Austen scholar John Mullan, whose marvelous collection of essays What Matters in Jane Austen? I am reading now, talks about how part of what makes Austen great is that if you pull on a thread in her work, you find fascinating and intricate patterns woven throughout the fabric of her novels.
One of the special delights of reading Jane Austen is becoming as clever and discerning as the author herself, at least for as long as one is reading. And when you do notice things it is as if Austen is setting puzzles, or inviting you to notice little tricks, which do justice to the small, important complications of her life. Readers of Austen love quiz questions about her novels, but the apparently trivial pursuit of the answers invariably reveals the intricate machinery of her fiction. Are there any scenes in Austen where only men are present? Who is the only married woman in her novels to call her husband by his Christian name? How old is Mr. Collins? […] Every quirk you notice leads you to a design. The boon of Austen’s confidence is that the reader can take confidence too, knowing that if he or she follow some previously neglected thread it will produce a satisfying pattern.
I love this description, and have found it to be surprisingly true. It’s another way of “catching Austen in the act of greatness.”
Here’s one example I noticed (I think Mullan mentioned the topic and I later decided to investigate it):
In Pride and Prejudice, who laughs?
The word “laugh” with all its iterations–laughing, laughs, laughingly–occurs 44 times in the novel. (Smiles are more frequent, occurring 57 times.) What’s intriguing is that the characters who laugh or who talk about laughing the most by far are two that we normally think of as being extremely different people: Elizabeth and Lydia.
Who never laughs? Darcy, predictably (though he smiles). Neither does Jane. Nor Charlotte. Nor Mrs. Bennet, surprisingly, despite her similarities to Lydia. Nor do Mr. Collins and most of the other characters.
Who laughs once or twice? Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Gardiner, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Caroline Bingley.
Let’s pull on this laughter thread a bit. Why might it matter that both Elizabeth and Lydia are the ones who really laugh in this novel?
Consider this early exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy, after Caroline Bingley asserts that she could never laugh at Darcy, and warns Elizabeth that he is above reproach:
“Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!” cried Elizabeth. “That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintances. I dearly love a laugh.”
“Miss Bingley,” said [Darcy], “has given me more credit than can be. The wisest and the best of men—nay, the wisest and best of their actions—may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”
“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth—“there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”
In another scene, Jane says to Elizabeth, in response to her sister’s amusement over her tendency to think well of others, “Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.” Elizabeth, at this point in the novel, thinks that Jane is rather naive in her desire to assume the best of people like Mr. Darcy. She finds her sister’s stubborn good-will amusing, and silly.
But Elizabeth’s laughter (as she indicates: “I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good”) is not totally unrestrained. When Mr. Bingley (surprisingly) teases Darcy for his somberness, she is not unkind. “Mr. Darcy smiled; but Elizabeth thought she could perceive that he was rather offended, and therefore checked her laugh.”
Lydia also loves to laugh. After sharing a story about dressing up a servant in women’s clothes as a joke, she tells her sisters, “Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mrs. Forster. I thought I should have died. And that made the men suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter.”
Much later, in her letter to her friend explaining her elopement with Wickham, which causes her family such distress and shame, Lydia writes, “You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed.” She adds, regarding her family, “You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them and sign my name ‘Lydia Wickham.’ What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing.”
Lydia, unlike Elizabeth, has no sensitivity at all for the feelings and concerns of those around her and laughs with abandon.
And yet, if you examine more of these examples of Elizabeth and Lydia laughing throughout the novel, you start to realize that both sisters, as different as they are from one another in many respects, share a tendency to enjoy the discomfiture or perceived silliness of others–a trait they also share with their father Mr. Bennet.
He also seems to derive the greatest pleasure from observing human folly. His chief enjoyment in life seems to be observing stupidity in his own wife and children, as Elizabeth comes to realize later with regret: “Her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters.”
Indeed Mr. Bennet says to Elizabeth towards the end of the novel, after sharing with her a letter from Mr. Collins: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
This is very similar in spirit to what she had said at the beginning of the novel to Darcy: “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” But it is clear by this time that, though Elizabeth still loves to laugh, she has realized that this kind of amusement at the expense of others has its dangers–and even its own kind of viciousness.
Why does this matter? Well– I rather think that Austen likes to employ another technique in her novels: character foils—characters that contrast each other’s qualities in ways that lead the reader to new insights. Obvious examples in P&P include Darcy and his friend Bingley, Elizabeth and Jane, Darcy and Wickham, Lydia and Mary, Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner.
The foil dynamic only works, however, if the characters share important similarities as well. I think Lydia and Elizabeth are a less obvious but extremely important example; their love of laughing connects them subtly throughout the novel, but it is the extent of their willingness to be educated in that laughter that sets them apart.
You see this, too, in their attraction to Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth ultimately realizes her feelings for him are superficial, and later that they are bestowed upon a very unworthy object, but Lydia’s affection, like her laughter, is unreflective and self-absorbed. Even after the elopement ordeal and the forced marriage, Lydia returns to her family with her new husband unchanged:
Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless. She turned from sister to sister, demanding their congratulations; and when at length they all sat down, looked eagerly round the room, took notice of some little alteration in it, and observed, with a laugh, that it was a great while since she had been there.
Just as Mr. Bennet favors Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet favors Lydia. Both daughters are spirited, sanguine and, arguably, independent—but Elizabeth is willing to suffer the embarrassment and sadness of recognizing her own flaws. She says, famously, “Til this moment I never knew myself!” Lydia, meanwhile, is happy to remain ignorant. Her self-congratulatory laughter rings in our ears as she and Wickham drive away to the north of England.
Austen herself provokes a great deal of laughter in us as we read the novel, but perhaps she is inviting us to learn to laugh not like Lydia or Mr. Bennet out of self-absorption and superiority, but rather like Elizabeth, at ourselves and with others.
In a letter to her aunt in the penultimate chapter, telling of her engagement to Darcy, Elizabeth expresses an interesting change: “I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.”
Her laughter now is motivated not by derision or self-satisfaction, but by joy.