My MUM’S THESIS ON THE GREAT NOVELIST
A few weeks ago I did a post marking the tenth anniversary of my mother Hannah’s death, in which I promised to present a follow-up photo-post celebrating her life. As chance would have it, since then I have discovered her finely written 1982 BA degree thesis on the work of Jane Austen.
Thus, it occurred to me, that this example of her intellectual prowess might be more interesting than just another load of photos. As a rule, in line with most experienced bloggers advice, I try to keep the text in my posts to a maximum of 300 words, so as not to lose the reader, but I am making an exception in this case and presenting Hannah’s superb essay in full. Those of you who do persevere will be well rewarded, I assure you, especially if you are fellow Austen enthusiasts.
Mum’s interest in English Literature, especially that of the 19th century began when she was a child, but it was only when she reached her late forties that she found herself with an opportunity and the time to give her passion an academic honing. Her “lay” knowledge of writers like Austen, Elliot (her favourite author), the Bronte’s (whom she did not particularly rate) and Dickens was profound before she began her studies, but she loved the way her tutors helped her “discipline [her] appreciation” and “develop [her] critical faculty”.
Mum had hoped that her BA in English Literature would lead to a late career in teaching, but sadly, “events” (too painful to go into here) intervened to confound her ambition. She wrote two main papers; the one presented here on Austen, and a longer essay on Middlemarch (the work she regarded as the greatest ever written in the English language), which is yet to turn up. Hannah had little time for the majority of the TV and cinematic adaptations of any of her literary heroes’ works, and especially those of the books of Jane Austen, which in her words, tended to “reduce them to period soap operas”. In her discussion here she lucidly describes much of what is missed among all the heaving bosoms and bodices so beloved of television producers more concerned with ratings than the subtle message beneath the surface flesh and lace…
The Relationship Between Moral Failing & Intellectual Failing
In the Novels of
Moral failing in the Jane Austen novels, ranges from relative minor lapses of behaviour caused by thoughtlessness or inconsiderateness, through such faults as conceit, vanity and pride, until, in its most extreme form, it takes the guise of sexual misconduct. This the only type of moral failing which is described as a vice in the Jane Austen canon. There are a number of links between intellectual and moral failing and these, in turn interrelate with each other. A person who has erred through failing to exercise reason can come to recognise that faculty. If a protagonist has the natural propensities for virtue such as sense, warmth, openness and affection, that person may apply the vital ingredient of insight in order to achieve moral rehabilitation. Without an intellectual capacity and the will for self-improvement, moral growth is not possible. There is a large body of characters in the novels who are narrow of mind, mean in their behaviour and deficient in education.
A vital connection between intellectual and moral failing is the way in which people exert influence on each other. Many of the Jane Austen ‘fools’ occupy positions of responsibility, especially towards the young, and they help to create environments in which the seeds of moral failing are sewn and nurtured. In some cases, the undesirable background is created because of the laissez aller attitude of a parent, or because the parent is failing to make sound judgements. Youngsters who are weak morally or intellectually are incapable of rising above these early influences and succumb to that lack of guidance and control which is essential to their healthy development, On the other hand, the redeemable characters sometimes benefit from the support of a good and clever parent, sibling or lover but, generally speaking, they achieve moral growth in emotional isolation.
Some protagonists, such as Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Mr Knightley in Emma, are morally and intellectually perfect from the outset. Others do not succeed in conforming to what is an acceptable standard of morality in the terms of the books, in spite of possessing a high order of intelligence.
A definition of intellect is “that faculty, or the sum of faculties, of the mind or soul by which one knows and reasons” ¹ and, whereas every Jane Austen heroine has the faculty of reason, four of them fail to apply the faculty at certain times in relation to particular situations. Anne Henry Emphries describes the doctrine of Northanger Abbey as “one of Jane Austen’s enduring themes, the danger of imagination uncontrolled by reason.” ² This is how the author expressed herself on the subject of ‘Imagination’ in a letter to Fanny Knight.
“The most astonishing part of your Character is, that with so much Imagination, so much flight of Mind, such unbounded Fancies, you should have such excellent Judgement in what you do!” ³
In Hard Times, Dickens presents the school of Fancy as the only viable alternative to the school of Fact as embodied in utilitarianism. Jane Austen, writing in the age of Romanticism, subscribes to the school of Reason.
At the beginning of the second chapter of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen informs the readers, in case they should not sufficiently understand what Catherine Morland’s character is meant to be, that “her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind…and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.” * Catherine is endowed with, what I have referred to in my opening paragraph as, the necessary propensities of virtue. It is her uninformed mind, fed on the Gothic novel, which leads her into flights of uncontrolled fancy. Within the terms of the novels, Catherine has been unusually lucky to have grown up in the bosom of a happy and well-adjusted family. When Jane Austen describes Catherine’s mother as “a woman of plain, useful sense” she is paying her a high complement. Mrs Morland, however, was “so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves.” (p 39) The Jane Austen heroines are usually left to shift for themselves for one reason or another, as, indeed are most of the young men and women of the books. When Catherine goes off to Bath, it is under the auspices of a woman whose “vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking” lead her to advise Catherine to “do just as you please my dear” when the need for guidance is critical.
