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Jane Austen and Heroism


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.)

  1. *

    Mary Crawford, in Mansfield Park, leaves her uncle’s house because he brings his mistress to live with him.

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