Anyone familiar with the novels of Sir Walter Scott knows how much his contemporary, Jane Austen, leaves out of her work. Austen hardly describes the physical appearance of her characters. In Pride and Prejudice we never learn the color of Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes or of Darcy’s hair. Austen does not hold forth on politics. In Emma we are not told what Mr. Knightley thinks of the Prince of Wales.
Austen avoids religious debate and the particulars of Christian doctrine, though fifty percent of her heroes and two of her fools are clergymen. She gives no representation of sexual passion at its feverish height; yet her main characters include a bastard daughter (Harriet Smith, in Emma), the seducer of an orphan (Willoughby, in Sense and Sensibility), three runaway girls and their lovers (Lydia Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice; Maria and Julia Bertram, in Mansfield Park), and an unctuous widow who elects to be the mistress of a double-dealing gentleman (Mrs. Clay, in Persuasion). *
Critics sometimes condemn Austen’s omissions as faults. Sometimes they blame them on her ignorance of the subjects or her distaste for the themes. I wish to suggest another explanation, that the elements of her greatness require such selectivity.
Like many other storytellers and play-wrights, Austen conceives her plots in terms of moral parallels and antitheses hierarchically arranged, with the main patterns shadowed by subordinate designs. But hers are subtle and evocative to a degree seldom reached by other writers.
In Pride and Prejudice we start with Darcy’s pride balanced against Elizabeth Bennet’s prejudice. This contrast is set off by the easy harmony of Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley on the one side and the bleak mésalliance of plain Charlotte Lucas and the obsequious Mr. Collins on the other; and around these constellations move such epiphenomena as the opposition of Elizabeth’s health and candor to Anne de Bourgh’s sickliness and Caroline Bingley’s malice. By pairing characters and actions, Austen endlessly brings out virtues, faults, and motives that would otherwise lie hidden. Thus Mr. Bennet’s intelligence is parallel to that of Mr. Gardiner, his brother-in-law, but his irresponsibility is exposed by the latter’s active wisdom.
The striking and pervasive feature of Austen’s contrasts is that they are metonymic. When a person is connected with a visible element, that element takes on the character of the person. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, when Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley exchange views on card games, they find they both like vingt-un better than the game of commerce. Now it happens that in commerce the players barter for cards, while in vingt-un they keep their own. Jane and Bingley are people whose attachment is deep and enduring; their dislike of barter reflects the trait.
In Northanger Abbey, the flirtatious Isabella plays commerce while acting a faithless part. In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford’s zest for the game of speculation—in which the players buy trumps from one another—discloses her rash, ambitious nature. “No cold prudence for me,” she says.
It is easy to fit landed property into the scheme of implicit and metonymic contrasts. Bingley lives in a rented house, even as he shows his agreeable manners in public places. Darcy clings to his ancestral estate and is most himself at home. Lady Catherine de Bourgh has the marks of a careful guardian of her estate; but they reveal her egoism, just as General Tilney’s pride in his good taste betokens not moral integrity but a confusion of aesthetic with spiritual values, in Northanger Abbey. Contrary to the opinion of several critics, Austen does not make manners, taste, or good stewardship in themselves a sure sign of virtue.
We observe a similar use of physical attributes. When Darcy must talk about Elizabeth Bennet’s physical appearance, he dwells on her eyes, which of course are the windows of the soul; for her spirit is what charms him. But in Emma, Frank Churchill spends his raptures on Jane Fairfax’s complexion, the most superficial and mutable aspect of her body.
There was nothing unconscious in Austen’s handling of this theme, as one may learn from its elaboration in Mansfield Park. Here, Edmund Bertram relays to Fanny Price his father’s praise of her; and it is instructive that Sir Thomas should have drawn Edmund’s attention to the girl’s appearance, while Edmund himself sees her “beauty of mind.” Surfaces mean too much to Sir Thomas, and this failing is what lets him connive at his daughter’s monstrous marriage to Rushworth. When the corrupt Henry Crawford talks to his sister about Fanny, he takes the same line, and praises her for being “absolutely pretty.”
