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Wednesday, January 04, 2012


First sentences: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Requested by Helen Louise.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife.

So famous a first sentence that it's actually hard to approach from an analytical perspective. It sits in the centre of literature like a diamond, sparkling and edged and difficult to dismantle.

Jane Austen is a narrator famous for her comedies of manners and social satire, but popularly adored for her romances. In her most famous opening, she manages to pull off a complicated trick by establishing both her arch tone and her promising plot. Considered in detail, this sentence is a masterpiece of having it both ways.

'Universally acknowledged', for instance. The narrative voice claims with confident didacticism that it can speak for everyone, that the universal is within its purview. At the same time, obviously the truth is not universally acknowledged - or else the clever narrator and we, the clever readers, would not be able to laugh at the joke. Immediately we are flattered with a sense of superior understanding; society is a joke, and we are in on it. So far, so sarcastic - but at the same time, when one considers the plot, it's not as straightforward as all that.

We get the advantage of seeing through this conventional 'truth', but in fact, it's not what 'universally acknowledged' implies, which is to say, a piece of received wisdom. Instead, believing a rich man must want to marry is a piece of wishful thinking. Wealthy men are essential to the comfort of wealthless women, and to 'acknowledge' that a wealthy man must be eager to provide that comfort is to be sufficiently afraid of poverty that one convinces oneself that salvation will arrive somehow. By making fun of this fear as if it were a mere foolish proverb, Austen gives her first hint that in this novel, too, the fear will be assuaged. The threat of poverty hangs over the heroines, but fearing it is laughable. We are not really threatened.

For whatever the dangers that Austen hints at for her heroines, we always know they will not come to pass. Poverty is a wind howling at the door, but we are safe inside. The plot will bear this out: a single man in possession of a large fortune might not be in want of a wife, but in fact both Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy are quite keen to marry - and indeed, are both perfectly willing to set aside financial considerations to do so. Even the comfortably-off Mr Collins wants a wife; wealthy men in Pride and Prejudice are getting married right and left. The Jane Austen museum in Bath sells copies of her books, but it also sells tote bags imprinted 'I [heart] Mr Darcy'.* Irritating people are a threat in Austen books, but poverty will never truly bite. Marriage actually will save the day.

Consider, for instance, the order of the sentence, and its linguistic roots. Marked out by those nineteenth-century commas, it breaks down almost mathematically into its components: universal acknowledgement, single man with fortune, want of a wife. Society, man, marriage. This is the progression the plot will follow: we meet Elizabeth and Jane's setting, then their future husbands, then their happy endings.

Rhythmically, the sentence lands on its last word with a satirical but reassuring clang, the multi-syllabic, Latinate 'universally' and 'possession' shifting to the monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon 'want of a wife.' Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, discussing those two registers in English, quotes Simeon Potter's comment: 'We feel more at ease getting a hearty welcome than after being granted a cordial reception.' English is a language with Latin-Norman flesh and Anglo-Saxon bones. Austen was writing at a time when a debate about the relative merits of Latinate versus plain English had been passionately pursued for some time, and this sentence is highly aware of the distinctions. For satire of manners, we have ornate Latin. For blunt fun-poking, we have Anglo-Saxon ... but at the same time, it is Anglo-Saxon that conveys the truth. It is not true to say that it is universally acknowledged, but it is true, in this story, that the single men with large fortunes will want wives. Universal acknowledgement is a fussy fiction - both of the characters, such as Mrs Bennet, and of Jane Austen in her arch moments - but wanting a wife is real.

This, I suspect, is the essential appeal of Jane Austen's most famous novel. We get the best of both worlds: to see through the financial machinations of mothers but to marry a rich man anyway, to laugh at wishful thinking but to get our wishes granted, to scorn convention with merry, biting cynicism, but to succeed within its terms better than the people we are laughing at. Pride and Prejudice is an underdog fantasy, a tale of being a double winner - both as an undeceived outsider and as a triumphant insider. The class and gender conventions are avenged as we, with Elizabeth, both mock and resist them and still succeed by their rules. Austen is an angry writer, sometimes a furious one, sometimes even a hateful one - but my goodness, does she promise us the world.

*True fact; I went there on my honeymoon. Financial considerations, I suspect; a gift shop has to sell something, and if someone's visiting the museum at all it's a pretty good bet they already own copies of the books.

I recall learning in a class on Austen that the opening sentence is a parody of Samuel Johnson's tendency towards aphorisms of this kind.
For whatever the dangers that Austen hints at for her heroines, we always know they will not come to pass.

Certainly true for us, but I wonder if it was entirely true for Austen's original readers.
I think her tone and plot structures hint pretty heavily at a happy ending.
I can't tell you how much I love these First Sentences, Kit. Your posts are like biting into a chocolate truffle and then immediately wanting more. I keep thinking OOH, I WANT TO (RE)READ THAT BOOK NOW. You're killing me, but in a good way. :D
Thank you! Any requests?
Awesome. I hated Pride and Prejudice when I read it, but I was a kid and I think I would appreciate it far more now. I really should go reread it.

A request - One Hundred Years of Solitude. I totally don't understand why people find this book brilliant - I hated it - and perhaps a breakdown of the first sentence can help me understand what I'm missing.
Yes, I didn't like Austen till I was twenty. So much of her writing is about small social moments that I think you need a certain amount of life experience to get her point...
It depends. I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was sixteen and loved it immediately.
I really didn't get Jane Austen until I was older AND someone explained to me that it was intended as satire, and that one wasn't supposed to be taking the cheesier moments seriously. Guess I was a little clueless :)
I remember in the famous BBC adaptation, they put the line into the mouth of Elizabeth and Jane as they mockingly completed a sentence Mrs Bennet had clearly come out with enough times for them to know it by heart. I thought it was quite a neat way to convey it in the different medium.
After several failed attempts I recently tried Pride and Prejudice again and couldn't put the damn book down. There is something about the way Austen wrote that is captivating but I couldn't have told you how Austen did it. Things like word selection and juxtaposition are important.

What is also amazing is when someone comes along who is able to both analyse and communicate why Austen is a captivating writer. This is something I could never do myself. Only a very few people could. I'm glad you're one of the few. Now I have to go back and re-read some of the other books whose opening sentences you've analysed.

The Kidd
Storiteller, I'm glad I'm not the only one who was underwhelmed by One Hundred Years of Solitude. But yes, that's an opening sentence I'd like to see.

These are such clear and precise analyses. I hope that perhaps, when you've done more of them, Kit, your publisher might be willing to put them together into a book. I find myself wandering around the house, pulling out this and that book and looking at the first lines, just for fun. (And no, I can't analyze them with a writer's eye, so keep doing what you're doing, please?)
One Hundred Years Of Solitude sentence coming up; it should be posted on Wednesday January 18, with a couple of other posts before then. :-)
Thanks so much for doing this - as you point out, it's so familiar that it's actually quite hard to think about critically... Really like this post.
Speaking of obvious suggestions, don't suppose you'd do the Hunger Games? :)
I think we are conditioned in our society to find some of our happiness from romantic relationships. This is due mostly to our lack of understanding of where real happiness comes from. Real happiness comes from feeling good on the inside. This comes from having a good level of health. Relying on someone else to make you happy is a recipe for disaster. The only person you can truly rely on in life to make you happy is yourself.
Please do Treasure Island.
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