Northanger Abbey, being the most light-hearted of the completed novels, Catherine’s failure to be guided by reason, does not have dire consequences. In time, she learns from her mistakes and repents the error of her ways. Under the “very intelligent and lively eye” of Henry Tilney, Catherine arrives at the happy state of maturity in which good nature and reliable sense combine with what has become a better-informed mind, to produce a fully integrated young woman. When this happens, Catherine is deemed worthy of sharing with her lover a marriage which brings them “perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen.” In Jane Austen’s world of fiction, this is the highest reward for virtue and there is no better fate to which a person can aspire.
Sense and Sensibility culminates in two happy marriages but, before that satisfactory conclusion is arrived at, we come closer to tragedy and then in any of the other novels.
Lord David Cecil says that “love itself, though she (Jane Austen) understood its working admirably, did not rouse enthusiasm unless it justified reason, disciplined by self-control.” ^ The history of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood bears testimony to this theory. Elinor never deviates from reasoned behaviour and consistently applies self-control. Her failure to temper sensibility with reason, leads Marianne into a series of lapses from a pattern of correct behaviour as exemplified by her older sister. Jane Nardin ascertains that “the identification between true and conventional propriety changes from one novel to another.” ° In this book, the social proprieties are of paramount significance and a character’s observance of, or failure to comply with the social code, is a reliable indication of the extent to which they are upholding, or failing to conform with, the moral code. Marianne’s least serious breaches manifest themselves as a failure to observe such niceties of social etiquette as politeness to one’s neighbours at all times, no matter how provoking they themselves may be. Elinor, at the age of nineteen, “possessed a strength oof understanding and coolness of judgement” which enabled her to observe every aspect of the social and moral code even though she was undergoing a severe personal crisis.
Marianne’s “eagerness in her sorrows and her joys” endear her to the reader but make her an incredibly difficult person to live with; she is unable to spare her family the smallest part of her suffering. Elinor’s method of coping with adversity is the opposite of Marianne’s although her experience is a parallel of her sister’s. Lack of prudence leads Marianne to more seriously deviate from the social code as her friendship with Willoughby progresses. They flaunt the meticulously prescribed rules laid down for the conduct of would-be courting couples who have not yet declared themselves as betrothed. Her behaviour reaches its least reasonable and most dangerous phase when she takes “two delightful walks where the trees were the oldest, and the grass was the longest” and then proceeds to sit in her wet shoes and stockings so that she becomes seriously ill and nearly dies. Marianne’s determination not to assimilate principles which, seemingly, Elinor has always practised, such as how to control her “excellent heart”, her “affectionate disposition” and her “feelings which are strong”, has catastrophic results. Her illness causes the greatest inconvenience and concern for people who have shown her nothing but hospitality and kindness. To the people she would least wish to hurt, the family who truly love her and for whom she most deeply cares, she brings anguish and despair.
In Chapter 46, Marianne reviews her recent behaviour, enumerates her errors and takes responsibility for the consequences. Later in the day, when Elinor expresses the opinion that poverty would have made a happy marriage with Willoughby impossible; Marianne agrees with her and adds that she has nothing to regret but her own folly. Marianne is one of many characters in the books who, sooner or later, identify their actions as folly. When Catherine Morland come to recognise “the extravagance of her late fancies”, she sees herself as having been guilty of “folly with which now seemed even criminal.” Of the various aspects of folly with which we shall be concerned, it is that part of the fault defined as “want of good sense” which applies to these girls. As Marianne and Catherine have been helped towards understanding of themselves by such reliable protagonists as Elinor and Henry Tilney respectively, both of whom enjoy the author’s approbation, we may accept the judgement of folly as the one we are intended to accept.
The strongest condemnation for error is usually contained in that pronouncement which a redeemable protagonist makes about him or herself when admitting to previously unrecognised truths. No punishment can be more severe than the remorse experienced at such a time. Elizabeth Bennet is no exception to the rule, as demonstrated by her response to Darcy’s letter.
“She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. – Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
– How humiliating is this discovery…vanity, not love has been my folly. – …I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.” (pp 237/7)
In his introduction to Pride and Prejudice, Tony Tanner says that Jane Austen’s book is “mostly about pre-judging and re-judging. It is a drama of recognition, that act by which the mind can look at a thing and if necessary, make revisions and amendments until it sees the thing as it really is.” (p 8) The ability to judge and a preparedness to re-judge are at the heart of the relationship between moral and intellectual awareness. Omission to judge between right and wrong leads to moral failing. The inability to distinguish between good and bad is a failure of the intellect. Elizabeth Bennet is absolutely reliable in her assessment of her parents, her siblings and her peers. Her refusal of Mr Collins is an indication of sound discernment and her condemnation of Charlotte’s accepting gentlemen, shows her to possess a maturity beyond her years. Only in relation to Wickham and Darcy, and thereby in relation to herself, does she judge badly, and then because she is guided by prejudice instead of reason.