The implications of such judgments become explicit when Fanny receives a letter from Mary Crawford about Edmund Bertram. Mary tells how her friends in London have praised Edmund’s “gentleman-like appearance,” and dwells on one lady’s declaration that she knows “but three men in town who have so good a person, height, and air.” Fanny promptly condemns Mary as a “woman who could speak of him, and speak only of his appearance!—What an unworthy attachment!”
It becomes a sign of Austen’s genius that almost any article associated with an individual may work as a surrogate for that person. One of the most delicate and beautiful examples is the scene following Darcy’s first proposal in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth receives a letter that dissolves her false impressions of him. She reconsiders her own character and that of the abominable Wickham. In a sentence that may or may not represent a thrust of irony on the novelist’s part, Elizabeth decides that her error was due to vanity:
Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.
Are we to invert this self-discovery and say that Elizabeth had been unconsciously in love with Darcy when he proposed, and that the humiliating terms of the proposal transformed latent affection into conscious anger? Going over the letter in her mind, Elizabeth concludes that essential justice lay on Darcy’s side. When she returns to the vicarage, she hears that both Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam had called while she was out. Fitzwilliam’s manners had charmed her, but now, Austen says,
Elizabeth could but just affect concern in missing him; she really rejoiced at it. Colonel Fitzwilliam was no longer an object. She could think only of her letter.
That is to say, she could think only of Darcy, with whom at this point she was certainly in love.
Now it would be hard indeed to import politics or religion into the scheme of metonymic contrast. Those occupations presuppose organized sects and parties external to the individual and his morality. They rest on strong polarities that cut across private good and evil. Historically, the sects or parties must claim moral superiority; and they must be pitted against one another as such. One could not possibly bring them into the subtle symmetries of Austen’s design without swamping it.
So also the novelist does not dwell on aspects of life concerning which the moral judgment must be self-evident: naked avarice or gluttony, violent anger, open atheism. These are too easy to identify, and too easy to blame. Her method of metonymic contrast would be pointless with them.
When this method of contrast is used diachronically, or over a period of time, it produces those somersaults of expectation and insight that make a staple of comic plots: in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet judging Darcy as worthless just before she learns that Elizabeth will marry him and as faultless just afterward; in Emma, Knightley’s change of heart toward Churchill when he discovers that Emma does not love the man.
Austen refines this ancient device in two ways. In her fictions, it rises from self-knowledge; and it also takes on moral implications, at least for the main characters. In Pride and Prejudice an example is the difference between the shameless Wickham’s card party conversation about Darcy when he first meets Elizabeth, and their tête-à-tête on the same subject after Wickham has married the runaway Lydia. Wickham staggers the reader by showing the same engaging manners and self-possession in the drastically altered circumstances; only Elizabeth has changed. The device becomes explicit in Mansfield Park, when Henry Crawford returns to the Bertrams’ after Maria’s marriage and speaks—the author says—as if he had “no embarrassing remembrance” to affect his spirits. In these cases, persistence implies moral corruption; change implies wisdom.
Sometimes the diachronic contrasts are enriched by a scenic parallelism: the same arrangements reappear with different evocations. When Mr. Collins proposes marriage to Elizabeth Bennet in the breakfast parlor of her father’s house, he dwells on her disadvantages but assumes that she will accept him; and the effect is comic. At the same time, he foreshadows the posture of Mr. Darcy several months later, when that great gentleman proposes marriage to Elizabeth in Mr. Collins’s own house and also dwells on her disadvantages while assuming that she will accept him. Only the effect is then high drama with deep moral implications.
To represent her minor figures, Austen tends to employ not metonymy but synecdoche, or the substitution of a part for the whole. One aspect of the character does duty for the entire person. Mrs. Bennet incarnates a passion for marrying off her daughters, even as Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey is reduced to an obsession with clothes. The effect is not flat or stereotyped because the element is conceived as governing other motives and not replacing them.
