What is the relationship that Austen is trying to define between novel reading and education in Pride and Prejudice?
This is a very interesting question particularly because there is little mention of education and even less mention of novels in Pride and Prejudice. First let's itemize the points made about education.
1. Success in education of upper class men is directly related to inner propensities and character traits:
- Darcy: "There is ... in every disposition a tendency to some particular ... natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."
- Narrator about Collins: "[his] deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education ...
2. The education of upper class women is taken seriously and is a demanding task in its own right, though not extending to university study.
- Lady de Bourgh: " nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it. ... Without a governess, you must have been neglected."
3. Women receive private education (though ideally a rigorous one) while men receive public education: governess versus university.
4. The discrepancy between women's and men's education is openly acknowledged socially:
- Narrator about Mr. Gardiner: "Mr. Gardiner was a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education."
- Mr. Collins: "I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself."
5. Education was defined by gender and social class (though "subscriptions" allowed young men without money to attend university).
6. Education of both women and men was taken seriously enough to be managed well and not neglected.
How does the novel relate to this picture of education? There is one direct and one indirect reference to novels. The direct reference relates to Mr. Collins when asked to read to the Bennets at Longbourn. He is offered a novel to read that was clearly from a "circulating library." He recoils in shock from the thought of reading a novel. Kitty and Lydia express the surprise all felt.
glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels
The indirect reference relates to the Bennet family, particularly the girls. They offer Collins a novel to read. This presupposes the presence of novels on a regular basis; they are as subscribers to a "circulating library." Kitty and Lydia's reactions to Collins' rejection of the novel indicates novels are welcomed by all the Bennets, especially Mr. Bennet showed no hesitation at offering one to the clergyman, Collins. How does this relate to education?
Collins is ridiculed while the narrator points out the limits (or failures) of his university education and Darcy indicates the weakness of inner qualities that precede failure in education. Therefore, Austen relates novels to education by indicating that novels are thought an impediment to education only by those who are foolish and have failed in the full opportunities of education.
The other inference that may be drawn relates to the narrator's tone and our subsequent sympathy with Elizabeth: Surely Elizabeth reads novels from the circulating library and surely she likes and approves of them. Surely Elizabeth applied herself to educating herself regardless of the lack of a governess. If a well self-educated Elizabeth likes and approves of novels, then surely novels can pose no threat to education.
This is confirmed by the inference that foolish men who have failed in the opportunities of their university education dislike and disapprove of novels while seeing them as an impediment to sound education. There seem to be no other relationships that can legimately be drawn or inferred from the text of Pride and Prejudice.
Education meant something different for girls and boys during Jane Austen's time. For a boy to be educated, he actually attended school for some time and learned a discipline (law, medicine, etc.). For a girl to be considered educated, she probably was middle class and her family could afford either to send her to a school or to have a governess in their home. Her education consisted of learning to speak French or German (or other languages), sewing, reading, playing piano, and other such skills. So if Austen is trying to draw a relationship between reading and education, she is suggesting that reading = education. To expand one's mind is to be educated. And for a woman to know how to read = education. Many poor, lower class women were illiterate. If you read many of Austen's books, you will notice that most of her characters are middle class (or at least not impoverished...the exception of Fanny Price's family in Mansfield Park).