Fred Parker on Jane Austen

Literature Cambridge Study Day, Sat. 29 April 2017, Stapleford Granary
Reading Pride and Prejudice(1813)

With lectures by Fred Parker and Anne Toner, and a reading by Anna Moody. A memorable afternoon of learning and discussion. Thanks to all.


Fred Parker spoke on the subject of Disclosing and declaring love in Pride and Prejudice

This extract explores how Austen deals with the question of expressing the inner life:

How does the inner life find public expression, what difficulties does it encounter, and what happens to it in the process? Perhaps all public language is coded, but in the time of Jane Austen the protocols of external expression were peculiarly marked, clear, and conscious: the sense of living life as a public performance was strong, and this was especially true in courtship situations, and even more especially true of the behavior of young women in those situations. How then can you speak the movements of the heart? The manuals of behaviour insist that a decent woman will never show her affection – will never even admit to feeling it – until the man makes his declaration, if then.

Austen laughs at this, but she also recognises something deeply fraught and problematic in finding words in which to speak one's desire, in telling what you feel. In Pride and Prejudice, as in other Austen novels, proposal-scenes rendered in direct speech go badly; a successful proposal can be conveyed only, it seems, in the narrator's indirect report. We never hear the words in which Elizabeth – or any Austen heroine – says yes. Does this suggest something about how feelings of love are not something we can simply possess and express, but are realised only as they are acknowledged and recognised by another?

Dr Fred Parker
Clare College, Cambridge

Further reading

Jane Austen, Emma (1815)
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)
Roger Gard, Jane Austen’s Novels: The Art of Clarity (Yale University Press, 1994)
John Mullan, What Matters in Jane Austen? (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Macmillan, 1986; 2007)
Janet Todd, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (CUP, 2013)
Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (Penguin, 2012)
John Wiltshire, The Hidden Jane Austen (CUP, 2014)