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The funny side of Jane Austen

Perhaps the most famous opening lines from any novel are Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

These words are spoken by Mrs Bennet to Mr Bennet, following news that a gentleman of great fortune has moved to Netherfield Park, a nearby estate. The Bennets have a peculiar problem in that they have five unmarried daughters and no sons and, to prevent an unbearable drain on the family coffers, must marry their daughters off pronto.

Such a funny opening line also explains the enduring appeal of Austen who, although she died almost 200 years ago, remains one of the most popular and best-read female authors in the world.

Funny lines were Austen's stock in trade and we're reminded of this in a new book, The Jane Austen Miscellany, which quotes the author's most entertaining ripostes and witticisms.

Written by Lauren Nixon, who has worked as a guide in the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and has written for the Austen society magazine, it reminds us of just how entertaining and witty -- and sometimes cutting -- Austen could be when she cast her cold literary eye over women and men on the cusp of romance and in search of a spouse.

Her first book Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, and Austen has since gone from an anonymous success, to Victorian ideal, to the godmother of modern chicklit.


Women, of course, are no longer required to marry up as such TV comedies as Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Pulling and Sex and The City remind us, yet Austen's dashing male heroes continue to work their magic on modern female readers.

Yet it's her funniest lines which explain why her books still sell.

She was the daughter of a country clergyman who loved dancing and mingling in society and although she never wed she was a devoted aunt who died of Addison's disease in 1817, aged 41.

Mary Russell Mitford, a writer and contemporary, gave the following description of Jane: "Mama says she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers ... she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire screen or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quiet. The case is very different now; she is still a poker, but a poker of whom everyone is afraid."

While Jane's nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh, wrote of his aunt: "In person she was very attractive; her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well-formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close around her face."

Her novels include Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1818, posthumous) and Persuasion (1818, posthumous).

Her funniest lines include:

Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed a little in love now and then.

(Pride and Prejudice)

It must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her. (Northanger Abbey)

If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. (Emma)

A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of. (Mansfield Park)

Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another. (Emma)

I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.

(Pride and Prejudice)

A very narrow income has the tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. (Emma)

Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure. (Mansfield Park)

Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love. (Northanger Abbey)

We do not look in our great cities for our best morality.

(Mansfield Park)

The Jane Austen Miscellany, by Lauren Nixon, published by The History Press, price €14.95.