Mrs. Bennet’s favorite child, for example, is Lydia, who subordinates all decent occupations to the pursuit of males. Her least favorite daughter is Elizabeth, who refuses two proposals of marriage. Lady Catherine, in Pride and Prejudice, does little but order the other people about; in conversation, she alternates questions with commands. But such a reduction does not keep her from showing hospitality to her parson’s guests, the reason being that she may thereby have a larger body of submissive companions. So also it is no accident that the prudent Charlotte Lucas, daughter of a man consumed by social ambition, should find a husband who cringes before a title of honor.
Austen avoids metaphor or symbolism in her art. In Scott’s Waverley when the hero dresses himself in the tartan, he takes on its associations; it does not reflect his; for Scott uses the tartan as a metaphor for Jacobitism. But in Austen’s stories, a thing, a gesture, an occupation seldom has moral significance apart from the individual to whom it belongs. Austen can transform all the circumstances of common life into implicit moral comment: space, time, landscape, architecture, furniture. What she will not do is to attribute independent symbolic meaning to those circumstances.
Darcy’s attention to books indicates the depth of his moral and intellectual culture. Wentworth’s indifference to books, in Persuasion, makes a contrast to the reading habits of his shallow friend Benwick, who replaces true feeling with literary sentiment. Games, books, articles of clothing are in themselves neither good nor bad for Austen; they stand for no general principle until connected with a particular character. When Mary Bennet or Anne Elliot plays the piano, the performance takes on the color of her nature. With Mary it suggests self-absorption; with Anne it suggests self-sacrifice. (Lionel Trilling was misguided when he tried to find intrinsic danger in the play-acting of Mansfield Park.)
In Scott’s novel, on the contrary, Edward Waverley’s reading is chosen to endow him with a sensibility that will respond to romantic Jacobitism. The act of reading itself becomes symbolic of the contemplative life. But in Pride and Prejudice, as in Persuasion, individuals read in accordance with their moral natures. Mr. Bennet in his library isolates himself from paternal responsibility. Mr. Collins, pursuing him, takes up the largest folio he can find but does not read it. Lydia Bennet haunts the circulating library because she meets officers there. Benwick, in Persuasion, reads too much, and replaces the loyalties of a genuine devotion with the secondhand feelings of Scott and Byron.
Yet the pervasive figure of speech in Austen’s novels, running deeper than any narrative method, is not metonymy or synecdoche but irony. Her whole scheme of contrasts operates to enhance this comic trope, which spreads through Austen’s prose in too many forms to be listed. But I think she has her favorite. For her, the union of opposites seems the most exhilarating kind of irony.
Contrast or antithesis has to involve parallelism, because differences are meaningful only between things that are similar. In Austen’s work the implications of parallels between characters are normally ironical. In Emma, for example, the ridiculous woman who annoys the heroine most often is dangerously similar to her. This is Mrs. Elton, whose consciousness of her social position and willingness to manage the affairs of others make her a caricature of Emma.
After establishing sharp contrasts, Austen loves to make the two sides equivalent. The dignity of Lady Catherine, in Pride and Prejudice, exactly mirrors the impropriety of Mrs. Bennet: one is always obeyed, the other always disregarded. Yet it would be hard to judge which of them is coarser; and her ladyship’s godlike interference in other people’s affairs terminates at last in the same obsession as Mrs. Bennet’s—the desire to marry off a daughter. As specimens of musclebound maternity the women are twins.
In Mansfield Park the slatternliness of Mrs. Price seems at the opposite pole from the elegance of Lady Bertram until Austen reminds us that the two sisters share the same disposition, and that Fanny’s mother might have made a fine lady if given the chance. In Emma, Harriet Smith and the heroine are opposed as protégée and patron (like the relation Mrs. Elton affects to enjoy with Jane Fairfax). But when Harriet rhapsodizes over the virtues of Mr. Knightley, she becomes interchangeable with Emma, except that her listener, ironically enough, does not know whom she is talking about.
