Friday, 12 August 2016

Jane Austen's Control of Crowd Scenes

Jane Austen amazes me with her control of crowd scenes.

Several people can be involved in an incident, each with his or her own interests and motivations, and somehow the reader is made aware of all the nuances of feeling.

Consider how in Sense and Sensibility Jane contrives a remarkable gathering of conflicting characters at the Dashwoods' party in Harley Street. Elinor finds herself in the company of the rich, formidable and autocratic Mrs. Ferrars (another in the mould of Lady Catherine de Bourgh), as well as her rival Lucy Steele, her own greedy brother John and various others whom she has good reason to dislike.

Mrs. Ferrars, knowing Edward's attraction to Elinor, belittles her throughout. Elinor smiles to see how Mrs. Ferrars, in order to snub her, deliberately makes a fuss of Lucy Steele, for she knows Mrs. Ferrars would suffer an even greater shock if she knew Lucy was planning to marry Edward. It is a potentially explosive gathering and an explosion almost takes place when Marianne, unable to endure the slighting of her sister, says to her 'Dear, dear Elinor, don't mind them. Don't let them make you unhappy' and bursts into tears.

Jane Austen puts together another explosive mix for the next scene. She has Edward arriving to visit Elinor (seeing her for the first time in several months) just when Lucy is present, boasting of the warmth with which she believes herself to have been received by Edward's mother. 

It was a very awkward moment; and the countenance of each showed that it was so. They all looked exceedingly foolish.

Elinor has valiantly to sustain conversation.

However, my favourite example of a 'crowd scene' occurs at the shock occasioned by Sir Thomas's return from Antigua in Mansfield Park and his response to the proposed theatricals. We are so skilfully made aware of contrasting reactions of the numerous individuals affected.
Some consider Mansfield Park Jane's greatest novel. It contains much of her best writing and invention. With extraordinary skill, she handles simultaneously the reactions to events of a large number of characters, all behaving more or less selfishly, but in subtly different ways. Jane may have learned something here from her hard-working predecessor Charlotte Smith, whose novel The Old Manor House (1793) handles big scenes (for example, the tenants' feast) in which many characters have private schemes afoot.

In Mansfield Park, we have the marvellous moment when Sir Thomas returns. The young people, led by Tom, his heir, have caused upheaval with rehearsals for the amateur theatricals. But – on Sir Thomas’s return – not everyone understands the situation. While others cringe, Yates prattles cheerfully to Sir Thomas about the scheme. So brilliant here is the way Jane Austen conveys the feelings not just of Yates but of no fewer than ten other people – Tom, Edmund, Maria, Julia, Mary and Henry Crawford, Fanny, Mr. Rushworth, Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram – each motivated differently by embarrassment or selfishness or self-gratification or even (in Rushworth's case) relief.

Edmund was the most difficult to portray, he having reluctantly agreed to participate. The struggle to rationalize his change of attitude had been too much for him.

Masterly is Jane Austen's depiction of the way Sir Thomas resumes control. He is never less than courteous. He even brings himself to praise the ‘neat job’ done by his ‘friend Christopher Jackson’ – the carpenter who has constructed the scenery. Yet order is restored within just a few hours and he stifles all further prospects with a few words and a diplomatic change of subject.