This Week In My Reading: Scale and Significance

unlessIn a way, this post is also about “this week in my classes,” as it is prompted by the serendipitous convergence of my current reading around questions we’ve been discussing since we started working on Carol Shields’ Unless in my section of Intro to Lit. In our first session on the novel, I give some introductory remarks about Shields — a life and times overview, and then some suggestions about themes that interested her, especially in relation to Unless. One of the things I pointed out is that she also wrote a biography of Jane Austen; in an interview, Shields said “Jane Austen is important to me because she demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.” We come to Shields right after working through Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, so I also bring up Woolf’s pointed remark: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.” Both Shields and Woolf are thinking about the relationship between scale and significance, and both of them are drawing our attention to the ways assumptions about what matters — in literature, particularly, since that’s their primary context — have historically been gendered.

Unless itself explores the relationship between scale and significance on several levels. Its protagonist, Reta Winters, is a writer whose first novel, My Thyme Is Up, is light and romantic, a “sunny” book that has won a prize for books that combine “literary quality and accessibility.” Reta has been working on a sequel (with the equally charming title Thyme in Bloom), but over the course of Unless she becomes discontented with it, especially with the happy ending she had blithely anticipated for it. For much of the novel, she is puzzling over what else to do — what other kind of book to write. She grows to dislike her characters as originally conceived: she sees her heroine Alicia as “vapid” and Alicia’s impending marriage as a mistake:

Suddenly it was clear to me. Alicia’s marriage to Roman must be postponed. Now I understood where the novel is headed. She is not meant to be partnered. Her singleness in the world is her paradise, it has been all along, and she came close to sacrificing it, or rather, I, as novelist, had been about to snatch it away from her. The wedding guests will have to be alerted and the gifts returned. All of them, Alicia, Roman, their families, their friends — stupid, stupid. The novel, if it is to survive, must be redrafted.

But how? All we really know is that instead of submitting Alicia to the conventional marriage plot, Reta now wants her to “advance in her self-understanding.”

carol-shieldsReta’s redrafting is disrupted by her editor, an officious American (of course! Unless is a Canadian novel, after all) named Arthur Springer who has even bigger plans for Thyme in Bloom, which (significantly) he proposes she retitle simply Bloom. His idea is that Alicia should fade into the background while Roman emerges as the “moral center” of the novel. This, he insists, is necessary for the novel to graduate from “popular fiction” to “quality fiction.” He also proposes that Reta retreat behind her initials: she will become R. R. Summers (“Winters” is her husband’s surname). This way her new (“quality”) book can’t possibly be associated with her, or with her earlier (“popular”) novel.

Reta sees exactly what’s up, of course: Springer believes that a book’s literary significance depends on its masculinity — that its standing as great literature will increase as it moves away from the world of women. When Reta presses him about what’s wrong with Alicia, his answer is comically symptomatic of the problems much of the novel is about. “I am talking,” he says, “about Roman being the moral center of this book,”

“and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.”

“It’s because she’s a woman.”

“That’s not an issue at all. Surely you —”

“But it is the issue.”

“She is unable to make a claim to — She is undisciplined in her — She can’t focus the way Roman — She changes her mind about — She lacks — A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.”

“Because she’s a woman.”

Reta ultimately resists both Springer’s exhortations and the “critical voice in [her] head that weighs serious literature against what is merely entertainment.” We are never told exactly how Thyme in Bloom ends, only that “Alicia triumphs, but in her own slightly capricious way.” What we do know is that having discovered her dissatisfaction with a particular kind of conventional woman’s fiction, what Reta imagines doing next is not something on a larger scale or a more overtly grandiose style but something even smaller: “I want it to be a book that’s willing to live in one room if necessary,” she says; “I want it to hold still like an oil painting, a painting titled: Seated Woman.”

One of the questions I asked my class to think about is whether Unless is itself a model for a different kind of fiction, maybe even an example of the kind of book Reta imagines writing — one that insists we find, or at least look for, significance in small things. Reta is “just” a fairly ordinary woman but the things that happen in the novel certainly mean a lot to her, and as she connects the incidents in her life to other events, both personal and historical, private and public, significant patterns emerge. Unless initially seems like a really unassuming book, but by the end that feels like part of the plan: Shields’ novel itself asks us to accept an ordinary woman as “the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art.”

