Witty Observation – Sei Shonagon and Jane Austen
I kept thinking about Jane Austen as I read “the Pillow Book” by Sei Shonagon, and I wondered at the cause. Shonagon was a Japanese writer who wrote in the early 11th century, and Austen a Briton who wrote in the late 19th and early 20th century. Why did reading one remind me of the other? Was it that they both wrote down their observations about manners in a courtly society? Was it because I could imagine both women with their inkwells, writing on little writing desks on the sidelines? Was it their shared quality of independence? They both lived in a great age for poetry – for Shonagon, it was the poems of the Kokin-shu and for Austen, it was Scott and Byron – maybe the fact that both women wrote about that subject was a common thread. I pondered these similarities and others, and eventually discarded these reasons as only tangential.
After much thought, I decided that what tied the two authors together for me was their keen observations of daily life – their way of using just a few words to bring to life the qualities, absurdities and universal characteristics of people that live in every society and in each one of us. It is in the realistic details, their fresh expressiveness that they are most alike for me. In this essay, I will compare and contrast examples of this expressiveness from both authors.
Both authors describe the physical features and dress of people with details that evoke vivid mental images for readers. At the Festival of the Blue Horses, Shonagon describes watching the white-faced guards pass remarkably close to her, and:
I could actually see the texture of their faces. Some of them were not properly powdered, here and there their skin showed through unpleasantly like dark patches of earth in a garden where the snow has begun to melt. (Shonagon, p. 1065)
Austen describes Mrs. Ferrars, a character in one of her novels:
…..a lucky contraction of the brow had rescued her countenance from the disgrace of insipidity, by giving it the strong characters of pride and ill-nature. (Austen, Sense and Sensibility, p. 107)
It was not just in physical descriptions that the two writers excel. Both Shonagon and Austen were able to bring human nature to the page, and in their writings illuminate their own personal values. Both appeared to value independence over modesty in women. When talking scornfully about married women who have never served at court, Shonagon relates:
“Women at court do not spend their time hiding modestly behind fans and screens, but walk about, looking openly at people they chance to meet.” (Shonagon, p. 1069).
The Austen character that best reflects independence of spirit and being equal to any man is Elizabeth Bennett:
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice, p. 259).
The two writers had mixed feelings about the pretentiousness they saw in their courtly societies. It was hateful to Shonagon to find pretentiousness in others:
“…an ignoramus who in the presence of some learned person puts on a knowing air and converses about men of old.” (Shonagon, p. 1074).
A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything. (Shonagon, p. 1070).
By contrast Austen, as expressed through her characters, seemed to find amusement in ignorant people who put on airs:
Elizabeth Bennett asks her father (of Mr. Collins), ‘Can he be a sensible man, sir?’. Mr. Bennett answers, ‘No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. (Austen, Pride and Prejudice, pg. 208)
Both writers described details from day to day life that make their works appear fresh even to modern readers. What could be more universal experience than to be pestered by a mosquito? Shonagon writes:
One has gone to bed and is about to doze off when a mosquito appears, announcing himself in a reedy voice. One can actually feel the wind made by his wings and, slight though it is, one finds it hateful in the extreme. (Shonagon, p. 1071).
Embarrassment is also a universal human experience, which Shonagon writes about in The Pillow Book. One of the “Embarrassing Things” that made her list is as follows:
While entertaining a visitor, one hears some servants chatting without any restraint in one of the back rooms. It is embarrassing to know that one’s visitor can overhear. But how to stop them? (Shonagon, p. 1074).
Austen was no stranger to embarrassing situations like this, it seems, and wrote about the embarrassment of Elizabeth Bennett by her ridiculous mother:
In vain did Elizabeth endeavor to check the rapidity of her mother’s words, or persuade her to describe her felicity in a less audible whisper; for, to her inexpressible vexation, she could perceive that the chief of it was overheard by Mr. Darcy, who sat opposite to them. (Austen, Pride and Prejudice, p. 225)
Another embarrassing situation that Shonagon relates:
In the presense of a skilled musician, someone plays a zither just for his own pleasure and without tuning it. (Shonagon, p. 1075)
Austen describes the mortification of Elizabeth Bennett by her sister Mary’s musical exhibition at a public ball:
Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak, and her manner affected. Elizabeth was in agony. (Austen, Pride and Prejudice, pg. 226).
Both women could express ill will toward others and cynicism about love:
I realize that it is very sinful of me, but I cannot help being pleased when someone I dislike has a bad experience. (Shonagon, p. 1084)
About men and women, Shonagon writes:
Sometimes the lady will receive visits from a man who does not show any tender feelings for her in either his looks or his words. Presumably he must care for her; else why would he continue his visits night after night? Nevertheless the man may turn out to be quite heartless and will leave her saying, “It’s really getting late. And I suppose it is rather dangerous to keep the gate open at this hour.
Another cynical example by Shonagon:
Indeed, one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leavetaking. (Shonagon, p. 1072).
Austen could also be cynical about dating and marriage in her novels, as shown in this example from Mansfield Park:
In all the important preparations of mind Maria Bertram was complete: being prepared for matrimony by a hatred of home, restraint and tranquility; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry. (Austen, Mansfield Park, pg. 455)
Yet other times Austen’s characters were decidedly astute in understanding what they were looking for in a mate: From Persuasion:
Mr. Eliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. (Austen, Persuasion, p. 1003).
From Sense and Sensibility, a more positive, hopeful message about love:
Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby. (Austen, Sense and Sensibility, p. 175).
And a simple and positive message on love from Shonagon, who peeped under the curtains to witness a surprise meeting between the Empress and Korechika on a snowy night:
How did you manage?’ said Her Majesty. ‘I thought that all the paths were buried.’
“Well,’ replied Korechika, ‘I occurred to me that I might move your heart.
Finally, in Austen’s most mature novel, her description of Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliott’s reconciliation is an illuminating snapshot of the universal experience of personal growth.
Her character was now fixed on his mind as perfection itself, maintaining the loveliest medium of fortitude and gentleness; but he was obliged to acknowledge that only at Uppercross had he learnt to do her justice, and only at Lyme had he come to understand himself. (Austen, Persuasion, pg. 1042).
Both women had a strong sense of self and expressed it in their writing, knowing that it may not please everyone. Shonagon on her Pillow Book:
I wrote these notes at home, when I had a good deal of time to myself and thought no one would notice what I was doing. Everything that I have seen and felt is included. Since much of it might appear malicious and even harmful to other people, I was careful to keep my book hidden. But now it has become public, which is the last thing I expected.(Shonagon, p. 1086)
Austen was once asked to write a romance for the Prince Regent, and refused, saying:
I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. (Laski, p. 104).
Because Shonagon and Austen understood their own gifts and used their witty impressions to help readers understand human nature, readers have enjoyed their works for centuries. They have a similar wit and expressiveness that, along with their other talents, ensure their places in the eastern and western literary canons for centuries to come.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice, from The Complete Novels, Crown Publishers, New York, 1981.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility, from The Complete Novels, Crown Publishers, New York, 1981.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park, from The Complete Novels, Crown Publishers, New York, 1981.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion, from The Complete Novels, Crown Publishers, New York, 1981.
Shenogan, Sei, The Pillow Book, in The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Middle Period, 100 C.E. – 1450. Davis,Paul, et. al., Bedford/St. Martins: Boston, New York, 2004.
Frye, Northrup. The Educated Imagination, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1964.
.Laski, Marghanita, Jane Austen, Thames and Hudson, Ltd, London, 1969 and 1975.