illustrated portrait of English novelist Jane Austen

Jane Austen

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8388


SOURCE: Trilling, Lionel. "Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen." In Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning, pp. 28-49. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965.

In the following essay, Trilling argues that Emma is the greatest of Austen's novels.


It is possible to say of Jane Austen, as perhaps we can say of no other writer, that the opinions which are held of her work are almost as interesting, and almost as important to think about, as the work itself. This statement, even with the qualifying "almost," ought to be, on its face, an illegitimate one. We all know that the reader should come to the writer with no preconceptions, taking no account of any previous opinion. But this, of course, he cannot do. Every established writer exists in the aura of his legend—the accumulated opinion that we cannot help being aware of, the image of his personality that has been derived, correctly or incorrectly, from what he has written. In the case of Jane Austen, the legend is of an unusually compelling kind. Her very name is a charged one. The homely quaintness of the Christian name, the cool elegance of the surname, seem inevitably to force upon us the awareness of her sex, her celibacy, and her social class. "Charlotte Brontë" rumbles like thunder and drowns out any such special considerations. But "Jane Austen" can by now scarcely fail to imply femininity, and, at that, femininity of a particular kind and in a particular social setting. It dismays many new readers that certain of her admirers call her Jane, others Miss Austen. Either appellation suggests an unusual, and questionable, relation with this writer, a relation that does not consort with the literary emotions we respect. The new reader perceives from the first that he is not to be permitted to proceed in simple literary innocence. Jane Austen is to be for him not only a writer but an issue. There are those who love her; there are those—no doubt they are fewer but they are no less passionate—who detest her; and the new reader understands that he is being solicited to a fierce partisanship, that he is required to make no mere literary judgment but a decision about his own character and personality, and about his relation to society and all of life.

And indeed the nature of the partisanship is most intensely personal and social. The matter at issue is: What kind of people like Jane Austen? What kind of people dislike her? Sooner or later the characterization is made or implied by one side or the other, and with extreme invidiousness. It was inevitable that there should arise a third body of opinion, which holds that it is not Jane Austen herself who is to be held responsible for the faults that are attributed to her by her detractors, but rather the people who admire her for the wrong reasons and in the wrong language and thus create a false image of her. As far back as 1905 Henry James was repelled by what a more recent critic, Professor Marvin Mudrick, calls "gentle-Janeism" and he spoke of it with great acerbity. James admired Jane Austen; his artistic affinity with her is clear, and he may be thought to have shared her social preferences and preoccupations. Yet James could say of her reputation that it had risen higher than her intrinsic interest warranted: the responsibility for this, he said, lay with "the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of magazines, which have found their 'dear,' our dear, everybody's dear Jane...

(This entire section contains 8388 words.)

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so infinitely to their material purpose."1 In our own day, Dr. Leavis's admiration for Jane Austen is matched in intensity by his impatience with her admirers. Mr. D. W. Harding in a well-known essay2 has told us how the accepted form of admiration of Jane Austen kept him for a long time from reading her novels, and how he was able to be at ease with them only when he discovered that they were charged with scorn of the very people who set the common tone of admiration. And Professor Mudrick, in the preface to his book on Jane Austen,3 speaks of the bulk of the criticism of her work as being "a mere mass of cozy family adulation, self-glorif[ication] … and nostalgic latterday enshrinements of the gentle-hearted chronicler of Regency order." It is the intention of Professor Mudrick's book to rescue Jane Austen from coziness and nostalgia by representing her as a writer who may be admired for her literary achievement, but who is not to be loved, and of whom it is to be said that certain deficiencies of temperament account for certain deficiencies of her literary practice.

The impatience with the common admiring view of Jane Austen is not hard to understand and sympathize with, the less so because (as Mr. Harding and Professor Mudrick say) admiration seems to stimulate self-congratulation in those who give it, and to carry a reproof of the deficient sensitivity, reasonableness, and even courtesy, of those who withhold their praise. One may refuse to like almost any author and incur no other blame from his admirers than that of being wanting in taste in that one respect. But not to like Jane Austen is to put oneself under suspicion of a general personal inadequacy and even—let us face it—of a want of breeding.

This is absurd and distasteful. And yet we cannot deal with this unusual—this extravagantly personal—response to a writer simply in the way of condemnation. No doubt every myth of a literary person obscures something of the truth. But it may also express some part of the truth as well. If Jane Austen is carried outside the proper confines of literature, if she has been loved in a fashion that some temperaments must find objectionable and that a strict criticism must call illicit, the reason is perhaps to be found not only in the human weakness of her admirers, in their impulse to self-flattery, or in whatever other fault produces their deplorable tone. Perhaps a reason is also to be found in the work itself, in some unusual promise that it seems to make, in some hope that it holds out.


Of Jane Austen's six great novels Emma is surely the one that is most fully representative of its author. Pride and Prejudice is of course more popular. It is the one novel in the canon that "everybody" reads, the one that is most often reprinted. Pride and Prejudice deserves its popularity, but it is not a mere snobbery, an affected aversion from the general suffrage, that makes thoughtful readers of Jane Austen judge Emma to be the greater book—not the more delightful but the greater. It cannot boast the brilliant, unimpeded energy of Pride and Prejudice, but that is because the energy which it does indeed have is committed to dealing with a more resistant matter. In this it is characteristic of all three novels of Jane Austen's mature period, of which it is the second. Persuasion, the third and last, has a charm that is traditionally, and accurately, called "autumnal," and it is beyond question a beautiful book. But Persuasion, which was published posthumously and which may not have been revised to meet the author's full intention, does not have the richness and substantiality of Emma. As for Mansfield Park, the first work of the mature period, it quite matches Emma in point of substantiality, but it makes a special and disturbing case. Greatly admired in its own day—far more than EmmaMansfield Park is now disliked by many readers who like everything else that Jane Austen wrote. They are repelled by its heroine and by all that she seems to imply of the author's moral and religious preferences at this moment of her life, for Fanny Price consciously devotes herself to virtue and piety, which she achieves by a willing submissiveness that goes against the modern grain. What is more, the author seems to be speaking out against wit and spiritedness (while not abating her ability to represent these qualities), and virtually in praise of dullness and acquiescence, and thus to be condemning her own peculiar talents. Mansfield Park is an extraordinary novel, and only Jane Austen could have achieved its profound and curious interest, but its moral tone is antipathetic to contemporary taste, and no essay I have ever written has met with so much resistance as the one in which I tried to say that it was not really a perverse and wicked book. But Emma, as richly complex as Mansfield Park, arouses no such antagonism, and the opinion that holds it to be the greatest of all Jane Austen's novels is, I believe, correct.

Professor Mudrick says that everyone has misunderstood Emma, and he may well be right, for Emma is a very difficult novel. We in our time are used to difficult books and like them. But Emma is more difficult than any of the hard books we admire. The difficulty of Proust arises from the sheer amount and complexity of his thought, the difficulty of Joyce from the brilliantly contrived devices of representation, the difficulty of Kafka from a combination of doctrine and mode of communication. With all, the difficulty is largely literal; it lessens in the degree that we attend closely to what the books say; after each sympathetic reading we are the less puzzled. But the difficulty of Emma is never overcome. We never know where to have it. If we finish it at night and think we know what it is up to, we wake the next morning to believe it is up to something quite else; it has become a different book. Reginald Farrer speaks at length of the difficulty of Emma and then goes on to compare its effect with that of Pride and Prejudice. "While twelve readings of Pride and Prejudice give you twelve periods of pleasure repeated, as many readings of Emma give you that pleasure, not repeated only, but squared and squared again with each perusal, till at every fresh reading you feel anew that you never understood anything like the widening sum of its delights."4 This is so, and for the reason that none of the twelve readings permits us to flatter ourselves that we have fully understood what the novel is doing. The effect is extraordinary, perhaps unique. The book is like a person—not to be comprehended fully and finally by any other person. It is perhaps to the point that it is the only one of Jane Austen's novels that has for its title a person's name.

For most people who recognize the difficulty of the book, the trouble begins with Emma herself. Jane Austen was surely aware of what a complexity she was creating in Emma, and no doubt that is why she spoke of her as "a heroine whom no one will like except myself." Yet this puts it in a minimal way—the question of whether we will like or not like Emma does not encompass the actuality of the challenge her character offers. John Henry Newman stated the matter more accurately, and very charmingly, in a letter of 1837. He says that Emma is the most interesting of Jane Austen's heroines, and that he likes her. But what is striking in his remark is this sentence: "I feel kind to her whenever I think of her." This does indeed suggest the real question about Emma, whether or not we will find it in our hearts to be kind to her.

Inevitably we are attracted to her, we are drawn by her energy and style, and by the intelligence they generate. Here are some samples of her characteristic tone:

"Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public!"

Emma was sorry; to have to pay civilities to a person she did not like through three long months!—to be always doing more than she wished and less than she ought!

"I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly."

"Oh! I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other.…"

[On an occasion when Mr. Knightley comes to a dinner party in his carriage, as Emma thinks he should, and not on foot:] "… There is always a look of consciousness or bustle when people come in a way which they know to be beneath them. You think you carry it off very well, I dare say, but with you it is a sort of bravado, an air of affected unconcern; I always observe it whenever I meet you under these circumstances. Now you have nothing to try for. You are not afraid of being supposed ashamed. You are not striving to look taller than any body else. Now I shall really be happy to walk into the same room with you."

We cannot be slow to see what is the basis of this energy and style and intelligence. It is self-love. There is a great power of charm in self-love, although, to be sure, the charm is an ambiguous one. We resent it and resist it, yet we are drawn by it, if only it goes with a little grace or creative power. Nothing is easier to pardon than the mistakes and excesses of self-love: if we are quick to condemn them, we take pleasure in forgiving them. And with good reason, for they are the extravagance of the first of virtues, the most basic and biological of the virtues, that of self-preservation.

But we distinguish between our response to the self-love of men and the self-love of women. No woman could have won the forgiveness that has been so willingly given (after due condemnation) to the self-regard of, say, Yeats and Shaw. We understand self-love to be part of the moral life of all men; in men of genius we expect it to appear in unusual intensity and we take it to be an essential element of their power. The extraordinary thing about Emma is that she has a moral life as a man has a moral life. And she doesn't have it as a special instance, as an example of a new kind of woman, which is the way George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke has her moral life, but quite as a matter of course, as a given quality of her nature.

And perhaps that is what Jane Austen meant when she said that no one would like her heroine—and what Newman meant when he said that he felt kind to Emma whenever he thought of her. She needs kindness if she is to be accepted in all her exceptional actuality. Women in fiction only rarely have the peculiar reality of the moral life that self-love bestows. Most commonly they exist in a moonlike way, shining by the reflected moral light of men. They are "convincing" or "real" and sometimes "delightful," but they seldom exist as men exist—as genuine moral destinies. We do not take note of this; we are so used to the reflected quality that we do not observe it. It is only on the rare occasions when a female character like Emma confronts us that the difference makes us aware of the usual practice. Nor can we say that novels are deficient in realism when they present women as they do: it is the presumption of our society that women's moral life is not as men's. No change in the modern theory of the sexes, no advance in status that women have made, has yet contradicted this. The self-love that we do countenance in women is of a limited and passive kind, and we are troubled if it is as assertive as the self-love of men is permitted, and expected, to be. Not men alone, but women as well, insist on this limitation, imposing the requirement the more effectually because they are not conscious of it.

But there is Emma, given over to self-love, wholly aware of it and quite cherishing it. Mr. Knightley rebukes her for heedless conduct and says, "I leave you to your own reflections." And Emma wonderfully replies: "Can you trust me with such flatterers? Does my vain spirit ever tell me I am wrong?" She is 'Emma, never loth to be first," loving pre-eminence and praise, loving power and frank to say so.

Inevitably we are drawn to Emma. But inevitably we hold her to be deeply at fault. Her self-love leads her to be a self-deceiver. She can be unkind. She is a dreadful snob.

Her snobbery is of the first importance in her character, and it is of a special sort. The worst instance of it is very carefully chosen to put her thoroughly in the wrong. We are on her side when she mocks Mrs. Elton's vulgarity, even though we feel that so young a woman (Emma is twenty) ought not set so much store by manners and tone—Mrs. Elton, with her everlasting barouchelandau and her "caro sposo" and her talk of her spiritual "resources," is herself a snob in the old sense of the word, which meant a vulgar person aspiring to an inappropriate social standing. But when Emma presumes to look down on the young farmer, Robert Martin, and undertakes to keep little Harriet Smith from marrying him, she makes a truly serious mistake, a mistake of nothing less than national import.

Here it is to be observed that Emma is a novel that is touched—lightly but indubitably—by national feeling. Perhaps this is the result of the Prince Regent's having expressed his admiration for Mansfield Park and his willingness to have the author dedicate her next book to him: it is a circumstance which allows us to suppose that Jane Austen thought of herself, at this point in her career, as having, by reason of the success of her art, a relation to the national ethic. At any rate, there appears in Emma a tendency to conceive of a specifically English ideal of life. Knightley speaks of Frank Churchill as falling short of the demands of this ideal: "No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English. He may be very 'aimable,' have very good manners, and be very agreeable; but he can have no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people: nothing really amiable about him." Again, in a curiously impressive moment in the book, we are given a detailed description of the countryside as seen by the party at Donwell Abbey, and this comment follows: "It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture [agriculture, of course, is meant], English comfort, seen under a sun bright without being oppressive." This is a larger consideration than the occasion would appear to require; there seems no reason to expect this vision of "England's green and pleasant land." Or none until we note that the description of the view closes thus: "… and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it." Abbey-Mill Farm is the property of young Robert Martin, for whom Emma has expressed a principled social contempt, and the little burst of strong feeling has the effect, among others, of pointing up the extremity of Emma's mistake.

It is often said, sometimes by way of reproach, that Jane Austen took no account in her novels of the great political events of her lifetime, nor of the great social changes that were going on in England. "… In Jane Austen's novels," says Arnold Hauser in his Social History of Art, "social reality was the soil in which characters were rooted but in no sense a problem which the novelist made any attempt to solve or interpret." The statement, true in some degree, goes too far. There is in some sense an interpretation of social problems in Jane Austen's contrivance of the situation of Emma and Robert Martin. The yeoman class had always held a strong position in English class feeling, and, at this time especially, only stupid or ignorant people felt privileged to look down upon it. Mr. Knightley, whose social position is one of the certainties of the book, as is his freedom from any trace of snobbery, speaks of young Martin, who is his friend, as a "gentleman farmer," and it is clear that he is on his way to being a gentleman pure and simple. And nothing was of greater importance to the English system at the time of the French Revolution that the relatively easy recruitment to the class of gentlemen. It made England unique among European nations. Here is Tocqueville's view of the matter as set forth in the course of his explanation of why England was not susceptible to revolution as France was:

It was not merely parliamentary government, freedom of speech, and the jury system that made England so different from the rest of contemporary Europe. There was something still more distinctive and more far-reaching in its effects. England was the only country in which the caste system had been totally abolished, not merely modified. Nobility and commoners joined forces in business enterprises, entered the same professions, and—what is still more significant—intermarried. The daughter of the greatest lord in the land could marry a "new" man without the least compunction.…

Though this curious revolution (for such in fact it was) is hidden in the mists of time, we can detect traces of it in the English language. For several centuries the word "gentleman" has had in England a quite different application from what it had when it originated.… A study of the connection between the history of language and history proper would certainly be revealing. Thus if we follow the mutation in time and place of the English word "gentleman" (a derivative of our gentilhomme), we find its connotation being steadily widened in England as the classes draw nearer to each other and intermingle. In each successive century we find it being applied to men a little lower in the social scale. Next, with the English, it crosses to America. And now in America, it is applicable to all male citizens, indiscriminately. Thus its history is the history of democracy itself.5

Emma's snobbery, then, is nothing less than a contravention of the best—and safest—tendency of English social life. And to make matters worse, it is a principled snobbery. "A young farmer … is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel that I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it." This is carefully contrived by the author to seem as dreadful as possible; it quite staggers us, and some readers will even feel that the author goes too far in permitting Emma to make this speech.

Snobbery is the grossest fault that arises from Emma's self-love, but it is not the only fault. We must also take account of her capacity for unkindness. This can be impulsive and brutal, as in the witticism directed to Miss Bates at the picnic, which makes one of the most memorable scenes in the whole range of English fiction; or extended and systematic, as in her conspiracy with Frank Churchill to quiz Jane Fairfax. Then we know her to be a gossip, at least when she is tempted by Frank Churchill. She finds pleasure in dominating and has no compunctions about taking over the rule of Harriet Smith's life. She has been accused, on the ground of her own estimate of herself, of a want of tenderness, and she has even been said to be without sexual responsiveness.

Why, then, should anyone be kind to Emma? There are several reasons, of which one is that we come into an unusual intimacy with her. We see her in all the elaborateness of her mistakes, in all the details of her wrong conduct. The narrative technique of the novel brings us very close to her and makes us aware of each misstep she will make. The relation that develops between ourselves and her becomes a strange one—it is the relation that exists between our ideal self and our ordinary fallible self. We become Emma's helpless conscience, her unavailing guide. Her fault is the classic one of hubris, excessive pride, and it yields the classic result of blindness, of an inability to interpret experience to the end of perceiving reality, and we are aware of each false step, each wrong conclusion, that she will make. Our hand goes out to hold her back and set her straight, and we are distressed that it cannot reach her.

There is an intimacy anterior to this. We come close to Emma because, in a strange way, she permits us to—even invites us to—by being close to herself. When we have said that her fault is hubris or self-love, we must make an immediate modification, for her self-love, though it involves her in self-deception, does not lead her to the ultimate self-deception—she believes she is clever, she insists she is right, but she never says she is good. A consciousness is always at work in her, a sense of what she ought to be and do. It is not an infallible sense, anything but that, yet she does not need us, or the author, or Mr. Knightley, to tell her, for example, that she is jealous of Jane Fairfax and acts badly to her; indeed, "she never saw [Jane Fairfax] without feeling that she had injured her." She is never offended—she never takes the high self-defensive line—when once her bad conduct is made apparent to her. Her sense of her superiority leads her to the "insufferable vanity" of believing "herself in the secret of every-body's feelings" and to the "unpardonable arrogance" of "proposing to arrange everybody's destiny," yet it is an innocent vanity and an innocent arrogance which, when frustrated and exposed, do not make her bitter but only ashamed. That is why, bad as her behavior may be, we are willing to be implicated in it. It has been thought that in the portrait of Emma there is "an air of confession," that Jane Austen was taking account of "something offensive" that she and others had observed in her own earlier manner and conduct, and whether or not this is so, it suggests the quality of intimacy which the author contrives that we shall feel with the heroine.

Then, when we try to explain our feeling of kindness to Emma, we ought to remember that many of her wrong judgments and actions are directed to a very engaging end, a very right purpose. She believes in her own distinction and vividness and she wants all around her to be distinguished and vivid. It is indeed unpardonable arrogance, as she comes to see, that she should undertake to arrange Harriet Smith's destiny, that she plans to "form" Harriet, making her, as it were, the mere material or stuff of a creative act. Yet the destiny is not meanly conceived, the act is meant to be truly creative—she wants Harriet to be a distinguished and not a commonplace person, she wants nothing to be commonplace, she requires of life that it be well shaped and impressive, and alive. It is out of her insistence that the members of the picnic shall cease being dull and begin to be witty that there comes her famous insult to Miss Bates. Her requirement that life be vivid is too often expressed in terms of social deportment—she sometimes talks like a governess or a dowager—but it is, in its essence, a poet's demand.

She herself says that she lacks tenderness, although she makes the self-accusation in her odd belief that Harriet possesses this quality; Harriet is soft and "feminine," but she is not tender. Professor Mudrick associates the deficiency with Emma's being not susceptible to men. This is perhaps so; but if it is, there may be found in her apparent sexual coolness something that is impressive and right. She makes great play about the feelings and about the fineness of the feelings that one ought to have; she sets great store by literature (although she does not read the books she prescribes for herself) and makes it a condemnation of Robert Martin that he does not read novels. Yet although, like Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, her mind is shaped and deceived by fiction, she is remarkable for the actuality and truth of her sexual feelings. Inevitably she expects that Frank Churchill will fall in love with her and she with him, but others are more deceived in the outcome of this expectation than she is—it takes but little time for her to see that she does not really respond to Churchill, that her feeling for him is no more than the lively notice that an attractive and vivacious girl takes of an attractive and vivacious young man. Sentimental sexuality is not part of her nature, however much she feels it ought to be part of Harriet Smith's nature. When the right time comes, she chooses her husband wisely and seriously and eagerly.

There is, then, sufficient reason to be kind to Emma, and perhaps for nothing so much as the hope she expresses when she begins to understand her mistakes, that she will become "more acquainted with herself." And, indeed, all through the novel she has sought better acquaintance with herself, not wisely, not adequately, but assiduously. How modern a quest it is, and how thoroughy it confirms Dr. Leavis's judgment that Jane Austen is the first truly modern novelist of England. "In art," a critic has said, "the decision to be revolutionary usually counts for very little. The most radical changes have come from personalities who were conservative and even conventional …"6 Jane Austen, conservative and even conventional as she was, perceived the nature of the deep psychological change which accompanied the establishment of democratic society—she was aware of the increase of the psychological burden of the individual, she understood the new necessity of conscious self-definition and self-criticism, the need to make private judgments of reality.7 And there is no reality about which the modern person is more uncertain and more anxious than the reality of himself.


But the character of Emma is not the only reason for the difficulty of the novel. We must also take into account the particular genre to which the novel in some degree belongs—the pastoral idyll. It is an archaic genre which has the effect of emphasizing by contrast the brilliant modernity of Emma, and its nature may be understood through the characters of Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates.

These two people proved a stumbling-block to one of Jane Austen's most distinguished and devoted admirers, Sir Walter Scott. In his review of Emma in The Quarterly Review, Scott said that "characters of folly and simplicity, such as old Woodhouse and Miss Bates" are "apt to become tiresome in fiction as in real society." But Scott is wrong. Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates are remarkably interesting, even though they have been created on a system of character portrayal that is no longer supposed to have validity—they exist by reason of a single trait which they display whenever they appear. Miss Bates is possessed of continuous speech and of a perfectly free association of ideas which is quite beyond her control; once launched into utterance, it is impossible for her to stop. Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's father, has no other purpose in life than to preserve his health and equanimity, and no other subject of conversation than the means of doing so. The commonest circumstances of life present themselves to him as dangerous—to walk or to drive is to incur unwarrantable risk, to eat an egg not coddled in the prescribed way is to invite misery; nothing must ever change in his familial situation; he is appalled by the propensity of young people to marry, and to marry strangers at that.

Of the two "characters of folly and simplicity," Mr. Woodhouse is the more remarkable because he so entirely, so extravagantly, embodies a principle—of perfect stasis, of entire inertia. Almost in the degree that Jane Austen was interested in the ideal of personal energy, she was amused and attracted by persons capable of extreme inertness. She does not judge them harshly, as we incline to do—we who scarcely recall how important a part in Christian feeling the dream of rest once had. Mr. Woodhouse is a more extreme representation of inertness than Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park. To say that he represents a denial of life would not be correct. Indeed, by his fear and his movelessness, he affirms life and announces his naked unadorned wish to avoid death and harm. To life, to mere life, he sacrifices almost everything.

But if Mr. Woodhouse has a more speculative interest than Miss Bates, there is not much to choose between their achieved actuality as fictional characters. They are, as I have said, created on a system of character portrayal that we regard as primitive, but the reality of existence which fictional characters may claim does not depend only upon what they do, but also upon what others do to or about them, upon the way they are regarded and responded to. And in the community of Highbury, Miss Bates and Mr. Wood-house are sacred. They are fools, to be sure, as everyone knows. But they are fools of a special and transcendent kind. They are innocents—of such is the kingdom of heaven. They are children, who have learned nothing of the guile of the world. And their mode of existence is the key to the nature of the world of Highbury, which is the world of the pastoral idyll. London is but sixteen miles away—Frank Churchill can ride there and back for a haircut—but the proximity of the life of London serves but to emphasize the spiritual geography of Highbury. The weather plays a great part in Emma; in no other novel of Jane Austen's is the succession of the seasons, and cold and heat, of such consequence, as if to make the point which the pastoral idyll characteristically makes, that the only hardships that man ought to have to endure are meteorological. In the Forest of Arden we suffer only "the penalty of Adam, / The seasons' difference," and Amiens' song echoes the Duke's words:

Here shall he see No enemy But winter and rough weather.