What has been so interesting over the past couple of weeks is how many of the other  books I happen to be reading also either explicitly turn on or implicitly raise questions about the relationship between women and scale and significance, in life and in literature.

derondaOne of them is Daniel Deronda, which I’ve just finished reading with my graduate students. This novel is famously bifurcated between Gwendolen’s story (a highly personal, small-scale drama) — and Daniel’s (which starts out on a similarly domestic scale but opens out into a potentially epic, world-historical story). Is Gwendolen condemned to insignificance when she is left behind to suffer at home while Daniel goes off to (perhaps) found a nation? The literal scale of Eliot’s treatment of Gwendolen is not belittling: she gets at least half the huge novel to herself, after all. Perhaps this novel insists, formally, on an equivalence between two kinds of significance, one of which occupies a small space. Or perhaps what’s significant is Gwendolen’s discovery of her own insignificance. “Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history,” asks the narrator,

than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?—in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely; when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was walking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.

But then Eliot seems to reject that premise:

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea or Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.

Isn’t that belittling in its own way, though? It certainly doesn’t allow “girls” much historical agency.

Then, I’m about half way through The Portrait of a Lady, which picks up on exactly this question of how much that girlish presence matters (James even quotes Eliot’s “delicate vessels” line in his 1908 Preface to the novel). Can so small a thing as the consciousness of a young girl support the whole weight of a novel, James wonders?

“Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s consciousness,” I said to myself, “and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. Stick to that — for the centre; put the heaviest weight into that scale, which will be so largely the scale of her relation to herself. . . . See, at all events, what can be done in this way. What better field could there be for a due ingenuity? The girl hovers, inextinguishable, as a charming creature, and the job will be to translate her into the highest terms of that formula, and as nearly as possible moreover into all of them. To depend upon her and her little concerns wholly to see you through will necessitate, remember, your really ‘doing’ her.”

Is James issuing a corrective to Eliot’s approach, calling her out, as it were, for lacking the courage or “ingenuity” to let Gwendolen carry her whole novel? But notice that his terms are, in their own way, belittling: “the girl” needs to be “translated” into something higher; she needs the novelist to infuse her with importance. Reading The Portrait of a Lady, I feel conscious of the weight of his novel bearing down on Isabel in a way I don’t feel Daniel Deronda weighing down Gwendolen (and certainly don’t feel Unless impressing itself on Reta). Is it possible that, more than James, Eliot does believe in the significance of her heroine’s “little concerns”?

portraitOUPNeither of these novels, however, whatever their differences, feels in any way light, despite the intimacy of their core casts of characters. It’s the treatment, not the subject, that gives literary significance, isn’t it? Austen’s novels don’t feel trite even though viewed narrowly they are “just” about a handful of “ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses” (in Charlotte Bronte’s words) — because her love stories are also stories about values and class structures and social changes with far-reaching effects. When Isabel Archer accepts Gilbert Osmond’s proposal, it feels large because James has imbued Isabel’s choices with philosophical consequence: her decision isn’t just to marry or not to marry, but about how to use her freedom, and about what to value and how to value herself. These are personal questions but also abstract ones, and so the small space of her individual life occupies a large narrative (by which I don’t mean, though I could, just a long book).

But I’m also reading Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, and so far it seems to me a small space filled by a small narrative. Its plot and cast of characters are intimate, domestic, insignificant on anything but a personal scale. It reminds me very much of Anne Tyler’s novels, though (so far, at least) it lacks Tyler’s habit of whimsy. I’m enjoying it, and I’m interested in how things will go for its protagonist, but nice as it is, it feels trivial. I think it shows that you can’t just reverse expectations and insist that the ordinary is always resonant with significance. You have to really ‘do’ it, as James says: you have to go all in. You can enlarge the narrative in a lot of different ways: morally, aesthetically, historically, philosophically — but literary greatness still requires some kind of expansiveness, some reaching beyond the particular. Or does it? (If Austen’s own description of her work as “the little bit . . . of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” really did, unironically, sum up the scale of her novels, would we admire them as much as we do?)

