Austen: The Heroism of the Quotidian
Austen's life belongs to the generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge. She deeply admired the poems of Cowper; those of Scott and Byron pleased her. Yet her mind and art clung to the habits of an earlier period stretching from Dryden to Johnson.
As an example of my principles, Austen deserves minute attention because she is hard to catch speaking out. Few authors conceal their opinions on subjects of controversy so well as Austen, screening her thoughts behind those of her characters. Anyone familiar with the novels of Scott knowns how much Austen leaves out of her work. She hardly describes the physical appearance of her characters. In Pride and Prejudice we never learn the color of Elizabeth Bennet's eyes or of Darcy's hair. Austen does not expatiate on politics. In Emma we are not told what Mr. Knightley thinks of the Prince of Wales. Austen avoids religious debate and the particulars of Christian doctrine, though fifty percent of her heroes (and two of her fools) are clergymen. She gives no representation of sexual passion at its feverish height; yet her main characters include an illegitimate daughter (Harriet Smith, in Emma ), the seducer of an orphan (Willoughby, in Sense and Sensibility ), three runaway girls and their lovers (Kitty Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice ; Maria and
Julia Bertram, in Mansfield Park ), and an unctuous widow who elects to be the mistress of a double-dealing gentleman (Mrs. Clay, in Persuasion ).
Critics sometimes condemn Austen's omissions as faults. Sometimes they blame them on her ignorance of the subjects or her distaste for the themes. I wish to suggest another possibility, that the elements of her greatness require such omissions.
The mark of Austen's stories is the inwardness of the action—the novelist's preoccupation with self-knowledge. If one reflects on the history of narrative, including epic, drama, romance, and the novel, two features will distinguish Austen from the bulk of her predecessors. For them the problems to be studied were those of attracting and holding people one loves, of winning and keeping power or wealth, or else of destroying enemies. In this literature the protagonist normally was sure of his own desires but not of the motives of those around him. He often felt divided between opposing impulses, but he knew what the impulses really were. It was the darkness of other people's characters that troubled him; it was the obstacles they put in his way that complicated the action.
But for Austen the obstacles lie within, and the story is one of self-discovery. At the turning point of Pride and Prejudice , Elizabeth Bennet says, "Till this moment, I never knew myself" (p. 208). In Emma Mr. Knightley hovers until the heroine sees for herself (at long last) that she loves him. In Persuasion , Anne Elliot waits for Wentworth to stop misguiding himself and to realize that he cannot love anyone but her.
Mansfield Park is exceptional. Henry Crawford may lack self-knowledge; but Fanny Price fully understands her own devotion to Edmund Bertram. Yet as if to expiate this wisdom, she must keep it secret until Edmund wears out his illusions concerning Mary Crawford. The drama of the novel turns on Fanny's need to guard the single fact that dominates her character.
Elinor Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility , knows herself
and her lover perfectly well. The obstacles between them are indeed external, and the novel has the least adventurous design of all Austen's finished works. Even here we can discern an approach to the theme of self-knowledge, because the accomplishment of the action, apart from the various love affairs, is the discovery of Elinor's real nature by a sister and mother who had grossly undervalued her depth. It is when the two of them appreciate Elinor's complexity that they come to a proper judgment of their own character. One of the finest turns in the novel is the conversation in which Elinor undeceives her volatile sister about her own anguish over Edward Ferrars (pp. 262–64).
Of course, the novels abound in external actions. But a surprising number of these happen offstage with the reader only getting reports of them. So also Austen is exceptionally novelistic in representing most of the "onstage" incidents not directly but as impressions of one of her characters, especially the heroine. In Sense and Sensibility , Elinor's consciousness provides the main arena of the action. We learn that her beloved Edward has not married Lucy Steele, by watching her receive the information (p. 360). In Persuasion the novelist lets us see Louisa Musgrove's fall directly; but she passes the burden of what follows back and forth between herself and Anne Elliot.
This technique adds humor, pathos, or irony to incident after incident, and makes tiny gestures resonate with significance. It is also a brilliant method of endowing a modest protagonist with heroic stature. Merely because we see so much through her eyes, the heroine becomes the central, dominating figure. But the device also magnifies the inwardness of the plot.
If self-knowledge is the theme par excellence of Austen's work, it is not therefore detached from the ancient, ubiquitous subject of all forms of narrative, namely the darkness of other people's character. Elinor Dashwood puts this plainly when she says,
I have frequently detected myself in . . . a total misapprehension of character in some point or other: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why, or in what the deception originated.
Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge.
The correction of such misapprehensions belongs to the process of self-discovery, through which it makes the substance of the story.
Thanks to such misapprehensions, inward and outward, Austen's villains trick themselves as much as they trick their victims. The old tradition of villainy involved deliberate hypocrisy. In Maskall (Congreve's Double Dealer) or in Blifil (Fielding's devilish prig), or again in Lovelace (Richardson's arch-schemer), the criminal hid his true nature and deceived wise men—who, like angels, cannot penetrate hypocrisy. In Austen's work the ordeal is twofold. It is not Wickham who single-handedly misleads Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice . It is Elizabeth's declaration about Darcy, "I think him very disagreeable" (p. 77), that prompts Wickham to fill in a dark picture of that hero. So also in Emma , Frank Churchill does not dupe Miss Woodhouse into supposing he loves her. Emma imposes on his character the assumption that flatters herself. Willoughby, in Sense and Sensibility , and Henry Crawford, in Mansfield Park , both cheat themselves, expecting to receive casual amusement from girls who end by winning their hearts, and whose loss punishes them for their depravity.
When the villains get their way, the implications remain similar. Most of the victims, in Austen's novels, are not simply ruined by malefactors. They contribute to their own delinquency. The villain (Willoughby, Crawford, Elliot) serves their corrupted impulses.
