Jane Austen Just Dissed You

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Mr. Collins offers his proposal to Charlotte Lucas. Jane Austen sets the scene:


In as short a time as Mr. Collins' long speeches would allow, everything was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waived for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness. The stupidity with which he was favored by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from a pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.

The stupidity with which he was favored by nature... 

I think Austen erects the most gorgeous and intricate sentences. They move with force in one direction, and with an incredible suddenness turn back on themselves. You think you're reading one thing, when in fact, you're reading something else. So often I've found myself confused by an irony poking out from the understructure of her sentences. There are no signs that say, "Hey I'm being ironic." It's so much more natural, and so absent of pretense.

And then, so as not to fall into the kind of blank-minded nihilism all around us today, she's capable of these moments of great romance. Here is Mr. Darcy proclaiming his feelings:

In an hurried manner he immediately began an enquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. 

After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began,``In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.''

This comes after paragraphs and paragraphs of violent language, of Austen carving up her characters and then serving them to the reader. But then in the middle of it all you get a scene like this. Again the language is built of irony--demanding that someone allow you to profess your love for them.

This is a really fun book.
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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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