It is usual for the heroines to carry out their programme of reform with little benefit of outside help. The older Bennet girls have each other and in this they resemble the Dashwood girls rather than, say, Fanny Price or Anne Elliot. Fanny has Edmund to guide her through her lonely childhood but she “betters the instruction.” Although Ann Elliot and Fanny Price do not make mistakes, they, similarly, face severe personal crises in what is a typically isolated condition. In any event, no matter how close the sisters may be, and in this they are the reverse of their 20th century counterparts, they keep their own counsel. The difference between the Bennet girls is not as crucial to the plot of Pride and Prejudice as in the case of Sense and Sensibility, where the contrasts are embodied in the very title of the book. Nevertheless, the varying characters of the Bennet girls is a reason for Elizabeth being more self-sufficient than she would otherwise need to be. Elizabeth comprehends Jane’s unspoken feelings; nobody guesses what Elizabeth herself is going through. She may tell Bingley that a deep intricate character is not necessarily more estimable then his own more simple one, but the lesson of the novel would seem to give this the lie. What Tony Tanner calls “the mental range and depth” of Elizabeth is characteristic of the protagonists who struggle through to moral rehabilitation, relying entirely on their own resources. Admirable as the less complex characters may be, they are not the vehicle employed by Jane Austen to carry the major roles in the novels. “Bingley and Jane, as well as being like each other, each perform a similar function towards Darcy and Elizabeth…Intelligent and right-thinking, both reveal the greater intelligence and subtlety of the more important character.” ˇ Elizabeth is the most far-sighted and mature of the major characters in the book. Darcy provides facts which she needs in order to carry out her reappraisal – it is her qualities which precipitate his readiness to re-judge. When he says “What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous”, he is not flattering his future wife.
Hard indeed are the lessons acquired by Emma Woodhouse, heroine of the prototype educational novel and first in a long line of redeemable heroines such as Gwendolen Harleth and Isabel Archer. Emma’s education is a painful one because she is so wilful and headstrong. It requires much more than the reasonable presentation of facts to change this young lady’s mind and, whereas Jane Austen considered Elizabeth to be “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print”, she believed that Emma was a young lady “whom no one would like but myself.”
This novel deals with mistakes, the dawning of self-awareness and the subsequent reform of the heroine, at the greatest length. The treatment is not as serious as that employed in Sense and Sensibility or Mansfield Park. Emma does not suffer the ordeals of Marianne Dashwood who, as we have seen, has her heart broken, becomes seriously ill and nearly dies. Elinor Dashwood has to witness her sister’s suffering and, at the same time, face the prospect of losing her sweetheart to a girl who will be very bad for him. Fanny Price undergoes the endless cruelty of Mrs Norris and, she too, has reason to believe that she will lose the man she loves to a most unsuitable woman. At the opening of Persuasion, Anne Elliot has had seven years in which to lose the bloom of youth, a fate certainly not shared by Emma Woodhouse.
Admittedly, and for a very short time, Emma has grounds to fear that Mr Knightley, whom she has only just come to recognise as the man she loves, might have grown to care for Harriet Smith. The wretchedness experienced by Emma, however, is the awareness that in this matter, as in every potential source of her unhappiness, she has only herself to blame. As Emma looks back at a series of lapses which, in retrospect, cause her untold mortification, she realises that she has charted her own downfall. Emma’s plight is intensified a hundredfold because she is labouring under the heaviest burden of all – that of self-reproach.
On the first page of the book, Jane Austen points out that there are dangers in Emma’s position. “The real evils indeed…were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself”. Emma in fact is power-mad. She would like to stand back from actual participation in life and use her considerable advantages in order to manipulate other people. It as though she wants to play God and is afraid of getting her own feet wet! There is a long way to go towards reform when, in the early days of the novel, she and Mr Knightley exchange words on the matter of Harriet’s rejection of Robert Martin. Emma “did not repent what she had done; she still thought herself a better judge of such a point than he could be.” (p 91) Emma constantly sees things as she would have them, rather than as they are. She plays down Mr Elton’s faults when it suits her to do so and, conversely, refuses to recognise the qualities of Robert Martin, as evidenced to her discerning eye in his letter to Harriet and as pointed out to her by the reliable Mr. Knightley. That Emma is capable of sound judgement is indicated in her response to Mrs Elton, but she will not be guided by reason if it interferes with her plans.
Emma’s capacity for reform is illustrated in the carriage on the way home from the Box Hill debacle.