Not only is the inwardness of Austen's stories the source of their fascination; it also determines her narrative technique. By making the obstacles internal rather than external, Austen drove her genius to invent ways of disclosing them, because an ignorant character could hardly reveal what he did not know. Among
such devices the simplest is indeed explicit statement; and Austen often tells us outright what is happening in the heart or brain of her creatures.
Elizabeth Bennet's mother, says her maker, "was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper" (p. 5). The reader understands at once why Mrs. Bennet has not kept her husband's affection. Of Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park , Austen writes that "her love of money was equal to her love of directing" (p. 8); and the alternation of bossiness with avarice explains much of Mrs. Norris's evildoing. In Persuasion , Austen blurts out the truth about Sir Walter Elliot: "Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation" (p. 4). It becomes obvious why the unprepossessing Mrs. Clay could hope to snare him with flattery.
When these judgments emanate from the author, they are invariably to be trusted; and the character's behavior never fails to exemplify them. When they derive from a speaker in the novel, we must scrutinize them skeptically. In Mansfield Park , Edmund Bertram's praise of Mary Crawford tells us more about him than about her; and in Persuasion , Lady Russell's encomium of Mr. Elliot (pp. 146–47) is a sly comment on her distrust of Wentworth.
Contrary to the assumptions of many critics, the flat, explicit remark in no way restrains Austen from dramatic illustration of the character through dialogue, gesture, and of course conduct. In scene after scene she quietly implies the judgment she has openly delivered; or else she illustrates it first and then points her meaning, as with John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey —who boasts, exaggerates, and contradicts himself until Catherine Morland cannot tell what to make of him; whereupon Austen audibly declares that Miss Morland "had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead" (p. 65). Even more blunt is an assertion (in Persuasion ) about Elizabeth Elliot: at Bath, after talking to Wentworth, Anne Elliot feels blissful. Her snobbish
sister is also blissful, on account of Lady Dalrymple's company. Austen comments, "[It] would be an insult to the nature of Anne's felicity, to draw any comparison between it and her sister's; the origin of one all selfish vanity, of the other all generous attachment" (p. 185).
But a reader must guard himself against inferring too much from an appearance of explicitness. The novelist often tests our powers of discrimination by letting a highly sympathetic character deliver a wrong judgment or a false interpretation of motives. She likes to catch her hero or heroine in a blunder. Consequently, the best people can mislead us. When Elinor Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility , looks at a plait of hair in Edward Ferrars's ring, Austen reports, "That the hair was her own, she instantaneously felt . . . satisfied" (p. 98); and few readers fail to accept her opinion at this point. But Edward's embarrassment warns us to be doubtful; and we discover finally that Elinor was wrong (p. 365). Emma Woodhouse, of course, is so often mistaken that we learn to distrust her. But even the judicious Anne Elliot, in Persuasion , goes astray in dealing with her cousin Mr. Elliot. Not only does she grossly overvalue him; she also feels confident that he is pursuing her sister. Actually, however, when Elliot is not trying to detach Sir Walter from Mrs. Clay, he is on the trail of Anne herself.
On the other hand, the fact that Austen has labeled a character stupid does not imply that she repudiates all his opinions, any more than she backs all those of the person whom she invites us to admire (especially when the topic relates to the motions of the heart). Austen will ridicule the triteness of a remark without objecting to its substance, or she will expose the insincerity of a speaker while agreeing with his statement.
When Mrs. Bennet objects to Darcy's criticism of a country neighborhood as socially confining, she says that London has "no great advantage over the country . . . except the shops and public places" (Pride and Prejudice , p. 43). A British scholar assumes that Austen cannot agree with the silly woman; but we
have no reason to think so. We only know the sentiment is threadbare and the speaker is fatuous. In the same novel, when the self-important Mr. Collins says he regards the office of a clergyman as "equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom" (p. 97), Austen asks us to smile at a lack of originality, not an error. Or to take a subtler example, when Mr. Collins states that he considers music "as a very innocent diversion, and perfectly compatible with the profession of a clergyman" (p. 101), his words are evidently a parody of William Gilpin's preface to Observations on Cumberland and Westmoreland . But this does not imply that Austen disagreed with Gilpin's views on landscape, for we know she adopted them—even as she also delighted in music.
So the explicitness of the novelist is sometimes only apparent, and at other times is a game played with an audience. By sounding blunt and outspoken in many of her judgments, Austen entices unwary readers into assuming that she is essentially straightforward. She benumbs our critical faculties and screens from observation the kind of legerdemain that she practices with the relations between Emma Woodhouse and Frank Churchill. Who among us is so acute as to notice when the author merely withholds her opinion of a character from us? Who is so acute as to infer that in such cases she is letting us mislead ourselves?
But it remains true that when Austen does plainly set forth her judgment, it is—as I have said—quite reliable. We must appreciate the conciseness of emphasis in these giveaways (which a playwright can rarely afford). But emphasis never calls our keenest imagination into play. Neither would it prevent the novelist from letting us know the political opinions of Mr. Bennet, the religious doctrines of Mrs. Norris, or the sexual habits of Sir Walter Elliot.
There are of course less direct means of bringing out the
hidden processes and motives in a novel. Perhaps the simplest is to let one person tattle on another. Thus in Sense and Sensibility , Colonel Brandon informs the heroine, Elinor Dashwood, of the vicious nature of Willoughby, who has abused her sister (pp. 209–10); and in Persuasion , the invalid Mrs. Smith tells the heroine about the misdeeds of her suitor and cousin Mr. Elliot (pp. 199–211). This is how the reader learns why in fact Willoughby lost Marianne, and why Mr. Elliot lost his cousin Anne: namely, the men's debauched impulses got in the way of their enlightened judgment.
