Stories within Stories

Last Friday, we looked at how we can use material from other stories in our own, and today, I want to look at an example, as examined by A Pilgrim in Narnia, where Brenton Dickieson highlighted some of the “stories,” or sources, of Pride and Prejudice in a recent post, some of which were quite original.

Since Jane Austen lived before the days of our fascination with where we get story ideas, before author blogs and question-and-answer sessions, we don’t know exactly what influenced her novel, but some general assumptions can be made, based on the novel and the books Jane would’ve had available to read, herself.

The obvious antecedent for Pride and Prejudice is Cecilia, by Fanny Burney, which I discussed in this post (where I noted that reading it made me appreciate Jane Austen even more). The title of Jane Austen’s novel likely comes from a passage, late in the work, where one character is summing up the source of all the conflict. Cecilia focuses on a young lady and a gentlemen, both of whom are a perfect match for the other, but their families’ pride and prejudices keep them apart (and sickness, and jealousy, and many other plot devices). Personally, I think that Jane’s reading suggested all sorts of characters and concepts for her to play around with; Maria Edgeworth’s Leonora, with its examination of sense and sensibility, was another likely source of inspiration for Jane’s novels.

Mr. Dickieson also suggests that “behind the character of Eliza was the figure of Pamela,” not because Jane Austen admired Samuel Richardson’s heroine from the book that bears her name, but because she was making fun of her. Pamela is the very soul of perfection, resisting the advances of a gentleman who would pay her richly if she would become his mistress, but as Mr. Dickieson noted, she “has virtue but it is pancake flat…”

Jane’s own letters indicate her attitude towards such virtuous, perfect heroines (though she doesn’t not name names; I almost wish she had). In a letter to her niece, Fanny, Jane writes about a visitor to her brother’s house who had been subjected to reading her novels, and he apparently didn’t care for them. “He and I should not in the least agree, of course, in our ideas of novels and heroines. Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked; but there is some very good sense in what he says, and I particularly respect him for wishing to think well of all young ladies; it shows an amiable and a delicate mind. And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my works.” She goes on to write that the heroine for a book she has been working on (Persuasion) “is almost too good for me.”

I think the most intriguing parallel Mr. Dickieson makes is in comparing Pride and Prejudice to the prodigal son, focusing on the Darcy-Wickham relationship and how the latter squanders all he has and comes back for more. When he returns, though, the father is dead, and the son is entirely too aware of his lack of morals, so he must use deception and seek his livelihood through targeting the naiveté of Darcy’s sister, Georgiana.

It turns the story slightly on its head, because the novel is about Elizabeth and her family, primarily, but it suggests a very different narrative: what if Pride and Prejudice were told from Darcy’s view, so that we encountered Wickham’s schemes and complications even before we met Elizabeth? It would’ve made for a most interesting story, one where the love triangle and revenge aspects of the plot (since Wickham nearly ruins the family of the woman Darcy loves, after he realizes he himself has no chance with Elizabeth). And I think this would’ve highlighted the prodigal son connection, but ultimately, that isn’t the story Jane chose to tell.

Mr. Dickieson goes on to examine how the novel also drew on other stories, like Romeo & Juliet, and how the influences in books keep pointing back to those that came before them. But, as Jane manages in Pride and Prejudice, good writers seem to incorporate these influences so that they quietly reinforce the novel without announcing their dependence on other works. If we follow her example (and with a great deal of fortuitous happenstance and good writing) our stories may stand alone, as hers do, replacing the originals in the culture’s mind to where what we remember are not the first version of the story ideas, but the best.

Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren

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