“They (her feelings) were combined only of anger against herself, mortification and deep concern…Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved…She had never been so depressed…and felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home…” (pp 368/9)
Emma is responding to her own basic good nature. She realises that she has been unforgivably rude to Miss Bates and that she has earned the ill opinion of Mr Knightley. Our heroine may think that she has never been so depressed before, but worse is to come. The drive home from Box Hill is the turning point of the novel. Emma’s education is on the way to being completed as she learns (in the company with the reader) of the true relationship between jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill and when Harriet reveals the new object of her affection. As Emma grows to understand the state of her own heart and to appreciate the possible consequences of her meddling, her unhappiness becomes most acute, but so does her knowledge of herself.
“…what could be increasing Emma’s wretchedness but the reflection never far distant from her mind that it had all been her own work?
…the resolution of her own better conduct, and the hope that, however inferior in spirit and gaiety might be the following and every future winter of her life to the past, it would yet find her more rational more acquainted with herself, and leave her less to repent when it were gone.” (pp 410/411)
This is indeed a humbled Emma! When Mr Knightley tells that Harriet has finally accepted Robert Martin and finds her “materially change” since they last talked on the subject, Emma answers that she hopes so, for at that time, she says, she was a fool.
Jane Fairfax might be a more accomplished pianist than Emma, but the latter is not guilty of the on fault of reserve which Mr Knightley lays at the door of the seeming paragon. When humility and the will to be good are added to Emma’s natural qualities, such as her open temper, she is found worthy by her creator of marriage with the most perfect hero in her repertoire. Emma’s achievement is all the more remarkable when one considers that, at the opening of the book, she had lived her nearly twenty-one years in the world with little or nothing in the way of parental guidance. Her father was “no companion for her. He could not meet her in conversation”, and with the death of her mother she had lost “the only person who could cope with her.” Mrs Weston is a fine woman, but she is partial and uncensorious where Emma is concerned. There are no siblings near Emma in age or in understanding, and even though Jane Fairfax would have been a more suitable friend than Harriet Smith, the evidence of the novels is that these girls never confide. In any event, Jane’s reserve would have prohibited closeness. Frank Churchill must have been a welcome and refreshing addition to Highbury society for our young heroine.
Ronald Blythe says that “such isolation, social, cultural and moral might have proved disastrous were it not for Mr Knightley, whose native intelligence and natural goodness have constantly protected her.” ¹¹ While not wishing to underestimate the role played by Mr Knightley, I would suggest that constant protection is precisely what he is unable to provide. There is no person of his native intelligence and natural goodness in a position of sufficient authority in Emma’s life. It is integral to her education that she should constantly ignore his good advice, that she should go her own way and prove herself capable of reform.
The prerogative for error and for reform does not rest solely with the younger generation in these books. There is a small group of parents who share with their more estimable children, the ability to criticise themselves. One such person is Mrs Dashwood.
Elinor tries to warn her mother that the way in which Marianne and Willoughby are conducting their friendship is dangerous. Mrs Dashwood, however, is too much like her younger daughter to be able to see the position from Elinor’s point of view. Not until she is faced with the irrefutable evidence of Willoughby’s villainy and the adventure has come close to costing Marianne her life, does Mrs Dashwood come to share Elinor’s judgement. It is true that she is placed outside the action during the vital crises, but the seeds had been sewn before the girls left for London. Once the truth is brough home to her, she fully accepts responsibility for the part she has played in the near-tragedy. “Marianne was restored to her from danger in which, as she now began to feel, her own mistaken judgement in encouraging the unfortunate attachment to Willoughby had constituted to place her.” (p 297) When Marianne says that she has nothing to regret but her own folly, her mother counters with “Rather say your mother’s imprudence my child”, and as these two, who do nothing by halves, vie for blame, Elinor is “satisfied that each has felt their own error.” One might add that Mrs Dashwood has failed to notice Elinor’s problems but, to do her justice, Elinor has worked very hard to prevent anybody being aware that she is unhappy.
Mrs Dashwood’s mistakes emanate from within her own personality. Mr Bennet’s failures originate in his marriage. Correct judgement is integral to the upholding of a moral code and in no area is judgement more crucial than in the choice of spouse. One of jane Austen’s recurrent themes is that of an intelligent man who marries a woman for her looks. We first hear the refrain in Northanger Abbey. “Catherine did not know her advantage – did not know that a good-looking girl with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man.” (p 125) Catherine however, has the affectionate heart and, as we have seen, her mind did not remain ignorant. Henry Tilney fared more favourably than did Mr Palmer whose “temper might perhaps be a little soured finding, like many others of his sex, that though some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.” (p 95) The theme is enlarged upon in Pride and Prejudice.