Such detailed revelations, in dialogue or by letter, have an old-fashioned atmosphere, like the interpolated tales of Fielding's novels, or the éclaircissement of The Vicar of Wakefield . They seem out of keeping with the probabilities of the rest of the story. Besides, not only would they fail to inhibit the discussion of politics, religion, or sexual passion; they would facilitate it. Precisely through such old-fashioned autobiographical tales, in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice , and Persuasion , Austen takes us into the ugly concreteness of lust and greed.
A quieter but far busier route for the release of latent purposes is through the novelist's favorite device, narrative contrast. Like many storytellers and playwrights, Austen conceives her plots in terms of moral parallels and antitheses hierarchically arranged, with the main patterns shadowed by subordinate designs. But hers are subtle and evocative to a degree seldom reached by other writers. In Pride and Prejudice we start with Darcy's pride balanced against Elizabeth Bennet's prejudice. This contrast is set off by the easy harmony of Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley on the one side, and the bleak mésalliance of plain Charlotte Lucas and the obsequious Mr. Collins on the other; and around these figures move such epiphenomena as the opposition of Elizabeth's health and candor to Anne de Burgh's sickliness and Caroline Bingley's malice. By pairing characters and actions, Austen endlessly brings out virtues, faults, and motives that would otherwise lie hidden. Thus Mr. Bennet's intelligence is parallel to that of Mr. Gardiner, his
brother-in-law, but his irresponsibility is exposed by the latter's active wisdom.
Though Austen's predominant method is contrast, that method receives peculiar complications. For instance, the contrast is often incomplete and waits to be filled out by the reader. In Emma , Frank Churchill is secretive while Mr. Knightley is open; Churchill is impulsive while Knightley is deliberate. These differences are clear. But the reader must surmise for himself that since Knightley feels deeply attracted by the spirit of Emma, Churchill must be deeply attracted by the physical beauty of Jane Fairfax. Sure enough, when Churchill tells Emma of his love for Jane, he dwells upon her appearance:
Did you ever see such a skin?—such smoothness! such delicacy!—and yet without being actually fair.—One cannot call her fair. It is a most uncommon complexion, with her dark eyelashes and hair—a most distinguishing complexion!—So peculiarly the lady in it.—Just enough colour for beauty.
So also in Mansfield Park Austen sets off Edmund Bertram against Henry Crawford. Edmund inclines to be blunt (pp. 50, 94); Crawford is witty and gallant. Edmund is deeply rooted; Crawford dislikes being confined to one place and one set of friends (p. 41). It is left to the reader to infer that if Edmund is a constant wooer, with eyes only for the lady he loves, Crawford will be distractable and relax his attention when Fanny is absent. Yet that is what happens. For all his vows of fidelity, Crawford cannot resist the challenge of Maria's ambivalence when he meets her after her marriage; and so he runs away with Mrs. Rushworth and loses Miss Price.
Not only are Austen's contrasts systematically incomplete. They are also moral. In Pride and Prejudice , Darcy and Bingley are not opposed to one another as fat and thin or dark and fair but as reserved and sociable, deliberate and impulsive. In Austen's system of implicit contrasts, if Bingley is open and active in his attentions to Jane Bennet, we may assume that Darcy will be cautious in advancing toward her sister's heart.
Thanks to the use of moral contrast, Austen can infuse
subtle implications into devices that do not essentially involve them. For example, in her narrative tradition, speeches and gestures are normally completed. If they are broken off, the storyteller implies that a strong emotion is the cause, and the emotion as such is in general obvious. In the Aeneid when Neptune is angry with the winds for causing a storm he has not asked for, he breaks off a sentence starting Quos ego —and the listener knows he is angry (Aeneid I, 135).
Austen always implies hidden motives with moral overtones when she interrupts an action. In Emma , when Jane Fairfax refuses to continue a game of anagrams, Austen implies not only that she is embarrassed but that Frank Churchill has been indelicate and shown himself unworthy of her (pp. 347–49). Our inference depends of course on the steady contrast drawn between his assurance and her refinement. A more subtle and economical example is Eleanor Tilney's interruption of herself in Northanger Abbey . At the end of a friendly conversation Catherine Morland asks her whether she will be at the ball the next day. "Perhaps we—yes, I think we certainly shall," says Miss Tilney (p. 73). The reader should understand that she has just recognized Catherine's fondness for her brother, and that she wisely wishes to encourage it. The reason for her feeling is that both girls are simple, truthful, and modest, a congruity that sets them off against Isabella Thorpe.
How far Austen could carry such didactic art, we may judge from the elaborate episode, in Emma , of Knightley's almost kissing the heroine's hand. He takes her hand, presses it, and is certainly on the point of carrying it to his lips when he suddenly lets go (pp. 385–86). The reason, we may infer, is that he feels he has no right to seem so affectionate because Emma is (he mistakenly believes) attached to Frank Churchill. Again, we can make the judgment—and admire his delicacy—because of a contrast regularly drawn between Knightley and Churchill.
Yet the most striking and pervasive feature of Austen's contrasts is that they are metonymic. When a person is connected
with a visible element, that element takes on the character of the person. For example, in Pride and Prejudice , when Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley exchange views on card games, they find they both like vingt-un better than the game of commerce (p. 23). Now it happens that in commerce the players barter for cards, while in vingt-un they keep their own. Jane and Bingley are people whose attachment is deep and enduring; their dislike of barter reflects the trait. In Northanger Abbey , the flirtatious Isabella plays commerce while acting a faithless part (pp. 89–90). In Mansfield Park , Mary Crawford's zest for the game of speculation—in which the players buy trumps from one another—discloses her rash, ambitious nature. "No cold prudence for me," she says (p. 243).
