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 …

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Letters

Jane Austen’s Politics April 5, 1979