Happy anniversary, Jane Austen, spinster god

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
National Correspondent
Yahoo! News

“An old maid writes with the detachment of a god.”

In honor of the bicentennial of the publication of “Pride and Prejudice,” I give you the above words by D.A. Miller, America's most swashbuckling reader of Jane Austen.

That’s the central mystery of Jane Austen’s novels. And what a mystery it is. The author’s voice, though we’re always reminded it belonged to a sour-faced spinster who couldn’t score a husband to save her life, flatly refuses to make itself meek. Meek? Jane Austen’s voice doesn’t even make itself human.

Rather, the Austen world spirit sweeps in omnisciently to “Pride and Prejudice,” which turns 200 today, laying down universal truths like Solomon or HAL. From there it manipulates the pouts and slaps and rosy countenances of all the single ladies—the Catherines and Elizabeths and Emmas—all the coquettes, ingénues and hysterics for whom Jay McInerney and all of us wild-eyed Janeites still pine.

The sadistic Austen voice brings authority, stern judgment and only the ghost of a chance for redemption: Her girls, after all, are always caught in the gears of a tightly engineered Austen marriage plot, from whose bourn no traveler returns.

The Austen voice can mock, rig and savor that plot only because it—that Austen-god—suspends itself well outside the life-threatening grip of courtship and matrimony.

This, anyway, is the argument of Miller in his book “Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style.” I can think of no better way to celebrate the bicentennial of “Pride and Prejudice,” Austen’s great novel of bulimia (among other matters), than with Miller’s book, which like anything good—Mr. Darcy, strong tea, food—can make the brain ache in big doses.

Great novel of bulimia? That’s right. Professor Miller, who taught me in graduate school to see the god in the spinster, also showed me what a tyrant Austen was about the importance of being thin and brief (good) versus being fat and prolix (bad, very bad). (Worse than you know.)

His lecture on this subject led to my fascination with the character of Charlotte, Elizabeth’s would-be best friend. You’ll recall that Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine of “Pride and Prejudice,” the witty resourceful daughter of an emotionally abusive dad who likes Elizabeth best because she’s kind of a tomboy, and smart; she also sucks up to him by slagging off her sisters. In that way, Elizabeth reminds many female reader-types of ourselves—trying to upstage other maybe prettier girls as frivolous nitwits in the name of winning the attention of Important Men. Oh, and then hating ourselves for it.

In any case, Elizabeth has a friend, Charlotte. Charlotte is plainer than Lizzie, with no game in the drawing room. In short, she’s nowhere near as cool as Lizzie, so Lizzie bestows confidences on her—huge emotional outpourings of shame and remorse that she reserves for Charlotte alone, believing, in the immemorial way of popular girls, that the plainer girl is lucky to hear even the snotty, hiccupping self-pity of a superstar like Elizabeth Bennet.

Of course, Lizzie never reciprocates by listening to Charlotte, which is why she is appalled to find out that Charlotte is not with her in lockstep on her oft-repeated resolution not to marry a loser. Charlotte, who’s been an obedient sidekick to Lizzie for half the novel, turns the tables and boldly elopes with a loser—a former suitor of Lizzie’s, in fact—and Lizzie is absolutely crushed. Deservedly so. She can’t control everyone! (Only her maker, Austen, can.) It’s a horror when you realize this; take it from me.

How is this bulimia? I’ll tell you. Lizzie is all about being brief and witty; only goofy girls or sententious men talk too much. To monopolize conversations is like eating whole cakes. It shows no restraint and it’s disgusting. At the same time there’s much talk of Lizzie’s light-footedness and general low body weight. This is in contrast to the novel's many droning bores and blowhards who are coded as physically heavy and also can’t shut up.

But how does Lizzie keep her conversation and her figure in fighting shape? Does she have naturally modest appetites for food and attention? No. She is roiling with the same hungers everyone has, but she’s put herself in an empire-waist straitjacket of wit, wit and more wit, so she has nowhere to go when she just wants to babble and sob. To binge. To purge.

That’s where Charlotte comes in. By expressing herself to Charlotte at length and in sordid hues—gorging on cupcakes of emotion and then barfing them up in the silent, yielding bin of her friend—Lizzie frees herself up to impress Mr. Darcy by seeming slim and tart. (Is that the acid reflux?)

Go back and read “Pride and Prejudice” and see for yourself. It’s about courtship all right, but it’s also about the ways we try vainly to keep ourselves aloof from emotions and the whims and longings of our mortal bodies. Some of that, in younger years especially, involves using our friends. (Susanna Sonnenberg explores this and more in her beautiful and unsparing new book, “She Matters: A Life in Friendships.”) And some of it involves becoming authors ourselves and hoping that that will, once and for all, immunize us from being human. Here’s to that effort, vain and tender. Happy birthday, “Pride and Prejudice.”