It is easy to fit landed property into the scheme of implicit and metonymic contrasts. Bingley lives in a rented house, even as he shows his agreeable manners in public places. Darcy clings to his ancestral estate and is most himself at home. Lady Catherine de Burgh has the marks of a careful guardian of her estate; but they reveal her egoism just as General Tilney's pride in his good taste (Northanger Abbey , pp. 162, 165–66, 175) betokens not moral integrity but a confusion of aesthetic with spiritual values. Contrary to the views of several critics, Austen does not make manners, taste, or good stewardship, in themselves, a sure sign of virtue.
We observe a similar use of physical attributes. When Darcy must talk about Elizabeth Bennet's outward appearance, he dwells on her eyes, which are of course the windows of the soul; for her spirit is what charms him. But in Emma , as we have heard, Frank Churchill spends his raptures on Jane Fairfax's complexion, the most superficial and mutable aspect of her body.
There was nothing unconscious about Austen's handling of this theme, as one may learn from its elaboration in Mansfield Park . Here, Edmund Bertram relays to Fanny Price his father's praise of her; and it is instructive that Sir Thomas should have drawn Edmund's attention to the girl's appearance, while Edmund himself sees her "beauty of mind" (pp. 197–98). Surfaces mean too much to Sir Thomas, and this failing is what lets him
connive at his daughter's monstrous marriage to Rushworth. When the corrupt Henry Crawford talks to his sister about Fanny, he takes the same line, and praises her for being "absolutely pretty" (pp. 229–30). The implications of such judgments become explicit when Fanny receives a letter from Mary Crawford about Edmund Bertram. Mary tells how her friends in London have praised Edmund's "gentleman-like appearance," and dwells on one lady's declaration that she knows "but three men in town who have so good a person, height, and air." Fanny immediately condemns Mary as a "woman who could speak of him, and speak only of his appearance!—What an unworthy attachment!" (pp. 417–18).
It becomes a sign of Austen's genius that almost any article associated with an individual may work as a surrogate for that person. One of the most delicate and beautiful examples is the scene following Darcy's first proposal in Pride and Prejudice . Elizabeth receives a letter that dissolves her false impressions of him. She reconsiders her own character and that of the abominable Wickham. In a sentence that may or may not represent a thrust of irony on the novelist's part, Elizabeth decides that her error was due to vanity:
Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.
Are we to invert this apparent self-discovery and think that Elizabeth had been unconsciously in love with Darcy when he proposed, and that the humiliating terms of the proposal transformed latent affection into conscious anger? Going over the letter in her mind, Elizabeth concludes that essential justice lay on Darcy's side. When she returns to the vicarage, she learns that both Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam had called while she was out. Fitzwilliam's manners had charmed her, but now, Austen says,
Elizabeth could but just affect concern in missing him; she really rejoiced at it. Colonel Fitzwilliam was no longer an object. She could think only of her letter.
That is to say, she could think only of Darcy, with whom at this point she is certainly in love.
Now it would be hard indeed to import politics or religion into the scheme of metonymic contrast. Those occupations presuppose organized sects and parties external to the individual and his morality. They rest on strong polarities that cut across private good and evil. Historically, sects or parties must claim moral superiority; and they must be pitted against one another as such. One could not possibly bring them into the subtle symmetries of Austen's design without swamping it.
So also the novelist does not dwell on aspects of life concerning which the moral judgment must be self-evident: naked avarice or gluttony, violent anger, open atheism. These are too easy to identify and too easy to blame. Her method of metonymic contrast would be pointless with them.
When Austen uses this method of contrast diachronically, or over a period of time, it produces those reversals of expectation and insight that make a staple of comic plots: in Pride and Prejudice , Mrs. Bennet's judging Darcy as worthless just before she learns that Elizabeth will marry him, and as faultless just afterwards (pp. 374, 378); in Emma , Knightley's change of heart toward Churchill when he discovers that Emma does not love the man (p. 483).
Austen refines this ancient device in two ways. In her fictions, it rises from self-knowledge; and it also takes on moral implications, at least for the main characters. In Pride and Prejudice an example is the difference between the shameless Wickham's cardparty conversation about Darcy when he first meets Elizabeth (pp. 77–84) and their tête-à-tête on the same subject after Wickham has married the runaway Lydia (pp. 327–29). The young husband staggers the reader by showing the same engaging manners and self-possession in the drastically altered circumstances; only Elizabeth has changed; and in this case, a persistence implies moral corruption, whereas change implies wisdom. The device becomes explicit in Mansfield Park , when Henry Crawford returns to the Bertrams' after Maria's marriage
and speaks (the author says) as if he had "no embarrassing remembrance" to affect his spirits (p. 224).
Sometimes the diachronic contrasts are enriched by a scenic parallelism. The same arrangements reappear with different evocations. When Mr. Collins proposes marriage to Elizabeth Bennet in the breakfast parlor of her father's house (27 November; pp. 104–9), he dwells on her disadvantages but assumes that she will accept him; and the effect is comic. At the same time, he foreshadows the posture of Mr. Darcy several months later (9 April; pp. 189–93), when that great gentleman proposes marriage to Elizabeth in Mr. Collins's own house and also dwells on her disadvantages but assumes that she will accept him; only the effect is then high drama with deep moral implications.
So when Lady Catherine tells Elizabeth that Darcy must not marry her (3 October; pp. 353–58), the two women are walking in a grove at Longbourne; and this had been exactly the position of Elizabeth with her ladyship's nephew, in the grove at Rosings six months earlier (p. 195), when he gave her a letter detailing the same objections—only in the earlier episode the near-elopement of Darcy's sister came under discussion, and in the later episode the actual elopement of Elizabeth's sister.