Some explicit thought of the pastoral idyll is in Jane Austen's mind, and with all the ambivalence that marks the attitude of As You Like It toward the dream of man's life in nature and simplicity. Mrs. Elton wants to make the strawberry party at Donwell Abbey into a fête champêtre: "It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here,—probably this basket with pink ribbon. Nothing can be more simple, you see. And Jane will have such another. There is to be no form or parade—a sort of gipsy party.—We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees;—and whatever else you may like to provide, it is to be all out of doors—a table spread in the shade, you know. Every thing as natural and simple as possible. Is not that your idea?" To which Knightley replies: "Not quite. My idea of the simple and natural will be to have the table spread in the dining-room. The nature and the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants and furniture, I think is best observed by meals within doors. When you are tired of eating strawberries in the garden, there will be cold meat in the house."

That the pastoral idyll should be mocked as a sentimentality by its association with Mrs. Elton, whose vulgarity in large part consists in flaunting the cheapened version of high and delicate ideals, and that Knightley should answer her as he does—this is quite in accordance with our expectation of Jane Austen's judgment. Yet it is only a few pages later that the members of the party walk out to see the view and we get that curious passage about the sweetness of the view, "sweet to the eye and to the mind." And we cannot help feeling that "English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright without being oppressive" make an England seen—if but for the moment—as an idyll.

The idyll is not a genre which nowadays we are likely to understand. Or at least not in fiction, the art which we believe must always address itself to actuality. The imagination of felicity is difficult for us to exercise. We feel that it is a betrayal of our awareness of our world of pain, that it is politically inappropriate. And yet one considerable critic of literature thought otherwise. Schiller is not exactly of our time, yet he is remarkably close to us in many ways and he inhabited a world scarcely less painful than ours, and he thought that the genre of the idyll had an important bearing upon social and political ideas. As Schiller defines it, the idyll is the literary genre that "presents the idea and description of an innocent and happy humanity."8 This implies remoteness from the "artificial refinements of fashionable society"; and to achieve this remoteness poets have commonly set their idylls in actually pastoral surroundings and in the infancy of humanity. But the limitation is merely accidental—these circumstances "do not form the object of the idyll, but are only to be regarded as the most natural means to attain this end. The end is essentially to portray man in a state of innocence, which means a state of harmony and peace with himself and the external world." And Schiller goes on to assert the political importance of the genre: "A state such as this is not merely met with before the dawn of civilization; it is also the state to which civilization aspires, as to its last end, if only it obeys a determined tendency in its progress. The idea of a similar state, and the belief in the possible reality of this state, is the only thing that can reconcile man with all the evils to which he is exposed in the path of civilization.…"

It is the poet's function—Schiller makes it virtually the poet's political duty—to represent the idea of innocence in a "sensuous" way, that is, to make it seem real. This he does by gathering up the elements of actual life that do partake of innocence, and that the predominant pain of life leads us to forget, and forming them into a coherent representation of the ideal.9

But the idyll as traditionally conceived has an aesthetic deficiency of which Schiller is quite aware. Works in this genre, he says, appeal to the heart but not to the mind. "… We can only seek them and love them in moments in which we need calm, and not when our faculties aspire after movement and exercise. A morbid mind will find its cure in them, a sound soul will not find its food in them. They cannot vivify, they can only soften." For the idyll excludes the idea of activity, which alone can satisfy the mind—or at least the idyll as it has been traditionally conceived makes this exclusion, but Schiller goes on to imagine a transmutation of the genre in which the characteristic calm of the idyll shall be "the calm that follows accomplishment, not the calm of indolence—the calm that comes from the equilibrium reestablished between the faculties and not from the suspending of their exercise.…"

It is strange that Schiller, as he projects this new and as yet unrealized idea, does not recur to what he has previously said about comedy. To the soul of the writer of tragedy he assigns the adjective "sublime," which for him implies reaching greatness by intense effort and strength of will; to the soul of the writer of comedy he assigns the adjective "beautiful," which implies the achievement of freedom by an activity which is easy and natural. "The noble task of comedy," he says, "is to produce and keep up in us this freedom of mind." Comedy and the idyll, then, would seem to have a natural affinity with each other. Schiller does not observe this, but Shakespeare knew it—the curious power and charm of As You Like It consists of bringing the idyll and comedy together, of making the idyll the subject of comedy, even of satire, yet without negating it. The mind teases the heart, but does not mock it. The unconditioned freedom that the idyll hypothecates is shown to be impossible, yet in the demonstration a measure of freedom is gained.

So in Emma Jane Austen contrives an idyllic world, or the closest approximation of an idyllic world that the genre of the novel will permit, and brings into contrast with it the actualities of the social world, of the modern self. In the precincts of Highbury there are no bad people, and no adverse judgments to be made. Only a modern critic, Professor Mudrick, would think to call Mr. Woodhouse an idiot and an old woman: in the novel he is called "the kind-hearted, polite old gentleman." Only Emma, with her modern consciousness, comes out with it that Miss Bates is a bore, and only Emma can give herself to the thought that Mr. Weston is too simple and open-hearted, that he would be a "higher character" if he were not quite so friendly with everyone. It is from outside Highbury that the peculiarly modern traits of insincerity and vulgarity come, in the person of Frank Churchill and Mrs. Elton. With the exception of Emma herself, every person in Highbury lives in harmony and peace—even Mr. Elton would have been all right if Emma had let him alone!—and not merely because they are simple and undeveloped: Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston are no less innocent than Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates. If they please us and do not bore us by a perfection of manner and feeling which is at once lofty and homely, it is because we accept the assumptions of the idyllic world which they inhabit—we have been led to believe that man may actually live "in harmony and peace with himself and the external world."

The quiet of Highbury, the unperturbed spirits of Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates, the instructive perfection of Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston, constitute much of the charm of Emma. Yet the idyllic stillness of the scene and the loving celebration of what, for better or worse, is fully formed and changeless, is of course not what is decisive in the success of the novel. On the contrary, indeed: it is the idea of activity and development that is decisive. No one has put better and more eloquently what part this idea plays in Jane Austen's work than an anonymous critic writing in The North British Review in 1870:10

Even as a unit, man is only known to [Jane Austen] in the process of his formation by social influences. She broods over his history, not over his individual soul and its secret workings, nor over the analysis of its faculties and organs. She sees him, not as a solitary being completed in himself, but only as completed in society. Again, she contemplates virtues, not as fixed quantities, or as definable qualities, but as continual struggles and conquests, as progressive states of mind, advancing by repulsing their contraries, or losing ground by being overcome. Hence again the individual mind can only be represented by her as a battle-field where contending hosts are marshalled, and where victory inclines now to one side and now to another. A character therefore unfolded itself to her, not in statuesque repose, not as a model without motion, but as a dramatic sketch, a living history, a composite force, which could only exhibit what it was by exhibiting what it did. Her favourite poet Cowper taught her,

"By ceaseless action all that is subsists."

The mind as a battlefield: it does not consort with some of the views of Jane Austen that are commonly held. Yet this is indeed how she understood the mind. And her representation of battle is the truer because she could imagine the possibility of victory—she did not shrink from the idea of victory—and because she could represent harmony and peace.

The anonymous critic of The North British Review goes on to say a strange and startling thing—he says that the mind of Jane Austen was "saturated" with a "Platonic idea." In speaking of her ideal of "intelligent love"—the phrase is perfect—he says that it is based on the "Platonic idea that the giving and receiving of knowledge, the active formation of another's character, or the more passive growth under another's guidance, is the truest and strongest foundation of love."11 It is an ideal that not all of us will think possible of realization and that some of us will not want to give even a theoretical assent to. Yet most of us will consent to think of it as one of the most attractive of the idyllic elements of the novel. It proposes to us the hope of victory in the battle that the mind must wage, and it speaks of the expectation of allies in the fight, of the possibility of community—not in actuality, not now, but perhaps again in the future, for do we not believe, or almost believe, that there was community in the past?

The impulse to believe that the world of Jane Austen really did exist leads to notable error. "Jane Austen's England" is the thoughtless phrase which is often made to stand for the England of the years in which our author lived, although any serious history will make it sufficiently clear that the England of her novels was not the real England, except as it gave her the license to imagine the England which we call hers. This England, especially as it is represented in Emma, is an idyll. The error of identifying it with the actual England ought always to be remarked. Yet the same sense of actuality that corrects the error should not fail to recognize the remarkable force of the ideal that leads many to make the error. To represent the possibility of controlling the personal life, of becoming acquainted with ourselves, of creating a community of "intelligent love"—this is indeed to make an extraordinary promise and hold out a rare hope. We ought not be shocked and repelled if some among us think there really was a time when such promises and hopes were realized. Nor ought we be entirely surprised if, when they speak of the person who makes such promises and holds out such hopes, they represent her as not merely a novelist, if they find it natural to deal with her as a figure of legend and myth.


  1. The Question of Our Speech; The Lesson of Balzac: Two Lectures, 1905.
  2. "Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen," Scrutiny VIII, March 1940.
  3. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, 1952.
  4. "Jane Austen," Quarterly Review 228, July 1917.
  5. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Anchor edition, pp. 82-83. Tocqueville should not be understood as saying that there was no class system in England but only that there was no caste system, caste differing from class in its far greater rigidity. In his sense of the great advantage that England enjoyed, as compared with France, in having no caste system, Tocqueville inclines to represent the class feelings of the English as being considerably more lenient than in fact they were. Still, the difference between caste and class and the social and political importance of the "gentleman" are as great as Tocqueville says.
  6. Harold Rosenberg, "Revolution and the Idea of Beauty," Encounter, December 1953.
  7. See Abram Kardiner, The Psychological Frontiers of Society, 1945, page 410. In commenting on the relatively simple society which is described in James West's Plainville, U.S.A., Dr. Kardiner touches on a matter which is dear, and all too dear, to Emma's heart—speaking of social mobility in a democratic, but not classless, society, he says that the most important criterion of class is "manners," that "knowing how to behave" is the surest means of rising in the class hierarchy. Nothing is more indicative of Jane Austen's accurate awareness of the mobility of her society than her concern not so much with manners themselves as with her characters' concern with manners.
  8. "On Simple and Sentimental Poetry" in Essays Aesthetical and Philosophical, 1875.
  9. Schiller, in speaking of the effectiveness that the idyll should have, does not refer to the pastoral-idyllic element of Christianity which represents Christ as an actual shepherd.
  10. Volume LXXII, April, pp. 129-152. I am grateful to Professor Joseph Duffy for having told me of this admirable study.
  11. Emma's attempt to form the character of Harriet is thus a perversion of the relation of Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley to herself—it is a perversion, says the North British critic, adducing Dante's "amoroso uso de sapienza," because it is without love.

Mary Lascelles (Essay Date 1939)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5509

SOURCE: Lascelles, Mary. "Style." In Jane Austen and Her Art, pp. 87-116. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939.

In the following excerpt, Lascelles discusses the origins and development of Austen's style.

[Austen] did not look to the novelists for direction as to style; and this was well, for the great novels of the mid-eighteenth century had too strong individuality, and their successor, the novel of sentiment, did not know its own business. It wanted, not merely a grand style for its more ambitious passages, but also an unaffected, level style for plain relation of fact and circumstance. This is Fanny Burney's notion of a matter-of-fact introductory statement:

'In the bosom of her respectable family resided Camilla. Nature, with a bounty the most profuse, had been lavish to her of attractions; Fortune, with a moderation yet kinder, had placed her between luxury and indigence. Her abode was the parsonage-house of Etherington.…The living, though not considerable, enabled its incumbent to attain every rational object of his modest and circumscribed wishes; to bestow upon a deserving wife whatever her own forbearance declined not; and to educate a lovely race of one son and three daughters, with that liberal propriety, which unites improvement for the future with present enjoyment.'1

Fanny Burney takes pains to be ridiculous. Her followers are often merely slovenly. Jane Austen neither strains after grandiloquence2 nor slips into slovenliness. She practises but one grammatical irregularity which is uncomfortable to the ear now—what may be called the dislocated clause.3 Of this I have found instances in the prose of every one of those writers who seem likely to have influenced her—as a slip; it is occasional, and usually to be found in casual writing—in Goldsmith's task-work, in Gibbon's letters. Jane Austen, however, uses it as freely as though she had never heard it condemned; and Beckford parodies it savagely as an habitual fault of style in women's novels.4 Was it a licence which had been tacitly permitted to them? Did James and Henry Austen regard it as a fault which they would not have allowed to stand had they noticed it in their own writings, but which might be passed over in their sister's with the apology that Fielding had offered for faults of style in David Simple?—'… some small Errors, which Want of Habit in Writing chiefly occasioned, and which no Man of Learning would think worth his Censure in a Romance; nor any gentleman, in the writings of a young Woman'.5 At all events, it may fairly be said that Jane Austen's sentences are rarely if ever ambiguous; a pronoun may sometimes go astray, but the drift of the paragraph always makes the writer's intention clear. Beckford's general satire of the novelists' style does not in fact apply to her.

To the essayists and historians, on the other hand (to adopt Henry Austen's division), his sister seems to have apprenticed herself, even in childhood. Already in Love and Freindship echoes of Goldsmith's voice are heard—echoes, at least, of some of those tones of his voice that belong to his task-work for booksellers. This summary account of Edward IV—'His best qualities were courage and beauty; his bad, a combination of all the vices'6—might equally well come from his History of England or from the pert little burlesque version of it in Love and Freindship, in which I seem to hear a tinkling echo of this very phrase: 'This Monarch [Edward IV] was famous only for his Beauty and his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him,7 and his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs.'8

This tone of sly simplicity is not, however, audible to me in Jane Austen's later writing. The simplicity of her novels, with that other quality, slyness or shrewdness, which gives this simplicity its value, seems to belong to another tradition and, even so, to belong with a difference. The essayists of the eighteenth century had been kindly masters to the young Jane Austen; the turn of wit, the phrasing, of their lighter moods had come easily to her—and this may perhaps account for that precocious assurance in style which has half hidden her later development. Even in her childish burlesque pieces every sentence is almost as deliberately and neatly turned (on its small scale) as are those of her masters. From the lightest piece of nonsense—'Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted only of your Mother'9—to the sharpest prick of satire—'I expect nothing more in my wife than my wife will find in me—Perfection'10—each stands firmly, its weight exactly poised. Here already is the sharp definition of Lady Susan, and here the promise which Pride and Prejudice was to fulfil. 'Next to being married,' Mr. Bennet says to Elizabeth, when he hears of Jane's cross fortunes, 'a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane. Now is your time. Here are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young ladies in the country. Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.'

'Thank you, Sir, but a less agreeable man would satisfy me. We must not all expect Jane's good fortune.'11 This, like many other passages in Jane Austen's novels, tingles with a rhythm which stage comedy12 could never quite forget, though it might sound but faintly for a generation at a time—rhythm which is justified (as prose rhythm needs to be) by excitement. Instant perception of the absurd charges word and phrase with all the forces which in ordinary talk are dissipated, giving an impression of speed and simplicity not alien from the temper of verse. Such an impression must be elusive; no reader can vouch for more than his own experience. To me this rhythm seems audible in every one of Jane Austen's novels—even where I should least expect it, where no pulse of bodily well-being keeps time with it, in Sanditon. For it is appropriated by no one kind of comic dialogue. It tingles in the wit of Mr. Bennet—'Wickham's a fool, if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to think so ill of him, in the very beginning of our relationship.'13 It is perceptible in the shrewd or droll saying that may be occasionally allowed to 'plain matter-of-fact people, who seldom aim at wit of any kind'—'And very nice young ladies they both are; I hardly know one from the other.'14 And yet it is not out of place in the merely absurd talk of fools. 'We ', Mr. Parker assures his wife, when she envies their more sheltered neighbours, 'have all the Grandeur of the Storm, with less real danger, because the Wind meeting with nothing to oppose or confine it around our House, simply rages & passes on.'15 For it is their creator's delight in absurdity that vibrates in their talk. But if Jane Austen learnt from the dramatists the turn of phrase proper to comedy she learnt also, in writing Pride and Prejudice, how to differentiate her dialogue from that sort she would associate with the stage; how to make it more reflective on the one hand, more inconsequent on the other, according to the bent of the speaker. And what she learnt from the essayists she likewise transmuted to her own use; that, indeed, is the way in which they were good masters, and she an apt pupil—they taught her to make something of her own. Lady Middleton and Mrs. Dashwood 'sympathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanour, and a general want of understanding'.16 That might come from one of the early periodical essays. It has the formality, the preponderance of general and abstract terms, which seems to have repelled Mrs. Meynell17—but which we are less likely to take amiss. To us Jane Austen appears like one who inherits a prosperous and well-ordered estate—the heritage of a prose style in which neither generalization nor abstraction need signify vagueness, because there was close enough agreement as to the scope and significance of such terms.18 Character and motive, for example, might be presented in them—a practice best illustrated, and very likely familiar to Jane Austen herself, in the Lives of the Poets. 'His mind was not very comprehensive, nor his curiosity active; he had no value for those parts of knowledge which he had not himself cultivated.'19 This, surely, and countless passages like it, represent the school in which she trained herself. Lady Russell forms and expresses her judgement on Mr. Elliot in these terms: 'Every thing united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world, and a warm heart … He was steady, observant, moderate, candid'; he possessed 'sensibility', and 'a value for all the felicities of domestic life'20—and so on. Here, of course, the ear catches an inflexion of irony in the use of such exact and emphatic terms for a misapprehension; but that implies no dissatisfaction with the terms themselves. They are used to express the opinions on their fellow characters of all the reflective heroines (Catherine being a child, and Emma, as she calls herself, an 'imaginist'): for Elizabeth Bennet's criticism of her father's 'ill-judged … direction of talents … which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife';21 for the shrewd observations of Elinor Dashwood and Charlotte Heywood; even for Anne Elliot's gentler judgements. But, more and more freely, they are combined with other kinds of expression in that interplay of formal and colloquial, abstract and concrete, general and particular, to whose interaction are due the firmness and suppleness of the style in which the great prose writers of the eighteenth century could address the Common Reader. Fanny Price, eager to find in her own shortcomings the reason for her mother's early neglect of her, supposed that 'she had probably alienated Love by the helplessness and fretfulness of a fearful temper, or been unreasonable in wanting a larger share than any one among so many could deserve'.22 Sometimes there is a humorous purpose in the juxtaposition: 'They had a very fine day for Box Hill; and all the other outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality, were in favour of a pleasant party.…Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there.'23 Sometimes it marks the centre of a comic episode—as in Sir Thomas's attempt to give 'Mr. Rushworth's opinion in better words than he could find himself'—and his author's comment: 'Mr. Rushworth hardly knew what to do with so much meaning.'24 That commonplace turn of expression—the neutral verb mobilized by the preposition—goes with the grain of the language, would not be out of place in dialogue, yet is wholly in keeping with the narrative passage to which it belongs. Scott, the only one of Jane Austen's contemporaries who has a lively appreciation of the prose tradition they inherited, is at a drawback here: the language of his narrative passages must always remain distinct from the dialogue of his Scots-speaking characters, and from the Ossianic drone by which he distinguishes his Gaelic speakers.

If Jane Austen trained herself in Johnson's school, that was not, I think, the limit of her debt to him; something more personal remains—some tones of his voice seem to be echoed in her style. An echo is too elusive to be certainly identified; but conjecture may be worth offering. I think I see in her familiarity with, and love of, his work the explanation of her aptitude for coining pregnant abstractions—such phrases as Miss Bates's desultory good-will, of which the sounds pursued her visitors as they mounted her stairs;25 Mrs. Elton's apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and basket;26 and Sir Walter's advance towards his grand cousins 'with all the eagerness compatible with anxious elegance';27 these, surely, may be called Johnsonian phrases and may fairly remind us of such passages in The Rambler as the description of the leisurely travellers who 'missed … the Pleasure of alarming Villages with the Tumult of our Passage, and of disguising our Insignificancy by the Dignity of Hurry'.28 From Johnson she may have learnt also a liking for antithetic phrasing, coming to perceive his antitheses closing on his subject as large hands may close on a creature which must be held before it can be set free; coming to distinguish this formality as one congenial to English idiom. Anne Elliot, advising Captain Benwick, 'ventured to hope that he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly'.29 I will suggest another small accomplishment which Jane Austen may possibly owe to 'her dear Dr. Johnson': while he has been criticized for making all the fictitious correspondents in his periodical essays address him in his own stately language, his lively mimicry of idiom in oblique oration has passed unnoticed. Thus Anthea, who thought nothing so elegant as a display of timidity, 'saw some Sheep, and heard the Weather clink his Bell, which she was certain was not hung upon him for nothing, and therefore no Assurances nor Intreaties should prevail upon her to go a Step farther; she was sorry to disappoint the Company, but her Life was dearer to her than Ceremony'.30 Now Jane Austen has an aptitude, not very common among the earlier novelists, for these satirically reported conversations: Mrs. Elton on strawberries, and Lady Bertram on the ball, are probably the best-remembered; but these merely confirm impressions already made; her slighter essays in this kind are quite as shrewd, and, within small compass, create the impression in our minds of the talk of some minor character who would otherwise be silent—of Mrs. Philips with her promise of 'a little bit of hot supper',31 or Mr. Shepherd, with his account of his chosen tenant—'quite the gentleman'.32

Among these elusive echoes of the tones of voice of her favourites I seem to detect one that may be worth a moment's notice. The train of possibilities begins with Richardson's realization that a parenthetical phrase, most often built upon a present participle, if introduced abruptly into the midst of a speech—that is, not qualifying the introductory 'he said' or its equivalent, but indicating change of tone or gesture as a stage-direction might do—gives the air of eyewitness to any one who reports the speech; and since, in his novels, the narrator is always, for the moment, autobiographer, that reporter is always supposed to be an eyewitness, and therefore needs this illusion. (Thus, conversations reported by Miss Harriet Byron are not seldom interrupted by the parenthesis 'Snatching my hand'.) Fanny Burney appears to perceive this advantage and follow Richardson, so long as she also lets one of the characters tell the story—that is, in Evelina's letters. (Need it be said that here, too, 'Snatching my hand' is a not infrequent parenthesis?) But it seems to be Boswell who, in his own double character of author and eyewitness reporting an affair, introduces this device into direct narration, in his Tour to the Hebrides and, still oftener, in his Life of Johnson. Thus, in Johnson's speeches occur such parenthetical phrases as: '(looking to his Lordship with an arch smile)'. Whether or no Jane Austen's ear really caught from one of these three among her favourite authors the impression of immediacy which this device is able to lend to dialogue, her frequent and apt use of it is worth remarking. Nancy Steele's tale of her sister is brought within earshot by such parentheses as '(Laughing affectedly)' and '(giggling as she spoke)',33 and poor Miss Bates's of her niece by '(twinkling away a tear or two)';34 while we seem indeed to see Captain Harville's attention divided between Anne and Captain Wentworth: 'There is no hurry on my side', he tells Wentworth. '"I am only ready whenever you are.—I am in very good anchorage here," (smiling at Anne) "well supplied, and want for nothing.—No hurry for a signal at all.—Well, Miss Elliot," (lowering his voice) "as I was saying, we shall never agree I suppose upon this point."'35

Evidence as to Jane Austen's dislikes in word or phrase is less elusive, for it consists not only in her avoidance of such habits of expression but also in her ridicule of them in her burlesque writings, and in her warnings to Anna against them. Any close observer of her ways must have noticed that she is, so to speak, shy of figurative language, using it as little as possible, and least of all in her gravest passages. I do not think it extravagant to find some suggestion of the amusement and discomfort which idle use of figurative expressions caused her in this small quip to Cassandra: 'He … poor man! is so totally deaf that they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers.…'36 For this use of stale, unmeaning figures of speech is a common mark of insincerity in her disagreeable people—in Mrs. Elton, with her borrowed plume of poetic image, her chatter of 'Hymen's saffron robe';37 in General Tilney, whose imagery belongs to the conventions of a heartless gallantry: '"I have many pamphlets to finish," said he to Catherine, "before I can close my eyes; and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep. Can either of us be more meetly employed? My eyes will be blinding for the good of others; and yours preparing by rest for future mischief"'38—a manner of speech that almost seems to excuse Catherine's suspicions; above all, in Mrs. Norris: 'Is not she a sister's child?' she asks, rhetorically, of Fanny Price; 'and could I bear to see her want, while I had a bit of bread to give her?'39 And one sees a grotesque vision of those two—the child and the woman—confronting one another across the shining expanse of the parsonage dining-table, with a 'bit of bread' between them. But Mrs. Norris did not see that vision; she saw nothing—metaphor was to her a screen for the meaninglessness of her generous words.