The implications of such polarized identities can go far beyond irony. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne appears as the opposite of Colonel Brandon in age, taste, and manners. Yet as W.A. Craik points out, he has just the history that would fascinate her: an early, thwarted passion from which he has never recovered, an attempt to elope, a pathetic reunion, a duel—all revealing a romantic, impulsive temperament, and all reported in the sort of autobiographical tale appropriate to romance.
In Emma, Mr. Woodhouse reposes at the peak of the social pyramid as Miss Bates stands at the bottom. Yet they are both of them amiable bores, valued for their innocence and selfless thoughtfulness but burdensome for their over-protective caution and needless advice. It is precisely her father’s tiresomeness that brings out Emma’s virtue; for she is invariably tender and considerate of him, never querulous. Yet one reason why her rudeness to Miss Bates staggers the reader is that Mr. Woodhouse might easily have been in the poor lady’s place. Emma’s impatience with her humble friend is perhaps the underside of her patience with Mr. Woodhouse.
Austen’s reliance on moral metonymy or synecdoche in a scheme of ironic parallels and contrasts will account for another difference between her own narrative style and that of Scott. This is her lack of particularity in description. She rarely alludes to the appearance of her characters in concrete detail. The very act of focused representation seems to have meaning for her. Either the person singled out is blameworthy, or the one producing the description is misbehaving.
Austen quickly sketches Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey: about twenty-five, rather tall, nearly handsome, with a pleasant face and an intelligent eye. Most of these features are not distinguishing marks but impressions of the personality upon an observer. But Isabella Thorpe, who is shallow and pre-occupied with complexions, extracts more concrete detail from Catherine: “brown skin, with dark eyes, and rather dark hair.” Her concern with such data—and especially with complexions—puzzles Catherine and exposes Isabella.
In Pride and Prejudice, the only minute account we hear of Elizabeth Bennet emanates from the malicious Caroline Bingley in an attempt to weaken Darcy’s growing attachment to her. In Emma it is the jealous heroine who gives us a list of the features of Jane Fairfax—partly because Emma dislikes her and partly because her appearance is what attracts Frank Churchill.
Austen’s refusal to stare at her creatures also reflects her general disposition to avoid details that cannot involve moral choice, such as the color of one’s hair. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor tries to see the color of hair set in Edward Ferrars’s ring, because it might be her own. Yet Austen keeps from telling us what the color is, or indeed the actual color of Elinor’s hair. Nevertheless, in the same novel, Austen describes the selfish Mrs. Ferrars with surprising particularity:
a little, thin woman, upright, even to formality, in her figure, and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect. Her complexion was sallow; and her features small, without beauty, and naturally without expression; but 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. She was not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas….
But Mrs. Ferrars’s arrogance is one of the two great obstacles to the marriage of the central figures. Her ill nature gives Austen grounds for satiric particularity.
Persuasion offers one an opportunity to compare a sympathetic character with an evildoer as subjects for description. Here Austen introduces her protagonist as follows:
A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early; and as even in its height, her father had found little to admire in her, (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own); there could be nothing in them now that she was faded and thin, to excite his esteem.
The author uses a few vague references to physical features as a device for setting the daughter’s moral nature against the father’s. She gives us the general impression that Anne would make on a kind observer but also sees her through the father’s unkind vision. The young woman had delicate features, dark eyes, and a thin body. Was the nose turned up? the hair brown? the eyes black? Of concrete particulars we learn little, certainly not enough to recognize the person.
One of the scoundrels in Persuasion receives a different sort of representation. I quote:
Mrs. Clay had freckles, and a projecting tooth, and a clumsy wrist, which [Sir Walter Elliot] was continually making severe remarks upon, in her absence; but she was young, and certainly altogether well-looking, and possessed, in an acute mind and assiduous pleasing manners, infinitely more dangerous attractions than any merely personal might have been.
Along with the impression that Mrs. Clay makes on Anne’s father, along with a general indication of her appearance, Austen gives us surprisingly sharp details: freckles, a projecting tooth, and a clumsy wrist. Whoever studies Austen with attention will learn that not only in Persuasion but generally, the novelist suppresses concrete detail in descriptions of her sympathetic characters but may supply them for persons of ambiguous morality. In this way she transforms an elementary technical demand of prose narrative into an implication of moral judgment.
