events, exhibits, and celebrations. It seems more appropriate to mark the anniversary of the year of her coming into the world rather than that of her going out of it. But Jane Austen societies throughout the world would not, I feel certain, agree. We hang our tributes to the celebrated dead on two hooks: the entrance year and the exit year.
I have been reading Jane Austen’s six novels since I was in my late teens. She has influenced my writing profoundly. I admire her, most especially, for her use of dialogue. Jane Austen’s dialogue is superb in several respects: It is, first of all, ahead of its time in its effortlessness, its grace, and its informality. One could dump the first chapter dialogue of Pride and Prejudice into a TV script, update the grammar and contemporary references, and create a modern couple, Mr. and Mrs. B. They are comically—even tragically—mismatched, dependent upon one another, living in the dim afterglow of a long-lost attraction.
Mrs. B: Have you heard? Someone has finally bought the old Netherfield house down the street.
Mr. B does not respond. He is watching ESPN.
Mrs. B: Well? Don’t you want to know who bought it?
Mr. B: Obviously, you want to tell me, and you can’t wait for a commercial break, so go ahead. You have my divided attention.
Mrs. B: Well! Mrs. Long next door says the house was sold to a young man—a rich young man—from London—or maybe it was New York. He came here on Monday in a Jaguar—or it might have been a Mustang—to see the place. Mrs. Long says he was sold on it almost immediately, or at least before he left. It’s such a fine old place! He’s to move in by late September. They’re starting work on the house next week. Pouring money into it, I’m told.
Mr. B: What’s his name?
Mrs. B: Bentley. Or maybe it was Barclay. I didn’t hear his first name
Mr. B: He has a wife, I assume? A family?
Mrs. B: That’s the thing, Mr. B: he’s single! A single man. Rich. Living right here in our neighborhood. I hear he’s a millionaire. Maybe a multimillionaire. What a great thing for our girls!
Mr. B: What does it have to do with them?
Mrs. B: How can you be so dense? He’s single! He’s rich! You must know that he could easily fall in love with—even marry—one of our girls.
Mr. B: I see what you mean. A single man, rich, possibly a millionaire, must want a wife to help him spend his hard-won fortune. Why not one of our girls? Is that why he’s moving into the neighborhood?
Mrs. B: Of course not! He doesn’t even know us. But he has only to meet our girls to fall in love with one of them. It’s up to you to get to know him, so he gets to know our girls. You can stop by, offer to help him get settled, introduce him to your business cronies, invite him over for a backyard barbecue—that sort of thing.
Mr. B: Thank you for your confidence in me, Mrs. B. and, God knows, the household and student-loan bills are piling up. But I don’t think I’m cut out to be a matchmaker. You and the girls go—or you can send them over by themselves, one by one, so he can look them over and choose the one he likes best. Come to think of it, since you’re as pretty as any of them, that might be the better plan. We wouldn’t want this Bentley or Barclay fellow to choose you instead of one of them.
And so on.
In addition to its easy grace and modern feel, Jane Austen’s dialogue brilliantly reveals character. The author doesn’t have to tell the reader about her characters; the dialogue says it all—although she may give us some insight, and often does. Here’s her description of the Bennets:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
I always have a complete set of Jane Austen’s novels on my bookshelf, which I replace when they become dog-eared and begin to fall apart. I don’t know why I keep going back to them. She died two centuries ago. We live in a different world—or do we? Is there a way a novelist can capture character—and express that character through dialogue—that is so solid, true, and revelatory that it never goes out of date? Isn’t that why her novels, which are essentially six variations on the same story, seem so fresh, even today? She never went out of her depth. She wrote only peripherally about the historical events of her time, and only insofar as they impinge on her characters. Her stories are character driven, and her characters are money driven, sometimes by greed, but usually by necessity.
Jane Austen writes about people who happened to live in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because she lived at that time—but they are timelessly humorous, flawed, governed by their quirks and their frustrations. They behave as they do because their lens onto the world is clouded, as is ours, to a greater or lesser extent. They see as we see—through a glass, darkly.