'He Was All Attention to Everyone'

Jane Austen again:


Within a short walk of Longbourn lived a family with whom the Bennets were particularly intimate. Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune, and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King, during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. 

It had given him a disgust to his business, and to his residence in a small market town; and, quitting them both, he had removed with his family to an house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and, unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world. For, though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to everybody. By nature inoffensive, friendly, and obliging, his presentation at St. James's had made him courteous.

I think "The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly," might be my new favorite sentence.
One thing I've noticed about 18th and 19th century writers is the willingness to employ a kind of aristocratic understatement that you don't really see today. I saw this in Grant's memoir also, and even in something like Jourdan Anderson's letter. Maybe it's because the notion of an aristocracy has fallen out of favor, or maybe it's because, these days, people are much freer to speak their mind. 

In the centuries pass, a person (to paraphrase that great line from King Lear) could but slenderly express themselves. Open anger directed at your betters could find you ostracized or even dead. And so people find all sorts of ways to say nasty things about each other. It almost becomes an art. You see it in the folklore of African-Americans, surely. And given the place of women in the 18th century, it's no mistake that you see it in Jane Austen.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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