It is through such indirection that we may establish a bridge between the art of the novelist and the social order in which her genius flourished. Sex, religion, and politics do color Austen’s themes after all, though in a very different manner from Scott’s use of them. For a start one may fairly tease an attitude toward government out of the novels. For instance, it is true that Austen conspicuously avoids political controversy. In Northanger Abbey critics have observed how Tilney, who delights in conversation, stops talking when his lecture on landscape carries him into a digression on the British constitution:
[B]y an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the inclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.
Again in Sense and Sensibility we may detect a sneer when Austen alludes to the ambition of the hero’s mother and sister:
They wanted him to make a fine figure in the world in some manner or other. His mother wished to interest him in political concerns, to get him into parliament, or to see him connected with some of the great men of the day. Mrs. John Dashwood wished it likewise; but in the mean while, till one of these superior blessings could be attained, it would have quieted her ambition to see him driving a barouche.
The interchangeability of a barouche and a political career is no slip of the pen; and Austen’s irony suggests the traditional attitude of the gentry, always suspicious of men at the center of government. In the same novel it is the affected Mr. Palmer who busies himself standing for Parliament; and his fatuous wife suggests that he could not visit Willoughby because the latter was, as she says, “in the opposition.” It is obvious what Austen thinks of people who arrange their friendships according to their politics.
In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram is in Parliament; but Austen mentions the fact only in the most casual way and as a burden rather than a distinction. In this novel it is certainly a mark against Mary Crawford that she should imagine Edmund might rise to distinction by going into Parliament.
Beyond this point the novelist had no means of drawing political philosophy into her grand scheme unless she set moral labels on political sides. And yet one may smell a quasi-political implication in her social doctrine. Austen, like all other important novelists from 1720 to 1820, showed little interest in the urban middle class as an ideal social type. Even Defoe assumed that a sane bourgeois naturally aspired to the condition of a landed country gentleman.
For Austen, the social class that mattered was indeed the gentry, rising no higher than baronets. It is notable that peers never have a role in her work, except for the dowager Viscountess Dalrymple in Persuasion. Although clergymen abound in the novels, bishops do not exist. Presentation to Austen’s livings are made by lay patrons. So also, while we meet lawyers, we meet no titled judges.
Austen, in fact, accepts a social ideology that goes back to the seventeenth century, and cuts across divisions based on the means of economic production or the source of one’s income. In this ideology the church is not united against any other category of economic, political, or social types; neither are the landed classes or the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, all these strata bifurcate at the same point; the gentry against the peerage, the lower clergy against the bishops, the tradesmen of the provincial towns against the great merchants and bankers in London.
At the same time, such categories are connected across economic lines. The gentry supply the members of the beneficed clergy from their own families and present them to the family livings. Younger sons who do not enter the church may have commissions bought for them in the army or navy, unless they choose to follow the law or to find a post in the East India Company. The provincial tradesmen depend on and are aligned with the squires.
From the era of Dryden’s poem on “John Driden” (his namesake cousin) to that of Austen’s Persuasion, the gentry’s independence of the court served as a moral principle. It is no accident that in Northanger Abbey the reprehensible General Tilney should have an old friend who happens to be a marquis, or that in Persuasion the frivolous Sir Walter Elliot should fawn upon a viscountess. Coming away from Pride and Prejudice, some readers fall into the error of placing Lady Catherine in the peerage. She is of course an earl’s daughter, but only a knight’s widow. When her ladyship’s sister’s son—Darcy—tells Elizabeth Bennet about his childhood, he gives no praise to his maternal line. On the contrary, it is explicitly his father that Darcy describes as “all that was benevolent and amiable.”
