Pride and Prejudice and Nuance, a Guest Post from Leila Eye

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Whenever you start to become a fan of something, that’s when you tend to pay attention to the nuances and all of the details involved. You start placing more importance on what makes something different rather than just what you like about it. Stories about King Arthur aren’t just interesting because they involve swords and wizards; they are interesting because of the way that swords like Excalibur are used and the way that Merlin is presented as a mentor figure rather than just some deus ex machina of a wizard.

As a writer of Pride and Prejudice adaptations, I want to achieve a little of the flavor of Jane Austen, even if I know I will never have her comedic gift or her ability for social commentary. As such, I try to pay attention to more than just the historical aspects of whatever story I am writing. Avoiding contractions and using more formal language isn’t enough for me; I try to go a little further than that.

While trying to analyze the text as a text (rather than as a wonderful work of literature), I have noticed a few things. Here they are in no particular order:

Austen never uses “matter” as a verb. The replacement word used is “signify,” as is seen here:

“[Lydia] was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.”

When it comes to the word “admit,” it is generally used in the sense of letting something or someone in; “own” tends to be used as the replacement word in other instances, such as in this sentence spoken by Elizabeth:

Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.

Another observation I have made is that Austen never uses “as though” in Pride and Prejudice; she uses “as if” instead.

When describing speech, Austen typically uses a reverse construction where the verb comes before the noun:

“What can be the meaning of that emphatic exclamation?” cried he.

There are a few occasions where she uses other constructions, such as “he replied” or “she added,” but by and large, she uses the reverse construction.

For this post, I decided to quickly look at speech descriptors in the first 20 chapters in Pride and Prejudice.

I found that the most often used speech descriptors are “said” and “cried” and “replied.” A search of the full text for the word “cried” reveals more than 90 instances, “said” has more than 400, and “replied” has more than 100. In contrast, the word “exclaimed,” which modern audiences are more likely to use, only has 8 instances.

Some other speech descriptors I saw in the first 20 chapters were:

  • Returned
  • Continued
  • Added
  • Observed
  • Began
  • Repeated
  • Answered

Less frequently, there were other constructions, such as:

  • The subject elevated him to more than usual solemnity of manner, and with a most important aspect he protested that “he had never in his life witnessed such behaviour in a person of rank—such affability and condescension, as he had himself experienced from Lady Catherine.[“]
  • Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with:”Do you know, mamma, that my uncle Phillips talks of turning away Richard; and if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him.[“]
  • After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with:—”It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy.[“]

We don’t see “yelled” or “shouted” at all, the words that modern writers might be more likely to use.

Furthermore, the speech descriptors are typically in the middle of a spoken sentence in Pride and Prejudice:

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Or they come after the end of a spoken sentence:

“I am sick of Mr. Bingley,” cried his wife.

When that is not the case, Austen often sets off the speech with a colon and a new paragraph:

After amusing himself some time with their curiosity, he thus explained:

“About a month ago I received this letter; and about a fortnight ago I answered it, for I thought it a case of some delicacy, and requiring early attention. It is from my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases.”

Those are some items of language I’ve noted. But the more I study the text, the more other items catch my attention.

For instance, if you search out Lydia’s name, you will find that she often does not speak directly at all; rather, there will frequently be a description of her speech instead of the direct language. When she does speak, I would say at least half the time there is an exclamation mark somewhere in what she says, like in the below:

She was met in the vestibule by Lydia, who, flying to her, cried in a half whisper, “I am glad you are come, for there is such fun here! What do you think has happened this morning? Mr. Collins has made an offer to Lizzy, and she will not have him.”

Such extremity of emotions helps characterize Lydia as a foolish girl who cares more for fun than propriety, which makes her decision to run off with Wickham make more sense.

In an attempt to further get a feel for the general sense of relationships, I have taken an in-depth look at the phrase “my dear.” That is a phrase that occurs 131 times in Pride and Prejudice, and it often occurs between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. I feel their relationship deserves a little more attention than we are typically inclined to give. It is easy to say that they have scarcely any relationship at all considering Mr. Bennet’s teasing of his wife, but seeing as they have five daughters together and call each other “my dear” so frequently, I think their relationship is a little deeper than most might think. Certainly, there is a slight distance seen between them when they call each other “Mr. Bennet” and “Mrs. Bennet” as opposed to using their first names, but I believe that to be more of a reflection of their times than anything.