To represent her minor figures, Austen tends to employ not metonymy but synecdoche, or the substitution of a part for the whole. One aspect of the character does duty for the entire person. Mrs. Bennet incarnates a passion for marrying off her daughters, even as Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey is reduced to an obsession with clothes. This reductive method of characterization may sound like the tradition of the comedy of humors but is closer to Pope's theory of a ruling passion. The effect is not flat or stereotype because the element is conceived as governing other motives and not replacing them. Mrs. Bennet's favorite child, for example, is Lydia, who subordinates all decent occupations to the pursuit of males. Her least favorite is Elizabeth, who refuses two proposals of marriage. Lady Catherine, in Pride and Prejudice , does little but order other people about. In conversation she alternates questions with commands. But
such a reduction does not prevent her from showing ample hospitality to her parson's guests, the reason being that she may thereby have a more numerous body of submissive companions. Although the scenes that follow come close to burlesque, they also illustrate genuine principles of psychology. So also it is no accident that the prudent Charlotte Lucas, daughter of a man consumed by social ambition, should find a husband who cringes before a title of honor.
Sir Walter Scott makes a vivid contrast to Austen in his methods, because his plots depend on violent, external action; his stories are shaped by political principle and religious doctrine; and his contrasts are metaphoric or symbolic. Even a performance of music or a choice of reading must, with Scott's technique, be subordinated to historical issues. In Waverley , when Flora MacIvor sings, the novelist arranges the occasion to illustrate the tradition of Scottish Jacobite patriotism both in landscape and in language (chapter 22). Flora herself becomes almost an abstraction. By a ruthless metaphoric symbolism, she can appear only as the spirit of an ideology.
Austen avoids metaphor or symbolism in her art. In Scott's Waverley when the hero dresses himself in the tartan, he takes on its associations; it does not reflect his; for Scott uses the tartan as a metaphor for Jacobitism. But in Austen's stories, a thing, a gesture, an occupation seldom has moral significance or general meaning apart from the individual to whom it belongs. Austen can transform all the circumstances of common life into implicit moral comment: space, time, landscape, architecture, furniture. What she will not do is to attribute independent symbolic meaning to those circumstances. Darcy's attention to books indicates the depth of his moral and intellectual culture. Wentworth's indifference to books, in Persuasion , makes a contrast to the reading habits of his shallow friend Benwick, who replaces true feeling with literary sentiment. Games, books, articles of clothing, are in themselves neither good nor bad for Austen; they stand for no general principle until connected with a particular character. When Mary Bennet or Anne Elliot plays the piano, the performance takes on the color of her nature. With Mary
it suggests self-absorption (Pride and Prejudice , p. 100); with Anne it suggests self-sacrifice (Persuasion , p. 47).
In Scott's novel, on the contrary, Edward Waverley's reading is chosen to endow him with a sensibility that will respond to romantic Jacobitism. The act of reading itself becomes symbolic of the contemplative life. But in Pride and Prejudice , as in Persuasion , individuals read in accordance with their moral natures. Mr. Bennet in his library isolates himself from paternal responsibility. Mr. Collins, pursuing him, takes up the largest folio he can find but does not read it. Lydia Bennet haunts the circulating library because she meets officers there. Benwick, in Persuasion , reads literally too much and replaces the loyalties of a genuine devotion with the second-hand feelings of Scott and Byron (pp. 100, 107, 109).
Yet the pervasive trope in Austen's novels—running deeper than any narrative method—is not metonymy or synecdoche but irony. Her whole scheme of contrasts operates to enhance this comic trope, which spreads through Austen's prose in too many forms to be listed. But I think she has her favorite. For her, the union of opposites seems the most exhilarating kind of irony.
Contrast or antithesis has to involve parallelism, because differences are meaningful only between things that are similar. In Austen's work the implications of parallels between characters are normally ironical. In Emma , for example, the ridiculous woman who annoys the heroine most often is dangerously similar to her. This is Mrs. Elton, whose consciousness of her social position and willingness to manage the affairs of others make her a caricature of Emma.
After establishing sharp contrasts, Austen loves to make the two sides equivalent. The dignity of Lady Catherine, in Pride and Prejudice , exactly mirrors the impropriety of Mrs. Bennet: one is always obeyed, the other always disregarded. Yet
it would be hard to judge which of them is coarser; and her ladyship's godlike interference in other people's affairs terminates at last in the same obsession as Mrs. Bennet's—the desire to marry off a daughter. As specimens of musclebound maternity the women are twins.
In Mansfield Park the slatternliness of Mrs. Price seems at the opposite pole from the elegance of Lady Bertram until Austen reminds us that the two sisters share the same disposition, and that Fanny's mother might have made a fine lady if given the chance (p. 390). In Emma , Harriet Smith and the heroine are opposed as protégée and patron (like the relation Mrs. Elton affects to enjoy with Jane Fairfax). But when Harriet rhapsodizes over the virtues of Mr. Knightley (pp. 341–42), she becomes interchangeable with Emma, except that her listener, ironically enough, does not know whom she is talking about.
The implications of such polarized identities can go far beyond irony. In Sense and Sensibility , Marianne appears as the opposite of Colonel Brandon in age, taste, and manners. Yet as W. A. Craik points out, he has just the history that would fascinate her: an early, thwarted passion from which he has never recovered, an attempt to elope, a pathetic reunion, a duel—all revealing a romantic, impulsive character, and all reported in the sort of autobiographical tale appropriate to romance (pp. 205–11). Contrary to appearances, therefore, Marianne finally marries a man after her own heart.
In Emma , Mr. Woodhouse reposes at the peak of the social pyramid as Miss Bates stands at the bottom. Yet they are both of them amiable bores, valued for their innocence and selfless thoughtfulness, but burdensome for their overprotective caution and needless advice. It is precisely her father's tiresomeness that brings out Emma's virtue; for she is invariably tender and considerate of him, never querulous. Yet one reason that her rudeness to Miss Bates staggers the reader is that Mr. Woodhouse might easily have been in the poor lady's position. Emma's
impatience with her humble friend is perhaps the underside of her patience with Mr. Woodhouse.