If we retreat from literature to biography, we may be sure that Austen had personal experience of noble lords. It is possible, however, that life imitated art; for when she described the “very pleasing” manner of Lord Craven, she said, “The little flaw of having a mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park, seems to be the only unpleasing circumstance about him.” The sarcasm hints that Austen had a deeper awareness of sexual appetite than is explicit in her novels. In fact, just as she seems after all to suggest certain political and social doctrines, so also she reveals views on passion and courtship which her novels may be said to inculcate (by implication only) as doctrines.
In Austen’s novels nothing conduces more to love than neighborhood and close acquaintance. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne is brought to love and marry Colonel Brandon through his proximity and through a conspiracy of her family to bring the pair together. Then his own goodness and his deep attachment to her do their work.
In Pride and Prejudice the unfolding of Bingley’s love for Jane Bennet is interrupted simply by his being removed from her region. In Persuasion, Benwick and Louisa Musgrove fall in love by living in the same house while she recuperates from her fall. In Mansfield Park, Edmund and Fanny build their engagement on just that “warm and sisterly regard” which Sir Walter Scott eliminates as a source of romantic love. Indeed, to sum up Austen’s doctrine, one need only reverse Scott’s analysis of the relation between Rose Bradwardine and Edward Waverley:
[She] had not precisely the sort of beauty or merit, which captivates a romantic imagination in early youth. She was too frank, too confiding, too kind; amiable qualities, undoubtedly, but destructive of the marvellous, with which a youth of imagination delights to dress the empress of his affections.
In Northanger Abbey, if anything attracts Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland, it is her frankness, confidence, and kindness.
So I am not persuaded that the endings of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park are mere games with convention, or deliberately playful windings-up of essentially comic plots. They are those things, of course. But they are also hints of Austen’s earthy view of passion and courtship. Given proximity, familiarity, and persistence, a set of good qualities on one side will respond to a set of good qualities on the other, so long as an impulse begins somewhere.
This is why cunning hypocrisy is so dangerous. When a man who appears to be an eligible partner plays up to the expectations of an unworldly young lady, he is likely to succeed, as Willoughby succeeds with Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. The best shield against such an intrigue is a previous commitment to a better man.
R. W. Chapman pointed out places in Emma where Austen hints that the heroine is thinking of Mr. Knightley without our being told so. In all these, Frank Churchill is either near her or in her thoughts. We may infer, from Austen’s system of contrasts, not only that he is opposed to his rival but that Emma is protected from Churchill’s deliberate campaign by her unconscious love for Knightley.
A subtler example occurs in Persuasion. Anne Elliot reflects on her feelings toward Mr. Elliot, who seems a thoroughly appropriate suitor; and she decides that his great fault is not being “open.” Austen says, “She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others.” We may infer that Wentworth is at the edge of her mind, but we may also infer that it was the attachment to him which saved her from Elliot; for later Anne admits to herself that she might just possibly have been induced to marry her cousin.
Austen puts it all explicitly in Mansfield Park, when she explains where Fanny found the strength to resist Henry Crawford:
[A]lthough there doubtless are such unconquerable young ladies of eighteen (or one should not read about them) as are never to be persuaded into love against their judgment by all that talent, manner, attention, and flattery can do, I have no inclination to believe Fanny one of them, or to think that with so much tenderness of disposition, and so much taste as belonged to her, she could have escaped heart-whole from the courtship of such a man as Crawford…had not her affection been engaged elsewhere.
Outside courtship, the same circumstances operate. An unprincipled man who finds himself near an interested woman will (Austen implies) deliver himself to her. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia lays no snare for Wickham, and he does not pine for her as an object of irresistible passion. He was in the habit; she was convenient and interested; off they ran.
In Persuasion, Mrs. Clay exhibits her availability to Mr. Elliot by sending him on an errand when she cannot arrange for him to accompany her in the rain. She meets him constantly, of course, at Sir Walter’s home. When she is observed tête-à-tête with him on a street in Bath, we may infer that a significant though disgraceful connection has been established.