Mr Bennet “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her”. (p 262) A pattern, which incidentally is repeated by Lydia and Wickham – “his affection for fer soon sunk into indifference, hers lasted a little longer.” Although there is no overstating the part played by Mrs Bennet in Lydia’s downfall; it is Mr Bennet who currently engages our attention. He is the parent with the requisite intelligence to recognise the evils threatening his household. When taxed by Elizabeth he turns her objections aside with what has come to be his customary flippancy in relation to matters domestic. “Come let us see the list of pitiful fellows who have been kept aloof by Lydia’s folly.” Elizabeth may answer that she has no such injuries to resent, but the combined follies of the Bennet family come close to costing Elizabeth and Jane their marriages to Darcy and Bingley respectively. When his chickens come home to roost, unlike his wife who blames “everybody but the person to whose ill judging indulgence the errors of her daughter must be principally owing”, Mr bennet says, “who should suffer but myself…how much have I been to blame.” Mr Bennet gets off lightly by comparison with another erring father, Sir Thomas Bertram, but then Mansfield Park is an altogether more serious affair than Pride and Prejudice and Sir Thomas Bertram’s bad judgement is correspondingly punished with direr consequences.
Sir Thomas Bertram has not made as unfortunate a marriage as Mr Bennet, but he was moved by similar considerations in his choice of partner. “There certainly are not so many men of large fortunes as there are pretty women to deserve them.” This is offered by the author as explanation for the less advantageous marriages contracted by the two Misses Ward who failed to carry off knights of the realm. Lady Bertram’s indolence is not as pernicious as Mrs Bennet’s brand of ignorance, but there are indications that if Lady Bertram’s fate had been that of Mrs Price, there would have been little to choose between the way in which they managed, or mismanaged their households. When Tom Bertram is at death’s door, his mother is the least useful member of the family in ministering to his needs. She is obliged to Fanny for her every comfort but is totally unaware of, and insensitive to, Fanny’s suffering. It is a combination of her indolence and her husband’s bad judgement which allows Mrs Norris to rise to a position of pre-eminence at Mansfield Park.
In the tradition of Squire Allworthy, Sir Thomas Bertram stretches the credibility of the reader. How can a man “so discerning, so honourable, so good” as Fanny judges him to be, entrust his young to the tender mercies of a Square, a Thwackum or a Mrs Norris? In all the circumstances, the blame for the catastrophe which overtakes the family, must be laid at the door of Sir Thomas; a fact which he recognises with considerable pain.
“Sir Thomas, a parent and conscious of in his own conduct as a parent, was the longest to suffer…in his anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors.” (pp 446)
We have seen Emma’s wretchedness was aggravated by an awareness of her own culpability. Sir Thomas is more severely punished. There can be no greater remorse than that felt by a man of his mettle when he realises that a child of his has gone irredeemably to the bad and that it his fault.
Thus far, we have examined characters who apply their mental powers in order to understand where they have gone wrong. In my opening paragraph I referred to a large body of people who do not have this facility. Although guilty of the most abject folly, they cannot identify their behaviour for what it is. The intellectual deficiency which leads them into error, renders them incapable of reform. Without the faculty of self-knowledge, it is impossible to change.
The range of fools is very wide, and one end of the scale those people who come into the category are virtually harmless. Miss Bates is good natured and well-meaning, and there is nothing close to her heart than the welfare of her beloved niece. Nevertheless, she does add to the considerable difficulties of the young lady’s already fraught existence. When Jane Fairfax say, “Oh! Miss Woodhouse, the comfort of being sometimes alone”, she is escaping from the unbearable officiousness of Mrs Elton, but in her search for solitude we must not lose sight of the fact she lives in close confinement with her aunt and with her grandmother, and that the incessant chatter of the former is an irritant to overwrought nerves, and sometime the cause of acute embarrassment. Good nature without the backing of good judgement does not suffice. Charlotte Heywood has occasion to observe of Mr Parker in the unfinished Sanditon that “his judgement is evidently not to be trusted. His own good nature misleads him.” Mr Weston is a “straightforward, open-hearted man” but Emma has reason to regret his “unmanageable good will” when it leads him to include the Eltons in the Box Hill party.
Throughout the books, the problems of the heroines are exacerbated by the “poverty of conversation” and “want of sense” from which the Dashwood girls suffer at the Wimpole Street dinner party. In the unfinished novel, The Watsons, we find Emma Watson escaping to her father’s chamber from “mortifications of an unequal society.” Foolishness is often associated with an over-concern for self, as witness conversations between such people as Mr Weston and Mrs Elton at Hartfield, or Mesdames Allen and Thorpe in Bath. Neither party is remotely interested in what the other has to say. Each is waiting for an opportunity to bring the conversation back to their own affairs. Even if that opening is provided by a fit of coughing on the part of the other person, they pounce, and away they go again! At this level, folly provides the funniest scenes in the books.
Richard Simpson distinguishes between the type of fool who he considers to be suffering from “thorough weakness of either will or intellect”, and “another class of fools whom Miss Austen treats with special distinction. These people are sometimes acute enough mentally; their meanness is in their moral understanding rather than in their intellect.” ²² He places John and Fanny Dashwood in this second category. There is a further great divide between the fools; that being the extent to which they practise hypocrisy. Mrs Bennet in her role as parent, or by Fanny Dashwood in her position as wife, with which we are primarily concerned. Be it meanness of intellect or absence of moral sense, their deficiencies lead directly to moral failing on the part of others.