The phrase “my dear” (which is often placed in front of someone’s name) is usually used to indicate affection in Pride and Prejudice. Note that nobody uses that phrase with Mary, who is scarcely appreciated by anyone in the book. The phrase is used affectionately by:

  • Mrs. Bennet to refer to her husband; to her daughters, except for Mary (note that Mr. Bennet calls her “child” when trying to get her to stop playing the pianoforte); to her housekeeper (“My dear Hill” is used when Mrs. Bennet is excited that Lydia is getting married); and to Mr. Gardiner (“my dear brother”)
  • Mr. Bennet to refer to Elizabeth (and none of his other daughters) and his wife
  • Sir William to refer to Elizabeth (“My dear Miss Eliza”) and to refer to Mr. Darcy (“my dear sir”)
  • Jane to refer to Elizabeth, her mother (“my dear mother”), her father (“my dear father”), and the Gardiners (“my dear uncle and aunt”)
  • Elizabeth to refer to Jane and Charlotte as well as Mrs. Gardiner (“my dear aunt”) and her father (“my dear father”)
  • Mary to refer to Lydia (note: Mary has little dialogue)
  • Lydia to refer to Wickham and to Harriet in a letter (note: Lydia does not have a lot of dialogue)
  • Charlotte to refer to Elizabeth
  • Caroline and Charles Bingley to refer to each other (arguably, there could be some condescension in Caroline’s use of “My dear Charles”)
  • Mr. Collins to refer to Elizabeth (“my dear cousin,” for instance), Mrs. Bennet (“my dear madam”), Mr. Bennet (“my dear sir”), and Charlotte
  • Maria Lucas to refer to Elizabeth
  • Mrs. Gardiner to refer to Elizabeth and Jane
  • Mr. Gardiner to refer to Mr. Bennet (“my dear brother”) in a letter

There are also instances that seem less affectionate:

  • When trying to get Charlotte’s assistance, Mrs. Bennet uses “my dear Miss Lucas” (note the distance of her using “Miss Lucas” instead of “Charlotte”).
  • Caroline Bingley uses “my dear friend,” “my dearest friend,” and “my dearest Jane,” but one of the instances is inviting her to dine when her brother is not at home, and the other is in a letter expressing hopes for Bingley to have a union with Georgiana. These seem to be less than sincere, but the fact that Caroline even ventures to invite Jane to come to Netherfield seems to speak volumes about Caroline’s opinion of Jane. She does not think her well off enough to be united with Charles, but she cannot seem to deny that Jane’s character is sound.
  • After marrying Lydia, Wickham says “my dear sister” to Elizabeth more than once. I can only imagine how she must have wished to punch him in the jaw – though of course, Austen would never be so coarse as to write that in there!

I think the use of “my dear” serves as a good illustrator of the relationships among the different characters. For instance, scarcely anyone cares for Mary and Lydia, and Mr. Bennet’s primary concerns are his wife and Elizabeth.

Another minute detail that interests me is the occurrence of “Mr. Darcy” versus “Darcy.” The phrase “Mr. Darcy” occurs approximately 270 times. The name “Darcy” by itself (excluding things such as “Miss Darcy”) occurs approximately 100 times. While “Darcy” is used alone when Bingley refers to him, it is also to be found elsewhere in the text in places that are not speech. I have not determined a particular pattern, except that I have noted that when it is used alone, there is often a reference nearby of “Mr. Darcy” as well. I think this lack of consistency may not have been particularly intended or unintended; I think it probably simply worked out that way. But I do think that the fact that “Mr. Darcy” occurs so many times more is part of why many people prefer to use that as his name when initially talking about him – rather than using “Fitzwilliam Darcy” or simply “Darcy.”

These are just some of the minutiae that have caught my eye. What are some details about the text that you have noticed and found interesting? Is there anything about the characters or the language that you like to ponder? Do you have any opinions about a relationship between certain characters that you think might sometimes be misunderstood?


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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