Austen’s attitude toward sexual passion makes a strict division between the pursuit of a woman as an object of pleasure and the courtship of a lady whom one is to marry. When Scott, in Redgauntlet, describes Darsie Latimer as losing interest in the beautiful Lilias simply because she obeys her uncle’s wish that she kiss the young man, Scott does what Austen could not do: he treats courtship and the pursuit of pleasure as starting from the same impulse. It is not that Austen ignored this common origin but that, being an undifferentiated appetite (like gluttony), it does not activate her system of moral coordinates. Only after the point of division between reverent courtship and licentious chase does the impulse have meaning for Austen.
To liberate her genius, Austen, who does not work with conventional symbols, must play down the issues that fascinate Scott. So it is that her clergymen, whether heroes or fools, never discuss doctrine. If they did so, by her scheme of moral, metonymic contrasts, she would have to treat one sect as superior to another, and the religious distinction would bury the individual traits. So also, as Gilbert Ryle has observed, the protagonists of Austen’s novels face their moral crises without visible recourse to religious faith; nor do they ever seek the advice of a clergyman.
For Austen, religion is a universal but indiscriminate context. She is not concerned to rank types of Christians any more than she ranks types of Englishmen. She chooses families that share the same region, the same church, the same social order—the same opportunities to strengthen their moral natures; and then she sees what the individuals make of themselves under these conditions.
It seems clear that Austen was reacting against sanctimoniousness. The strength of her own piety will be acknowledged by those who read with care the letters she wrote on her father’s death, or her sister Cassandra’s letters on Jane Austen’s death. This impression is deepened by the admittedly protective Memoir which her nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh produced. But living in a milieu in which overstatements of zeal were suspect, it was natural for her to look askance at the Evangelicals and to shrink from noisy expressions of spirituality.
Nevertheless, by the quietest implications, Austen does establish something like a religious position in the novels. I do not refer to hints like Anne Elliot’s distrust of her cousin for tolerating Sunday travel, or even Edmund’s speech in Mansfield Park on the powers of a clergyman, but to a far more general suggestion. This is the notion of rewards flowing from acts of kindness and charity. Now and then in the novels this principle delicately shows itself. Benevolent deeds become not only pleasures in themselves but also the mysterious causes of personal advantage.
In Persuasion, the novelist early establishes the charitable disposition of her heroine. When Anne goes to Bath, she feels sorry for an old schoolmate, Mrs. Smith, who is now a poor, widowed invalid. Anne goes regularly to comfort and entertain this obscure and isolated woman whose story is (as Paul Zietlow has suggested) a negative analogue of her own. Sir Walter and Elizabeth, the selfish father and sister, tease Anne for connecting herself with so mean an acquaintance. But Anne persists. And it is from Mrs. Smith that she then receives an autobiographical tale of the sort used by Fielding in Tom Jones.
Mrs. Smith not only illuminates the perils in Anne Elliot’s path. She also transmits precious information that saves her from any possibility of yielding to Mr. Elliot. Austen dwells on the link between goodness and its reward:
She had never considered herself as entitled to reward for not slighting an old friend like Mrs. Smith, but here was a reward indeed springing from it!—Mrs. Smith had been able to tell her what no one else could have done.
Perceptive critics, like Zietlow, have drawn attention to the large part played by coincidence and chance in the plot of Persuasion, observing that these elements traditionally suggest the interposition of Providence in the affairs of men. I think this view is supported by the allusion to rewards in Anne Elliot’s reflections on Mrs. Smith’s providential exposure of Mr. Elliot. The whole course of the novel seems calculated to encourage us to trust in Providence.
This is how I understand Anne Elliot’s language when she goes over in her mind the melancholy decision she had once made to reject Wentworth’s proposal. How eloquent, says Austen, “were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that overanxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence!” When the lovers are securely reunited, Austen contrasts the fortunate Wentworth with the undeserving Sir Walter, who had failed “to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him.”
Other touches, barely audible, evoke a frame of Christian doctrine. The turning point of Persuasion is the scene on the Cobb at Lyme, when Louisa Musgrove, whom Wentworth has praised for her firmness, insists on being jumped down the stairs a second time but acts too hastily, misses his hands, and knocks herself unconscious upon the ground. Louisa’s fall reverberates forward and backward over the novel.