I suspect that it was Jane Austen's practice of denying herself the aid of figurative language which, as much as any other of her habits of expression, repelled Charlotte Brontë, and has alienated other readers, conscious of a dissatisfaction with her style that they have not cared to analyse. What prompted her to such a denial? Did she distrust all figurative language because she was sharply aware of the aptitude of the most languid figurative expressions for persisting as a mere habit of speech, after they have lost even the feeble life they had for the imagination?—a not unreasonable distrust, so large is the element of figurative idiom in our tongue. And was she further aware that, since such language commonly carries in the first using some emotional suggestion, it cannot fossilize without turning into a lie? Even if this should seem a rashly conjectural explanation of her apparent distrust of all figures of speech, her evident dislike of all that are ready made, it is certainly worth while to notice her quick ear for all those ready-made phrases, whether figurative or no, which creep so insidiously into our habitual speech. She had always held aloof from slang:40 'Miss Fletcher and I were very thick', she writes to Cassandra in Steventon days, 'but I am the thinnest of the two.'41 She makes fossil phrases the staple of Lady Bertram's accustomed style of letter-writing—'a very creditable, commonplace, amplifying style':42 'We shall greatly miss Edmund in our small circle', she writes to Fanny when he has gone to fetch his sick brother; 'but I trust and hope he will find the poor invalid in a less alarming state than might be apprehended …'43—a style that breaks up and dissolves under the influence of real feeling: 'He is just come, my dear Fanny, and is taken up stairs; and I am so shocked to see him, that I do not know what to do.'44 They are a mark also of the talk of Mr. Parker—who was not 'a man of strong understanding':45 'Here were we, pent down in this little contracted Nook, without Air or View, only one mile and 3 qrs from the noblest expanse of Ocean between the South foreland & the Land's end, & without the smallest advantage from it. You will not think I have made a bad exchange, when we reach Trafalgar House—which by the bye, I almost wish I had not named Trafalgar—for Waterloo is more the thing now.'46 And she is at pains to emphasize this habit: 'The Growth of my Plantations is a general astonishment'47that was substituted in revision for 'My Plantations astonish everybody by their Growth'.

What it is that disgusts in Mrs. Elton's speech is not so obvious. It is not merely the idle figurative expressions—the recluse torn reluctant from her instrument and crayons, and the rest, though they are many; nor the slang, with its uneasy pretensions, nor the wilful use of concrete and particular expressions where there is no occasion for them: 'A most pitiful business!—Selina would stare when she heard of it.'48 It is rather a general and insidious misuse of language in the interests of an ugly smartness, which produces much the same sort of unpleasant sensation as seeing a tool misused.

Jane Austen's sharpest critical satire is aimed, however, at the contemporary novelists' peculiar phraseology—commonly a rank weed in the aftermath of a great age of fiction. Miss Clavering, who was to have collaborated with her friend Miss Ferrier, noticed it. 'I don't like those high life conversations', she says shrewdly; 'they are a sort of thing by consent handed down from generation to generation in novels, but have little or no groundwork in truth … [they] could at best amuse by putting one in mind of other novels not by recalling to anybody what they ever saw or heard in real life.…'And she is pretty severe on her friend's more ambitious writing in this kind, 'which is the style of conversation of duchesses only in novels'.49 A conversational style handed down from one generation of novelists to another—that is a pitfall, as Jane Austen gently reminds Anna: 'I do not like a Lover's speaking in the 3d person;—it is too much like the formal part of Lord Orville, & I think is not natural.'50 She had made fun of fossilized phraseology in her earliest pieces, sometimes tilting a fragment of it gently to let the light fall on it: 'his Mother had been many years no more'.51 Even more unobtrusively it makes its way into her early novels: 'the lenient hand of time did much for [Catherine] by insensible gradations in the course of another day.'52 Beckford had parodied these stock phrases; but his hand had been heavy: '… the finer feelings of the celestial Arabella suffered a new and more terrible shock, which the lenient hand of time could alone hope to mollify. The original breaking of his collar bone, by the fall from his famous hunter, which had once so cruelly alarmed the ladies in the park, was no longer an object of material magnitude, but … the innumerable difficulties he might labour under, was indeed a stroke which required the utmost fortitude, and every religious consideration to combat and sustain.'53 Where he makes nonsense, Jane Austen with a lighter touch makes something that is almost sense. She sees where exaggeration is not needed, where demure imitation will serve. She allows Henry Tilney to hit off the style of Mrs. Radcliffe's descriptive passages in his mock forecast of Catherine's arrival at the Abbey,54 and of the novel of sentiment in his pretended investigation of Catherine's feelings upon the arrival of Isabel-la's letter.55 She never lost her taste for mimicry, but her later novels gave her less scope for it. Her consciousness of this particular pitfall is most forcibly expressed in her watchful avoidance of it, most pointedly in that stricture on Anna's novel in which she comes nearest to severity: 'Devereux Forester's being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a "vortex of Dissipation". I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression;—it is such thorough novel slang—and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.'56

Behind this explicit expression of aversion we can perceive her steady rejection of 'novel slang', and behind this consistent practice her sensitiveness to the entity of the word. Her corrections show her mind moving among words, arranging and rearranging them, until she gets them phrased to her liking; and so every one of them remains exquisitely whole, like a falling drop of water, and no two or three are allowed to run together and settle into stagnant pools.

Delicate precision, resulting from control of the tools chosen—one could almost be content to claim no more than this for Jane Austen's style, surmising that she would hardly claim as much. She might have been willing to accept Richardson's compliment to Lady Bradshaigh: 'The pen is almost as pretty an implement in a woman's fingers as a needle.'57 She would probably have been puzzled by John Bailey's tribute: 'She wrote … well, because she could write well and liked it, and all the better because she did not know how well she wrote.'58 For I think that she would have been satisfied to transfer to her style her playful boast of her own manual dexterity: 'An artist cannot do anything slovenly.'59


  1. Camilla, ch. i.
  2. Her rare inversions sound to me Johnsonian; that is, an unconscious reflection of her reading.
  3. e.g. Lady Catherine, speaking of her daughter and Darcy, says: 'While in their cradles, we planned the union' (Pride and Prejudice, p. 355, ch. lvi).
  4. Modern Novel Writing (under the pseudonym of Lady Harriet Marlow), 1796.
  5. Sarah Fielding, David Simple, 1744 (2nd edit.)—with a preface by Henry Fielding, in which he mentions his correction of these errors. (They are seldom worse than colloquialisms or awkwardnesses.)
  6. Goldsmith, History of England (1771), ii. 250.
  7. i.e. one of Cassandra's medallions, made, perhaps, in playful imitation of those in the 1771 History.
  8. Love and Freindship, p. 86; Minor Works, pp. 140, 141.
  9. Ibid., p. 7; Minor Works, p. 78.
  10. Volume the First, p. 46; Minor Works, p. 26.
  11. Pride and Prejudice, pp. 137, 138, ch. xxiv.
  12. J. A. was probably an habitual reader of plays.
  13. Pride and Prejudice, p. 304, ch. xlix.
  14. Persuasion, p. 92, ch. x.
  15. Sanditon, p. 48; Minor Works, p. 381.
  16. Sense and Sensibility, p. 229, ch. xxxiv.
  17. Alice Meynell, 'The Classic Novelist' in The Second Person Singular (1921).
  18. It is, I believe, want of realization of this element in Jane Austen's style that has made critics such as Mr. Forster find a reflection of her point of view in the thoughts of all her heroines; see Abinger Harvest (1936), p. 149.
  19. Life of Shenstone.
  20. Persuasion, pp. 146, 147, ch. xvi.
  21. Pride and Prejudice, p. 237, ch. xlii.
  22. Mansfield Park, p. 371, ch. xxxvii.
  23. Emma, p. 367, ch. xliii.
  24. Mansfield Park, p. 186, ch. xix.
  25. Emma, p. 239, ch. xxvii. I think this is not a very common idiom in women's writings, though Mrs. Thrale learnt it from the same master.
  26. Ibid., p. 358, ch. xlii.
  27. Persuasion, p. 184, ch. xx.
  28. The Rambler, number 142.
  29. Persuasion, pp. 100, 101, ch. xi.
  30. The Rambler, number 34.
  31. Pride and Prejudice, p. 74, ch. xv.
  32. Persuasion, p. 22, ch. iii.
  33. Sense and Sensibility, pp. 274, 275, ch. xxxviii.
  34. Emma, p. 378, ch. xliv.
  35. Persuasion, p. 234, ch. xxiii.
  36. Letters, p. 242.
  37. Emma, p. 308, ch. xxxvi.
  38. Northanger Abbey, p. 187, ch. xxiii.
  39. Mansfield Park, p. 7, ch. i.
  40. It is Mary Crawford's slang that persuades me she was never meant to be very agreeable.
  41. Letters, p. 14.
  42. Mansfield Park, p. 425, ch. xliv.
  43. Ibid., p. 426, ch. xliv.
  44. Ibid., p. 427, ch. xliv.
  45. Sanditon, p. 23; Minor Works, p. 372.
  46. Ibid., p. 44; Minor Works, p. 380.
  47. Ibid., p. 46; Minor Works, p. 381.
  48. Emma, p. 484, ch. lv. I think that Jane Austen positively disliked this idiosyncrasy—of which she gives variants to Sir Edward Denham and John Thorpe.
  49. Memoir and Correspondence of Susan Ferrier, ed. J. A. Doyle, pp. 114-118 (letter of 10 May 1813).
  50. Letters, pp. 387, 388. Charlotte Brontë slipped back into this awkward practice.
  51. Love and Freindship, p. 10; Minor Works, p. 80.
  52. Northanger Abbey, p. 201, ch. xxv.
  53. Modern Novel Writing, ch. i.
  54. Northanger Abbey, ch. xx.
  55. Ibid., p. 207, ch. xxv.
  56. Letters, p. 404.
  57. Correspondence, ed. Barbauld (1804), vi. 120 (no date).
  58. Introductions to Jane Austen, 1931, p. 25.
  59. Letters, p. 30.


In referring to Jane Austen's six novels, I give the number of the page as it appears in Dr. Chapman's edition, followed by the number of the chapter as it would appear in any other modern edition. For her letters and other unpublished writings, I refer likewise to his editions. References to the letters are simple; those to the other writings require a little explanation. When I completed my book, Dr. Chapman had already edited (in separate volumes) practically all of Jane Austen's unpublished work other than those three note-books of juvenilia entitled Volume the First, Second, and Third; but of these we had only the First from his hand. Volume the Second had appeared (with a preface by G. K. Chesterton) under the title of its principal content, Love and Freindship, and it was by this name, therefore, that I referred to it, and to all that it contained. Volume the Third had not been printed, nor was it accessible to me in manuscript; it had therefore to be left out of my account. This latter note-book had since been edited by Dr. Chapman, who has moreover now gathered all these and some smaller pieces into a single volume of Minor Works. Thus, for Jane Austen's tales, fragments, and drafts, except the contents of Volume the Second, we have two earlier editions from his hand; differing in that the earlier records the traces of revision discernible in her manuscripts. Mindful of the diverse needs of readers possessing these different editions, I have retained my original page-reference for every passage quoted, but added another, to the Minor Works—except where the subject under discussion was Jane Austen's practice in revision.

For her brother's Biographical Notice and her nephew's Memoir also I refer to Dr. Chapman's editions, except in those instances where it was necessary to use the first edition of the Memoir, or a passage from that part of the second which his edition does not reproduce.

For other books I have, of course, referred to the first editions, except where an authoritative collected edition of the author's works seemed preferable. In references to novels, mindful of the difficulty of getting access to a first edition of many of those I cited, I have given the number not of the page but of the chapter.

In my necessarily brief account of Jane Austen's life (intended only as a foundation to the critical part of this book) I have, I hope methodically, preferred the earliest source of information, except where a later source of equal authority gave fuller detail—for example, where the Life was fuller that the Memoir.

Full Titles of References

H. Austen, A Biographical Notice of the Author prefixed to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, 1818 (reprinted with slight alteration in Bentley's collected edition of J. A.'s novels; the version of 1818 reprinted in R. W. C.'s edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion).

J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, 1870 (reprinted with parts of J. A.'s unfinished works, 1871; the second edition, with some of the additions, reprinted, R. W. C., 1926).

M. A. Austen-Leigh, Personal Aspects of Jane Austen, 1920.

R. A. Austen-Leigh and W. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, 1913.

A. C. Bradley, 'Jane Austen,' in Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, 1911.

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927.

H. W. Garrod. 'Jane Austen: A Depreciation,' in Essays by Divers Hands (Transactions of the Royal Society for Literature), 1928.

C. Hill, Jane Austen: Her Homes and Friends, 1902.

P. Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction, 1921.

W. Scott, review of Emma in the Quarterly Review, vol. xiv (for 1815; appeared 1816).

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, 1925.

Jane Austen (Letter Date 18 November 1814)

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SOURCE: Austen, Jane. "Letter to Fanny Knight, November 18, 1814." In Jane Austen's Letters, 2nd ed., edited by R. W. Chapman, pp. 407-12. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.

In the following excerpt from a letter to her niece dated November 18, 1814, Austen expresses in detail her opinions on love and marriage.

I feel quite as doubtful as you could be my dearest Fanny as to when my Letter may be finished, for I can command very little quiet time at present, but yet I must begin, for I know you will be glad to hear as soon as possible, & I really am impatient myself to be writing something on so very interesting a subject, though I have no hope of writing anything to the purpose. I shall do very little more I dare say than say over again, what you have said before.—I was certainly a good deal surprised at first—as I had no suspicion of any change in your feelings, and I have no scruple in saying that you cannot be in Love. My dear Fanny, I am ready to laugh at the idea—and yet it is no laughing matter to have had you so mistaken as to your own feelings—And with all my heart I wish I had cautioned you on that point when first you spoke to me;—but tho' I did not think you then so much in love as you thought yourself, I did consider you as being attached in a degree—quite sufficiently for happiness, as I had no doubt it would increase with opportunity.—And from the time of our being in London together, I thought you really very much in love—But you certainly are not at all—there is no concealing it.—What strange creatures we are!—It seems as if your being secure of him (as you say yourself) had made you Indifferent.—There was a little disgust I suspect, at the Races—& I do not wonder at it. His expressions there would not do for one who had rather more Acuteness, Penetration & Taste, than Love, which was your case. And yet, after all, I am surprised that the change in your feelings should be so great.—He is, just what he ever was, only more evidently & uniformly devoted to you. This is all the difference.—How shall we account for it?—My dearest Fanny, I am writing what will not be of the smallest use to you. I am feeling differently every moment, & shall not be able to suggest a single thing that can assist your Mind.—I could lament in one sentence & laugh in the next, but as to Opinion or Counsel I am sure none will ‹be› extracted worth having from this Letter.—I read yours through the very eveng I received it—getting away by myself—I could not bear to leave off, when I had once begun.—I was full of curiosity & concern. Luckily your Aunt C. dined at the other house, therefore I had not to manœuvre away from her;—& as to anybody else, I do not care.—Poor dear Mr. J. P.!—Oh! dear Fanny, your mistake has been one that thousands of women fall into. He was the first young Man who attached himself to you. That was the charm, & most powerful it is.—Among the multitudes however that make the same mistake with yourself, there can be few indeed who have so little reason to regret it;—his Character and his attachment leave you nothing to be ashamed of.—Upon the whole, what is to be done? You certainly have encouraged him to such a point as to make him feel almost secure of you—you have no inclination for any other person—His situation in life, family, friends, & above all his character—his uncommonly amiable mind, strict principles, just notions, good habits—all that you know so well how to value, All that really is of the first importance—everything of this nature pleads his cause most strongly.—You have no doubt of his having superior Abilities—he has proved it at the University—he is I dare say such a scholar as your agreable, idle Brothers would ill bear a comparison with.—Oh! my dear Fanny, the more I write about him, the warmer my feelings become, the more strongly I feel the sterling worth of such a young Man & the desirableness of your growing in love with him again. I recommend this most thoroughly.—There are such beings in the World perhaps, one in a Thousand, as the Creature You and I should think perfection, Where Grace & Spirit are united to Worth, where the Manners are equal to the Heart & Understanding, but such a person may not come in your way, or if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a Man of Fortune, the Brother of your particular friend, & belonging to your own County.—Think of all this Fanny. Mr. J. P.—has advantages which do not often meet in one person. His only fault indeed seems Modesty. If he were less modest. he would be more agreable, speak louder & look Impudenter;—and is not it a fine Character of which Modesty is the only defect?—I have no doubt that he will get more lively & more like yourselves as he is more with you;—he will catch your ways if he belongs to you. And as to there being any objection from his Goodness, from the danger of his becoming even Evangelical, I cannot admit that. I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest & safest.—Do not be frightened from the connection by your Brothers having most wit. Wisdom is better than Wit, & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side; & don't be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.—And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection; and if his deficiencies of Manner&c&c strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once.—Things are now in such a state, that you must resolve upon one or the other, either to allow him to go on as he has done, or whenever you are together behave with a coldness which may convince him that he has been deceiving himself.—I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, a great deal, when he feels that he must give you up;—but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody.—Your sending the Music was an admirable Device, it made everything easy, & I do not know how I could have accounted for the parcel otherwise; for tho' your dear Papa most conscientiously hunted about till he found me alone in the Ding-parlour, your Aunt C. had seen that he had a parcel to deliver.—As it was however, I do not think anything was suspected.—We have heard nothing fresh from Anna. I trust she is very comfortable in her new home. Her Letters have been very sensible & satisfactory, with no parade of happiness, which I liked them the better for.—I have often known young married Women write in a way I did not like, in that respect.

You will be glad to hear that the first Edit: of M. P. [Mansfield Park] is all sold.—Your Uncle Henry is rather wanting me to come to Town, to settle about a 2d Edit:—but as I could not very conveniently leave home now, I have written him my Will and pleasure, & unless he still urges it, shall not go.—I am very greedy & want to make the most of it;—but as you are much above caring about money, I shall not plague you with any particulars.—The pleasures of Vanity are more within your comprehension, & you will enter into mine, at receiving the praise which every now & then comes to me, through some channel or other.


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Austen is best known as a consummate novelist of manners. The author of six novels, Austen depicted a small slice of English life during the Regency period, a time marked by the Napoleonic Wars, the early growth of the English Empire, and an economic and industrial revolution that was countered by a cultural emphasis on all things proper, elegant, genteel, and truly "English." Austen captured this moment in great detail, focusing narrowly on the lives of the landed gentry in rural England and—more particularly—the little triumphs and defeats faced by the young women attempting to secure their future survival through respectable marriage. In such works as Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1816), and Mansfield Park (1814), Austen employed wit, irony, and shrewd observation to advance the literary status of the women's novel and to address the social and political concerns of nineteenth-century men and women.


The daughter of the Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen, Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775. She was the seventh of eight children and the youngest of two daughters in the middle-class family, then living at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, England. As the parson's daughter, Austen mixed frequently and easily with the landed gentry of rural England. Among the Austens's neighbors was Madam Lefroy, wife to a parson and sister to an aristocratic squire fond of books. Lefroy, who wrote and published poetry, took a special interest in Austen's education, and encouraged her intellectual development. At home, Reverend Austen entertained the family by reading literature aloud and guided Austen in choosing books from his large library and local circulating libraries, while James Austen, Austen's eldest brother, directed the family in amateur theatricals. Between 1783 and 1786, Austen received formal schooling, first at a boarding school at Oxford, then at the Abbey School in Reading. Around the age of twelve, Austen began writing children's stories. She stayed at Steventon until 1801, reading, writing, and participating in the Hampshire social rounds of balls, visits, and trips to Bath. Austen never married, but in 1795 fell in love with Thomas Langlois Lefroy, the nephew of her mentor Madam Lefroy. Madam Lefroy, however, disapproved of the match, thinking Thomas would lose his inheritance if he married the penniless daughter of a clergyman, and sent her nephew away. During these last years at Steventon, Austen began several early drafts of her mature works. She wrote her first novel in 1796 and 1797; "First Impressions" was sufficiently polished that her father attempted to publish it, but it was turned down. She would eventually revise it as Pride and Prejudice. Her next attempt was a novel she titled "Susan," and though she was able to sell it to a publisher in 1803, it was never published in its initial form. She eventually revised it further, and the book was published posthumously as Northanger Abbey (1818). Austen's authorial efforts were interrupted by a series of tragedies: in 1804 Madam Lefroy, who had remained her close friend, died in a riding accident, and in 1805 her father died, leaving Austen, her sister, and her mother with no means of support. They became dependent on her brothers, who jointly maintained the women in Bath until 1806, when Frank, a naval officer, invited them to live at his home in Southampton. In 1809, they moved to Chawton Cottage, on her brother Edward's estate in Kent. There, Austen worked on Sense and Sensibility, finally succeeding in getting her first novel published in 1811. As with all her works, Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously, "By a Lady." That year, she also worked on the final version of Pride and Prejudice and began Mansfield Park. She was unusually secretive about her writing for some time, even insisting that the door to the chamber she used for writing not be repaired, so that the squeak of the hinges would alert her to intruders. Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice both sold out their first printings and went into second editions and Mansfield Park sold out its first printing as well. Now a literary success, Austen began work on Emma in 1814. The Prince Regent (later George IV) invited Austen to meet with him in November 1815, expressing his admiration for her work and asking her to dedicate her next novel to him. She reluctantly agreed, and Emma was released with a dedication to the prince just over a month later. During that year, Austen also began work on Persuasion (1818), the last novel she would complete. She began the novel Sanditon in 1817 but was forced to leave it unfinished due to illness. In May of that year, she moved with her sister Cassandra to Winchester to obtain medical care but died on July 18. The obituary in the Hampshire newspaper contained one of the first public acknowledgements of her authorship.


Austen's novels are peopled with characters drawn from her sphere of life: ladies and gentlemen of the landed gentry. The plots of her novels revolve around the intricacies of courtship and marriage between members of the upper class. Austen's novels consider a narrow scope, using wit and irony to develop and further her plots. In many of her novels, women suffer, at least temporarily, for the joint distinctions of sex and class. Jane and Elizabeth Bennett, in Pride and Prejudice, are nearly prevented from marrying their wealthy suitors because of social codes forbidding it. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, similarly find themselves prohibited from marrying men for lack of adequate resources and social standing to make the connections respectable. As Austen's heroines painfully recognize, being female puts them in a precarious position: the Bennett family's estate will pass into the possession of a male cousin, and the Dashwood sisters and their mother are at the mercy of a half-brother's beneficence after the death of Mr. Dashwood. Mansfield Park and Persuasion are more complex works and have been considered less accessible to readers. The satirical aspect of Mansfield Park is less clear than in other novels; in particular, critics have found the heroine Fanny difficult to sympathize with, and it is not clear if her unusually moralistic thought and behavior is meant as a model to be emulated or one to be avoided. The heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, has been characterized as a departure from Austen's usual characters. Persuasion's tone is more subdued and poetic than Austen's earlier work, possibly a reflection of the author's increasing interest in Romanticism and an indication of her greater attention to the pain inflicted by the social mores she examined in her earlier works.


