One pleasure of reading Austen
Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors in any language. There are many reasons for loving her work, but one is her confidence that not everything needs to be said. To a larger extent than any previous English novelist, Austen trusted her readers to read between the lines.
I am right now re-reading Pride and Prejudice for a course I’m teaching, and Austen’s ability to leave things unsaid surprises me at every page. She’s already doing it at the very opening of the novel, with the most famous of all her sentences:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Some readers take Austen to task for this statement, explaining, in one-star Amazon reviews, that THIS IS NOT TRUE since not all rich men are looking for wives. To say this is to miss the joke that sets the tone for the whole novel. This classic sentence ventriloquizes, with great comic effect, the hopes running through the minds of would-be matchmakers such as Mrs. Bennet whenever a potential son-in-law rears his head. Having barely arrived, poor Mr. Bingley already “is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” Anyone who reads this far without getting that Austen is joking is unlikely to appreciate Pride and Prejudice for the comic masterpiece it is.
But Austen is not just a fine ironist like Fielding or Swift. Her confidence that readers can read between the lines allows her to narrate by omission. Take the following passage, where Jane Bennet describes her visit to Caroline Bingley in a letter to Elizabeth:
“I did not think Caroline in spirits,” were her words, “but she was very glad to see me, and reproached me for giving her no notice of my coming to London. I was right, therefore; my last letter had never reached her. I inquired after their brother, of course. He was well, but so much engaged with Mr. Darcy, that they scarcely ever saw him. I found that Miss Darcy was expected to dinner. I wish I could see her. My visit was not long, as Caroline and Mrs. Hurst were going out. I dare say I shall see them soon here.”
Austen is expecting the reader to do a lot of work here. We have been told, by Elizabeth — who is a good judge of her sister’s character — that Jane is incapable of distrusting people. This passage requires us to remember that information and to decode the events as they actually happened before being filtered through the credulous mind of Jane Bennet. Interpreted this way, the passage is telling us that Caroline received, and ignored, Jane's letter; that she knew Jane was in London, and was very upset to see her; that her brother is often at home and they see him all the time; that Caroline and Mrs. Hurst were not going out; and that Miss Darcy's coming to dinner was a mischievous reminder, for Jane, that Bingley is already taken and she better disappear.
This is how Elizabeth reads the letter, as we can tell from this brief account of her reaction:
“Elizabeth shook her head over this letter. It convinced her that accident only could discover to Mr. Bingley her sister’s being in town.”
This is all we are given by way of confirmation; the narrator never revisits the scene to explain what actually went down.
And Austen does this again and again. Her most distinctive narrative technique — free indirect speech — is only one of the ways she trusts her readers to read between the lines. The implicit reader of her novels is different than the implicit reader of most previous fiction. Austen pays us the compliment of expecting that we know how to read novels, and can do a substantial amount of unreflective interpretive work in the act of reading.
And isn’t this something to be thankful for?