Austen's reliance on moral metonymy and synecdoche in a scheme of ironic parallels and contrasts will account for another difference between her own narrative style and that of Scott. This is their use of concrete particularity in description. By "concrete particularity," I mean the representation of persons, objects, etc., through sensuous details so peculiar to them that the reader feels he could identify the unique specimen in experience, if only by two or three distinctive marks. (I do not mean the use of generic epithets or the listing of items or the reporting of impressions provoked by the subject.)
Contrary to the assumption of many critics of the novel, such descriptions are rare in great novels of the period 1720–1820, though common in the works of Scott, Mrs. Gaskell, and George Eliot. Where they may seem to exist in proto-novels like Pilgrim's Progress or Gulliver's Travels , inspection will show that the details are symbolic, or that they allude to historical subjects outside the fiction itself. It will also be found that concrete particularity (as in the novels of Smollett and Edgeworth) usually finds its application proper to low subjects, to comic butts and satirical targets, to themes of humorous fantasy, but not to elevated, dignified, sympathetic subjects. I suppose this literary instinct begins with the natural tendency to avert one's eyes from an object of respect or awe, and that dignity often collapses under a close scrutiny of its sensuous aspects.
In this matter the difference between Austen and Scott is enormous. He delights in external action, representing the physical features of his characters, their clothes, houses, and the landscapes around them, in vivid detail. She weakens these effects. Out of scores of possible examples, I may instance the arrival of Fanny Price at her father's house in Portsmouth (Mansfield Park , pp. 376–82) and Frank Osbaldistone's arrival at his uncle's seat in Northumberland (Rob Roy , chapters 5–6). Austen focuses her account on Fanny's emotions, responses, disappointments, as she discovers the confusion, noise, and crowding of her family's circumstances—above all, the thought-
less indifference to herself. The novelist supplies only the faintest hints of the appearance of things, just enough to lead one into Fanny's impressions. Scott has the same kind of family to deal with: large, vulgar, noisy, self-absorbed, and hopelessly confused. Since the story is told in the first person, it would be easy for him to render the external by the internal, as Austen does. But he uses Frank's feelings as a pretext for describing (splendidly, of course) the landscape, the building, the furniture, the features of many people, and their clothing. I think his description of Rashleigh alone gives us a greater number of concrete details than Austen provides for all the characters of Mansfield Park together.
Yet while Austen directs her whole system of contrasts toward elucidating the moral substance of her principal figures, it is remarkable how vague Scott can be about his protagonists. The moral character of Waverley, Staunton (in The Heart of Midlothian ), or Latimer (in Redgauntlet ) is either evasive or unfixed. Although Henry Morton's moderation embodies the essential doctrine of Old Mortality , it looks very much like fence-sitting; and near the end, when the extremists on either side of him destroy themselves, Morton himself almost dissolves into an emblem of an abstraction. Perhaps it could hardly be otherwise if Scott wished to leave us with a deep impression of Morton as a bridge between the old world and the new.
Austen, of course, rarely alludes to the appearance of her characters in concrete detail. The very act of focused representation seems to have meaning for her. Either the person singled out is blameworthy, or the one producing the description is misbehaving. Austen quickly sketches Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey : about twenty-five, rather tall, nearly handsome, with a pleasant face and an intelligent eye (p. 25). Most of these features are not distinguishing marks but impressions of the personality upon an observer. However, Isabella Thorpe, who is shallow and preoccupied with complexions, extracts more concrete detail (still not Flaubertian) from Catherine: "brown skin, with dark eyes, and rather dark hair" (p. 42). Her concern with such data—and especially with complexions—
puzzles Catherine and exposes Isabella. In Pride and Prejudice they only minute account we hear of Elizabeth Bennet emanates from the malicious Caroline Bingley in an attempt to weaken Darcy's growing attachment to her (pp. 270–71). In Emma , it is the jealous heroine who provides a list of the features of Jane Fairfax—partly because Emma dislikes her and partly because her appearance is what attracts Frank Churchill (pp. 166–67, 478–79).
Austen's refusal to stare at her creatures also reflects a general disposition to avoid details that cannot involve moral choice, such as the color of one's hair. In Sense and Sensibility , Elinor tries to see the color of the hair set in Edward Ferrars's ring, because it might be her own; yet Austen keeps from telling us what the color is, or indeed the actual color of Elinor's hair! (pp. 98–99). Nevertheless, in the same novel Austen does describe the selfish, arrogant Mrs. Ferrars with surprising particularity:
a little, thin woman, upright, even to formality, in her figure, and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect. Her complexion was sallow; and her features small, without beauty, and naturally without expression; but a lucky contraction of the brow had rescued her countenance from the disgrace of insipidity, by giving it the strong characters of pride and ill nature. She was not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas. . . . (p. 232)
But Mrs. Ferrars's arrogance is one of the two great obstacles to the marriage of Austen's heroine. Her ill nature gives Austen grounds for satiric particularity.
Persuasion offers one an opportunity to compare a sympathetic character with an evildoer as subjects for description. Here Austen introduces her protagonist as follows:
A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early; and as even in its height, her father had found little to admire in her, (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own); there could be nothing in them now that she was faded and thin, to excite his esteem.
The author uses a few vague references to physical features as a device for setting the daughter's moral nature against the father's. She gives us the general impression that Anne would make on a kind observer but also sees her through the father's unkind vision. The young woman had delicate features, dark eyes, and a thin body. Was the nose turned up? the hair brown? the eyes black? Of concrete particulars we learn little, certainly not enough to recognize the person.