During the first several decades after Austen published her novels, her work received little commentary. After the 1870 publication of her nephew's Memoir of Jane Austen, however, interest in her works increased. James Austen-Leigh's Memoir inaugurated a worshipful, nostalgic brand of Austen criticism. Adoring critics praised Austen's characteristic authorial traits, especially the elegance of her prose, but offered no thorough critical analysis of her works. Subsequent studies of Austen therefore reacted strongly to counter this tendency, emphasizing the technical flaws in the novels and dismissing what scholars considered the narrow, trivial world about which she wrote. A pronounced move toward a more balanced, objective mode of criticism came in 1939 with Mary Lascelles's focused attention on the technical and thematic aspects of Austen's work. With the advent of feminist criticism, critics again reexamined Austen's novels. Margaret Kirkham portrays Austen as a proto-feminist who purposefully argued in her novels against the social, political, and economic limitations placed on women by patriarchal English society. Susan Fraiman differs in her assessment of Austen's treatment of women's issues. She notes that although Austen's heroines are often witty and independent, offering an observer's perspective on women's inferior position in society, by the end of the works the heroines are reincorporated back into patriarchal society, no longer free agents and independent thinkers but wives subsumed by their husbands' households. Political and feminist scholarship on Austen's novels was further invigorated by the rise of postcolonial criticism. Moira Ferguson contends that Austen's novels offer a reformist critique of imperialism and finds a close link between the reformist impulse and women's status in English society.

Pride and Prejudice

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SOURCE: Fraiman, Susan. "The Humiliation of Elizabeth Bennett." In Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy, edited by Patricia Yaeger and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, pp. 168-87. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

In the following essay, Fraiman views Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice as a father figure for Elizabeth Bennett and therefore reads the novel as transferring patriarchal power from one generation to the next as Elizabeth passes from her father's care to Darcy's.

I belong to a generation of American feminist critics taught to read by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) both focused our regard on women writers of the nineteenth century and formed in us invaluable habits of attention. It alerted us to eccentric characters, figures off to the side, to the lunatic fringe. We learned to see certain transients—required by the plot to move on before things can work out—as feminist doubles for the author as well as heroine. Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, unexemplary as they are expendable, register nonetheless the screams and tantrums of Charlotte Brontë's and Jane Austen's own rage. These marginal women voice anger and defiance that split open ostensibly decorous texts.

I want, in keeping with this tradition, to stress the accents of defiance in Pride and Prejudice, but I locate these less at the edges than at the very center of the book; my argument concerns the much-admired Elizabeth Bennet and the two major men in her life, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy. I read Pride and Prejudice as the ceding of Mr. Bennet's paternity to Mr. Darcy, with a consequent loss of clout for Elizabeth. Austen's novel documents the collapse of an initially enabling father into a father figure who, in keeping with his excessive social authority, tends to be rather disabling. As Elizabeth passes from Bennet to Darcy, her authorial powers wane: she goes from shaping judgments to being shaped by them. I want to look at Elizabeth's gradual devaluation, her humiliation, in terms of this double father.1 Austen, I believe, stands back from her decline, ironizing both the onset of marriage and the father-daughter relation. She shows us a form of violence against women that is not hidden away in the attic, displaced onto some secondary figure, but downstairs in the drawing room involving the heroine herself.

Elizabeth's first father is a reclusive man and seemingly ineffectual; beside the rigid figure of Northanger Abbey's General Tilney, Mr. Bennet may well appear flimsy. But the general (his love of new gadgets notwithstanding) is an old-fashioned father whose authoritarian style was all but outmoded by the end of the eighteenth century.2 Mr. Bennet is not really a bad father—just a modern one, in the manner of Locke's influential text on education. Smoothbrowed advocate of instruction over discipline and reason over force, he typifies the Lockean father. As Jay Fliegelman points out, however, Locke's concern "is not with circumscribing paternal authority, but with rendering it more effective by making it noncoercive."3 Mr. Bennet, apparently benign to the point of irresponsibility, may seem to wield nothing sharper than his sarcasm. But what he actually wields is the covert power of the Lockean patriarch, all the more effective for its subtlety.

This aloof, unseen power of Mr. Bennet's suggests to me, for several reasons, the peculiar power of an author. His disposition is emphatically literary. Taking refuge from the world in his library, Mr. Bennet prefers the inner to the outer life, books to people. He asks two things only: the free use of his understanding and his room—precisely those things Virginia Woolf associates with the privilege of the male writer, the privation of the female. Most important, among women whose solace is news, he keeps the upper hand by withholding information. Mr. Bennet is a creator of suspense. In the opening scene, for example, he refuses to visit the new bachelor in town, deliberately frustrating Mrs. Bennet's expectation and desire. Actually, "he had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go; and till the evening after the visit was paid, she had no knowledge of it."4 Mr. Bennet relishes the power to contain her pleasure and finally, with his dénouement, to relieve and enrapture her.

But the suspense is not over. Elizabeth's father is, even then, as stingy with physical description as some fathers are with pocket money. He controls his family by being not tight-fisted but tight-lipped, and in this he resembles Austen herself. George Lewes first noted the remarkable paucity of concrete details in Austen, her reluctance to tell us what people, their clothes, their houses or gardens look like.5 If female readers flocked to Richardson for Pamela's meticulous descriptions of what she packed in her trunk, they must surely have been frustrated by Austen's reticence here.6 So Mr. Bennet only follows Austen when, secretive about Bingley's person and estate, he keeps the ladies in the dark. Their curiosity is finally gratified by another, less plain-styled father, Sir William Lucas, whose report they receive "second-hand" from Lady Lucas. Much as women talk in this novel, the flow of important words (of "intelligence") is regulated largely by men. In this verbal economy, women get the trickle-down of news.

When Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, Mr. Bennet again contrives to keep his audience hanging. Pretending to support his wife, he hides until the last moment his real intention of contradicting her. After a stern prologue he continues: "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.—Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do" (112). Not only this particular manipulation but indeed the entire scene goes to show the efficacy of paternal words. Throughout his proposal, to Elizabeth's distress and our amusement, Mr. Collins completely ignores her many impassioned refusals. He discounts what she says as "merely words of course" (108); even his dim, self-mired mind perceives that a lady's word carries no definitive weight. Mr. Collins accuses Elizabeth of wishing to increase his love "by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females" (108). Yet creating suspense is exactly what Elizabeth, rhetorically unreliable, cannot do. She has no choice but "to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive" (109). Mr. Bennet's power resides, as I say, in his authorial prerogative: his right to have the last word.

Though Mr. Bennet uses this right to disparage and disappoint his wife, regarding his daughter he uses it rather to praise, protect, apparently to enable her. Like many heroines in women's fiction (think of Emma Woodhouse or Maggie Tulliver) Elizabeth has a special relationship to her father. She is immediately distinguished as a family member and as a character by his preference for her and hers for him. The entail notwithstanding, she is in many respects his heir. To her he bequeaths his ironic distance from the world, the habit of studying and appraising those around him, the role of social critic. In this role, father and daughter together scan Mr. Collins's letter, dismissing man and letter with a few, skeptical words. Mr. Bennet enables Elizabeth by sharing with her his authorial mandate, which is Austen's own: to frame a moral discourse and judge characters accordingly. Through her father, Elizabeth gains provisional access to certain authorial powers.

But Mr. Bennet also shares with her, illogically enough, his disdain for women; he respects Elizabeth only because she is unlike other girls. This puts his exceptional daughter in an awkward position—bonding with her father means breaking with her mother, even reneging on femaleness altogether. Elizabeth is less a daughter than a surrogate son. Like a son, by giving up the mother and giving in to the father, she reaps the spoils of maleness. We can understand her, alternatively, in terms of Freud's scheme for girls. Freud contends that girls first turn to the father because they want a penis like his. They envy, as Karen Horney explained, the social power this organ signifies under patriarchy.7 To complete their oedipal task, however, girls must shift from wanting a penis for themselves to wanting a man who has one; ceasing to identify with the powerful father, they must accept instead their own "castration."8 In these terms the cocky Elizabeth we first encounter is charmingly arrested in the early phase of male-identification. We can see her, then, in one of two ways: as an honorary boy who has completed his oedipal task, or as a backward, wayward girl who refuses to complete hers.

The point is, first, that whatever discursive acuity Elizabeth has derives from an alliance and identification with her father. As the Mr. Collins scene demonstrates, the force of her words is highly contingent. Elizabeth's authority is vicarious, second-hand; like a woman writing under a male pseudonym, her credibility depends on the father's signature. In addition, however enabling, Mr. Bennet is essentially ambivalent toward Elizabeth. "They have none of them much to recommend them," he says of his daughters in chapter I. "They are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters" (5). Insisting that all of his daughters are silly and ignorant, that none of them have much to recommend them, Mr. Bennet blithely classes Elizabeth with "other girls," even as he appears to distinguish her from them. So we find, already in the opening scene, a tension between Elizabeth's "masculine" alacrity and the slow-witted "femininity" threatening to claim her. Mr. Bennet's double vision of her suggests right away the basic ambiguity of Austen's father-daughter relationship, coded not only diachronically in the Mr. Bennet-Mr. Darcy sequence, but also synchronically in Mr. Bennet's duplicity regarding Elizabeth.

For in Austen the male-bonding between father and daughter is set up to collapse. Eventually the economic reality asserts itself, the axiom of the famous first line held up to a mirror and read backward: a single woman not in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a husband. Sooner or later what Adrienne Rich calls "compulsory heterosexuality" (conspiracy of economic need and the ideology of romance) forces Elizabeth out of the library, into the ballroom, and finally up to the altar.9 The father's business in this ritual is to give the daughter away. If Mr. Bennet is enabling up to a point, the marriage ceremony requires him to objectify his daughter and hand her over. He not only withdraws his protection and empowerment, but also gives away (reveals) her true "castrated" gender, her incapacity for action in a phallocentric society. This ceremony—posing father as giver, daughter as gift—underlies and ultimately belies the father-daughter relationship in Pride and Prejudice.

So Elizabeth's gradual falling out with her father, which means forfeiting her authorial status, is built into the institution of marriage. Austen makes it quite clear that Mr. Bennet neglects Lydia, failing to protect her from ruinous male designs. Yet, is not the father's letting go of the daughter precisely what the wedding ritual requires?10 Mr. Bennet's profligacy with Lydia is simply a starker form of his cheerful readiness to give away any and all of his daughters. "I will send a few lines by you," he tells his wife, "to assure [Bingley] of my hearty consent to his marrying which ever he chuses of the girls" (4). Exposing a pattern intrinsic to the nuptial plot, Mr. Bennet's abandonment of Lydia provides a crude paradigm for Elizabeth's milder estrangement from her father and for the literal distance between father and heroine in Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.11 Bennet, by retiring as Elizabeth's champion, is not ineffectual as a father, but correct.

In his discussion of marriage and the incest taboo, Lévi-Strauss proposes that the exchange of women among kin groups serves, like the exchange of money or words, to negotiate relationships among men. Women are, in effect, a kind of currency whose circulation binds and organizes male society.12 It seems to me that Pride and Prejudice offers a similar anthropology. Here, too, marriage betrays the tie between father and daughter in favor of ties among men. I have the idea that Elizabeth's economic imperative is not the only motive for her marriage, that the fathers have an agenda of their own, involving considerations of class.

Mr. Bennet's class interest in a Bennet-Darcy match is fairly obvious and similar to Elizabeth's own. He may laugh at Mrs. Bennet's schemes, but the fact remains that a liaison to aristocracy will benefit him significantly. And in spite of his philosophic detachment, Mr. Bennet is not without a streak of pragmatism—after all, he has always intended to visit Mr. Bingley. Nor is he unimpressed by wealth and rank. He is frankly delighted that Darcy has used his money and influence to straighten out the Lydia-Wickham affair. "So much the better," he exults. "It will save me a world of trouble and economy" (377). Sounding even, for a moment, strangely like Mr. Collins, he consents to Elizabeth's marriage with little of his habitual irony. "I have given him my consent," he tells her. "He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse any thing, which he condescended to ask" (376).

Though Mr. Darcy's class interests may seem to rule against a connection to the Bennets, they too are subtly at work here. In her remarks on eighteenth-century marriage, Mary Poovey notes that Cinderella matches frequently allayed not only middle-class status anxiety, but also the financial anxiety increasingly rife among the well-born.13 Cinderella's family may be obscure, but her share in merchant profits is attractive to a prince who is poor. Austen does not fully represent, until Persuasion's Sir Walter Elliot, the material as well as moral impoverishment of the landed class in her day. Yet as early as Sense and Sensibility (1811) she gives us Willoughby who, unsure of his aristocratic heritage, leaves Marianne for a certain Miss Grey with fifty thousand pounds. Of course in Pride and Prejudice cash flows the other way: Darcy has it and Elizabeth needs it. But a decline in aristocratic welfare is nevertheless suggested by the sickly Miss De Bourgh. It may well be the enfeeblement of his own class that encourages Darcy to look below him for a wife with greater stamina. As a figure for the ambitious bourgeoisie, Elizabeth pumps richer, more robust blood into the collapsing veins of the nobility, even as she boosts the social standing of her relatives in trade. Most important, however—to the patriarchs of both classes—she eases tensions between them. By neutralizing class antagonism, she promotes the political stability on which industrial prosperity depends.14

I turn, now, to the handing of Elizabeth from Bennet to Darcy, which is prefigured by a scene on the Lucas dance floor. Here Sir William Lucas stands in for Mr. Bennet, jockeying for power with Mr. Darcy, who has the upper hand. Sir William begins to despair, when suddenly he is "struck with the notion of doing a very gallant thing" (26). Laying claim to Elizabeth, he offers her up to Darcy as "a very desirable partner." Sir William understands that gift-giving can be an "idiom of competition." As anthropologist Gayle Rubin explains, there is power in creating indebtedness.15 We imagine the three of them: Elizabeth between the two men, her hand held aloft by Lucas, Lucas eager to deposit it, Darcy "not unwilling to receive it" (26). The fathers' device here is synecdoche. Elizabeth is reduced to a hand, extended in friendship or hostility, the means of fraternal intercourse. Suddenly, however, Elizabeth pulls back. With startling resolution she withdraws herself from the debt nexus. Indeed, throughout much of the novel Elizabeth resists the conventional grammar of exchange. She would not only extract herself as object but, contesting the fathers' right to control the action, insert herself as subject. Saboteur, Elizabeth threatens to wreck the marriage syntax. Needless to say, this makes for one of the stormier courtships in nineteenth-century fiction.

It was, as I have noted, Lévi-Strauss who first saw marriage as a triangulated moment, a woman exchanged between two (groups of) men. Gayle Rubin went on to identify this kind of traffic, its organization of a sex-gender system, as the basis for female subordination. But the immediate model for my placing such an exchange at the heart of Pride and Prejudice is provided by Eve Sedgwick; her recent book, Between Men, examines the way men bond across the bodies of women in a range of English texts.16 Her mapping of "male homosocial desire" posits, however, an essentially passive female term. It imagines a triangle that is stable and uncontested; even women who begin active and ambitious, once drawn into the space between two men, fall automatically still. What I have tried to suggest above is that Elizabeth does not readily accept a merely pivotal role. The book stretches out because she puts up a fight before acceding (and never entirely) to the fathers' homosocial plot. The site of her resistance, as well as her compromise, is language.

This brings us to Mr. Darcy—a father by virtue of his age, class, and a paternalism extending to friends and dependents alike. A man given to long letters and polysyllables, a man with an excellent library and even hand, Darcy may also be seen as an aspiring authorial figure. If Bennet sets out to create suspense, Darcy hankers to resolve it. Their relation is one of literary rivals, with Elizabeth the prize. The complication is Elizabeth's own formidable way with words. As surrogate son, father's heir, Elizabeth is herself a contender for the authorial position. Instead of rewarding Darcy for his accession, she competes with him for it. In these terms, Elizabeth's and Darcy's matching of wits is more than flirtation—it is a struggle for control of the text. There are two heated and definitive moments in this struggle: Elizabeth's refusal of Darcy's first proposal and the day after, when he delivers his letter.

Chapter II of the second volume finds Elizabeth alone at the Collins's house in Kent. Concerned sister and conscientious reader, she is studying Jane's letters. Suddenly Darcy bursts in and blurts out a proposal, more an admission of weakness than a confession of love. The chapter closes by resuming Elizabeth's internal dialogue, "the tumult of her mind" (193) after Darcy's departure. But have we, throughout this chapter, been anywhere but in Elizabeth's mind? By all rights this should be Darcy's scene, his say. In fact, we get relatively few of his actual words. His amatory discourse is quickly taken over by a narrator who represents the scene, renders Darcy's language, from Elizabeth's point of view: "His sense of her inferiority … [was] dwelt on with a warmth which … was very unlikely to recommend his suit" (189). The text of Darcy's proposal is completely glossed, and glossed over, by her interpretation of it. Of Elizabeth's refusal, by contrast, Austen gives us every unmediated word, a direct quotation four times as long as that permitted Darcy. This sets the pattern for what follows. Every time Darcy opens his mouth, he is superseded by a speech of greater length and vehemence. She answers his question—Why is he so rudely rejected?—with a tougher question of her own: "I might as well enquire … why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil?" (190). Conceding nothing, she accuses him at some length of everything: of breaking Jane's heart and unmaking Wickham's fortune, of earning and continually confirming her own dislike. She betters his scorn for her family by scorning him. "I have every reason in the world to think ill of you" (191), she asserts. Her language, her feelings, her judgments overwhelm his and put them to shame. They drive him to platitude, apology, and hasty retreat. This rhetorical round leaves Elizabeth clear victor.

The following day, however, she is obsessed by Darcy: "It was impossible to think of any thing else" (195). She receives his letter. As the man has crowded out all other thoughts, so now his letter crowds out all other words, monopolizing the narrative for the next seven pages. Longer than the entire preceding chapter, it completely dispels Elizabeth's inspired performance of the day before. If Darcy was not "master enough" of himself then, he regains his mastery now. He takes back his story and, in a play for literary hegemony (to be author and critic both), tells us how to read him. The letter is a defense of his judgment, its impartiality and authority. About Jane he insists: "My investigations and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears.—I did not believe her to be indifferent because I wished it;—I believed it on impartial conviction" (197). As for Wickham, the letter documents Darcy's early suspicions and the events that proved him right. It further demonstrates the power of Darcy's moral discourse over others. Bingley has "a stronger dependence on [Darcy's] judgment than on his own" (199). Georgiana, fearing her brother's disapproval, decides not to elope after all.17

Only after Darcy's unabridged epistle do we get Elizabeth's response to it. She reads "with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes" (204). Darcy's letter saps her power to comprehend, disables her attention. It addresses her as reader only to indispose her as reader. At first Elizabeth protests: "This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!" (204). She rushes through the letter and puts it away forever. But the text, unrelenting, demands to be taken out, read and reread. Against the broad chest of Darcy's logic, Elizabeth beats the ineffectual fists of her own. Putting down the paper, she "weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality … but with little success" (205). Her interruptions, procrastinations, do nothing to stop the inexorable drive of Darcy's narrative to its foregone conclusion. In what Roland Barthes might call its "processive haste," it sweeps away Elizabeth's objections and has its way with her.18

In its second sentence, the letter disclaims "any intention of paining" (196). It apologizes for wounding, yet proceeds all too knowingly to wound. There is indeed a disturbing insistence on its hurtfulness, a certain pleasurable recurrence to the violence of its effect. "Here again I shall give you pain" (200), the writer unhesitatingly announces. But now Darcy's determination to inflict seems matched by Elizabeth's to be afflicted. They coincide in their enthusiasm for her humiliation: "'How despicably have I acted!' she cried.—'I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!'" (208). Vindicating Darcy's judgment and debasing Elizabeth's, disqualifying her interpretation of things in favor of his, the letter leaves her "depressed beyond any thing she had ever known before" (209).

This is the point, the dead center, on which the whole book turns. Darcy's botched proposal marks the nadir of his career, after which, launched by his letter, he rises up from infamy in an arc that approaches apotheosis. In the ensuing chapters he turns deus ex machina, exerting an implausible power to set everything straight—a power Mr. Bennet conspicuously lacks. It is Darcy who arranges for three lucky couples to be, each, the happiest couple in the world. Like the authorial persona of Northanger Abbey, Darcy herds us all to "perfect felicity." The nature of his unseen influence is precisely authorial. Darcy's letter proves his textual prowess. At this point he succeeds Mr. Bennet as controlling literary figure and displaces Elizabeth as her father's scion. From now on the pen, as Persuasion's Anne Elliot might say, is in his hands.

Soon after receiving Darcy's letter, Elizabeth meets up with Kitty and Lydia. Officer-crazy as ever, Lydia gushes on about Brighton and her plans to join the regiment there for its summer encampment. This first reference to Brighton unfolds into an unexpectedly earnest seduction plot that might seem more at home in a novel by Richardson or Burney. It is latent, however, in Lydia's very character, throwback to those too sentimental heroines so mercilessly parodied by Austen's juvenilia. That such a plot should surface now, seize center page and, brash as its heroine, hold the spotlight for more than seven chapters, is by no means accidental. The Lydia-Wickham imbroglio creates, for one thing, a situation before which Mr. Bennet will prove inadequate, Mr. Darcy heroic. Elizabeth first doubts her father regarding his decision to let Lydia go to Brighton, and she blames her father bitterly for the subsequent scandal. For Mr. Darcy, by contrast, the calamity is a chance to prove his nobility both of heart and of purse, his desire to rectify and his power to do so. The Lydia plot therefore accomplishes Elizabeth's separation from her father and her reattachment to another. It works a changing of the paternal guard.

By showcasing Darcy, the upstart plot that seems to delay and even briefly to replace Elizabeth's and Darcy's courtship serves actually to advance it. Yet there is another reason that Lydia's story, a classic case of seduction, moves into the foreground at this moment. It fills the curious gap between Elizabeth's first, private softening and her final, public surrender. I would argue that, at this juncture, Elizabeth's narrative is displaced onto that of her sister. Lydia's seduction registers an emotional drama—of coercion, capitulation, and lamentation—missing from but underlying Elizabeth's story proper. Of course Elizabeth is a foil for Lydia, one sister's wisdom held up to the other's folly. Yet there remains a sense in which their positions are scandalously similar. At one point, in response to Lydia's rudeness, Elizabeth admits, "However incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had formerly harbored" (220). And perhaps this is more generally the case: that Elizabeth and Lydia differ more in style than in substance. In other words, far from being an alternative plot, Lydia's is, albeit in cruder terms, a parallel one. Like the interpolated tales in that protonovel Don Quixote, Lydia's tale works less to distract from the central narrative than to distill its meaning. It does not defer Elizabeth's progress toward marriage so much as code the seduction and surrender on which her marriage relies.

We leave Elizabeth at the end of volume 2, chapter 13, completely, under Darcy's influence. "She could think only of her letter" (209). As the next chapter explains, "Mr. Darcy's letter, she was in a fair way of soon knowing by heart" (212). The unusual syntax here is succinct indication of the new order—Mr. Darcy and his text come pointedly before Elizabeth, would-be subject. The narrator continues, "When she remembered the style of his address, she was still full of indignation; but when she considered how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided him, her anger was turned against herself" (212). Elizabeth's reversal here, the introversion of her anger, is again revealing. Her initial judgment of Darcy is now recanted as unjust, its accusation redirected against herself.

When we first meet Elizabeth, daughter of a social critic resembling Austen herself, she is proud of her ability to know things deeply and to judge them knowingly. Yet by the end of the novel she claims only to be high-spirited. Sorry to have refused Darcy, she longs to be schooled by his better judgment: "By her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance" (312). It should not surprise us to find, in an Austen novel, that judgment, information, and knowledge rate higher than ease and liveliness. While these are all Austen's professional virtues, the former are fundamental to her moral lexicon.19 (Thus her impatience with Jane's dumb neutrality.) What may surprise and sadden us, however, is that a heroine who began so competent to judge should end up so critically disabled, so reliant for judgment on somebody else. Not that Elizabeth lapses into sheer Lydiacy. Just that by the closing chapters her eye is less bold, her tongue less sharp, the angularity—distinguishing her from the rest of her more comfortably curvaceous sex—less acute.