Jane Austen indictates that with a more suitable partner, the faults of a husband or wife might be corrected during the course of a marriage. “Had he [John Dashwood] married a more amiable woman…he might have been made more amiable himself.” In Persuasion, “Ann could believe with Lady Russell, that a more equal match might have greatly improved him [Charles Musgrove]”. A husband or wife then can affect the way in which a partner’s character develops, for better or for worse. If such is the influence wielded during marriage, how much greater is that exerted by a parent or a person in loco parentis during the formative years of a child’s growth? The more intelligent of our protagonists point to areas in which they believe that their upbringing could have been improved upon, Darcy attributed what he sees as his selfishness to not having been taught to correct his temper.
Jane Austen is a staunch advocate of the theory that attention to character defects may act as an adequate corrective. We find her writing to Fanny Knight about her niece’s young daughter, Jemima, who has a “very irritable bad temper” and expressing the hope that “as Anna is so early sensitive of it’s defect, that she will give Jemima’s disposition the early and steady attention it must require.” ³³ Edward Ferrars thinks that if his mother had guided him towards one of the professions, he might never have become betrothed to Lucy Steele, while Lucy herself has moral failings which are ascribed to the fact that “her powers had received no aid from education.” Education in this sense refers more to “the process of bringing up from childhood so as to form habits, manners mental an physical aptitude” than to instruction in the three R’s. A large proportion of the youngsters in the book are orphans, or have bad parents, or are in some way dispossessed of their natural hearth and home.
The most pointed link between the intellectual failing of a parent or guardian and the moral failing of a child, is illustrated in the relationship between Maria Bertram and Mrs Norris. Opinion is divided as to whether the Crawfords or Mrs Norris more directly preside over the destruction of the Bertrams. W. A. Craik refers to the “worldly Crawfords” who…
“…first corrupt Maria and Julia and precipitate Maria’s disastrous marriage with Rushworth; then secondly Edmund, who succumbs to Mary Crawford to act in a play…” ˇ°
…and proceeds to claim that the Crawfords and Sir Thomas are even in the process of corrupting Fanny who Dr Craik sees as “unduly sensitive to Mrs Norris.” Tony Tanner, on the other hand, describes Mrs Norris as “pretending, perhaps believing herself to be one of the guardians of Mansfield, she most nearly contrives its destruction.” (p 17) Jane Austen leaves the reader in no doubt as to the part [layed by Mrs Norris; “…that Julia escaped better than Maria was owing in some measure, to a favourable difference in disposition but in greater, to her havng been less the darling of that very aunt.” (p 450) The youngsters who are strong morally and intellectually, achieve moral growth in spite of bad example; those who are weak intellectually and/or morally, go to the wall, sometimes beyond redemption.
Kitty Bennet removed from Lydia’s influence and spending most of her time in the society of her older siblings, becomes much improved. Lydia herself, in spite of her aberration in running off with Wickham, attains the respectability of wifehood. She does not enjoy marital bliss, but she is received by her family once the nuptials have taken place. Lydia has not been guilty of adultery; Maria has. Apart from the difference in disposition between the Bertram girls and the adverse effect of Maria’s closeness to her aunt, Jane Austen makes a further distinction between the sisters. “Julia was yet as more pardonable than Maria as folly than vice.” Folly covers every departure from good sense except when it leads to sexual misconduct on the grand scale, and then it is categorised as vice. There is no way back for Maria Bertam, she has placed herself beyond the pale.
We are told that “Maria’s guilt induced Julia’s folly” and I would add that Mrs Norris’s folly induced Maria’s guilt. Typical of the fool, Mrs Norris has no concept of right and wrong. She does not recognise Maria’s error and remains in blissful ignorance of the part she has played in the girl’s downfall. Far from achieving her cherished ambitions for her favourite niece, she has been the architect of her destruction. It is fitting that they end their days “shut up together with no society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgement.” With chilling aptness, Jane Austen has made “the punishment fit the crime”.
Having examined the distinction between folly and vice, we can turn our attention to the difference between vice and villainy. Julia Bertram is guilty of folly, Maria of vice and Mary Crawford, if not the villain of Mansfield Park, is closely allied to the element of villainy in the novel. The role of villain is allocated to her brother.
The villains do not have the excuse of folly. Their villainy is an altogether more serious affair than it would otherwise be, because of their intelligence and it renders them culpable in their moral failings. They resemble the redeemable characters in being able to apply their intelligence in order to successfully analyse where they have gone wrong, but they either cannot take advantage of, or are denied by the author the opportunity for reform.
Because they have a potential for good, Willoughby and henry Crawford are the most interesting of the villains and the most rewarding of our attention. Frank Churchill, although guilty of serious moral failing, is in a different category. He practices gross deceit and it is fortuitous that he does not engage Emma’s affections, but he is never associated with vice. His marriage testament to the low position he occupies in the league of “hardened villainy”. Such a prize as jane Fairfax would not be awarded to one of vicious propensities. He is weak rather than bad. These men all suffer in one way or another from faulty upbringing. There has been at least a lack of good example and they have all been the victim of damaging overindulgence during their formative years. Henry Crawford is “ruined by early independence and bad domestic example” while Willoughby’s career as viewed through the reliable and compassionate eyes of Elinor Dashwood and, as such constitutes a fair case history.
“Her thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of the idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally honest, and a feeling affectionate temper.” (p 279)
There is considerable poignancy involved when a man of so many qualities goes to the bad.
Jane Austen held an implicit belief that a household, such as that run by Admiral Crawford, would play a ruinous part in forming the character of a young person. There can be no overstating how deeply she held this conviction. In a letter to Fanny Knight, she expresses her opinion in this matter with uncharacteristic vehemence. “What can be expected of a Paget, born and brought up in the centre of conjugal Infidelity and Divorces…I abhor all the race of Pagets.” ³^ The handicap of having foolish parents is a problem that children can overcome; the effects of over-indulgence are more difficult to recover from, but an example of moral impropriety is impossible to rise above.
The seeds of vice were sewn early in the cases of Henry Crawford and Willoughby and they were sewn deep. It is an unforgiveable crime in these novels to trifle with the affections of a young person of the opposite sex. The whole matter of courtship is of the utmost seriousness and must be entered into with high moral purpose. Both of these men have unworthy aims in the initial phases of their relationships with our heroines. This demonstrates moral blindness. Willoughby tells Elinor, in the course of his confession at Cleveland, that he had seen Marianne as vehicle for the pleasant passing of his time; that he had been “careless of her happiness, thinking only of my own amusement.” Henry Crawford unashamedly jokes with his sister about how he will make fanny Price fall in love with him. Having won the affections of maria and Julia, he cold-bloodedly plans to add Fanny’s heart to his collection. The fact is that both men lose their own hearts in the process.
Henry Crawford demonstrates considerable sensitivity towards Fanny. He seems to be the only person who appreciates how harmful a prolonged stay at Portsmouth could prove to her, and he has sufficiently understood the ways of the family at Mansfield Park to know that fanny’s comfort could take second place to the convenience of their arrangements. Willoughby is distraught when he believes Marianne to be dying. In the Jane Austen novels, however, the rake does not reform in time. Willoughby had ruined Eliza before meeting Marianne and Henry Crawford cannot keep Fanny’s image in front of him sufficiently to refrain from his disastrous involvement with Maria.
Just as these men resemble the redeemable characters in being able to identify where they have erred, so do they differ from the fools in not seeking to blame anyone other than themselves for their downfall. Regret and remorse are experienced, and not merely on their own account. In her role of omniscient narrator, jane Austen tells us that henry Crawford is a man of sense and that as such he will “be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret to wretchedness – in having so requited hospitality, so injured family peace…” (p 453)
What then is the difference between an Emma, who suffers from having had too much her own way, and a Henry Crawford “ruined by early independence”?
There are three major distinctions. In the first place the heroes and heroines have a high sense of honour. Those who make mistakes do not err in their conduct towards the opposite sex. To one of many examples, Edward Ferrars is scrupulous in observing his prior commitment to Lucy Steele. The second difference is more schematic. We are told in Chapter 12 of Mansfield Park that if Henry Crawford had been more in the habit of examining his own motives, he would have stayed longer away from the Bertram girls. It seems that the villains who are capable of self-appraisal refrain from putting their personalities under the microscope until it is too late. Lastly, and most importantly, whereas Henry Crawford allowed himself to be “entangled by his own vanity,” – Edmund Bertram’s “vanity was not of a strength to fight long against reason.”
In what has been described as “the iciest assertion of paramount reason that any teacher has ever promulgated” ²³ Socrates maintained that Virtue was knowledge and said if a man did wrong it was through intellectual error. If we substitute “self-knowledge” for “knowledge” we might be said to have encapsulated the doctrine of these novels. Plato saw “reason as the main instrument of human development, emotion as a valuable ally and sometimes as the sole help where reason fails. ²³ Jane Austen teaches that warmth and affection are paramount qualities but they will not suffice where reason fails.
That Mary Crawford is warm and affectionate is demonstrated by the most overt display of affection in the books. Having spoken of Sir Thomas with tenderness, she embraces Fanny “very affectionately”, calls her “Good, gentle Fanny” and tells her that she feels it impossible to do anything but love her. Mary is torn because she has come to appreciate qualities at Mansfield which are patently lacking from her London society. Jane Austen must have felt a degree of ambivalence for this protagonist who has a greater resemblance to the other heroines than does Fanny herself. One wonders whether the author was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
For all the brilliance of her personality however, Mary cannot distinguish between vice and folly, and it is her moral blindness which finally causes Edmund to become disillusioned with her. He witnesses what he believes to be “a great, though short struggle – half a wish of yielding to truths – half a sense oof shame – but habit, habit carried it.” (p 444) Seemingly, Mary Crawford is of the “race of Pagets”. As Edmund says, “she is tainted” and within the terms of the novels, reason must lose the battle for her heart and mind of this attractive young woman.
Mary is not as intelligent as her brother. She does not have his keen intellectual grasp of what has happened. When jane Austen describes the regrets to which Henry Crawford will fall heir, it is in her most serious tone. In forecasting Mary’s prospects, she employs telling irony. The sister is a less serious character than her brother and the treatment is correspondingly lighter.
“For Mary, though perfectly resolved against ever attaching herself to a younger brother was long in finding among the dashing representatives or idle heir apparents who were at the command of her beauty and her £20,000 one who could satisfy the better taste she had acquired at Mansfield…” (p 453)
Mansfield Park represents a transition in the novels. The basic tenets upon which the morality of the novels are founded do not change, but a shift in emphasis takes place. This finds fuller expression in Persuasion but it is indicated in Sir Thomas Bertram’s changing attitude at the close of Mansfield Park. “Sick of ambition and mercenary connections, prizing more and more the sterling good of principle and temper…”
In the earlier books, Jane Austen ascribes particular qualities to minor characters when she wishes to bestow her approval on them with an economy of description. Thus, with the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice, “she was an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman.” There are many characters in Persuasion who enjoy the author’s approbation without possessing the degree of intelligence and elegance upon which she laid such stress earlier in her career.
Anne Elliot feels that she would not wish to give up “her own more elegant and cultivated mind” for all “the seeming enjoyment” of the Musgroves. But she envies them “that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together.” The Musgroves are “a very good sort of people, friendly and hospitable, not much educated and not at all elegant.” (p 67) This is not to say that education in any of its aspects, as it relates to rearing or to scholastic instruction, is to be dismissed as unimportant.
When Elizabeth Elliot rejects Lady Russell’s advice on reading material, it is an indictment of the younger protagonist. Captain Wentworth believes that there is incompatibility between Louisa Musgrove and Benwick, and that the difference is in his being “a clever, reading man.” Nevertheless, it is for Benwick that Captain Harville builds the bookshelves in his tiny home in which space is at such a premium. Captain Harville himself is not a reading man and his wife is “a degree less polished than her husband.” Admiral Croft’s manners might not appeal to Lady Russel but they delight Anne. “His goodness of heart and simplicity of character were irresistible.” When Anne marries Captain Wentworth, her greatest regret is the deficiency in her marriage portion of “relations to bestow on him which a man of sense could value.”
I am not seeking to establish a dramatic change in the author’s scale of values. Warmth, affection, openness have always been essential qualities, but they have now taken on an extra worth at the expense of attributes formerly considered indispensable.
The factor which remains constant throughout, is the way in which virtue is rewarded. Miss Prism said that in her novel, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” “That”, she claimed “is what Fiction means.” ^ˇ In Jane Austen’s fiction, the good all end happily and some of the bad unhappily. But what about John and Fanny Dashwood, Lucy Steele and Robert Farrars who, like Miss Bingley, esteem “wealth and consequence” and who seemingly prosper after their own fashion? The answer is that they succeed according to their lights. The protagonists who combine moral and intellectual soundness receive the approbation of the author and are rewarded with the highest prize that she can bestow upon them – conjugal bliss. The failed characters do not enjoy the approbation of the author and, in the final analysis, we may rest assured that they would only recognise a shortage of white satin and would not themselves be “answered in the perfect happiness of the union.”
Hannah Green, 1982
¹. Dictionary of Definitions taken from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles.
². Northanger Abbey, p 21 – see note * below
³. Jane Austen Letters, 1796-1817, p 197. Extracts from Jane Austen’s letters taken from R. W. Chapman ed in O. U. P.
* Northanger Abbey, P 41. All page numbers in the Jane Austen novels refer to the Penguin English Library series except for Sense and Sensibility which is an Everyman Paperback, published by Dent.
^ Readings in Literary Criticism, edited by Judith O’Neill.
Lord David Cecil: 1935 – The Moral-Realistic View of Life.
° Jane Nardin – Those Elegant Decorums, p 16.
ˇ W. A. Craik – Jane Austen: The Six Novels, p 74
¹¹ Introduction to EMMA – p 17
²² Readings in Literary Criticism, Richard Simpson: 1870 – Jane Austen’s Fools.
³³ Jane Austen Letters, p 195
ˇ° W. A. Craik – Jane Austen: The Six Novels, p 92
³^ Jane Austen Letters,p 196
²³ The Writers of Greece by Gilbert Norwood, London University Press, p 93
^ˇ The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde – second act.