First, it recalls Austen’s uncharacteristic use of metaphor during an earlier episode, in which Wentworth compared Louisa to an unspoiled hazelnut, beautiful and glossy when its brethren have been trodden under foot. The moment—as Alistair Duckworth pointed out—faintly suggests the words of Christ, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Louisa’s firmness was of the wrong sort.
Again, Austen recalls the fall in a superb scene near the end of Persuasion, after Anne Elliot has held forth to Captain Harville on the subject of fidelity. Having heard her outburst, Wentworth secretly conveys a letter to Anne, offering his love. Surrounded by three persons who witnessed the fall of Louisa (a fourth has just left), Anne is pressed between the need to hide the message and an impulse to exude some of the emotion that pervades her being. In her embarrassment she looks ill, and Louisa’s mother feels anxious until assured repeatedly that “there had been no fall in the case.”
Austen seems to be relating the several scenes, drawing parallels between the firmness of whim and the firmness of devotion, or between Louisa’s fall and Anne’s exaltation, and giving the parallels a Christian aura; for Anne preferred conscience to self-indulgence and was rewarded. I have no wish to impose allegory upon Austen’s narrative design, or to make the religious overtone more than an evocation. But I think it is present.
Religion and morality join in Austen’s broadest method of suggesting ethical principles, which is through the appointment of her characters and the shape of her plots. She had grown up with a choice of traditions in literature. On one side stood the humble domestic scenes of Richardson and Burney, the essays of Johnson, the poems of Cowper—all lighting up an ideal of lowly Christian heroism, opposed to the semi-pagan ideal of physical courage and chivalric honor. On the other side stood the tragic corruption of the pagan ideal, in the plot of Clarissa, the Gothic novel, the poems of Byron, and Scott’s Lord Marmion.
In Northanger Abbey when Austen talks ironically about the concept of a heroine, she is not merely humorous. Throughout her novels she tries, as Mary Lascelles (her best critic) has said, to show that common life is finally more interesting, that it gives more nourishment to the healthy imagination, than the fantasies of romance. This is of course the meaning of the scene in which Emma Woodhouse looks out from the doorway of a shop and fills her mind with the view of a village street. It is implied in Anne Elliot’s great speech contrasting a woman’s love with a man’s. It is embodied in the quiet, heroic endurance of Fanny Price, Elinor Dashwood, and Anne Elliot herself.
The same principle appears in the vocations that Austen picks for her heroes: three clergymen, two country gentlemen, and only a single naval officer. Yet two of Austen’s brothers became admirals, and her whole nation was at war for nearly two-thirds of her life. She had a minute familiarity with naval affairs and could have given an insider’s view of battles at sea.
But Austen’s aim was to domesticate the idea of a Christian hero. When Mr. Knightley, in Emma, dances with Harriet Smith to rescue her from Mr. Elton’s scorn, he shows the courage that Austen meant to celebrate. When Tilney in Northanger Abbey defies his father and goes forth to find Catherine Morland, he is acting out Austen’s response to the manners of the Giaour. It is no accident that Tilney is a parson while his selfish father and frivolous brother follow military careers. In Austen’s plots the turning points depend not on physical agonies but on moral insights, on the sacrifice of ease not to glory but to duty: Elinor’s ordeal of unexpressed misery in Sense and Sensibility, Fanny’s resistance to Crawford in Mansfield Park.
Near the end of Persuasion, Austen has Wentworth wittily compare his experience of fortunate love to a heroic ordeal:
Like other great men under reverses…I must endeavor to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.
The remark is humorous, but the implication is serious: that the naval officer has endured a trial of character not through exposure to storms and bullets but through triumphing over a moral defeat. By making such crises fascinating, Austen indicates how one may transform commonplace reality into an epic of the individual conscience.
Jane Austen's Politics April 5, 1979
Mary Crawford, in Mansfield Park, leaves her uncle’s house because he brings his mistress to live with him. ↩