According to one critical truism, Pride and Prejudice achieves a kind of bilateral disarmament: Elizabeth gives up her prejudice, while Darcy relinquishes his pride.20 I am arguing, however, that Darcy woos away not Elizabeth's "prejudice," but her judgment entire. While Darcy defends the impartiality of his opinion, Elizabeth confesses the partiality and thus worthlessness of hers. His representation of the world is taken to be objective, raised to the level of universality; hers is taken to be subjective—prejudiced—and dismissed. True, Elizabeth was wrong about Wick-ham. But was she really that wrong about Darcy? He may warm up a bit, and his integrity is rightly affirmed, yet the fact remains that he is hardly less arrogant than Elizabeth at first supposed. Her comment to Fitzwilliam can stand: "I do not know any body who seems more to enjoy the power of doing what he likes than Mr. Darcy" (183).

And is Darcy's own record of accuracy much better? His judgment of Jane is just as mistaken, and as partial, as Elizabeth's of Wickham. Yet his credibility remains intact. Finally admitting to having misinterpreted Jane, Darcy explains that he was corrected not by Elizabeth, but by his own subsequent observations (371). On the basis of his new appraisal he readvises the ever-pliant Bingley. His error, far from disqualifying him to judge, only qualifies him to judge again. Elizabeth's error, on the other hand, is irreparably discrediting. What happens in Pride and Prejudice is not that an essentially prejudiced character finally sees the error of her ways. Rather, a character initially presented as reliable, who gains our and Austen's respect precisely for her clear-sightedness, is ultimately represented as prejudiced. The real drama lies not in the heroine's "awakening" to her true identity, but in the text's reidentification of her.

If Elizabeth does not overcome her "prejudice," neither does Darcy abandon his pride. Early in the book Elizabeth declares, "I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine" (20). Yet by the last volume her feelings have changed considerably: "They owed the restoration of Lydia, her character, every thing to him. Oh! how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had ever directed towards him. For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him" (326-27). Elizabeth and Darcy begin skeptical of each other, proud of themselves, and they reach a connubial consensus that is altogether different: at last both are skeptical of her, both proud of him.

But wait. Does not Darcy make a pretty speech to his bride confessing, "By you, I was properly humbled" (369)? Here it is useful to see how the text itself defines "pride," and how this definition relates to Mr. Darcy. The bookish Mary—another figure for Austen, if a self-mocking one—distinguishes "pride" from "vanity": "Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us" (20). As for Darcy, Charlotte Lucas suggests that his pride is excusable: "One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, every thing in his favor, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud" (20). A younger Lucas puts it more bluntly: "If I were as rich as Mr. Darcy … I should not care how proud I was. I would keep a pack of foxhounds, and drink a bottle of wine every day" (20). The practical Lucases have a point. Darcy's richness gives him if not a "right," then a careless readiness to be proud. A man in his social position need not consider any opinion but his own. Darcy is proud because he does not have to be vain—others' opinions do not affect him. His pride, we might say, comes with the territory. It is less a psychological attribute than a social one, and as such it is only heightened by Darcy's enhanced status—as husband, hero, and authorial figure—in Pride and Prejudice's last act.

Of course we continue to admire Elizabeth. She may care for Darcy's regard, but she is not so utterly enslaved by it as Miss Bingley. She may hesitate to laugh at Darcy, but she does show Georgiana that a wife may take (some) liberties. We admire her because she is not Charlotte, because she is not Lydia. I am insisting, however, that Elizabeth is a better friend to Charlotte, a closer sister to Lydia—that her story runs more parallel to theirs—than previous readings have indicated. The three women live in the same town, share the same gossip, attend the same balls—why, as some critics have claimed, should Elizabeth alone be above the social decree?21 There are, in Elizabeth's marriage, elements both of crass practicality and of coercion. Elizabeth is appalled by Charlotte's pragmatism, and yet, choosing Darcy over Wickham, she is herself beguiled by the entrepreneurial marriage plot.22 If she is embarrassed by her personal connection to Lydia, she is also implicated by the formal intersection of their plots: in the course of the novel she loses not her virginity but her authority.

Elizabeth marries a decent man and a large estate, but at a certain cost. Though she may stretch the marriage contract, it binds her nonetheless to a paternalistic noble whose extensive power is explicitly ambiguous: "How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow!—How much of good or evil must be done by him!" (250-51, emphasis added). If Mr. Bennet embodies the post-Enlightenment, modified patriarch, Mr. Darcy harks back to an earlier type—before fathers were curbed by Lockean principles, before aristocrats began to feel the crunch. Darcy disempowers Elizabeth if only because of the positions they each occupy in the social schema: because he is a Darcy and she is a Bennet, because he is a man and she is his wife. If Mr. Bennet permits Elizabeth to fill the role of "son," she marries another father figure only to revert, in terms of privilege, to "daughter."

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen shows us an intelligent girl largely in the grasp of a complex mechanism whose interests are not hers. She does this, I think, less in resignation than in protest; here, as in Northanger Abbey, Austen is concerned to ironize girls and novels that hasten to the altar for conclusive happiness.23 I should stress, however, that my purpose in outlining a trajectory of humiliation has been not to displace but to complexify the reading that takes for granted connubial bliss. We can experience the ending as euphoric (most readers do) and still recognize those aspects of the novel working strenuously against this. I want, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, to appreciate the doubleness that characterizes the work of nineteenth-century women writers, the tension between conventionality and subversion. This tension is, on the one hand, produced by an author who knows what she is doing, whose art is a deliberate shaping, whose ironic tendencies were manifest at fifteen. To ignore any such intentionality is to slight Austen's mastery. But the ideological slipperiness of Pride and Prejudice is, on the other hand, finally a matter of the text's own logic, its own legibility. Beyond any fully conscious intention on Austen's part, a pattern of duplicity is at work in the narrative itself, with a consistency amounting to design.

As I have argued, part of this novel's design is to reveal a system of homosocial relations underlying the institution of heterosexuality. Anticipating Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gayle Rubin, and Eve Sedgwick, it recognizes in marriage a displacement of the father-daughter bond by a bond between fathers. Elizabeth's humiliation has everything to do with transactions between various fathers that take place behind her back, over her head, and apart from, if not against, her will. I want to close by offering some further support for this view.

By the end of the book, Mr. Bennet's paternal role has been assumed by his brother-in-law, Mr. Gardiner. Mr. Gardiner, though "gentleman like," is not technically a gentleman. Living by trade "and within view of his own warehouses" (139), he represents, more than Mr. Bennet, the rising middle class. No wonder Elizabeth fears that Darcy will rebuff him, unkind as Darcy has been toward her bourgeois relations. She is quite unprepared for Darcy's civility to Gardiner, and for the apparent power of fishing to overcome class differences. Perhaps their shared fondness for Elizabeth, their lengthy haggle over Lydia, as well as their equal passion for trout, serve to reinforce the social/economic advantages of a Darcy-Gardiner alliance. They become, in any case, suggestively close. The very last paragraph of the novel informs us that: "With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them" (388).

At first this seems a peculiarly insignificant note on which to end. On second glance it appears to confirm the notion I have had: that just as the Gardiners have been the means of uniting Darcy and Elizabeth, so Elizabeth has been the means of uniting Mr. Darcy and Mr. Gardiner. Pride and Prejudice attains a satisfying unity not only between a man and a woman, but also between two men. Austen's novel accomplishes an intercourse not merely personal, but social—as much a marriage of two classes as a marriage of true minds.


  1. My title and my argument are a turn on Mark Schorer's "The Humiliation of Emma Woodhouse" (1959), in Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 98-111. Here he remarks: "The diminution of Emma in the social scene, her reduction to her proper place … is very beautiful" (102).
  2. See Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 239-58.
  3. Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 13. See Beth Kowaleski-Wallace's discussion of the Lockean father in "Milton's Daughters: The Education of Eighteenth-Century Women Writers," Feminist Studies 12, no. 2 (1986): 275-95.
  4. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813), ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932), 6. Future references are to this edition.
  5. Lewes's observation is cited by Judith O'Neill in her introduction to Critics on Jane Austen: Readings in Literary Criticism, ed. Judith O'Neill (London: George Allen, 1970), 8.
  6. See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), 153.
  7. Karen Horney, "The Flight from Womanhood: The Masculinity Complex in Women as Viewed by Men and by Women" (1926), in Psychoanalysis and Women, ed. Jean Baker Miller (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 19.
  8. For a useful recapitulation of Freud on fathers and daughters, see Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 94, 114-16.
  9. Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980), in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review, 1983), 177-205.
  10. See, for example, Lynda E. Boose, "The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare," PMLA 97, no. 3 (1982): 325-47. According to Boose, King Lear's faux pas is his unwillingness to release Cordelia—he "casts her away not to let her go but to prevent her from going" (333)—thereby obstructing the ritual process of her marriage to France.
  11. In these terms, Emma's conclusion may have certain advantages for its heroine. It is true that Emma defers to Knightley's worldview much as Elizabeth does to Darcy's. But remaining under her father's roof may preserve some of the authority she has had, in his household and the community, as Mr. Woodhouse's daughter.
  12. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 61.
  13. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 11.
  14. See Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 15.
  15. Gayle Rubin, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review, 1975), 172.
  16. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
  17. Georgiana's position as "daughter" in relation to Darcy contributes to our sense of him as "paternal," as does his fatherly advice to Bingley.
  18. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 12.
  19. See Austen's famous defense of the novel as a "work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed … the most thorough knowledge of human nature … the liveliest effusions of wit and humour" (Northanger Abbey, 1818, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd edition [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933], 38).
  20. John Halperin's recent biography, The Life of Jane Austen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984) is notably complacent toward this formulation: "It is unnecessary to rehearse again the process by which Darcy's pride is humbled and Elizabeth's prejudice exposed—' your defect is a propensity to hate every body,' she tells him early in the novel; 'And I yours … is wilfully to misunderstand them,' he replies" (70).
  21. I have in mind D. W. Harding and Marvin Mudrick, old guard of Austen criticism's "subversive school" (as opposed to Alistair Duckworth, Marilyn Butler, et al., who see Austen as a social conservative): D. W. Harding, "Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen," Scrutiny 8 (1940): 346-62; Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952); Alistair M. Duck-worth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971); Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). While I am taking Harding's and Mudrick's side, I disagree with their view that Austen challenges her society by allowing Elizabeth somehow to transcend it, that Elizabeth represents the "free individual." Pride and Prejudice is not, in my opinion, about the heroine's independence of the social context; it is about her inextricability from it.
  22. See Karen Newman, "Can This Marriage Be Saved: Jane Austen Makes Sense of an Ending," ELH 50, no. 4 (1983): 693-710. Newman points out that critics as early as Sir Walter Scott have noticed Elizabeth's fascination with Pemberly: "Austen is at pains from early in the novel to show us Elizabeth's response to Darcy's wealth" (698). It is interesting that Hollywood, of venal habits and puritanical tastes, should recognize and be uneasy with Elizabeth's suspicious position as Austen wrote it. In the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine threatens to cut Darcy out of her will if he goes ahead and marries a Bennet. Elizabeth proves her romantic integrity by vowing to marry him anyway. Needless to say, Austen conspicuously chose not to test Elizabeth in such a manner.
  23. In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), Gilbert and Gubar refer us to Lloyd W. Brown (Bits of Ivory: Narrative Techniques in Jane Austen's Fiction [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1973]) for "the most sustained discussion of Austen's ironic undercutting of her own endings" (667). Karen Newman also sees the happy ending in Austen as parodic: despite its comic effect, there remain "unresolved contradictions between romantic and materialistic notions of marriage" (695). The idea of a fairy-tale union is falsified by Austen's clairvoyance about why women need to marry. My reading accords a good deal with Newman's, though I am less confident than she that Austen's heroines manage nevertheless to "live powerfully within the limits imposed by ideology" (705).

Margaret Kirkham (Essay Date 1983)

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SOURCE: Kirkham, Margaret. “Allusion, Irony and Feminism in the Austen Novel.” In Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction, pp. 81-98. Brighton, England: Harvester Press Limited, 1983.In the following essay, Kirkham asserts that Austen’s novels are both comic and feminist.

Comedy and the Austen Heroines: The Early Novels

F. R. Leavis placed Jane Austen as the inaugurator of the ‘great tradition’ of English nineteenth-century fiction. But she is unlike the later novelists of this tradition in that she writes comedies, that is, her novels preserve, and call attention to, certain formal features proper to comedy in its theatrical sense, and this is used to distance what is represented from life itself, even though character and events are made, for the most part, to look natural and probable. In George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, the distinction between comedy and tragedy is no longer of importance, for their form of realism attempts to embrace the whole of life under a single vision. Auerbach speaks of the comédie larmoyante and Sturm und Drang as opening the way to the realism of Balzac and the naturalism of Zola, in which ‘random individuals from daily life in their dependence upon historical circumstances’ are made the subject of ‘serious, problematic and even tragic representation’.1 But the Austen heroine is not realistic in quite this way, for what is ‘serious, problematic and dependent upon historical circumstances’ about her is subsumed under the formal, comic role which she is required to play. In the Austen novels the narrator, at crucial moments, when everything has been made to look natural and probable, draws the reader’s attention to the way in which character and action also fulfil the formal requirements of comedy and, in this way, directs us not to mistake what is represented for a straightforward imitation of life itself. Sometimes the conventions adhered to are mocked and this, as Lloyd W. Brown has shown, is especially true of the ‘happy endings’.2

Some critics with a social conscience, including feminist ones, have found the Austen novels complacent in their optimism, but Jane Austen’s vision does not seem complacent or superficial if we take the formal comic features of her novels seriously, as part of their total meaning. The comic vision is partial, but it need not be untruthful provided it is not mistaken for more than it is. Jane Austen puts pressure on the limits of comedy, but she does not seek to break down the distinction between tragedy and comedy, only to enlarge the scope of comedy in prose fiction, by making it capable of embodying a serious criticism of contemporary manners and morals and of contemporary literature. As a feminist moralist, Jane Austen criticises sexist pride and prejudice as embedded in the laws and customs of her age, but she was also a critic of the same faults in literature itself. Her interest in the conventions of art is not a means of escaping from her central moral interest, but a way of showing, through drawing attention to them, that they must be questioned critically if true understanding is to be achieved. As her work developed she became more, not less, aware of literary form as in need of the conscious critical attention of the discerning reader. In her later novels she relies upon a greater awareness of contemporary conventions and their accustomed meanings than the modern reader always possesses, and this has led to the belief that she became more conservative in her outlook, whereas she became more radical and more subtle, demanding more in the way of intelligent, critical co-operation in the reader.

The full strength of Austen’s feminist criticism of life and literature, and the consistency with which she went on developing new ways of making it, does not appear unless one takes account of literary and theatrical irony as controlling the total meaning of the major late novels, Mansfield Park and Emma, as well as of the earlier ones. Part Three of this study is mainly about allusion, irony and feminism in these two novels but, before discussing that, a little more needs to be said about the character of the Austen comedy, and the way in which it accommodates both an ideal vision—the idyllic element which Lionel Trilling3 saw in it—together with forceful and sometimes subversive (to use D. W. Harding’s4 word) criticism of life and letters as they actually were.

Jane Austen is the major comic artist in English of the age we call ‘Romantic’, her scepticism about Romanticism being largely a product of her feminism, but, in her confidence that the comic vision remained capable of bringing enlightenment, and of reaching towards the ideal, she is the representative of that true comic spirit which the Romantics admired in Shakespeare, and which Shelley thought lost in a corrupt age, like that in which he and Jane Austen lived. Where ‘the calculating principle’ predominates, he tells us, in A Defence of Poetry,

Comedy loses its ideal universality: wit succeeds to humour; we laugh from self-complacency and triumph, instead of pleasure; malignity, sarcasm and contempt succeed to sympathetic merriment; we hardly laugh, but we smile.

There is, in the Austen comedy, a great deal of wit, some sarcasm and a trace of malignity here and there (for example, in the portrayal of Aunt Norris and Sir Walter Elliot) but there is more sympathetic merriment than sarcasm, and the wit is tempered by humour. Jane Austen’s comic vision includes a glimpse of something ideal and universal, together with a sharp, ironic awareness of how far short we mostly are of it, especially when ‘dressed in a little brief authority’. The feminism is in the laughter, sometimes rather harsh laughter, but it is also in the visionary ideal, for Austen manages to create a few brief oases where men and women experience equal relationships with one another, and where it would appear that the idea of their being otherwise, at least for those of such superior mind as her heroes and heroines, has never been heard of.

This is not to say that the Austen heroines lead extraordinary lives, or are endowed with extraordinary genius. The difficulties they experience are not, in many instances, the same as those experienced by men, but the way they learn to solve them is what matters. Mary Wollstonecraft, arguing that ‘for man and woman . . . truth must be the same’, says:

Women, I allow, may have different duties to fulfil; but they are human duties, and the principles that should regulate the discharge of them, I sturdily maintain, must be the same.5

That is the central moral principle developed in the Austen novels and, though it goes against Rousseau and Richardson, it does not go against the author’s Butlerian, secularised Christianity. Gilbert Ryle, observing that Jane Austen’s

heroines face their moral difficulties and solve their moral problems without recourse to religious faith or theological doctrines. Nor does it ever occur to them to seek the counsels of a clergyman,

suggests that Austen ‘draws a curtain between her Sunday thoughts, whatever they were, and her creative imagination’.6 Perhaps she did think more about revealed religion on Sundays than other days, but even so there would have been no reason for her Sunday thoughts to come into conflict with her weekday ones. The Austen heroines act as independent moral agents because that is the way in which the Creator intended those with powers of reason to act. Since the novelist wishes to show us heroines capable of learning morals through experience and the exercise of their own judgement, she does not send them off to get the advice of the few rational clergymen available in her fiction, for to do so would prevent her showing that, while the Church of England ordains such moral teachers as Mr Collins, Mr Elton and Dr Grant, the natural moral order of things allows Miss Bennet, Miss Wood-house and Miss Price (under Providence) to do very well without them, having within themselves, as Miss Price puts it, ‘a better guide . . . than any other person can be’ (Mansfield Park, p. 412).

Jane Austen’s heroines are not self-conscious feminists, yet they are all exemplary of the first claim of Enlightenment feminism: that women share the same moral nature as men, ought to share the same moral status, and exercise the same responsibility for their own conduct. As Austen’s understanding of the problem of presenting heroines fit to take the place of central moral intelligence in her novels increased, so did their moral stature. It is all done, apparently without effort, as though it were perfectly natural for young women to think, to learn through what passes under their own observation, and to draw conclusions the author thinks valid from it. It looks natural, but it is done by playing with the mirror of art and producing an illusion. The illusion is both visionary and salutary, for it suggests how we might live, and criticises the way we actually live, in a world where women, however marked their abilities, are not thought of (except by a few, mostly heroes) as equals and ‘partners in life’.

E. H. Gombrich, in his study of Art and Illusion, takes John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park, painted in 1816, as an illuminating example of how what appears an unpremeditated representation of natural landscape is the outcome of lengthy testing of the painter’s fresh vision against models of landscape painting in his immediate tradition. Gombrich speaks of Rousseau’s assertion that Emile must copy nature and never other men’s work as ‘one of those programmes charged with explosive ignorance’, since a greater appearance of fidelity to Nature is achieved through adaptation and adjustment of earlier models or, as he summarises it, through ‘schema and correction’. Wivenhoe Park

looks so effortless and natural that we accept it as an unquestioning and unproblematic response to the beauty of the English countryside. But, for the historian there is an added attraction to this painting, he knows that this freshness of vision was won in a hard struggle.7

These remarks are apposite to Jane Austen as well as to Constable, for her fresh vision of how things might be in a more natural social order was arrived at in a comparable way, and her art is no more an ‘unquestioning and unproblematic response’ to English society than Constable’s was to the English landscape. There is, however, an important difference between the painter and the novelist: Constable wished it to be thought that he drew directly from Nature and played down his debt to Cozens.8 Austen, being less disturbed than Constable by awareness of how ‘the tradition’ of any art impinges upon ‘the individual talent’, and sometimes has to be consciously resisted, draws attention to the models or schemas employed in the formation of her distinctive, feminist vision, expecting the reader better than a ‘dull elf’ to see their point.

In her earlier work, Jane Austen came up against a major difficulty: the literary models which she needed to use could not, even when adjusted and corrected, be easily freed of anti-feminist bias. It came naturally to her, as her earliest writings show, to write burlesque, and two of her early novels—Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice —develop out of well established burlesque plots. But such burlesque plots, which turn on the early folly of the heroine, make it difficult to establish her as the central moral intelligence of the novel in which she appears. An alternative model, taken from the moralistic tradition of female writing in which contrasting sister-heroines are portrayed, and utilised in Sense and Sensibility, also proved to have intractable difficulties. Austen’s earlier attempts at the adjustment and correction of such schemas must be considered before going on to Mansfield Park and Emma.

Sense and Sensibility

The schema used in Sense and Sensibility— that of contrasted heroines, one representing female good sense and prudence, the other led into error and difficulty by impulsiveness and excesses of feeling and conduct—was to be found in many women novelists, especially those of an ‘improving’ tendency. In Maria Edgeworth’s Letters of Julia and Caroline (1795) and Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story (1796) this schema is used in a straightforward, didactic way. The sensible sister judges aright all the time and eventually, partly as a result of the homilies she delivers, the imprudent sister is brought to acknowledge her faults and amend her ways. The purpose is simply to recommend prudence and self-control without emphasis upon the abilities of the heroines, which make them the proper judges of what is prudent and how self control should be exercised.

Sense and Sensibility is an early work, probably less drastically revised than Northanger Abbey or Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen shows some uncertainty about her own purposes in employing the schema, but she modifies it in two important ways, both of which increase the stature of her pair of heroines. She shows that both sisters have superior abilities, neither being totally lacking in either sense or sensibility, and she introduces a range of other characters against whose defects Elinor and Marianne shine.

In the first chapter, we are told that Elinor ‘possessed a strength of understanding and coolness of judgement’, and that ‘she had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them’. Marianne, although over-eager and immoderate, is not represented as lacking more solid powers of mind: ‘She was sensible and clever.’

As the novel develops, Marianne and Elinor each begin to take on the rounded character of a single, central heroine. Elinor’s response to the contrite Willoughby goes beyond what is quite appropriate in a representative of Sense. Marianne’s critical self-analysis after her illness, which is induced by her own reflections and not the moralising of her sister, is too intelligent to fit a representative of Sensibility. Austen may have started off with the intention of using this type of schematic plot and characterisation much as it had been used before, merely pruning it of its tendency to encourage moralising and solemnity. But, because she creates heroines fully representative of human nature in a larger sense than the schema allows, she discovers its inadequacies. They become particularly clear in the final chapters, where Marianne’s marriage to Colonel Brandon fulfils the requirements of the schematic design, but is felt as a betrayal of the developed character she has become. The schema entailed the showing up of one sister against the other, rather than the endorsements of their superior judgement in the face of prejudice and error in less sensitive and sensible people. It did not therefore permit the adequate representation of a single heroine with a good head and a sound heart.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is developed from a schema used by Charlotte Lennox in The Female Quixote (1752), by Beckford in The Elegant Enthusiast (1796), and by Eaton Stannard Barrett in The Heroine (1813), which Austen was later to enjoy, and by a number of other eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers of burlesque. It presented particular difficulties for a feminist since, although it turned on the condemnation of romantic illusions inspired by literature, it characteristically made a heroine the victim of such delusions, and called on a hero of sense, perhaps aided by a sensible clergyman, to dispel them. Northanger Abbey follows the schema in making its heroine the subject of absurd delusions following on the reading of romantic novels, but it corrects the schema in several important ways. First, the heroine, although young and naïve, is always shown as possessing sound, healthy affections and a good deal of native common sense. Her errors, it is pretty plain, are not likely to be long-lasting, for her own abilities, with a little experience, are bound to correct them. Second, the hero, although he is also a clergyman, is not shown as always superior in his judgements. He has the sense to value novels, saying—in reply to Catherine’s suggestion that ‘gentlemen read better books’—‘“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who had not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”’ He knows how to admire and how to read Ann Radcliffe:

‘I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again;—I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time.’ (p. 106)

And he learns to see in Catherine’s unaffected character qualities which inspire true affection. But he is not without some of the affections of a clever young man as is shown in his strictures on Catherine’s use of ‘nice’, and in his expounding of the fashionable doctrines of the ‘picturesque’ in chapter XIV. In both instances he is clever, rather than sensible. Third, although the heroine’s delusions about General Tilney and the ‘forbidden gallery’ at Northanger are exposed as absurd, they lead the reader to something more substantial. Austen’s handling of this episode amounts to a major criticism of assumptions associated with the schema of the burlesque novel in which a heroine learns that her romantic notions are all mistaken, and that the world of the everyday is better ordered than that of imagination. Catherine accepts the truth of things as Henry Tilney puts them to her, and is bitterly ashamed of herself for having indulged in wild fantasies about the General’s conduct to his late wife but, as events show, she was not so far out as might at first appear.

