Sometime ago, when apparently there was nothing worthwhile to be seen, I watched a sketch comedy show which poked fun at the sorts of characters found in a Jane Austen novel. With the exception of a “gentleman” who looked like a reject from the latest Jersey Shore, the set and remaining characters were done up in early 19th century garb. The plot, such as it was, centered on some very improper suggestions made to the heroines by their sleazy visitor. However, being very dignified young ladies, they had no idea what their new friend was proposing. The humor was found in the juxtaposition of an innocent ignorance and a knowing corruption.
Too often contemporary society looks back upon the writings of Austen with an attitude of benevolent condescension. We look at her oh-so polite young women attending their parties and dances as just another exercise in naiveté to be put alongside our children’s worlds of make believe. We may wish the world was as it is in her books, but, in our great wisdom, we know how harsh and dark the real world is. Only a supposedly sheltered woman like Ms. Austen could have thought the world to be as genteel a place as she has portrayed.
Despite her reputation for childlike innocence, Jane Austen’s characters betray no such utopian stain. Reading through her pages you don’t find a world of politeness where the greatest grievance is an uncouth remark. Nor do you encounter a vision of life wherein the heroes and villains can be distinguished with the briefest of glances. In the remarkable worlds she has created, and continues to create in her readers’ imaginations to this day, you find, rather, a reflection of reality where the most intense human pride burns no brighter in the hearts of her villains than in her heroines.
Take for instance her most famous of villains, the charmingly deceitful Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. In his case the reader’s later revulsion is made all the more potent by how delightful he is found by nearly all who encounter him. He is introduced to the reader and the characters in the most glowing of terms.
The officers of __shire were in general a very creditable, gentlemanlike set, and the best of them were at the present party; but Mr. Wickham was as far above them in person, countenance, air, and walk, as they were superior to the broad-faced, stuffy, uncle Philips, breathing port wine, who followed them into the room.
The narrator then notes that even for Elizabeth Bennet, she of the quick and perceptive mind, the dullest of topics flowing from his mouth, “might be rendered interesting by the skill of the speaker.”
Yet this impression of gallantry could only be maintained so long as no one looked too closely at his words and actions. Once those with more than a moment’s experience with the man came onto the scene, this archon of gentlemanly grace began to lose his luster. Instead of being what he crafted for everyone to believe, Wickham was willfully wicked. He never showed any shame for the way that he acted toward a whole host of young women, or to those men, like Darcy, who stood in his way. In one of the very last comments on him in the book, his only concern is that Elizabeth would now know the full extent of his sins, and his only hope is that Darcy might somehow decide to support his wastrel lifestyle.
Moving on to Sense and Sensibility, we meet Wickham’s alter ego, Willoughby. The two are so much the same that a friend once noted that Jane Austen novels have a clump of sisters, of above average means, who meet a series of men. Inevitably the ladies find one to be good who is, in fact, quite bad and the other to be bad, who is actually good. Austen gives this knight in shining armor the same sort of stellar description as she did at first with Wickham. “Willoughby was a young man of good abilities, quick imagination, lively spirits, and open, affectionate manners.” And as with Wickham, his true nature is relatively unknown beyond the barest of shimmers. When Marianne Dashwood seeks to know what kind of man is he who has so enthralled her, she gets a disappointing response. “Sir John was rather puzzled. ‘Upon my soul,’ said he, ‘I do not know much about him as to all that. But he is a pleasant good humored fellow and has got the nicest little black bitch of a pointer I ever saw.’”
The people in Willoughby’s life are there for his pleasure or advancement, and, once they’ve exhausted their usefulness, he casts them aside without warning or care. Colonel Barton is mocked and Marianne is wooed, but Willoughby moves on to greener pastures once the way is clear without the slightest concern for those in his wake. In fact his only worry relates back to himself. Towards the end of the book, he comes to Elinor, Marianne’s sister, to ‘confess’ his faults, yet is more a confession of his own needs and desires than a true mea culpa. He begins so well, with all sorts of explanations of what his motives have been, that even Elinor’s heart begins to softened toward him, but his true motive becomes clear as he spouts off more first-person pronouns than a campaigning politician.
My business was to declare myself a scoundrel, and whether I did it with a bow or a bluster was of little importance. “I am ruined forever in their opinion,” said I to myself. “I am shut out forever from their society; they already think me an unprincipled fellow; this letter will only make them think me a blackguard one.” (emphasis added)
A supposed admission of guilt turns out only to be a further attempt at self-advancement. His greatest concern for the havoc he has wrought is that his victims will now think poorly of him.