One of the scoundrels in Persuasion receives a different sort of representation. I quote:
Mrs. Clay had freckles, and a projecting tooth, and a clumsy wrist, which [Sir Walter Elliot] was continually making severe remarks upon, in her absence; but she was young, and certainly altogether well-looking, and possessed, in an acute mind and assiduous pleasing manners, infinitely more dangerous attractions than any merely personal might have been.[10
] (p. 24)
Along with the impression that Mrs.Clay makes on Anne's father, along with a general indication of her appearance, Austen gives us surprisingly sharp details: freckles, a projecting tooth, and a clumsy wrist. Whoever studies Austen with attention will learn that not only in Persuasion but generally, the novelist suppresses concrete detail in descriptions of her sympathetic characters but may supply it for persons of ambiguous morality. In this way she transforms an elementary technical demand of prose narrative into an implication of moral judgment.
By invoking her large patterns of metonymic and ironic contrast, Austen can exert pressure not only on incomplete speeches or gestures but on a single word—or the absence of a word. Thus in Pride and Prejudice during one of the conversations at Hunsdon which lead up to his proposal of marriage, Darcy disagrees with Elizabeth about the distance of this village from Longbourn, which she considers great. "Any thing beyond the very neighbourhood of Longbourn, I suppose, would appear far," says Darcy (p. 179). He shows a faint smile which, Austen
tells us, "Elizabeth fancied she understood; he must be supposing her to be thinking of Jane and Netherfield." Of course, Darcy's slight gesture tells us that he must be thinking of Elizabeth and his own estate at Pemberley, which is remote indeed from Longbourn.
We can infer so much because by this point the scheme of polarities between Elizabeth's modesty and Darcy's assurance is well established, and because Austen has indicated that in the region of Wickham, Darcy, and herself, Elizabeth does not know anyone's heart, least of all her own. With the unreliability of the heroine established, the author's word "fancied" gains its weight. It separates the novelist from her creature, and we have therefore to doubt that Elizabeth is right in her inference. If, however, Jane is not in Darcy's mind, Elizabeth should be.
It is through such indirection that we may establish a bridge between the art of the novelist and the social order in which her genius flourished. Sex, religion, and politics do color Austen's themes after all, though in a very different manner from Scott's use of them. To start, one may fairly tease an attitude toward government out of the novels. For instance, it is true that Austen conspicuously avoids political controversy. In Northanger Abbey critics have observed how Tilney, who delights in conversation, stops talking when his lecture on landscape carries him into a digression on the British constitution:
. . . by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, for forests, the inclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.
Again in Sense and Sensibility we detect something like a sneer when Austen alludes to the ambition of the hero's mother and sister:
They wanted him to make a fine figure in the world in some manner or other. His mother wished to interest him in political concerns, to get him into parliament, or to see him connected with some of the great men of the day. Mrs. John Dashwood wished it likewise; but in the mean while, till one of those
superior blessings could be attained, it would have quieted her ambition to see him driving a barouche.
The interchangeability of a barouche and a political career is no slip of the pen; and Austen's irony suggests the traditional attitude of the gentry, always suspicious of men at the center of government. In the same novel it is the affected Mr. Palmer who busies himself standing for Parliament (p. 113); and his fatuous wife suggests that he could not visit Willoughby because the latter was, as she says, "in the opposition" (p. 114). It is obvious what Austen thinks of people who arrange their friendships according to their politics.
In Mansfield Park , Sir Thomas Bertram is in Parliament; but Austen mentions the fact only in the most casual way and as a burden rather than a distinction (p. 20). In this novel it is certainly a mark against Mary Crawford that she should imagine Edmund might rise to distinction by going into Parliament (p. 214).
Beyond this point, however, the novelist had no means of drawing political philosophy into her grand scheme unless she set moral labels on political sides. And yet one may smell a quasi-political implication in her social doctrine. Austen, like all important novelists from 1720 to 1820, showed little interest in the urban middle class as an ideal social type. Even Defoe assumed that a sane bourgeois naturally aspired to the condition of a landed country gentleman.
For Austen, the social class that mattered was indeed the gentry, rising no higher than baronets. It is notable that peers never have a role in her work, except for the dowager Viscountess Dalrymple in Persuasion . Although clergymen abound in the novels, bishops do not exist. Presentations to Aus-
ten's livings are made by lay patrons. So also, while we meet lawyers, we meet no titled judges.
Austen, in fact, accepts a social ideology that goes back to the seventeenth century, one which cuts across divisions based on the means of economic production or the source of one's income. In this ideology the church is not united against any other category of economic, political or social types; neither are the landed classes or the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, all these strata bifurcate at the same point: the gentry against the peerage, the lower clergy against the bishops, the tradesmen of the provincial towns against the great merchants and bankers in London.
At the same time, such categories are connected across economic lines. The gentry supply the members of the beneficed clergy from their own families and present them to the family livings. Younger sons who do not enter the church may have commissions bought for them in the army or navy, unless they choose to follow the law or to find a post in the East India Company. The provincial tradesmen depend on and are aligned with the squires.
From the era of Dryden's poem on "John Driden" (his namesake cousin) to that of Austen's Persuasion , the gentry's independence of the court served as a moral principle. It is no accident that in Northanger Abbey the reprehensible General Tilney should have an old friend who happens to be a marquis (pp. 139, 224), or that in Persuasion the frivolous Sir Walter Elliot should fawn upon a viscountess (pp. 148–50, 184–85). Coming away from Pride und Prejudice , some readers commit the mistake of placing Lady Catherine in the peerage. She is of course an earl's daughter, but only a knight's widow. When her ladyship's sister's son—Darcy—tells Elizabeth Bennet about his childhood, he gives no praise to his maternal line. On the contrary, it is explicitly his father that Darcy describes as "all that was benevolent and amiable" (p. 369).