Henry Tilney’s account of his mother’s life and death makes it clear that she did suffer greatly during her years as the General’s wife and his abstract arguments, in support of the idea that English wives in the Midland counties of England are protected by better laws and more humane customs than those to be found in Mrs Radcliffe’s Alps and Pyrenees, ought to raise doubts in the intelligent reader’s mind, though they satisfy Catherine. Dismissing her dreadful suspicions, he says:

‘What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?’ (pp. 197-8)

This is a powerful rejection of the gothic fantasy of the wicked husband who secretly murders his wife, or locks her up for years on end in a turret, and Catherine, on reflection, accepts it. However things might be in Italy, Switzerland and France,

in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. (p. 200)

This can be read as a complete dismissal of Catherine’s nonsense, yet there is something really evil about the General, and his wife had, in a sense, been imprisoned by her marriage to him, perhaps even brought to an early grave through unhappiness; for General Tilney is allowed by the laws of England and the manners of the age to exert near absolute power over his wife and daughter, and he does so as an irrational tyrant. What must a more experienced Catherine see in observing what passes around her? What do our marriage laws connive at? What does our education prepare us for? A wife not beloved cannot easily be murdered, but perhaps the ’laws of the land and the manners of the age’ do little to protect her as an equal citizen. Servants are not slaves, but how does a wife’s status differ from that of a slave? Is she not her husband’s property?

In view of the General’s subsequent conduct, it is clear that the correct answers to these questions are not quite so straightforward as Henry Tilney thinks. As to the matter of sleeping potions, as Austen was to show through Lady Bertram, these are scarcely needed in a country where a woman, if ‘well married’, may pass away thirty years half asleep on a sofa, with a lap-dog, and a tangled, useless bit of needlework, and still be reckoned a respectable wife of a respected public man.

Northanger Abbey includes some of Austen’s strongest criticism of the society in which she lived, but the schema does not permit her to make the heroine herself sufficiently aware of its real defects. Ann Radcliffe’s novels, which ought, according to the schema, to be exposed as foolish, are here made into something more complex: a test of the literary intelligence of the hero and heroine. Henry Tilney shows his superiority by responding to Radcliffe’s powers of invention and imagination without supposing that The Mysteries of Udolpho is an imitation of life. Catherine also shows her responsiveness, but is required to make a childish confusion of life and art. Austen then, through her own more realistic invention, shows that there is a further truth which neither of them has quite seen. This modifies and correct the schema, but at risk of confusing readers.

15 Pride and Prejudice

Under its earlier title of First Impressions what was to become Pride and Prejudice was thought ready for publication as early as 1797. As its first title suggests, it must have been at that stage fairly close to a burlesque schema similar to that of Northanger Abbey —a novel in which the heroine’s romantic confidence in first impressions (a common article of faith in such heroines) was corrected by experience. Pride and Prejudice, as it eventually appeared in 1813, had been extensively and recently revised by the author who had already published Sense and Sensibility, and had begun to think about Mansfield Park. In its final form, therefore, it comes closer to the later work than either of the other early novels and the schema is very drastically modified. Elizabeth Bennet’s role, as the heroine who puts too high a value on first impressions, can still be seen in her infatuation with Mr Wickham, and in her initial dislike of Mr Darcy, but it becomes unimportant as the novel develops. Half way through the second volume Elizabeth receives the letter from Mr Darcy in which a true account of past events is made plain to her. Once she has read it and reflected upon its contents, which she does with speed and a remarkable display of judicious critical acumen, taking due note of the interest of the writer and the quality of his language, as well as of events and conduct which she had previously misunderstood, she becomes the best informed, as well as the most intelligent character in the entire novel. Quicker and cleverer than the hero, she soon sees that he has solid virtues of head and heart which largely outweigh his tendency to solemnity and self-importance—qualities which his education and upbringing, as well as his wealth, have imposed upon a naturally affectionate heart and a critical mind. From this point onwards Elizabeth Bennet takes on the character of the later Austen heroine; she becomes the central intelligence through whose eyes and understanding events and character are mediated to the reader. Through the use of the ‘indirect free style’ of narration, Elizabeth’s powers of rational reflection, as well as her personal point of view, are made plain.

None of the Austen heroines is more attractive than Elizabeth Bennet, none more clearly possessed of intelligence and warm affections, but as she develops she effectively destroys the role she is supposed to play. The result is that she begins to look too much like a heroine without a part, a real-life character, not a creature in print, and this will not do, for her extreme, and improbable, good luck in marriage is acceptable only if it is properly distanced from life by the formal requirements of plot and part. That is why Jane Austen spoke of Pride and Prejudice as ‘too light and bright and sparkling’, and why she developed new ways of dealing with the heroine’s role, so that the plot should no longer turn on a major reversal of her beliefs or judgment. The later heroines may make mistakes, sometimes serious ones like Emma’s, and their author continues to mock their absurdities,but they are conceived, from the start, as the central and most enlightened minds of the novels in which they appear. They no longer (except incidentally) miscast themselves, their difficulties arise from a miscasting imposed upon them by the society in which they live, where intelligent young women of the middle class have no role appropriate to their abilities.

In the three late novels, the main thrust of irony is against the errors of law, manners and customs, in failing to recognise women as the accountable beings they are, or ought to be; and against those forms of contemporary literature which render them ‘objects of pity, bordering on contempt’, by sentimentalising their weaknesses and making attractive what ought to be exposed as in need of correction. Austen’s adherence to the central convictions of Enlightenment feminism becomes more marked and more forceful, and the scope of her comedy is enlarged, not by taking in a wider social spectrum, but by widening and deepening the range of allusive irony. The catalyst was the popular German dramatist, August von Kotzebue.

Kotzebue and Theatrical Allusion in Mansfield Park and Emma

I am sure that though none of my plays will be staged in fifty years yet the poets of posterity will use my plots and more often my situations . . . Turn the play into a story and if it still grips it will live. (August von Kotzebue)9

Had Jane Austen not made Kotzebue’s Das Kind Der Liebe (Lovers’ Vows) the play-within-the-novel in Mansfield Park it is unlikely that his name would be familiar to many English readers. His importance to her later work is, however, not confined to this one novel, but plays a part in the plot of Emma and is still, though more weakly, felt in Persuasion. In the first two, Austen used his plots and situations and turned the plays into stories which still grip and still live, but perhaps not quite in the way Kotzebue hoped. Kotzebue becomes the grit which irritates Austen into the production of pearls, but her obvious scorn for his plays has not been fully understood as in line with her views as a feminist moralist to whom Kotzebue was the latest and most influential of those disciples of Rousseau, castigated by Wollstonecraft.

Kotzebue’s plays enjoyed an enormous success in England from 1798 to about 1810. L. F. Thompson says that, at this time, his ‘name was a household word from John O’Groats to Land’s End’, and his plays, ‘especially The Stranger, Pizzaro, The Birthday and The Natural Son [Lovers’ Vows], were represented not only in London season after season but on the boards of every market town that could boast such an ornament’.10

Kotzebue’s great popularity, however, did not make him admired among the intelligentsia. He became a figure of controversy and was condemned by a good many writers, including Wordsworth, de Quincey, Coleridge and Scott. The chief complaint against him was that he pandered to the public love of sensational plots, created characters who did not resemble human beings as we know them to be, and, through excesses of sentimentality, aroused disgust rather than compassion. Since Kotzebue was also attacked in some right-wing periodicals on account of his revolutionary political sympathies, the view that all hostility to him was on this account has gained ground, especially in studies of Jane Austen which discover in her novels the point of view of an anti-Jacobin. But this is simplistic and hides differences which ought to be considered.

A review of Lovers’ Vows, which appeared in Cobbett’s Porcupine and Anti-Gallican Monitor in 1801, has been much quoted in support of the belief that Austen’s contempt for this play is a mark of her political conservatism. In it, the reviewer says:

It is the universal aim of German authors of the present day to exhibit the brightest examples of virtue among the lower classes of society; while the higher orders, by their folly and profligacy, are held up to contempt and detestation. This is fully exemplified in Lovers’ Vows. The Cottager and his Wife are benevolent and charitable; Frederick, the hero of the piece, a common soldier, the offspring of cupidity, presents an amiable pattern of filial love; while Count Cassel, a travelled nobleman, is a caricature of every odious and contemptible vice.11

This view of Lovers’ Vows is further discussed below in connection with Mansfield Park, but it ought also to be considered together with what Wordsworth had to say in the following year. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, in which he sets out his purposes in representing such examples of virtue as appear in men like Michael, Simon Lee the Huntsman, and the Leech-Gatherer, he says that such portraits as these are especially needed at a time when

a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of savage torpor.

Among the causes named is the ‘craving for extraordinary incident’ which is encouraged not only by the press, but the corruption of contemporary literature:

The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.

There can be little doubt that Kotzebue was high on Wordsworth’s list of those German dramatists who thus corrupted the ability of the public to think or feel adequately.

It might, of course, be said that Wordsworth, even in 1802, had strong conservative impulses and that therefore to quote him, in arguing that an objection to Kotzebue was not necessarily the mark of a reactionary, carries little weight. But even if there are signs in the Preface of the conflict between Wordsworth’s ‘levelling muse’ and his conservatism, it must surely be difficult to deny that part of his purpose in Lyrical Ballads comes close to what the Porcupine reviewer complains of in Kotzebue. If it must be allowed that the great poet of ‘humble and rustic life’, in the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads, objected to Kotzebue as corrupt, we ought not to convict Jane Austen of a reactionary political motive in making him the target of her scorn, unless we can be sure that she had no other interest more obviously germane to her subject-matter and consistent with the whole development of her work.

Jane Austen must have thought little of Kotzebue and less perhaps of the public taste which clamoured for his works, on account of the extreme silliness of his plays, but she had also a feminist motive in satirising him. Here it is important to insist that, whatever later readers and critics may think of Kotzebue’s sentimentalising of innocent adulteresses, or pathetic victims of ‘noble’ seducers, as revolutionary and liberationist, this view is not in accord with that of Enlightenment feminism. We can see why if we consider L. F. Thompson’s remarks, bearing in mind what Wollstonecraft had to say about Rousseauist attitudes to women:

Kotzebue’s plays were excellently suited for a female audience. He is never guilty of an expression to which one can take exception. . . . One of Shakespeare’s plays held the stage only a night or two because the cast was too exclusively male. Kotzebue gave almost undue prominence to the other sex and catered especially for their taste with his humanitarianism, his happy endings, his introduction of children and his appeal rather to the heart than to the head.12

This explanation of why ‘Kotzebue found favour with the ladies’ is surely a sufficient explanation of why he did not find favour with the Lady who first appeared in print with Sense and Sensibility, and who may have wondered, as she watched Bath audiences lapping him up (they can’t have included many revolutionaries), whether men or women were really much guided by Reason or Nature, at least in their buying of theatre tickets.

Jane Austen’s ability to use the most depressing evidence of folly to advantage came to the rescue. We know that she saw the first performance in Bath of Thomas Dibdin’s The Birthday (a version of Kotzebue’s Die Versöhnung) in 1799. It may have been the first time she had seen a Kotzebue play in the theatre at all. It must have stirred her a good deal, for fifteen years later it provided the schema against which Emma was constructed. We may assume that she did not share the view of the Bath Herald and Register (surely not a journal controlled from Paris by Jacobins) reviewer, who said:

The pleasing spectacle of Bluebeard . . . was again brought forward Saturday evening last . . . preceded by Kotzebue’s admirable drama of The Birthday. If the German author has justly drawn down censure for the immorality of his productions for the stage—this may be accepted as his amende honorable—it is certainly throughout unexception-ably calculated to promote the best interests of virtue and the purest principles of benevolence and, though written much in the style of Sterne, it possesses humour without a single broad Shandyism.13

The Birthday is about two brothers who have quarrelled over ‘a garden’, and been at daggers drawn about it for fifteen years. They are eventually reconciled by the heroine, Emma, the daughter of one of them, who believes (falsely as it turns out) that she can never marry because of her duty to devote herself to her irascible and stupid father. How Jane Austen used this schema in Emma is discussed below; all that I wish to establish here is that she became acquainted with Kotzebue’s work almost as soon as his success in England came about, and that her opinion of it was not in accord with that of the reviewer of a respectable Bath newspaper whose circulation was maintained by its bourgeois (or better) readership, in a city never much associated with revolutionary sympathies. Her use of ironic allusion to Kotzebue in two of the new novels begun after 1812 shows how strongly she reacted to him, and also suggests, as is confirmed by other evidence, that, although the writing of Mansfield Park did not begin until 1813, the working on ideas that eventually came to fruition in the later work began much earlier under the stimulus of influences away from Steventon.

In developing her later comedy as a criticism of contemporary literature and theatre as well as life, Jane Austen made use of Shakespeare, the touchstone of truth and nature in art not only for Dr Johnson, but for the major poets of her own generation. Johnson says, in the 1765 Preface to his edition of Shakespeare:

Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that should form his expectations of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion. Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life.

Jane Austen’s references to Shakespeare in Mansfield Park (chapter III of the third volume) show that she is here invoking him in such a light to contrast with Kotzebue. Coleridge also contrasts the two. In Shakespeare there is a ‘signal adherence to the great law of nature, that all opposites tend to attract and temper each other’. This adherence prevents him from exaggeration of vice and virtue and from the sentimentalising of morals, in the interest of particular classes or groups:

Keeping at all times in the high road of life, Shakespeare has no innocent adulteries, no interesting incests, no virtuous vice: he never renders that amiable which religion and reason alike teach us to detest, or clothes impurity in the garb of virtue, like Beaumont and Fletcher, the Kotzebues of the day . . . Let the morality of Shakespeare be contrasted with that of the writers of his own, or the succeeding, age, or of the present day, who boast their superiority in this respect. No one can dispute that the result of such a comparison is altogether in favour of Shakespeare . . . he inverts not the order of nature and propriety,—does not make every magistrate a drunkard or glutton, nor every poor man meek, humane, and temperate; he has no benevolent butchers, nor any sentimental rat-catchers. (Lectures, 1818)

Jane Austen’s view, as shown in her later novels, is partly in accord with this, for she too sees Shakespeare as upholding what ‘religion and reason alike’ teach us about Nature and morals, and Kotzebue as distorting it by the sentimental treatment of a particular class of characters. But the class which concerns her is not that of the poor contrasted with the rich, but of women contrasted with men. What she thought about benevolent butchers and sentimental rat-catchers, the figures who, in Coleridge’s rhetoric, become the representatives of ‘the poor’, we can only guess for she avoids dealing with them, but we can see, from her treatment of schemas derived from Kotzebue, that she thought his treatment of women, whether village girls or aristocrats, objectionable, because he does not depict them as full human beings accountable for their own actions, but as relative creatures whose highest moral function is to excite compassion in men.

Austen’s criticism of Kotzebue is, above all, that he does not draw women as ‘mixed characters’, whereas Shakespeare, ‘who has no heroes’ and no heroines either, if by these we mean ‘pictures of perfection’, does. Kotzebue’s innocent female victims may not be guilty of broad Shandyisms, but their language ought to excite disgust, for it was not fit for Englishwomen of sense. Beside it, the languages of a Portia or a Rosalind (allowing for a little coarseness, common in a less polished age) was from a pure and undefiled well, fit for Englishwomen who valued their liberty under the law of reason and nature.

Some of the most perceptive nineteenth-century critics of Austen—Whately, G. H. Lewes, Richard Simpson—found themselves comparing her with Shakespeare as a humourist and as a faithful portrayer of human nature. And it was her greatest achievement that she brought the central argument and subject matter of English feminists from Astell to Wollstonecraft under the humane influence of Shakespearian comedy, seeing in the poet of Nature an enlarged understanding of men and women which might guide her own age towards something better than Kotzebue. Of course, she also rejoiced, like Shakespeare, in human folly, and relished her own role of female-philosopher-turned-Puck—never more so, perhaps, than when she associated Mansfield Park with the truths of the woods near Athens. For Mansfield Park, in which the domestic government of an English estate is exposed as based on false principles, makes the education of Sir Thomas Bertram, Bart, MP, rather than of Miss Fanny Price, one of its central ironic themes. The benevolent, but mistaken, Patriarch lives to profit by such ’a contrast . . . as time is for ever producing between the plans and decisions of mortals, for their own instruction, and their neighbours’ entertainment’ (p. 472; my italics). The sparkle of confident, feminist intelligence was never more boldly displayed than in Austen’s invocation of Puck’s ‘Lord what fools these mortals be’, in her presentation of the august and formidable Sir Thomas, whose Northamptonshire seat cannot have been many miles distant from that of Sir Charles Grandison.


Page references to the novels of Jane Austen are to R. W. Chapman’s The Novels of Jane Austen, Oxford, 1926, and to his Minor Works, Oxford, 1954. Page references to the letters are to Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford, 1952. Page references to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman are to the Penguin edition, ed. Miriam Kramnick, 1975.

1. Eric Auerbach, Mimesis, Princeton, 1953, p. 489.

2. Lloyd W. Brown, ’The Comic Conclusions of Jane Austen’s Novels’, PMLA., no. 84, 1969, passim.

3. ‘Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen’, Introduction to the Riverside edn of Emma, reprinted in Emma: A Casebook, ed. David Lodge, London, 1968, p. 154.

4. ‘Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen’, Scrutiny, VIII, 1940.

5. Wollstonecraft, Vindication, p. 139.

6. ‘Jane Austen and the Moralists’, Critical Essays [Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. B. C. Southam, London, 1968], p. 117.

7. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, London, 1960, p. 29.

8. ibid., p. 155.

9. Introduction to Neue Schauspiele, quoted by L. F. Thompson, Kotzebue, A Survey of His Progress in England and France, Paris, 1928, p. 47.

10. ibid., p. 55.

11. Quoted by William Reitzel, ‘Mansfield Park and Lovers’ Vows‘, R.E.S. [Review of English Studies], vol. 9, no. 36, October 1933, p. 453.

12. Thompson, op. cit., p. 103.

13. Bath Herald and Register, 29 June 1799, quoted by Jean Freeman, Jane Austen in Bath, 1969, p. 15.

Jane Austen (Novel Date 1817)

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SOURCE: Austen, Jane. "Chapter 8." In Fragment of a Novel, pp. 102-112. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925.

In the following excerpt from her unfinished novel Sanditon, written in 1817, Austen directs her satire towards the type of novel popularized by Samuel Richardson—who was nonetheless among her stylistic influences.

The two Ladies continued walking together till rejoined by the others, who as they issued from the Library were followed by a young Whitby running off with 5 vols. under his arm to Sir Edward's Gig—and Sir Edw: approaching Charlotte, said "You may perceive what has been our Occupation. My Sister wanted my Counsel in the selection of some books.—We have many leisure hours, & read a great deal.—I am no indiscriminate Novel-Reader. The mere Trash of the common Circulating Library, I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile Emanations which detail nothing but discordant Principles incapable of Amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary Occurrences from which no useful Deductions can be drawn.—In vain may we put them into a literary Alembic;—we distil nothing which can add to Science.—You understand me I am sure?" "I am not quite certain that I do.—But if you will describe the sort of Novels which you do approve, I dare say it will give me a clearer idea." "Most willingly, Fair Questioner.—The Novels which I approve are such as display Human Nature with Grandeur—such as shew her in the Sublimities of intense Feeling—such as exhibit the progress of strong Passion from the first Germ of incipient Susceptibility to the utmost Energies of Reason half-dethroned,—where we see the strong spark of Woman's Captivations elicit such Fire in the Soul of Man as leads him—(though at the risk of some Aberration from the strict line of Primitive Obligations)—to hazard all, dare all, achieve all, to obtain her.—Such are the Works which I peruse with delight, & I hope I may say, with amelioration. They hold forth the most splendid Portraitures of high Conceptions, Unbounded Views, illimitable Ardour, indomptible Decision—and even when the Event is mainly anti-prosperous to the high-toned Machinations of the prime Character, the potent, pervading Hero of the Story, it leaves us full of Generous Emotions for him;—our Hearts are paralized—. T'were Pseudo-Philosophy to assert that we do not feel more enwraped by the brilliancy of his Career, than by the tranquil & morbid Virtues of any opposing Character. Our approbation of the Latter is but Eleemosynary.—These are the Novels which enlarge the primitive Capabilities of the Heart, & which it cannot impugn the Sense or be any Dereliction of the character, of the most anti-puerile Man, to be conversant with."—"If I understand you aright—said Charlotte—our taste in Novels is not at all the same." And here they were obliged to part—Miss D. being too much tired of them all, to stay any longer.—The truth was that Sir Edw: whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot had read more sentimental Novels than agreed with him. His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned, & most exceptionable parts of Richardsons; & such Authors as have since appeared to tread in Richardson's steps, so far as Man's determined pursuit of Woman in defiance of every opposition of feeling & convenience is concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, & formed his Character.—With a perversity of Judgement, which must be attributed to his not having by Nature a very strong head, the Graces, the Spirit, the Sagacity, & the Perseverance, of the Villain of the Story outweighed all his absurdities & all his Atrocities with Sir Edward. With him, such Conduct was Genius, Fire & Feeling.—It interested & inflamed him; & he was always more anxious for its Success & mourned over its Discomfitures with more Tenderness than cd ever have been contemplated by the Authors.—Though he owed many of his ideas to this sort of reading, it were unjust to say that he read nothing else, or that his Language were not formed on a more general Knowledge of modern Literature.—He read all the Essays, Letters, Tours & Criticisms of the day—& with the same ill-luck which made him derive only false Principles from Lessons of Morality, & incentives to Vice from the History of it's Overthrow, he gathered only hard words & involved sentences from the style of our most approved Writers.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77

Sense and Sensibility (novel) 1811

Pride and Prejudice (novel) 1813

Mansfield Park (novel) 1814

Emma (novel) 1816

Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion (novels) 1818

Lady Susan (novel) 1871

The Watsons (unfinished novel) 1871

Love & Freindship, and Other Early Works (juvenilia) 1922

The Novels of Jane Austen. 5 vols. (novels) 1923; republished with revisions to notes and appendices, 1965-66

[Sanditon] Fragments of a Novel (unfinished novel) 1925

Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others (letters) 1932

Volume the First (juvenilia) 1933

Volume the Third (juvenilia) 1951

Volume the Second (juvenilia) 1963

Mansfield Park

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SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. "Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender." Oxford Literary Review 13, nos. 1-2 (1991): 118-39.

In the following essay, Ferguson explores the connection between the restrictions on Mansfield Park 's Fanny Price and the slave trade also discussed in the novel.

Mansfield Park (1814) is a eurocentric, post-abolition narrative that intertwines with a critique of gender relations and posits a world of humanitarian interactions between slave-owners and slaves. As such, following the successful passage of the Abolition Bill in 1807, Mansfield Park initiates a new chapter in colonialist fiction. Nonetheless, although the novel works against the idea of the traditionally closed and brutal world of plantocratic relations, it entertains the option of emancipation—as opposed to abolition—only through the sound of muffled rebel voices. In order to stage a future society peaceably perpetuating British rule, Jane Austen transforms Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park—who is also a plantation-owner in Antigua—from a characteristically imperious 'West Indian' planter—stock figure of ridicule in contemporary drama, poetry and novels—into a benevolent, reforming land-owner.1

Given the state of agitation in the Caribbean in the early 1800s, the unreality of this scenario forces textual contradictions and eruptions. No African-Caribbean people speak, no mention is ever made of slave plots or insurrections, and even slaves' white counterparts—Anglo-Saxon women in rebellion in one form or another—are assimilated or banished.2 Thus gender relations at home parallel and echo traditional relationships of power between the colonialists and colonized peoples: European women visibly signify the most egregiously and invisibly repressed of the text—African-Caribbeans themselves. They mark silent African-Caribbean rebels as well as their own disenfranchisement, class and gender victimization.

Let me contextualize these remarks by noting that Mansfield Park was begun by Jane Austen in early 1811 and published in 1814, with its novelistic chronology extending from 1808 through 1809. As a result of the energetic abolition movement and parliamentary compromise with the West India lobby in 1792, slaveowners' efforts to resist legal abolition, let alone emancipation, were notorious.3

A transatlantic land-owner, Sir Thomas Bertram is fictionally characterized as one of those members of parliament who defended plantocratic interests.4 He belonged to the 'outer ring' of absentee planters and merchants who never, or rarely, visited the colonies, although their connections remained solid.5 In Raymond Williams' words:

Important parts of the country-house system, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, were built on the profits of … trade [with the colonies]. Spices, sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, gold and silver: these fed, as mercantile profits, into an English social order, over and above the profits on English stock and crops.…The country-houses which were the apex of a local system of exploitation then had many connections to these distant lands.…[Moreover], the new rural economy of the tropical plantations—sugar, coffee, cotton—was built by [the] trade in flesh, and once again the profits fed back into the country-house system: not only the profits on the commodities but … the profits on slaves.6

After a brief, quiescent period following the passage of the Bill, however, fierce contestations over slavery began anew at home and abroad. As the British press reported news of increasing atrocities in 1809, 1810, and 1811, it became obvious that the abolitionists' utopian vision of a Caribbean plantocracy committed to ameliorating the conditions of their only remaining slaves was palpably false.7 This rise in atrocities, in addition to vigorous illicit trading, spurred parliamentary proposals that all Caribbean slaves be registered.8 Old colonial legislatures that included Antigua opposed slave registries on constitutional grounds because such a procedure violated their right of internal taxation; not until 1820 did colonialists assent.

In fact, the time during which Mansfield Park was written marked a turning point in the fortunes of the gentry, to which social class Sir Thomas, as a baronet, arguably belonged.9 In England the Luddite riots fomented unrest, the prime minister was assassinated, war was declared against the United States, and the gentry endured a general economic crisis. Mrs Norris, Sir Thomas' sister-in-law, informs us that Sir Thomas' financial stability depends on maintaining his Caribbean property:10 his 'means will be rather straitened if the Anti-guan estate is to make such poor returns.11 Sir Thomas needs his Caribbean profits to stay financially afloat in England; colonialism underwrites his social and cultural position.

Thus, ongoing news of Caribbean economic crises exacerbates Sir Thomas' already straitened circumstances. Sugar prices had plummeted as a result of a major depression after 1807. The ensuing urgency to diversify the imperiled sugar monoculture made the physical presence of customarily absentee landlords expedient, and so Sir Thomas was obliged 'to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs.12 The task at hand was to maintain his estates at a profit and in the process, since trading was now illegal, to ensure the survival of his slaves as steady, well-nourished workers. Sadistic overseers, with whom Sir Thomas may have been content in the past, provided returns were satisfactory, would no longer do. His appearance when he returns to England suggests not only an exhausting engagement with his overseers and a severe reaction to noisome conditions, but through metonym it also emphasizes his affiliation with the Creole class. He 'had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate' (178).

The society to which Sir Thomas traveled was dominated by aggressive oppositional relations between colonialists and colonized people, although absentee landlordism was unusual on Antigua compared to its frequency on neighboring islands. As a near-noble landowner, Sir Thomas would socialize with the commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands, the Right Honorable Ralph, Lord Lavington, who, in 'real life', chose to set a constant pointed public example of desirable relations between colonizers and colonized:

His Christmas balls and routs were upon the highest scale of magnificence; but he was a great stickler for etiquette, and a firm upholder of difference of rank and colour [Flanders' underlining].…He would not upon any occasion, receive a letter or parcel from the fingers of a black or coloured man, and in order to guard against such horrible defilement, he had a golden instrument wrought something like a pair of sugar tongs, with which he was accustomed to hold the presented article.13

Back home, abolitionists contested the condoned maltreatment of slaves encapsulated in Lord Lavington's insidious public behaviour; they decried the atrocities that his cultural practice validated: violations of the Abolition Act, as well as individual cases of heinous maltreatment and murders of slaves by planters in 1810 and 1811.14 Since the powerful proslavery lobby indefatigably suppressed these events as far as their power allowed, only those with access to ongoing revelations in the press and through rumor could stay abreast of daily developments. The centuries-long ideological battle over the humanity of Africans constantly and variously manifested itself.

Plantocratic Paradigms in Mansfield Park

Power relations within the community of Mansfield Park reenact and refashion plantocratic paradigms; those who work for Sir Thomas and his entourage both at home and abroad are locked into hierarchical and abusive patterns of behaviour, though under widely different circumstances. The cruel officiousness of protagonist Fanny Price's aunt, Mrs Norris, who is effectively Sir Thomas' overseer and lives in the suggestively named white house 'across the park' from the Great House underlines his plantocratic style of administration.

Mrs Norris' surname recalls John Norris, one of the most vile proslaveryites of the day. Austen was well aware of Norris' notoriety, having read Thomas Clarkson's celebrated History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in which Norris is categorically condemned. Clarkson's text was published in 1808 and read by Jane Austen while she was working out the plot of Mansfield Park.15 Not only had Clarkson's history astounded her but she admitted to her sister Cassandra that she had once been 'in love' with the famous abolitionist whose devotion, industry, and total lack of regard for his own life in the cause was legend.16 Clark-son chronicles how Norris represented himself to Clarkson in Liverpool as an opponent of the slave trade, then arrived in London as a pro-slavery delegate representing Liverpool.17 After contacting Norris for an explanation, Clarkson notes Norris' unctuously self-serving response:

After having paid high compliments to the general force of my arguments, and the general justice and humanity of my sentiments on this great question, which had made a deep impression upon his mind, he had found occasion to differ from me, since we had last parted, on particular points, and that he had therefore less reluctantly yielded to the call of becoming a delegate,—though notwithstanding he would gladly have declined the office if he could have done it with propriety.18

Underscoring the intertextual designation of Mrs Norris as sadistic overseer, Sir Thomas himself is centerstaged as 'master', especially in his treatment of niece Fanny Price. With very little ceremony and offering Fanny Price's family no say in the matter, Sir Thomas and Mrs Norris engineer the transference of this ten-year-old poor relation from her home in Portsmouth to Mansfield Park. A marginalized, near-despised family, the Prices lose one of their own to accommodate Mrs Norris' need to appear charitable; Sir Thomas eventually concurs in her decision although he reserves his judgment to return Fanny Price if she threatens domestic stability. Portsmouth, by this account, is the uncivilized other; its members overflow with energies that menace the security of Mansfield Park. Epitomizing the clash of epistemologies in the text, Portsmouth signifies a way of living that negates the tightly controlled social order and challenges the sovereign law embodied in Sir Thomas by ignoring it altogether. On the other hand, in a different way, since Portsmouth as a naval town serves to uphold Sir Thomas' position by enforcing British control of the West Indies, what might be more important is that in the domestic arena of England, the link between the two must be separated. The expropriated Fanny Price hails from the milieu of transgressors who always signify the target of their activities: kidnapped and captive slaves.

Young Fanny Price's removal from her family is described in terms often reserved for epiphanic moments in the narrative of slavery:

The remembrance … of what she had suffered in being torn from them, came over her with renewed strength, and it seemed as if to be at home again, would heal every pain that had since grown out of the separation.


This mercantilist attitude toward human relationships, represented as disinterested benevolence toward Fanny Price, invokes traditionally conservative rationales for the 'trade-in-flesh'. Family feeling or unity never becomes an issue, since proslaveryites do not recognize African and slave families as social formations. On the contrary, the West Indian lobby argued that bringing slaves to the Caribbean was a good deed, a way of civilizing those whose environment provided them with nothing but barbarism—precisely the same basis for the justification of bringing Fanny Price to Mansfield Park.

So, when Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park, she is closely watched for evidence of her uncouth otherness. She must accept Sir Thomas' authority unconditionally or she will be removed. Sir Thomas scrutinizes her 'disposition', anticipating 'gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions, and very distressing vulgarity of manner' (10-11). Eventually he decides she has a 'tractable disposition, and seemed likely to give them little trouble' (18). She will acclimatize well. Nonetheless, his children 'cannot be equals [with Fanny Price]. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different' (11).

Fanny herself begins to adapt to the value system at Mansfield, learning 'to know their ways, and to catch the best manner of conforming to them'. Fanny thinks 'too lowly of her own claims' and 'too lowly of her own situation' to challenge values that keep her low.19 Underscoring class difference and alluding to the colonial-sexual nexus, profligate elder son Tom, the heir apparent to Sir Thomas' colonial enterprise, assures Fanny Price that she can be a 'creepmouse' all she wants as long as she obeys his commands.

Just as markedly, when Fanny Price years later is deciding what to wear at the ball, the point of contention is whose chain (or necklace) she will wear. The lurking question is to whom will she subject herself or belong. To what extent has Mansfield Park and its values begun to construct her subjectivity? Gladly, she decides on the chain of her future husband, Sir Thomas' younger son, Edmund. Moreover, when Sir Thomas leaves for Antigua, she steps into his moral shoes; she opposes Mrs Norris' opportunism and informally assumes the role of the 'good' overseer, her aunt's alter ego. Mimicking Sir Thomas, willingly cooperating in her own assimilation, she speaks for and through him. Fanny Price helps to foreshadow and map a new colonialist landscape that upholds the moral status quo but draws the line at arbitrary judgment and excessive indulgence. In the chapel scene at Sotherton, for instance, Fanny Price identifies herself as an opponent of change.20 Edmund, on the other hand, underscores Fanny's complicity in her own assimilation when he confides—to her delight—as she leaves for Portsmouth that she will 'belong to [them] almost as much as ever' (26-7).

Yet Fanny Price is still the daughter of Ports-mouth—Mansfield Park's relegated other, reared to succeed pluckily against the odds. Her master-slave relationship with Sir Thomas operates on the register of two opposing discourses: complicity and rebellion. Her stalwart refusal to marry Henry Crawford and the punishment of summary banishment she incurs identifies Mansfield Park ideologically as an institution that rallies to disempower anyone who jeopardizes Sir Thomas' feudal reign. This is especially true in the case of the déclassé Fanny Price, to whom Mansfield Park has opened its portals. In return she opposes its patriarchal demands on females as property by claiming one form of autonomy, thereby rendering herself an unregenerate ingrate in ruling class eyes. Sir Thomas even describes her in language reserved for slave insurrectionaries:

I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit, which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence. But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse.


To Sir Thomas, Fanny Price's feelings are as irrelevant as slaves' feelings; she is his object. In Tzvetan Todorov's words, 'those who are not subjects have no desires.21

Fanny Price responds to her natal family almost exclusively as an other, after Sir Thomas banishes her to Portsmouth. Such is the enormity of his ideological power. His risk in sending her to resist Portsmouth and embrace Mansfield Park values pays off. Her home is nothing but 'noise, disorder, impropriety', her overworked impecunious mother pronounced 'a dawdler and a slattern' (388, 390). Portsmouth reconstitutes Fanny Price as Sir Thomas' transformed daughter, no longer the exiled object; while at Portsmouth she barricades herself ideologically, as it were, inside Mansfield Park, functioning as its representative. Her mother's features that she has not seen in over a decade endear themselves to her—not because she has missed seeing them—but because they remind Fanny Price of Lady Bertram's, her mother's sister and Sir Thomas' wife: 'they brought her Aunt Bertram's before her' (377). Fanny Price has come to resemble the eurocentrically conceived 'grateful negro' in pre-abolition tales who collaborated with kind owners and discouraged disobedience among rebel slaves.22 Her embrace of Mansfield Park's values dissolves any binding association with her family and her old life.

After leaving Portsmouth for the second time, Fanny 'was beloved' by her adopted family in Mansfield Park, the passive tense affirming her surrender of agency. When Edmund decides she will make him an appropriate wife, her parents' response is not mentioned. We assume they are neither told nor invited to the wedding. The only Portsmouth members who textually reappear are the conformists: sister Susan, coded as a second Fanny, ready to satisfy Lady Bertram's need for a round-the-clock assistant, and impeccable sailor-brother William, who exercised 'continued good conduct' (462).

Sir Thomas' commercial approach to Fanny Price reformulates the treatment he previously accorded her mother, Frances Price, who 'disoblig[ed]' her family when she married a lieutenant of marines 'without education, fortune, or connections'; as a result, the Mansfield Park inner circle acts almost as if Frances Price senior did not exist; certainly she has no rights as a parent, so her children can be more or less removed at will. The text hints, too, that having ten babies in nine years is tantamount to a reprehensible lack of restraint. Neither Mrs Price's continuing independence in not seeking help nor her maintenance of a large family on a pittance elicit textual approbation. Rather, she is lucky, in the text's terms, to be the recipient of Sir Thomas' charity. With almost all immediate family ties severed, her status, mutatis mutandi, parallels that of her sister Lady Bertram, whose dowry has doomed her to the borders in a different sense. Within a phallocratic economy, their lives elicit contempt and condescension.

Lady Bertram, Mrs Norris, and Frances Price make up the trio of sisters who collectively display the degradation of colonial-gender relations. In the opening sentence of Mansfield Park, which highlights Sir Thomas' hegemonic order, the trope of capture and control that infuses the text first appears:

About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.

The text thus describes her alleged initial conquest of Sir Thomas in arrestingly ironic tones and in doing so, as in the famous opening assertion in Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park's first sentence also celebrates its opposite: Sir Thomas' acquisition of a desirable social object. Maria Ward instantly drops out of sight, both in nomenclature and in self-led behaviour. Occupying the role of a slatternly plantation mistress—'she never thought of being useful' (179), Lady Bertram's prominent class status through marriage collides with the posture of an undermined female. The lap dog upon which she lavishes attention—'no one is to tease my poor pug'—emblematizes her pathetically protected status.23 When Sir Thomas has to break news to her, he approaches her as he would a child. During his absence, she rather tellingly works on 'yards of fringe'—appropriate for a marginalized wife—and when he returns, in recognition of her imposed vacuity, she waits to have 'her whole comprehension' filled by his narrative (196). She epitomizes emptiness, a vacant object-status, a slave or constructed subject who commits spiritual suicide. Only once does a hint of spunky self-respect surface. On Sir Thomas' departure for Antigua when she comments that she does not fear for his safety, a momentary ambiguity nags the text. Is she overly confident he will be safe because she is oblivious to maritime danger due to the Napoleonic wars? Or does she not care? Does her comment speak unconsciously about her recognition of powerlessness? Does it quietly express repressed anger?

Sir Thomas' behaviour on both sides of the Atlantic signals a plantocratic mode of behaviour. Through the trope of his journey to Antigua, his long absence, and his sparing commentary about his experiences when he returns, Austen stresses his planter-like detachment from humanity, or his playing down of the facts, or both. One of the few things he did in Antigua—we learn—is attend a ball in the company of creoles—as white planters were mockingly termed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; culturally and economically, Sir Thomas is inextricably linked to his Antiguan counterparts. And given certain much-touted facts about planters, contemporaries could have amplified Sir Thomas' character in a way that would expressively inflect Lady Bertram's remark about not being concerned about his safety. Planters were infamous for taking slave mistresses and fathering children.

Edward Long, who wrote the immensely popular History of Jamaica (1774), describes Creole activities as follows:

Creole men … are in general sensible, of quick apprehension, brave, good-natured, affable, generous, temperate, and sober; unsuspicious, lovers of freedom, fond of social enjoyments, tender fathers, humane and indulgent masters; firm and sincere friends, where they once repose a confidence; their tables are covered with plenty of good cheer …; their hospitality is unlimited …; they affect gaiety and diversions, which in general are cards, billiards, backgammon, chess, horse-racing, hog-hunting, shooting, fishing, dancing, and music.…With a strong natural propensity to the other sex, they are not always the most chaste and faithful of husbands.24

Lowell Joseph Ragatz points out, furthermore, that from the mid-eighteenth century:

private acts enabling white fathers to make generous provision for their illegitimate half-breed children, despite existing laws prohibiting the transmission of extensive properties to blacks, were passed in all the island legislatures with painfully increasing regularity. The number of free persons of color in Barbados, largely recruited through illicit relations with white men and negresses, rose from 448 to 2,229 between 1768 and 1802, while the number in Dominica soared from 600 in 1773 to more than 2,800 in 1804. This rapid growth of a mixed blood element in the British West Indies after 1750 arose chiefly from the Anglo-Saxon's now merely transitory residence there and the small number of white women remaining in the islands. Concubinage became well-nigh universal in the second half of the eighteenth century and the system pervaded all ranks of society. During the administration of Governor Ricketts in Barbados in the 1790s, a comely negress even reigned at government house, enjoying all a wife's privileges save presiding publicly at his table.25

According to August Kotzebue's well-known play that the characters in Mansfield Park choose to rehearse for their recreation, Lovers' Vows, no love/lust exists in England, only 'in all barbarous countries'.26 Austen uses this play to intertextualize the characters' motives and interactions. A remark from the play's philandering Count Cassel that comments on sexual exploitation in the Caribbean matches contemporary accounts and illumines the character of Sir Thomas.27

Jane Austen was well aware of these infamous activities. She knew about the estate of the Nibbs family in Antigua because the Reverend George Austen, Jane Austen's father, was a trustee; she also knew of the Nibbs' 'mulatto' relative.28 As one critic concretely contends: 'Jane Austen would certainly have been aware of the likelihood of a family such as her fictional Bertrams having numerous mulatto relatives in Antigua'. Sir Thomas' condemnation of Mrs Price marrying low and his anger at Fanny Price's refusal to accommodate him by marrying Henry Crawford mocks planters' infamous, quotidian practices.

A question then crops up: Does Sir Thomas banish his daughter, Maria, and censure Henry Crawford because their sexual indulgences mirror his Antiguan conduct? Is one dimension of his behaviour a form of self-projection, an unconscious denial of his dual and contradictory realities in the Caribbean and Britain?

Another victim of Sir Thomas' mercantilist attitudes, elder daughter Maria refuses to be Lady Bertram's clone. Instead she stands with her exiled Aunt Frances and cousin Fanny in claiming sexual independence. Her actions are even more morally outré since she has already been manipulated into marriage with Rushworth, a man whom her father financially desires. For example in the gate scene at Sotherton, Maria symbolically and literally refuses to be imprisoned. Maria, that is, falls for the ideological trap that is set for her and is punished for trying to release herself.29 Mary Crawford, who also disregards Sir Thomas' authority and is coded as a predator of sorts, similarly contests for personal autonomy and is configured as more evil because she disregards Sir Thomas' values. Linked by their given names, they are different versions of a gendered bid for identity.30

In the text's terms, none of these spirited acts by women in multiple postures of subjection can be vindicated except that of the conflicted Fanny Price. The Crawfords are reduced to the social margins, Henry for visible rakishness, Mary for 'evil' and bold collaboration in her brother's escapades. The possibility smoulders that Sir Thomas cannot contain an English reflection of his Antiguan self. He represents men who control the general slave population and the female slave population in particular through varieties of abuse. When women like Frances and Fanny Price, Maria Bertram, and Mary Crawford articulate a counterdiscourse against their objectification, Sir Thomas stands firm. Insurgent women become deleted subjects, objects of his wrath who must be appropriately punished, usually for keeps. At the conscious and unconscious level, the text continually inscribes challenges to the assumed inferiority of women and the right of a hegemonic patriarch to use women as he pleases.

Most systematically of all, however, Lovers' Vows intertextualizes property-owning attitudes that characterize planter-slave relations, including Sir Thomas' flagrant neglect of female welfare.31 At the same time, the dramatic resolution of these corrupt interrelationships appears to exonerate Sir Thomas and validate patriarchal rule. Clearly coded as Sir Thomas, the Baron is multiply conflicted. In former days, he had abandoned naive and pregnant Agnes, who bore Frederick. Like the 'deserted and neglected negroes' of Antigua who will become a later focus of national concern, Agnes is now starving to death and homeless. Eventually, however, the Baron's callous desertion is mitigated by information that he has hired helpers to search constantly till they find her. In the end the Baron decides to marry Agnes though he fails to consult her about his plan. Like Maria Ward, she is assumed to desire such a splendid match.

In like manner, the Baron's efforts to marry off his daughter Amelia to silly Count Cassel are soon revealed as nonbinding. When he learns that Amelia loves Pastor Anhalt, the Baron readily consents, a scenario that comments on the marital imbroglio of Fanny Price, Henry Crawford, and Edmund Bertram. The case of Frederick, who strikes the Baron in the course of trying to save his mother's life, allusively invokes the nature of Sir Thomas' power: the Baron orders Frederick killed even though 'a child might have overpowered him', for 'to save him would set a bad example'.32 Only when the Baron discovers that Frederick is his son, does parental feeling induce him to relent. In doing so, the Baron earns permission to be readmitted to the human community. Feudal laws and relations in Lovers' Vows sign those of the plantocracy.


Mansfield Park initiated a new chapter in colonialist fiction as old and new abolitionists came to terms with the fact that the Abolition Bill did not fulfil its minimum requirement—amelioration of inhuman conditions. Jane Austen's repugnance toward the slave trade, moreover, is well documented—her brother Francis was a vigorous abolitionist—and by the time she writes Emma in 1816 her condemnation is forthright.33 Hence Sir Thomas' chastening is one way of prescribing this letting-up process among a seemingly unregenerate plantocracy. He reconstitutes himself as a moral rather than a profit-oriented planter, a condition inveterately resisted among the colonial ruling class. Recent experience in the House of Commons as well as the Caribbean have persuaded Sir Thomas, Jane Austen subtly argues, that the old order may be doomed and disappearing. As a Parliamentary member, Sir Thomas would have been witnessing at first hand the efforts of Wilberforce and his supporters to initiate corrective legislation. In admitting his errors and curbing his selfishness, Sir Thomas comes to represent the liberal-conservative ideal of humanitarian plantation ownership at a time when outright manumission is effectively a non-issue.

It hardly seems to be a coincidence that Mansfield Park echoes the name of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who wrote the legal decision for the James Somerset case in 1772, stipulating that no slaves could be forcibly returned from Britain to the Caribbean, which was widely interpreted to mean that slavery in Britain had been legally abolished.34 Austen's invocation of Lord Mansfield's name suggests the novel's intrinsic engagement with slavery and a view of Sir Thomas' plantations as a place where feudal relations are beginning to dissolve.35 To underscore that point, the word 'plantation' is frequently used to denote Sir Thomas' property on both sides of the Atlantic.

At another level, the intertextualizing of Lord Mansfield's ruling warns and censures all those who try to further impose their will on the already subjugated, in Sir Thomas' case, Fanny Price and by extension his Antiguan slaves. The choice of Mans field for the title underscores the idea of property in the hands of a patriarch—one man's plantations—and in its compression of several frames of meaning and reference, it connects the Caribbean plantation system and its master-slave relationships to tyrannical gender relations at home and abroad.

Jane Austen's recommendations for a kinder, gentler plantocracy, however, do anything but confront that institution head on. Not to put too fine a point on it, the opposite is virtually true. En route to the new dispensation, Sir Thomas' change of heart is accompanied and contradicted by his challenge to the heterogenous utterances of those who flout his power. Hence paradoxically, his moral reformation reconfirms his control. With unruly elements purged or contained and his unitary discourse intact though refashioned, the same power relations persist in slightly different guise between the ruling class elite and dominated people, between male and female. Thus to read Mansfield Park as a text with closures that favour more benevolent socio-political relationships only serves to mask textual undercurrents that threaten to explode its tightly controlled bourgeois framework.