There are few among Austen’s creations whom readers so love to hate as the most eminent Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. She ranks so high in our memories if for no other reason than we all love to see such high pretension receive its due comeuppance. In her first encounter with Elizabeth, the Lady received what should have been a premonition of things to come when, after being asked a question, Elizabeth gave an evasive reply. “Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspected herself to be the first creature who ever dared to trifle with such dignified impertinence.”
In Lady Catherine’s mind there simply are ways that things are supposed to go, and these ways just so happen to coincide with the shape of her own will. She is the Lady Catherine De Bourgh and everyone else is . . . well, not. People exist for her pleasure, and it only makes sense that their greatest joy would be to be with her. “Lady Catherine observed after dinner that Miss Bennet seemed out of spirits, and immediately accounting for it herself by supposing that she did not like to home again so soon.” It does not occur to her Ladyship that there are things that do not concern her in the slightest.
When the time finally comes for her to pronounce judgment upon the defiant Elizabeth at the Bennet home, Lady Catherine’s immense and gracious mind simply cannot fathom that anyone could oppose her. “I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose; nor will I be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to anyone’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment.” To which Elizabeth oh-so pleasantly replies, “That will make your ladyship’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.” Selfishness can have such a blinding effect upon a soul that simple comprehension slips from the realm of possibility.
While the noble Lady Catherine is truly hateful, Emma’s Mrs. Elton is merely annoying. It may seem strange that I wish to strangle a fictional character, but for most people doing such to Mrs. Elton is probably understandable. There is nothing in the world that she does not see herself as the proper person to judge full value. There is no one who can have an opinion that she cannot question with a smug smile. “Such as Mrs. Elton appeared to her on this second interview, such she appeared whenever they met again: self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill bred.”
She is constantly trying to control the behavior of Jane Fairfax with the calm assurance that she alone is wise enough to chart the young woman’s course. She cannot take a compliment on its own terms but must, instead, make a pretense at humility which denies her own claims to greatness while shining light on others who have lifted her up so. She cannot let another’s glory go unchallenged. Whenever anyone else’s property is brought up in discussion, there comes the inevitable comparison to those of her acquaintance she deems superior.
Mrs. Elton has vicarious pride in the accomplishments of other people that is actually very sad. It is tragic because there is a beautiful kind of joy that one person can have in another’s glory as well as a way to parry praise away in genuine humility. But her attitude is not one of love of another for the sake of the other, or of sincerely avoiding the limelight. Rather, this is one of commandeering another’s glory to raise herself higher and of backwards self-adulation made all them more heinous by its hypocritical mask.
As deliciously repellent as these and others of Austen’s rouge’s gallery might be, it is in her heroines that her most interesting presentations of human sin comes forth. Had she been what so many think her to have been, a woman who shied away from the ugliness of life and kept to the polite society of imagined parties, her characters would have been neither so memorable nor so believable. It is one thing to enjoy a book and to leave it wishing that the story could go on longer. Many authors accomplish this without touching greatness. What Austen does is to create characters that are not merely enjoyable but almost touchable. It is not that her writing is so vivid that you feel as though you’ve met them on the pages of her books but rather that you have met them on the streets of your life. She fills her characters with the same wonders and warts that you see in your everyday life. Had Austen chosen to keep sin far from their doors, then the Marianne’s, Emma’s, and Elizabeth’s of her world would far more polite but also far less tangible.
It could be argued that Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility is not properly the heroine and that that honor should go to her sister Elinor. While it may be true that Elinor takes center stage of the novel, it must be remembered that if any of us had actually been there it is unlikely that Marianne could have been overlooked by anyone. Her zest for life is such that, like a summer storm, you could wish her gone, but you could never pretend she wasn’t there.
She is one who never does anything by half-measures, and, as such, she comes to conclusions far too rapidly. When chided for thinking she knew Willoughby after short time, she responded, “I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama. It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; it is disposition alone.” This high view of her own perception leads her to think she knows all there is to know about others around her. This condescension pulls her towards joining Willoughby as he cruelly eviscerates the character of Colonel Barton and others. In her pride she does not question whether her first impression is the right one.
