In honour of Austen’s birthday 236th birthday today, I could ramble on about the many film adaptations of her works. Or I could go into silly girly lament mode and the lack of dapper Austen-like men in the real-life. But, instead, I’ll simply share a few thoughts on Austen’s skill with comedy –as inspired by James Wood’s study of tragicomedy.
While Austen’s novels can’t rightly be classified as “tragicomedy”, she is (as James Wood notes) marvelously gifted in combining pathos with comedy. The relationships between some of my favourite Austen characters are enlivened by what Woods calls “the comedy of forgiveness.” This laughter is about the affection of shared hilarity; it operates compassionately, not cruelly, and begets tenderness rather than shame. Here’s Wood on their “equal laughter”:
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth learns that laughing at is cruel (it is what her irresponsible father is always doing, not to mention the rebarbative Bingley sisters). Instead, she will laugh with Darcy, which entails being laughed at by him. For Austen, getting married – or rather, falling in love – is the conversion of laughing-at into laughing-with, since each lover, balancing the other, laughs equally at the other, and creates a new form of laughter, a kind of equal laughter. Laughing with Darcy, and loving him, leads Elizabeth to realize that she was wrong to judge him as harshly as she did, that she may take many years to get to know him properly … Her shallow, more easily satisfied sister “merely smiles” when she marries Wickham, says Elizabeth. But, she says, marrying Darcy, “I laugh.”
I thought that was a beautiful way to trace humour’s role in Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship–their movement from admiration to affection and, finally, to love.
And so today I, along other Austenites, say: cheers to you, lady Jane. Thank you for your many masterful literary works. Here’s hoping more readers will come to discover, laugh/love along with, and cherish them.
Oh yes, one last thing: thank you also, Miss Austen, for your part in the gift-to-womankind that is Colin Firth looking like… this: