Thoughts About Personal Objectivity in Austen

This started out as a comment but got so long, I turned it into a post!

Calvinist Preacher's comment that Elizabeth learns to appreciate Darcy's serious side, recognizing that "her father's unwillingness to be serious about folly actually encourages it" reminded me of an oft-ignored theme in Persuasion.

I recently read a "re-imagined" version of Persuasion in which Anne bemoans she dropped Captain Wentworth when she was younger out of weak-mindedness; she should have dared all and married him anyway!

This is completely and utterly out of keeping with Anne's personality, not to mention Austen's theme.

What Anne actually says at the end of the novel is that while Lady Russell's advice to Anne when she was nineteen was wrong, Anne was not wrong to follow it. Having taught numerous nineteen-year-olds, I can attest to this. Being persuadable to drop that druggy boyfriend and go back to college to get a degree in nursing is a WONDERFUL attribute for a 19-year-old girl to have.

Not that Captain Wentworth was a druggy boyfriend type of dude--and Lady Russell never gave him the chance to prove otherwise--but he so easily could have been.

So though the advice was wrong, Anne's decision to follow it was not. And Austen's focus here indicates that although Persuasion is a very different novel from P& P, her themes/attitudes remain consistent: her narrator rarely thinks highly of characters who just do whatever comes to them on the spur of the moment (sweet-natured Bingley is a rare exception, and Bingley is never destructive).

It isn't that Austen is opposed (as Bronte thought she was) to "sense," to an emotional reaction based on strong feeling. But she isn't a big fan of "because I've had this emotional reaction, it is now more important than anything else including other people's well-being, social stability, not to mention my own future."

What Austen emphasizes with her heroes and heroines is their thoughtfulness. Anne's decision to marry Wentworth at the end of Persuasion provokes some social/familial hostility, though less than it would have eight years earlier, but now she knows what she is getting into. She is prepared to bear the consequences. She is also much more able to weigh the real costs to her family against their imagined costs.

These are all things she couldn't have done at nineteen although the marriage would likely have weathered her learning curve. But Austen (and Bronte actually) saw greater nobility in a decision based on self-knowledge and self-revelation than a decision based on "but this is what I want at the moment" (what Sayers in Gaudy Night calls "snatching").

Returning to Pride & Prejudice, the characters who behave without thought (Mr. Collins, Wickham, Lydia, Mr. Bennet) are punished (sort of) in the end.

Sidenote: Austen's punishments, although seemingly severe to us modern romantics, are actually quite fair. Lydia has married a wastrel, but since she'll spend the rest of her life flirting with officers, I can't see that she will be particularly miserable; Wickham might be, but I think even Wickham does better out of the marriage than he could have hoped for. Mr. Collins has a good wife and a GREAT employer (from his perspective). (I will leave up for debate whether Charlotte is punished or not.) And although Mr. Bennet is a crappy disciplinarian and not the best husband in the world, he is a reasonably nice guy and will continue to have a reasonably nice life. (Note: Mrs. Bennet behaves without thought throughout the novel, but she is too silly to be punished; Austen could be merciful.)

However mild her punishments, Austen reserves her approbation, her happy endings, her love for those characters who demonstrate not only goodness and mutual affection but also intelligent objectivity and honesty. I think, to a degree, this is one reason Austen remains so beloved. We all want the sentimental romance, but underneath, we also want it to be real. Jane Austen keeps it real.

1 comment:

a calvinist preacher said...

I always liked that juxtaposition in Persuasion (my favorite of the Austen novels).