Such arrogance could land her with either the likes of Elizabeth Bennet’s sister, in her impetuousness or even Mrs. Elton in her self-importance were it not for her good qualities. She genuinely loves her mother and sister, and she is not so self-absorbed that the impact of her actions on others is kept from her mind. In great contrast to those two characters, she is willing and able to learn from her mistakes. When Elinor rebukes her, she might not listen right away, but she does listen and takes it to heart in time.
Emma is a character that Jane Austen said nobody would like but her. I don’t know about that. She has been my favorite heroine of all these novels. Perhaps it is her sunny disposition that keeps her from being what she loathes the most, a Mrs. Elton with better tact. But in contrast with that great lady, there is far smaller a gap between what she thinks of herself and what she is. She actually has the discrimination and ability that her rival only plays at.
However, Emma also suffers from the myopic effects of pride. Some of this is not her fault. Nearly all the people in her life are absolutely devoted to her. Besides, Knightly, the only person who dares offer a challenge, happens to be in love with her, a fact which does not make for objective criticism. Also, in contrast to most Austen heroines, Emma does not have a care in the world. She stands at the peak of her social world and has no material concerns whatsoever.
She is spoiled to the core. Her high intelligence and unfettered existence lead her to think that if she thinks a thing it must then be so. Her insight deceives her to think she knows how Harriet and Mr. Elton could get together. Her lack of any real life experience leads her to think that she must be in love with Frank Churchill. Yet when she is faced with the effect of her failings upon the lives of others, she chooses another way. She has sympathy with those she has pained and works not only to console them but to change her own character to love them better. She has a healthy introspection that leads to repentance and not merely to self-pity.
Elizabeth Bennet’s flaws are actually quite well known. After all none of the other heroines has her particular failing emblazoned in the title. As with those before her, it is her all too high self-view that leads her to make her most serious mistakes. Some of these flaws are relatively small. Following the lead of her father she is constantly demeaning to her mother. As bad as this truly is, her mother is so self-obsessed that she never even notices.
She does have more traumatic sins as well. She has such confidence in her own powers of observation that she doesn’t question her initial impression until it is far too late.
At length Darcy spoke, and in a constrained manner said, “Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends—whether he may be equally capable of retaining them is less certain.”
“He has been so unlucky as to lose your friendship,” replied Elizabeth with emphasis, “and in a manner which he is likely to suffer from all his life.”
The pain she inflicts through these words would be no less caustic in effect had they come from one of Austen’s true villains.
In this way the very sensible Elizabeth shows far less sense than the tempestuous Marianne in that while the latter recovers from her mistakes with relatively soon, it takes Elizabeth the bulk of the book to overcome her initial preconception. She does learn, and she is mostly to found on the side of right, but this does not shield her from making many more mistakes born of an unduly high appreciation of her own wisdom. In reaction to her failures, Elizabeth turns in repentance. She confesses her errors and works to ameliorate the harm she has done. There is no pretension that she has no flaws or any attempt to say that they are not her own responsibility.
The difference between Austen’s heroines and their evil twins is not that some were good while others were bad. They both have the very same intense pride and self-satisfaction. Marianne’s passion for life could have easily devolved into Wickham’s view of others as there merely for one’s own enjoyment. The young Emma’s elitist arrogance could have grown into a latter day Lady Catherine. Elizabeth’s critical nature could have morphed into another snide Mrs. Elton. What kept the former from becoming the latter in each case was not the presence of sin in their lives but rather the willingness to repent in humility or insistence of innocence.
What is true in the fancies of great literature is true in the tumults of real life. Despite our many pretensions to the contrary, this genteel lady of long ago saw human failings with greater clarity than our own “sophisticated” age allows us even to glimpse. She saw that pride blinds the one it possesses. There are few so searing to good company as those who see no cause to fear a failing of their own. It is only when we that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory that true goodness can be found. When the tax collector in Christ’s story went from prayer absolved of his sins while the Pharisee left yet condemned, it was hardly that the “sinner” had less to be sorry for than his “religious” compatriot. The Bride of Christ was then and is now made of tax collectors and Pharisees alike. We all have the same pride in our souls, and the pathway out follows the same road of repentance.
Copyright © 2012 Timothy Padgett
A version of this article was given as a talk at Kaldi’s Coffeehouse (Kirkwood, MO) sponsored by the Francis Schaeffer Institute of Covenant Theological Seminary in January 2007.