Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Small Talk in Austen

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Small Talk in Austen

Article excerpt

THE ART OF CONVERSATION in Austen was a somewhat neglected area of research until The Talk in Jane Austen in 2002, a volume that collected fifteen essays on various aspects of dialogue and discourse under such titles as "Silent Women, Shrews, and Blue Stockings" and "The Idiolects of the Idiots." Its introduction points out that in Austen, eloquence and articulation are held in high regard. "Conversation," it rightly asserts, "is all important in Jane Austen's novels" (xvii). A description of poor conversation at the Coles's dinner party in Emma is used to support the point. It is a dinner party at which there is "the usual rate of conversation": "a few clever things said, a few downright silly, but by much the larger proportion neither the one nor the other--nothing worse than every day remarks, dull repetitions, old news, and heavy jokes" (Emma 219). While it is certainly true that all of Austen's heroines demand more from their suitors than this sterile and unremarkable chitchat, they are not so above it as never to utter a dull or hackneyed phrase themselves. In fact, a mutual indulgence in small talk is key to the development of nearly every courtship. What is more, those "every day remarks" and "dull repetitions" are the lifeblood of some of Austen's most pivotal scenes.

When we first meet Darcy at a Meryton assembly in Pride and Prejudice, his coldness and apparent inability to exchange simple pleasantries with anyone but those in his own party alert us to a deficiency in his character. Despite being five-thousand pounds a year poorer, it is Bingley who becomes the most sought-after bachelor in the room. He is described as "gentlemanlike," with "easy, unaffected manners" (10), and thereafter hailed by Jane Bennet as "'just what a young man ought to be'" (14). Yet for all his charm, Bingley is neither witty nor even particularly interesting; he is, as Elizabeth later suggests, not "'a deep, intricate character'" (42). Nevertheless, he enjoys success in Derbyshire because he excels in polite conversation and has a talent for encouraging it, such as when, during a contention between Darcy and Mrs. Bennet on the merits of country living, he offers: "'When I am in the country, ... I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either'" (43). The comment is "neither the one nor the other" (E 219), yet it is this type of inoffensive remark, this graceful turn into the easy traffic of small talk, that constantly reminds us of the qualities Darcy lacks. In all of Austen's novels, man is a sociable animal, and the best of men can navigate their way through even the most prickly conversation (observe Bingley here with Mrs. Bennet, or later Mr. Bennet with the insufferable Mr. Collins). Darcy, on the other hand, makes no attempt to participate in casual gatherings, "turn[ing] silently away" (43) from that which affronts him. As the novel progresses, a pattern begins to emerge: it is clear that small talk, being so closely aligned to good manners, is able to convey an implied virtue in those who indulge it.

One need only turn to Mr. Collins for an example of a man whose speech seems positively averse to small talk. In instances where one would expect a sentence or two of trivial politeness--the beginning of a letter, say--Collins is heedlessly to the point: "'The disagreement subsisting between yourself and my late honoured father, always gave me much uneasiness, and since I have had the misfortune to lose him, I have frequently wished to heal the breach; but for some time I was kept back by my own doubts, fearing lest it might seem disrespectful to his memory for me to be on good terms with any one, with whom it had always pleased him to be at variance'" (62). There are no "every day remarks" here, no "dull repetitions" or "heavy jokes" (E219). Indeed there are no jokes at all: combining the formality of such expressions as "heal the breach" and "fearing lest" with the weighty topics of inheritance, death, and the plight of the Bennet family, all in his opening sentence, Collins's graceless phrasings and failure to emulate the casual parlance of his acquaintances mark him as a man severely lacking in social awareness. …

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