family happinessI have been thinking that this constellation of questions (not really any answers) is relevant to the discussions about why, say, Jonathan Franzen’s novels about family and private life get treated as more significant than some other books that are about similar topics. Gender may well be part of the explanation, but it would be disingenuous to pretend we don’t know that some books by both men and women simply do more with their material than others, and that that scale — the scale of meaning, of treatment — is ultimately where literary significance lies. But this post has gone on long enough without really arriving anywhere in particular, so that’s probably as good a place to stop as any.

Emsley, The Jane Austen Playgroup

I’m deep into a rather quixotic essay project and thus stalled in my other reading and writing, including blogging. But this is no loss to you, as I’m going to fill in the gap with a lovely little piece of writing by someone else. Here’s an excerpt from a charming children’s story called The Jane Austen Playgroup.

In February Laura and her mom invite us to their house for a Valentine’s party. We watch Mr. Darcy propose to Elizabeth in the Pride and Prejudice movie. Then we make valentines to give each other. My Mom says we’re wasting gold paper, the way the rich sisters Maria and Julia do in Mansfield Park. She likes it, though, when I give her a big valentine and a kiss. Zachary’s mom gives Sophie’s mom a pretty card that says, “I admire and love you, love, Mr. Darcy.” Sophie’s mom laughs and says “Thank you,” but she looks kind of sad.

Pending appropriate interest from a publisher, the story is available in full on the author’s website. The photos are placeholders until there’s a full set of artist’s illustrations, but I think they work very well.

Full disclosure: the author, Sarah Emsley, is a friend and former Ph.D. student of mine. I’d like to take some credit for this particular project but all I’ve contributed is my enthusiasm. Sarah has also written about Jane Austen for grownups, and she edited the Broadview edition of Edith Wharton’s  The Custom of the Country.

50 Greatest Books: Pride and Prejudice

From the Novel Readings archives: In 2008, the Globe and Mail ran a series on the “50 Greatest Books.” Though, quite mysteriously, they never asked me, a complete nobody, to weigh in (no, not even on Middlemarch!), I couldn’t resist opining occasionally off in my own corner of the internet. As I’m hard at work right now on a review of Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World for my hosts at Open Letters Monthly, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jane Austen, and since I don’t dare undertake a wholly new post here until I’ve met my deadline, I thought I’d dust this little piece off and put it on display in the meantime.


This week in the Globe and Mail‘s “50 Greatest Books” series, Joan Thomas weighs in on Pride and Prejudice. While I heartily endorse the choice, I felt Thomas sold Austen short in her essay, accepting as wholly unironic Austen’s famous remark about her “little bit of ivory (two inches wide)” and claiming that Austen “shoved aside” broader social and political contexts in order to focus on personal experience:

We tend to say that Jane Austen wrote about lives lived in drawing rooms because that’s all she knew. And yet … Austen’s family offered all sorts of other material: two brothers fighting in the Napoleonic wars, an aunt thrown into prison for stealing a piece of lace from a shop, a cousin’s husband guillotined in the French Revolution….Austen separated out the most poignant strand of her experience–the fact that a woman’s station in the world, her independence, her very survival, depended on the uncertain and often demeaning enterprise of attracting a man who could accept the size of her dowry. (read the rest here)

I agree entirely that “Elizabeth Bennet is a terrific heroine for any age” and that winning Mr. Darcy is, indeed, a great vindication for her insistence on acting “in that manner, which will, in [her] own opinion, constitute [her] happiness” (V. 3 Ch. 14) . I too love the “talky, civilized celebration of minds” that constitutes the Elizabeth-Darcy romance: it is, on both sides, an intellectual as well as a sensual seduction, which is no doubt the reason “this novel resonate[s] so powerfully with women who have so many other options in life.” But to describe Elizabeth’s achievement strictly in terms of “her fidelity to herself” is to forget how modern a value that is, and thus to lose much of the novel’s revolutionary charge. The line I quote above about seeking her “happiness,” for instance, is part of Elizabeth’s great confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who represents the powerful forces arrayed against “the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune.” Class and gender politics permeate the novel, and Elizabeth’s ringing declaration that she owes no “reference” to Lady Catherine but only to her own happiness is, indeed, radical. Lady Catherine’s appalled demand “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” is comic in its extravagance, but especially so because behind it is a shade of truth. In a novel painted in more sombre tones, Elizabeth’s reward for so defying the class barrier might be far different: think Rose Crawley, for instance, in Vanity Fair:

Sir Pitt Crawley was a philosopher with a taste for what is called low life. His first marriage with the daughter of the noble Binkie had been made under the auspices of his parents; and as he often told Lady Crawley in her lifetime she was such a confounded quarrelsome high-bred jade that when she died he was hanged if he would ever take another of her sort, at her ladyship’s demise he kept his promise, and selected for a second wife Miss Rose Dawson, daughter of Mr. John Thomas Dawson, ironmonger, of Mudbury. What a happy woman was Rose to be my Lady Crawley!

Let us set down the items of her happiness. In the first place, she gave up Peter Butt, a young man who kept company with her, and in consequence of his disappointment in love, took to smuggling, poaching, and a thousand other bad courses. Then she quarrelled, as in duty bound, with all the friends and intimates of her youth, who, of course, could not be received by my Lady at Queen’s Crawley—nor did she find in her new rank and abode any persons who were willing to welcome her. Who ever did? Sir Huddleston Fuddleston had three daughters who all hoped to be Lady Crawley. Sir Giles Wapshot’s family were insulted that one of the Wapshot girls had not the preference in the marriage, and the remaining baronets of the county were indignant at their comrade’s misalliance. Never mind the commoners, whom we will leave to grumble anonymously.

Sir Pitt did not care, as he said, a brass farden for any one of them. He had his pretty Rose, and what more need a man require than to please himself? So he used to get drunk every night: to beat his pretty Rose sometimes: to leave her in Hampshire when he went to London for the parliamentary session, without a single friend in the wide world. Even Mrs. Bute Crawley, the Rector’s wife, refused to visit her, as she said she would never give the pass to a tradesman’s daughter.

(interest caught? read the rest here–you won’t regret it, all 90o pages of it…)

Austen’s delicious irony never conceals, though it treats lightly, the economic and moral precipice on which Elizabeth teeters. Consider, for instance the fearful compromise made by her friend Charlotte Lucas, whose pragmatic acceptance of the appalling Mr. Collins shows the proximity of respectable marriage (under the conditions Thomas alludes to) to prostitution. And only Darcy’s benevolent intervention saves Lydia from the price of her far more overt form of sexual fallenness. Is Lizzie perhaps more serious than Jane allows when she suggests her love for Darcy dates “from [her] first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (Vol. 3 Ch. 17)? How could she not be moved by such a prospect? Even if you are inwardly persuaded (as I am) that she loves him, not because he owns Pemberley, but because he deserves Pemberley, Austen never allows you to forget that money as much as love (or, as Thomas emphasizes, talk) is an inextricable part of marriage in her heroine’s world.

“How much more interesting their life together promises to be,” Thomas says of Elizabeth and Darcy, “than the lives of lovers on those turgid 19th-century novels, where passion and mystery (i.e. sex) rise like mist off the moors.” Ah, those novels, or rather, that novel, as what novel besides Wuthering Heights fits that description? And the genius of Austen is not to leave passion out of her books but to show that desire need not be “turgid”: it can be evoked and aroused by a glance, a word, a dance. Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance is not as manifestly erotic as that of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth (or is it?), but it shows that intelligence can be sexy–again, surely much of the appeal of this novel to generations of book-loving young women hoping wit, spirit, and good conversation will bring them what Thomas aptly calls “payback.”

Silly Novels by Women Novelists; or, Reflections on Jane Austen, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and Winning at Scrabble

From the Novel Readings Archives

Seeing the movie tie-in edition of Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic prominently displayed in a bookstore this weekend reminded me of the rant the novel brought on when I read it a couple of years ago. As you would expect from what follows, I haven’t seen the film.


