Regency Impudence: Jane Austen

“..certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.—It depends upon the character of those who handle it.”

–Emma

Thus the heroine describes Frank Churchill, who has surprised her by admitting he posted to London merely to get his hair cut. She knew him to be a charming fellow, with good address and a handsome appearance. From this she inferred him to be of good character and sensibility.

Seems he might have to go back for another haircut.

Now she is not so sure.

Tonnish gentlemen valued a good barber, particularly one who was awake on every suit in the dressing of hair. But Mr. Churchill wasn’t seeking such services because they were scarce in the country. He went to London at great expense and difficulty to attend to his appearance because of the reaction such impulsive conduct would provoke in others.

He was proud, impudently so, of his folly.

Impudence is the lightning rod that strikes the placid treeline of Regency society. Jane Austen uses the impudent character to put her heroes and heroines in a bustle. Her Churchills and Willoughbys and Wickhams bring conflict and disorder to what would normally be harmonious and orderly.

What Marianne saw in him I confess I shall never know.

‘Brandon is just the kind of man,’ said Willoughby one day when they were talking of him together, ‘whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.’

— Sense and Sensibility

Austen heightens the tension the impudent character brings by placing him very near to his polar opposite. Fully aware of this contrast, the impudent Willoughby does not shrink from commenting on Colonel Brandon’s character.  He is so far unrepentant of his impudence he can scarcely refrain from making the insult so exquisitely wrought in the passage above.

What a bore to be like Colonel Brandon. Now this is impudence indeed!

Mr. Wickham is perhaps the most impudent of Austen characters. Without him, the delicious sparring between hero and heroine would be rather less so. It is near the end of  Pride and Prejudice when the author unveils the tip of impudence’s sword, sharpening folly’s dull blade without warning.

When Wickham returns after marrying Lydia, darling Lizzie is amazed.  She expected Lydia to declare herself well-satisfied, for that gel is unthinking folly itself. But Wickham had been positively constrained to enter into wedlock. Chagrined was he? Indeed, no! Miss Bennet learns a valuable lesson from this unveiling, leaving her to resolve privately that henceforth she will “draw no limits in future to the impudence of an impudent man.”

But my favorite illustration of Wickham’s impudence is delivered by Mr. Bennet.  Mr. Collins has the effrontery to warn against an alliance between the rector’s daughter and Mr. Darcy. Couched in the following ode to such unconscious foolishness, Mr. Bennet makes a despairing admission.

“I cannot help giving [Mr. Collins] precedence even over Mr. Wickham, much as I value the impudence and hypocrisy of my son-in-law.”

Mr. Collins is completely unaware of how offensive his conduct is, immersed as he is in self-satisfaction. Mr. Bennet finds this amusing. But he views Wickham’s behavior with grim dismay.  Lydia’s happiness has been placed in careless, selfish hands.

Her father is particularly bothered since he knows Mr. Wickham knows. Impudence is very self-aware. It appreciates the consequences of its conduct.

And impudence doesn’t care.

 

 

John Keats: Mr. Darcy

“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.

“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

One of a surfeit of sequels, I daresay.

One of a surfeit of sequels, I daresay.

A surfeit of anything, be it lampreys or love, can be a bad thing.

This notion was well-known to Austen heroines like darling Lizzie and beloved Anne. Indeed, during the Regency, the rise of Romanticism in art was viewed with some alarm because it unleashed longing, passionate love. If it could be confined to the landscape of nature and politics, then all should be well.

And then along came Keats.

Despised “above all” by Byron, John Keats (1795 – 1821) remains the most enduring poet to inform us on Regency love. And, as Mr. Darcy pointed out in that discerning way of his, poetry is so necessary to love that the latter could not exist without it.

Keats felt the same way.

Long before he was known for his love poetry, his friends knew him as a man of love. Keats was, they said, a loveable as opposed to an amiable man. The painter Joseph Severn said “there was a strong bias of the beautiful side of humanity in every thing he did.”

However, Keats struggled to translate his sympathy for all things loving onto paper. When he managed to produce something, his work was subject to vicious criticism. Some said his verse was the vulgar product of a “Cockney poetaster,” that his writings shall have “our very footmen composing tragedies” and turn the heads of “farm-servants and unmarried ladies.”

He corresponded with Wordsworth and lived with Leigh Hunt, but the way these men wrote poetry seemed particularly unsuited to Keats’ desire for expression. His inspiration was Shakespeare, whose Twelfth Night mentioned death caused by a surfeit of music.  Like the Bard, Keats needed to explore love in its full expression, with all its “World of Pains.”

And then along came Fanny Brawne:

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
Bright Star by John Keats
Bright Star

The passionate Bright Star, considered to be his love verse to Fanny, burst forth like a comet, the glorious Hyperion and Ode to a Grecian Urn in its blazing wake. These works have risen above all other poems of the Regency and indeed, higher than any other, of the nineteenth century.

Keats died young, suffering from the great love he bore his bright muse. His poetry is still the food of love today, and is one of Regency love’s greatest legacies.