Let me briefly recite some of these closures that purport to foretell future felicity and a more uniform culture groping toward harmony. First, Lovers' Vows is intended to demonstrate how well the Baron (Sir Thomas) suppresses anarchic expression and restores peace after learning his lesson. Second, protagonist Fanny Price, despite announcing her right to autonomy, attains the status of an insider because she mirrors Sir Thomas' values and rather coldly rejects her origins. She embraces an imposed identity as a bona fide member of the Mansfield Park community. Sir Thomas, in turn, offers himself as a father: 'Fanny was indeed the daughter that he wanted. His charitable kindness had been rearing a prime comfort for himself' (472). Third, the Price family in Portsmouth is exposed as decisively inferior except for those who agreeably adapt. Disobedience and heady self-determination are penalized by lifetime expulsion from the old order: Maria Bertram and Mary Crawford are excluded from the ruling class coterie while younger daughter Julia's repentance and her more accommodating disposition gain her a second chance.

Also to the point is Lady Bertram's languid life, which is criticized yet accepted as a familiar though inconsequential existence while the mettlesome spirit of the Price survivors goes unapplauded. That is, although Lady Bertram may draw sympathetic attention as a witless figure, the necessity for a social appendage in female form to round out plantocratic control is never gainsaid. But perhaps the most morally ambiguous textual judgment concerns Mrs Norris herself whose downfall is treated as her just deserts. Former overseer and exposed renegade, she is banished for good, like her sister Frances, from the family circle. That she encourages Maria Bertram to claim a certain kind of freedom is sweepingly condemned. The text obliterates the fact that she represents Sir Thomas' interests, but in excess of how the text wants him portrayed.36 She is his avatar, Sir Thomas at his most acquisitive and self-indulgent. He cannot countenance the reflection of himself in Mrs Norris, who represents his displaced tacit approval of heinous cruelties and ensuing reduced profits. When he rejects her, he rejects part of his former self and life; he becomes part of the new order that seeks more wholesome relations at home and abroad. Since his regeneration cannot mean that he continues to treat people unfeelingly, Mrs Norris has to be reconstructed as a villain, tidily demolished, and eliminated as a speaking subject.

These methodical but artificial closures, however, in their blanket effort to smother opposition, only highlight ideological antagonisms that decentre Sir Thomas' power and question its validity. They elicit an insistent counterdiscourse. His posture also underwrites a certain anxiety about outsiders, regardless of former familial or friendly relationships. Human connections count for naught compared to the obsession with control.

Most ironically, textual imbeddings surface in the person of Sir Thomas' major vindicator, the Baron, who turns out in one sense to be his most damning accuser. As Sir Thomas' autocratic counterpart, the medieval Baron has no compunction about killing an innocent man who defies his authority. Similarly, Sir Thomas himself can order severe punishment, if not death, against slaves he arbitrarily deems insubordinate. Such was the authority of planters. And not uncoincidentally, the Baron is execrating Frederick in Lovers' Vows while that other Baron, Sir Thomas, administers the Antiguan plantations, by implication in the same way. The Baron denies Frederick's humanity as planters deny the humanity of slaves, relenting only when he discovers Frederick is his son. In a remarkably unconscious self-projection, the Baron commands Frederick in words that would make more sense in reverse: 'Desist—barbarian, savage, stop!!' (526). Moreover, by summarily terminating the theatricals, Sir Thomas reestablishes his authority over a symbolically uncontrollable situation.37

Most materially, the sparse counterdiscourse concerning slaves pinpoints a fundamental textual repression. Having affirmed her pleasure in Sir Thomas' stories of his Caribbean visit, Fanny inquires about the slave trade. After absorbing her uncle's answer—significantly unreported—she expresses amazement to Edmund about the ensuing 'dead silence' (198), a phrase that requires careful unpacking. Let me back up for a moment.

In this transitional post-abolitionist period that features a shaky British-Caribbean economy and multiple slave insurrections, no safe space, from a eurocentric perspective, is available for colonized others as speaking subjects, let alone as self-determining agents. Put baldly, slave subjectivity has to be effaced. As the oppressed daughter of an exigent family, Fanny Price becomes the appropriate mediator or representative of slaves' silenced existence and constant insurrectionary potential. In her role as a marginalized other (though in a vastly different cultural context), Fanny Price can project and displace personal-political anxieties and mimic her servile subject position.

As a brief for plantocratic gradual reform, the text disintegrates at 'dead silence', a phrase that ironically speaks important debarred and smothered voices. As Mansfield Park's unofficial spokesman for Antiguan society, the beleaguered Sir Thomas has cut slaves off from representation. Lovers' Vows, besides, has already voiced and even accentuated the major topoi of a muzzled colonialist discourse: brutality, fractured families, and the violated bodies and psyches of innocent people. Thus the conceptualizations of 'dead' and 'silence' that parallel the play's metonyms of bondage further indict the gaps in Sir Thomas' discourse. Beyond that, these loaded inscriptions of death and muteness accost the taboo enforced on dissent in the colonies. 'Dead silence' affirms Sir Thomas' seeming pretence that power relations are stable in Antigua. For what other than dissimulation of some sort—most likely an obfuscation or omission—could explain Fanny Price's ready acceptance of his lengthy speech on the slave trade. 'Dead' and 'silence', in other words, forswear the reality of ubiquitous slave insurrections. For example, plots were organized and carried out in Jamaica, Tobago, and especially in Dominica, where the second maroon war was led by Quashie, Apollo, Jacko, and others.38 Uncontainable conflicts are further unmasked by textual allusions to several issues of the Quarterly Review, which carried many troublesome facts about slavery in 1811:39 for one, the periodical reported that the progressive diminution in slave population levels persisted, despite abolition of the trade, a fact that threw doubt on promises made by planters and colonial legislatures to ameliorate conditions. Old planters in Jamaica and Antigua were in the news, too, as zealous competitors of the 'new' planters. The Quarterly Review also confirmed that the bottom had dropped out of the sugar market by 1808, that estates were in disrepair, and growers could not be indemnified.40 What's more, the seemingly univocal colonial discourse of Mansfield Park that upholds a singular view of slavery as 'working', belies domestic agitation inside and outside Parliament for improved conditions.41

Antigua, then, tropes an anxiety-creating unknown venue, falsely coded as a run-down locale in need of an individual planter's semi-altruistic, definitively ethnocentric intervention. Profits are down, but workers and administrators suffer too. Antigua also correlates with Portsmouth, both being symbolic sites of indeterminacy near water and places where the allegedly uncivilized cluster. As a port and an island intimately involved with slavery, Portsmouth and Antigua witness slave ships arriving and departing; scenes involving the sale of people and naval engagements are in constant view. Sir Thomas may subsume Antigua within his monocular vision and Fanny Price may fail to see (or evade) Portsmouth's obvious immersion in the slave trade as she gazes at the sights of the town, but their buried knowledge and realities intertextually circulate nonetheless. Like the Orient in Edward Said's formulation, Antigua and Portsmouth are Mansfield Park's wild, colonized others, signs of potential disruption and sexual conflict.42 They signal that the women of Mansfield Park are ideologically absorbed or unceremoniously expelled—or even obliterated (as the slavewomen of Antigua are) as autonomous beings.

In this space as Mansfield Park's other, Antigua satirizes Sir Thomas' authority. He may conduct his relationships in a recognizably plantocratic mode that solidifies his power, but both vocal and mute suppressions are evident. Sir Thomas' return assumes that he leaves behind a certain order, even harmony, on his plantations. He controls superficially obedient slaves, but that illusion will soon be fractured. By implication, other apparent fixtures might also turn out to be less enduring.

This is not to argue that the possibility of slave emancipation in Mansfield Park parallels a potential liberation for Anglo-Saxon women. But it is to posit that challenges to ossified thought and the received cultural representation of women are at least conceivable. Lady Bertram is comatose, but can that state last? The condition of indolent plantocratic wives is certainly coming to an end. Besides, the self-determining duo of Maria-Mary will not tolerate permanent disappearance. Their independent natures will soon reassert themselves, the text having forced them into a closure, demonstrably false. Fanny Price, however, the obedient daughter who replaces the ungovernable overseer, is pinioned in a conflict of searing and unresolvable tensions. So little room is available for repudiation of her place in Mansfield Park's social situation that it threatens to bind and fix her.43 Ultimately the rebellious acts of Fanny Price and her ideological companions, Maria, Frances Price, and Frederick are paradigmatic of slave resistance: Fanny Price signifies a bartered slave and the sign of the absent female slave. The deported Maria, in turn, is a variant of the marginalized Portsmouth family.

By contrast, Sir Thomas' authority is scarcely denied by the men of the text who fare somewhat differently. Each of them projects a part of that complex Sir Thomas, even the sybaritic Bishop Grant, symbolically linked to his malignant niece and nephew as Sir Thomas is linked to Mrs Norris. Despite debauchery, elder son Tom will take up his inheritance, as does the foolish Rushworth, whose wealth and aristocratic status enable him to transcend a temporary setback. Henry Crawford continues to seduce women and Edmund settles down into married life.

Mansfield Park, then, I am arguing, is a post-bolition narrative that intertwines with a critique, conscious or unconscious, of gender relations. Although the text superficially presents itself at the end as an agreeable synthesis that has incorporated its contradictions—the hermeneutics of an attempted restoration of power—the text's relationship to emancipationist ideology creates irrepressible contradictions and signals incompletion. As a colonialist script, it features epistemological ethnocentrisms, blanks, ellipses, substitutions, and the homogenizing of silent slaves, occupying a space between old and new modes of discourse and agitation. It projects the end of an uncompromising proslavery lobby by fusing commentary on slaves and Anglo-Saxon women who are concurrently exhibiting forms of autonomy and powerlessness. Thus the reformed planter's voice in itself becomes a nullified force. His contradictory positions cancel themselves out. The indirectness of the commentary, moreover, indicates Jane Austen's temporary reluctance to sound the controversy over slavery into recognizable audibility. Not until Emma does she do so unmistakably.

As a quasi-allegory of colonial-gender relations, Mansfield Park offers itself as a blueprint for a new society of manners. Relationships in the colonies will match those at home, for domestic manners have been transformed for the better. But as we have seen, Sir Thomas' brand of eurocentric benevolence is dubious at best and the socio-political recommendations are decidedly and perhaps necessarily constrained. Nonetheless, the attempt to show the positive consequences of a kinder, gentler world in action, together with many potent silences and irruptions of nuanced subaltern voices, signifies the desirable, though possibly not attainable, transition to a new colonialist dispensation of gradualist politics at home and abroad. Despite this slow but positive evolution, however, emancipation still cannot be named.


  1. Wylie Sypher, 'The West-Indian as a 'Character' in the Eighteenth Century', in Studies in Philology vol. 36 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939), 504-5, 509.
  2. Michael Craton, Testing the Chains. Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).
  3. Elsa V. Goveia, Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965). See also D. J. Murray, The West Indies and the Development of Colonial Government 1801-1834 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965); Dale Herbert Porter, The Defense of the British Slave Trade, 1784-1807, Dissertation University of Oregon, June 1967, 25-166.
  4. Mary Millard points out that Northampton squires were rarely sugar-planters and speculates that 'an earlier Bertram married a lady who brought an estate in Antigua, as her dowry'. Mary Millard, '1807 and All That', Persuasions, 50-1. I thank Professor Kenneth Moler for invaluable discussions on the question of Sir Thomas's slave-owning status.
  5. Sir Thomas probably belonged to the 'outer ring' of absentee planters and merchants who had never visited the colonies. Between 1807 and 1833 forty-nine planters and twenty merchants belonged to this group. B. W. Higman, 'The West India 'Interest' in Parliament 1807-1833', Historical Studies 13 (1967-69) 4, 1-19. See also Lowell Joseph Ragatz, Absentee Landlordism in the British Caribbean, 1750-1833 (London: Bryan Edwards Press, n.d.), 1-19).
  6. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 279-80.
  7. Sir George Stephen, Anti-Slavery Recollections: in a Series of Letters Addressed to Mrs. Beecher Stowe, written by Sir George Stephen, at Her Request (London: Frank Cass, 1971), 36-7. Note also that as a result of information about ongoing inhumane treatment, British abolitionists were shortly to publicize the condition of slaves in Antigua even more decisively in forming a committee for the 'Neglected and Deserted Negroes' of that island. See John Rylands Memorial Library 'The Case of the Neglected and Deserted Negroes in the Island of Antigua', pamphlet 21.5, pt. 8.
  8. Frank J. Klingberg, The Anti-Slavery Movement in England. A Study in English Humanitarianism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926), 131, 171-2. B. W. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984). See also James Walvin, 'The rise of British popular sentiment for abolition 1787-1832', Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey, eds Christine Bolt and Seymour Drescher (Folkestone: Dawson, 1980), 154 and passim; Sir George Stephen, Anti-Slavery Recollections, 25-27 and passim.
  9. Avrom Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park. An Essay in Critical Synthesis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967), 40-2.
  10. Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park, 35-6.
  11. R. W. Chapman, The Novels of Jane Austen. The Text based on Collation of the Early Editions, vol. 3 (London: Oxford University Press, 1923), 30. Further references to Mansfield Park will be given in the text. The enormous chain of expenses that emanated from the Great House included a host of people from servants and overseers to waiters, 'brownskin gals' of no official function, and the estate's managing attorney who received 60% of the gross. Michael Craton, Sinews of Empire. A Short History of British Slavery (New York: Anchor Books, 1974), 132-9).
  12. Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park, 37. William B. Willcox touches briefly on the turmoil that would have precipitated Sir Thomas's decision, in The Age of Aristocracy 1688-1830 (Lexington, MS: D. C. Heath and Company, 1971), 174-179. Willcox also points out that: 'Though Miss Austen's two brothers were in the navy throughout the war, her world is untouched by anything outside itself; it is tranquil and timeless' 168. See also Mansfield Park, 65.
  13. With respect to Sir Thomas's 'near-noble' status, Fleishman argues that 'only some four hundred families could qualify for the higher class, and despite an economic fluidity which enabled some baronets and even commoners to enter it, this was an aristocracy composed mainly of noblemen' (40). Mrs. Flanders, Antigua and the Antiguans: A Full Account of the Colony and its Inhabitants From the Time of the Caribs to the Present Day, Interspersed with Anecdotes and Legends. Also, an Impartial View of Slavery and the Free Labour Systems; the Statistics of the Island, and Biographical Notices of the Principal Families, vol. 2 (London, 1844), 136.
  14. Sir George Stephen, Anti-Slavery Recollections, 8-19; Frank J. Klingberg, The Anti-Slavery Movement in England, 176-81.
  15. Chapman, The Novels of Jane Austen, 553-6.
  16. Frank Gibbon, 'The Antiguan Connection: Some New Light on Mansfield Park ', in The Cambridge Quarterly, 11 (1982), 303.
  17. Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, vol. 1 (London: 1808; rpt. Frank Cass, 1968), 378ff; 477ff. In reading Clarkson, Jane Austen would have been abreast of fierce abolitionist and pro-slavery infighting both inside and outside Parliament and of the literature on the subject of the slave trade.
  18. Clarkson, History, vol. 1, 479.
  19. Johanna M. Smith, '"My only sister now": Incest in Mansfield Park ', Studies in the Novel 19:1 (1987), 1-15.
  20. Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 'The Boundaries of Mansfield Park', in Representations, 6 (1984), 133-152.
  21. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America. The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 130.
  22. In Popular Tales (1804) Maria Edgeworth, for example, has a story entitled 'The Grateful Negro', that exemplifies exactly this familiar binary opposition. It is possible, given Jane Austen's admiration for Maria Edge-worth (Chapman, vol. 5, 299), that she had read some of Edgeworth's tales as well as her novels. Given the popularity of The Farmer of Inglewood Forest (1796) by Elizabeth Helme that also features a 'grateful negro', Austen may well have read that novel or others featuring that motif.
  23. Mansfield Park, 217. The connection of indolent house-mistresses despised by their authors frequently appears. Two examples are Lady Ellison in Sarah Robinson Scott's novel, The History of George Ellison (1766) and Mary Wollstonecraft's polemical attack on such practices in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
  24. Sypher, 'The West Indian', 503, 506.
  25. Ragatz, Absentee Landlordism, 1-21. Note also how Sir Thomas's 'burnt, fagged, worn look' (178) matches signs of the contemporary West Indian in fiction. 'A yellowish complexion, lassitude of body and mind, fitful spells of passion or energy, generosity bordering on improvidence, sentimentality combined with a streak of naughtiness and cruelty to subdeviates'; see also Sypher, The West Indian, 504.
  26. Lovers' Vows. A Play, in five acts. Performed at the Theatre Royal Covent-Garden. From the German of Kotzebue. by Mrs. Inchbald (London, 1798) in Chapman, The Novels of Jane Austen, 475-538.
  27. Lovers' Vows, 534.
  28. Gibbon, 'The Antiguan Connection', 298-305.
  29. Gerald L. Gould, 'The Gate Scene at Sotherton in Mansfield Park ', in Literature and Psychology, 20:1 (1970), 75-8.
  30. For the discussions of subjectivity and interpellation in ideology here and elsewhere in the essay, I am indebted to Michel Pêcheux, Language, Semantics, and Ideology (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975).
  31. I am assuming here and elsewhere in the text the reader's conversancy with Lovers' Vows, an assumption I think Jane Austen makes.
  32. In Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), Michel Foucault argues that feudal torture of the criminal's body and subsequent death 'made everyone aware … of the unrestrained presence [and power] of the sovereign' 'The ceremony of the public torture and execution displayed for all to see the power relation that gave his force to the law …'. 'We must regard the public execution, as it was still ritualized in the eighteenth century, as a political operation' 49-53.
  33. Jane Austen, Emma (first published 1816) (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1933), 233.
  34. See F. O. Shyllon, Black Slaves in Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), especially 77-124 and 237-43. See also James Walvin, The Black Presence. A documentary history of the Negro in England, 1555-1860 (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 95-114.
  35. Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1986), 116-119.
  36. I am indebted for the argument about the text's excess and unconsciousness to Pierre Macherey's A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), 75-97 and passim.
  37. Yeazell, 'The Boundaries of Mansfield Park ', 133.
  38. Craton, Testing the Chains, 337-8.
  39. Mansfield Park, 104. I would add data from the Quarterly Review to Chapman's list of sources for Mansfield Park and refashion his chronology of the novel from 1800-1809 accordingly.
  40. See Quarterly Review, 164.
  41. Pêcheux, Language, Semantics and Ideology, 13.
  42. I am thinking here of Edward Said's conceptualization of orientalizing in Chapter One, 'The Scope of Orientalism', in Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), and passim.
  43. Pêcheux, Language, Semantics and Ideology, 156-7.

Further Reading

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Handley, Graham. Jane Austen: A Guide Through the Critical Maze. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 139 p.

Provides a guide to Austen criticism from early reviews through the 1980s.

Roth, Barry. An Annotated Bibliography of Jane Austen Studies, 1984-94, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996, 438 p.

Offers a bibliography of studies on Jane Austen.


Austen-Leigh, James. A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: R. Bentley, 1870, 364 p.

Presents an affectionate biography of Austen by her nephew.

Chapman, R. W. Jane Austen: Facts and Problems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948, 224 p.

Provides an early biography by one of Austen's twentieth-century critics.

Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, 399 p.

Links Austen's life to her works.

Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A Biography. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1948, 286 p.

Offers a detailed treatment of Austen's life and works.

Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997, 512 p.

Attempts to correct the portrait of the sweet maiden aunt painted by Austen's family; considered by critics to be somewhat speculative in its alternative interpretation of Austen's life.

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1997, 352 p.

Offers a popular biography focusing on Austen's family.


Auerbach, Nina. "Jane Austen's Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought About Fanny Price." Women and Literature 3 (1983): 11-28.

Considers the character Fanny Price from Mansfield Park as a version of the "Romantic monster."

Benedict, Barbara M. "Jane Austen and the Culture of Circulating Libraries: The Construction of Female Literacy." In Revising Women: Eighteenth-Century 'Women's Fiction' and Social Engagement, pp. 147-99. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Links Austen's treatment of women as readers to the rise of consumer society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, 310 p.

Contends that Austen's novels are a conservative reaction to the more liberal novels that preceded them but that she is innovative in narrative style and technique.

Craik, W. A. Jane Austen: The Six Novels. London: Methuen, 1965, 210 p.

Sees in Austen's novels a harmonic combination of the artist and the moralist; emphasizes the economy of Austen's style and plotting and the serious intent of the novels.

Devlin, D.D. Jane Austen and Education. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975, 140 p.

Interprets Austen's novels as delineating the educative process of their protagonists.

Duane, Anna Mae. "Confusions of Guilt and Complications of Evil: Hysteria and the High Price of Love at Mansfield Park." Studies in the Novel 33, no. 4 (winter 2001): 402-15.

Discusses the treatment of feminine desire with respect to the ending of Mansfield Park.

Duckworth, Alistair. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971, 239 p.

Focuses on the settings of Austen's novels and their social context.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. "Inside the House of Fiction: Jane Austen's Tenants of Possibilities." In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 107-86. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Comprises two essays, the first on gender and genre in Austen's juvenilia, the second on the novels; discusses Austen's representation of the social and political history of women in her works.

Harding, D. W. "Regulated Hatred." Scrutiny 8, no. 4 (March 1940): 346-62.

Focuses on Austen's satire and caricature and reads her novels as variations on the Cinderella tale.

Harris, Jocelyn. "Silent Women, Shrews, and Bluestockings: Women and Speaking in Jane Austen." In The Talk in Jane Austen, edited by Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg, pp. 3-22. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002.

Examines the treatment of female speech and female silence in Austen's novels.

Johnson, Claudia. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, 186 p.

Asserts that Austen's novels contain a political element.

Michaelson, Patricia Howell. Speaking Volumes: Women, Reading, and Speech in the Age of Austen. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002, 261 p.

Applies a sociolinguistic approach to issues of gender, performance, and authority in Austen's novels.

Mudrick, Marvin. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952, 267 p.

Examines Austen's use of irony throughout her novels as well as in her letters and juvenilia.

Poovey, Mary. "Ideological Contradictions and the Consolations of Form: The Case of Jane Austen; True English Style." In The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen, pp. 172-207. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Compares Austen's style to that of Wollstonecraft and Shelley, placing her between Wollstonecraft's direct manner of expression and Shelley's self-effacing style, and connects narrative mode to the authors' ideology of femininity.

Said, Edward. "Jane Austen and Empire." In Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives, edited by Terry Eagleton, pp. 150-64. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

Interprets Austen's personal ideology as conservative, focusing on Mansfield Park.

Sulloway, Alison. "Emma Woodhouse and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman." Wordsworth Circle 7 (autumn 1976): 320-32.

Examines Austen's portrayal of women within the context of Mary Wollstonecraft's work, calling Emma a subversive and Romantic text.

Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986, 291 p.

Acknowledges Austen's conservatism but nonetheless views her as a social critic; observes the close connection between Austen's controlled and precise prose and her morality.

Todd, Janet. "Who's Afraid of Jane Austen." Women and Literature 3 (1983): 107-27.

Considers Virginia Woolf's response to Jane Austen as intimidated; a comparative study of the novelists as women authors.

——. "Jane Austen, Politics, and Sensibility." In Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, edited by Susan Sellers, Linda Hutcheon, and Paul Perron, pp. 71-87. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Analyzes Sense and Sensibility in the context of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cult of sensibility and its implications for women's sexuality.

Weldon, Faye. Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen. London: Michael Joseph, 1984, 127 p.

Fictional letters from Weldon's persona Aunt Faye to her niece, a "punk" college student, attempting to convince her of Austen's merits; humorous but also scholarly.

Woolf, Virginia. "Jane Austen at Sixty." Athenaeum (15 December 1923): 433.

A speculative essay on the paths Austen's career might have taken after Persuasion.


Additional coverage of Austen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 3; British Writers, Vol. 4; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789-1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 116; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 13, 19, 33, 51, 81, 95, 119; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 14, 18; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults Supplement, Vol. 1.


Sources for Further Study


Austen, Jane (1775 - 1817)