Well you see, it was a busy week, and sometimes it’s nice to have something light to pick up and read over breakfast or whatever….but Confessions of a Shopaholic sure is lame.   I’m certainly  glad I got this book from the library and didn’t pay a cent for it, because I want to get rid of it as soon as possible.  I don’t necessarily object to a little mindless diversion. But–what really irked me with this one was actually the same thing that irks me about Bridget Jones’s Diary, although that novel is much more clever and entertaining: what’s supposed to be the charm of foolish, incompetent women?  Is it really so hard to imagine smart, committed, capable women in romantic contexts?

The answer of course is no, because the supposed “mother of chick lit,” Jane Austen, does precisely that.  Elizabeth Bennet does not win Mr. Darcy’s heart by being cute but trivial; she earns his respect and charms his socks off.  Anne Elliot doesn’t deserve happiness because she happens into an insight or two after a whole book of being silly and irresponsible: we know all along that Wentworth will be the foolish one if he falls for anyone without her integrity and capacity for intelligent action.  None of Austen’s protagonists discovers, conveniently, that having no real interests beyond clothes, shopping, and sex, no professional competence, no ideas of any substance, is actually the way to true love.  “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” Anne Elliot famously protests when confronted with literary ‘evidence’ of women’s character. “Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” Yet with the pen in their hands, some women peddle this kind of “sell-yourself-short” fantasy to women–and it sells!

Is the appeal of this variety of “chick lit” that it reassures women that not only do they not have to be smart and successful to be attractive but that their failures (blue soup?!) will make them more appealing to smart and successful men?   Or is it just easier to put that kind of story together than to confront (as Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot all do) just what kind of challenge a strong woman poses to conventional ideas of romance, femininity, and narrative?

Once upon a time my (very shrewd and professionally successful) grandmother cautioned me not to beat my then-boyfriend at Scrabble.  The message was that brainy women are off-putting, that competence is incompatible with charm.   Though she was a huge fan of her granddaughters’ successes, I think she was not altogether wrong–not in principle, but in practice.  Sex and the City, which in many ways belongs in the “chick lit” genre, is actually very smart sometimes about the difficulties independent, successful women face in negotiating romantic norms and expectations (remember the episode in which Carrie buys Berger a Prada shirt? or the one in which Miranda wants to take Steve to an office party?).  Sex and the City presents fantasies of other kinds, to be sure, but overall I think it refuses to make its women silly and often this is precisely where their romantic problems begin.  In this respect anyway, perhaps the series is more in Austen’s tradition than I would have thought, and certainly more so than even Bridget Jones.  In any case, I say go on and win at Scrabble if you can!  Your self-respect depends on it.

(originally posted January 20. 2008)

50 Greatest Books: Pride and Prejudice

This week in the Globe and Mail‘s “50 Greatest Books” series, Joan Thomas weighs in on Pride and Prejudice. While I heartily endorse the choice, I felt Thomas sold Austen short in her essay, accepting as wholly unironic Austen’s famous remark about her “little bit of ivory (two inches wide)” and claiming that Austen “shoved aside” broader social and political contexts in order to focus on personal experience:

We tend to say that Jane Austen wrote about lives lived in drawing rooms because that’s all she knew. And yet … Austen’s family offered all sorts of other material: two brothers fighting in the Napoleonic wars, an aunt thrown into prison for stealing a piece of lace from a shop, a cousin’s husband guillotined in the French Revolution….Austen separated out the most poignant strand of her experience–the fact that a woman’s station in the world, her independence, her very survival, depended on the uncertain and often demeaning enterprise of attracting a man who could accept the size of her dowry. (read the rest here)

I agree entirely that “Elizabeth Bennet is a terrific heroine for any age” and that winning Mr. Darcy is, indeed, a great vindication for her insistence on acting “in that manner, which will, in [her] own opinion, constitute [her] happiness” (V. 3 Ch. 14) . I too love the “talky, civilized celebration of minds” that constitutes the Elizabeth-Darcy romance: it is, on both sides, an intellectual as well as a sensual seduction, which is no doubt the reason “this novel resonate[s] so powerfully with women who have so many other options in life.” But to describe Elizabeth’s achievement strictly in terms of “her fidelity to herself” is to forget how modern a value that is, and thus to lose much of the novel’s revolutionary charge. The line I quote above about seeking her “happiness,” for instance, is part of Elizabeth’s great confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who represents the powerful forces arrayed against “the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune.” Class and gender politics permeate the novel, and Elizabeth’s ringing declaration that she owes no “reference” to Lady Catherine but only to her own happiness is, indeed, radical. Lady Catherine’s appalled demand “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” is comic in its extravagance, but especially so because behind it is a shade of truth. In a novel painted in more sombre tones, Elizabeth’s reward for so defying the class barrier might be far different: think Rose Crawley, for instance, in Vanity Fair:

Sir Pitt Crawley was a philosopher with a taste for what is called low life. His first marriage with the daughter of the noble Binkie had been made under the auspices of his parents; and as he often told Lady Crawley in her lifetime she was such a confounded quarrelsome high-bred jade that when she died he was hanged if he would ever take another of her sort, at her ladyship’s demise he kept his promise, and selected for a second wife Miss Rose Dawson, daughter of Mr. John Thomas Dawson, ironmonger, of Mudbury. What a happy woman was Rose to be my Lady Crawley!

Let us set down the items of her happiness. In the first place, she gave up Peter Butt, a young man who kept company with her, and in consequence of his disappointment in love, took to smuggling, poaching, and a thousand other bad courses. Then she quarrelled, as in duty bound, with all the friends and intimates of her youth, who, of course, could not be received by my Lady at Queen’s Crawley—nor did she find in her new rank and abode any persons who were willing to welcome her. Who ever did? Sir Huddleston Fuddleston had three daughters who all hoped to be Lady Crawley. Sir Giles Wapshot’s family were insulted that one of the Wapshot girls had not the preference in the marriage, and the remaining baronets of the county were indignant at their comrade’s misalliance. Never mind the commoners, whom we will leave to grumble anonymously.

Sir Pitt did not care, as he said, a brass farden for any one of them. He had his pretty Rose, and what more need a man require than to please himself? So he used to get drunk every night: to beat his pretty Rose sometimes: to leave her in Hampshire when he went to London for the parliamentary session, without a single friend in the wide world. Even Mrs. Bute Crawley, the Rector’s wife, refused to visit her, as she said she would never give the pas to a tradesman’s daughter. (interest caught? read the rest here–you won’t regret it, all 90o pages of it…)

Austen’s delicious irony never conceals, though it treats lightly, the economic and moral precipice on which Elizabeth teeters. Consider, for instance the fearful compromise made by her friend Charlotte Lucas, whose pragmatic acceptance of the appalling Mr. Collins shows the proximity of respectable marriage (under the conditions Thomas alludes to) to prostitution. And only Darcy’s benevolent intervention saves Lydia from the price of her far more overt form of sexual fallenness. Is Lizzie perhaps more serious than Jane allows when she suggests her love for Darcy dates “from [her] first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (Vol. 3 Ch. 17)? How could she not be moved by such a prospect? Even if you are inwardly persuaded (as I am) that she loves him, not because he owns Pemberley, but because he deserves Pemberley, Austen never allows you to forget that money as much as love (or, as Thomas emphasizes, talk) is an inextricable part of marriage in her heroine’s world.

“How much more interesting their life together promises to be,” Thomas says of Elizabeth and Darcy, “than the lives of lovers on those turgid 19th-century novels, where passion and mystery (i.e. sex) rise like mist off the moors.” Ah, those novels, or rather, that novel, as what novel besides Wuthering Heights fits that description? And the genius of Austen is not to leave passion out of her books but to show that desire need not be “turgid”: it can be evoked and aroused by a glance, a word, a dance. Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance is not as manifestly erotic as that of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth (or is it?), but it shows that intelligence can be sexy–again, surely much of the appeal of this novel to generations of book-loving young women hoping wit, spirit, and good conversation will bring them what Thomas aptly calls “payback.”