So also when Austen satirizes Sir William Lucas, a prosperous tradesman who received a knighthood while serving as lord mayor (Pride and Prejudice , p. 18), she describes him in a
pun as having grown "courteous"; and by a kind of synecdoche she reduces his inoffensive character to the itch of seeming at ease in the royal court (p. 160). We last hear Sir William attributing to Darcy, who is happiest in rural Derbyshire, his own desire to meet frequently at St. James's (p. 384).
If we retreat from literature to biography, we may be sure that Austen had personal experience of noble lords. It is possible however that life imitated art; for when she described the "very pleasing" manners of Lord Craven, she said, "The little flaw of having a mistress now living with him at Ashdown Park, seems to be the only unpleasing circumstance about him." The sarcasm hints that Austen had a deeper awareness of sexual appetite than is explicit in her novels. In fact, just as she seems after all to suggest certain political and social doctrines, so also she reveals views on passion and courtship which her novels may be said to inculcate (by implication only) as doctrines. This will be manifest if we compare her novels with those of Scott.
In Waverley (published the same year as Mansfield Park ), when the hero finds himself passing many hours with the beautiful Rose Bradwardine, Scott assures us that Waverley is not falling in love with the girl. Familiarity obstructs romantic passion, says Scott: "the very intimacy of their intercourse prevented his feeling for her other sentiments than those of a brother for an amiable and accomplished sister" (chapter 14). Again in Redgauntlet (published ten years later), when Darsie Latimer discovers that the girl in the green mantle, who had occupied his reveries since they first met, shows no objection to kissing him on command, he is disgusted: "It was in vain," says Scott, "that . . . he endeavoured to coax back, if I may so express myself, that delightful dream of ardent and tender passion" (chapter 18 of part 2).
In Austen's mature novels nothing conduces more to love than neighborhood and close acquaintance. In Sense and Sensibility , Marianne is brought to love and marry Colonel Brandon through his proximity and through a conspiracy of her family to bring the two together. Then his own goodness and his deep attachment to her do their work (p. 378). In Pride and Prejudice the unfolding of Bingley's love for Jane Bennet is interrupted simply by his being removed from her region. In Persuasion , Benwick and Louisa Musgrove fall in love by living in the same house while she recuperates from her fall. In Mansfield Park , Edmund and Fanny build their engagement on just that "warm and sisterly regard" (p. 470) which Scott eliminates as a source of romantic love. Indeed, to sum up Austen's doctrine, one need only reverse Scott's analysis of the relation between Rose Bradwardine and Edward Waverley:
[She] had not precisely the sort of beauty or merit, which captivates a romantic imagination in early youth. She was too frank, too confiding, too kind; amiable qualities, undoubtedly, but destructive of the marvellous, with which a youth of imagination delights to dress the empress of his affections.
(Waverley , chapter 14)
In Northanger Abbey , if anything attracts Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland, it is her frankness, confidence, and kindness (p. 243).
So I am not persuaded by those critics who judge the endings of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park to be mere games with convention, or deliberately playful windings-up of essentially comic plots. They are those things, of course. But they are also hints of Austen's earthy view of passion and courtship. Given proximity, familiarity, and persistence, a set of good qualities on one side will respond to a set of good qualities on the other, so long as an impulse begins somewhere. This is why cunning hypocrisy is so dangerous. When a man who appears to be an eligible partner plays up to the expectations of an unworldly young lady, he is likely to succeed, as Willoughby succeeds with Marianne in Sense and Sensibility . The best shield against such an intrigue is a previous commitment to a
better man. R. W. Chapman pointed out places in Emma in which Austen hints that the heroine is thinking of Mr. Knightley without our being told so explicitly. In all these, Frank Churchill is either near her or in her thoughts. We may infer, from Austen's system of contrasts, that he is not simply opposed to Knightley but that Emma is protected from Churchill's deliberate campaign by her unconscious love for Knightley.
A subtler example occurs in Persuasion . Anne Elliot reflects on her feelings toward Mr. Elliot, who seem a thoroughly appropriate suitor; and she decides that his great fault is not being "open." Austen says, "She prized the frank, the openhearted, the eager character beyond all others" (p. 161). We may infer that Wentworth is at the edge of her mind. But we may also infer that it was the attachment to him which saved her from Elliot; for later Anne admits to herself that she might just possibly have been induced to marry her cousin (p. 211).
Austen puts it all explicitly in Mansfield Park , when she explains where Fanny found the strength to resist Henry Crawford:
[Although] there doubtless are such unconquerable young ladies of eighteen (or one should not read about them) as are never to be persuaded into love against their judgment by all that talent, manner, attention and flattery can do, I have no inclination to believe Fanny one of them, or to think that with so much tenderness of disposition, and so much taste as belonged to her, she could have escaped heart-whole from the courtship [of a man like Crawford] had not her affection been engaged elsewhere.
Outside courtship, the same circumstances operate. An unprincipled man who finds himself near an interested woman will (Austen implies) deliver himself to her. In Pride and Prejudice , Lydia lays no snare to seduce Wickham, and he does not pine for her as an object of irresistible passion. He was in the habit; she was convenient and interested; off they ran. In Persuasion , Mrs. Clay exhibits her availability to Mr. Elliot by sending him on an errand when she cannot arrange for him to accompany
her in the rain (pp. 174–75). She meets him constantly, of course, at Sir Walter's home. When she is observed tête-à-tête with him on a street in Bath, we may infer that a significant though disgraceful connection has been established (pp. 222–23, 228). In Sense and Sensibility , just as poor Edward Ferrars becomes attached to the unscrupulous Lucy Steele purely through living in her father's house, so his overconfident brother Robert takes up with her after a private interview designed to stop the girl from marrying Edward.
Austen's attitude toward sexual passion makes a strict division between the pursuit of a woman as an object of pleasure and the courtship of a lady whom one is to marry. When Scott, in Redgauntlet , describes Darsie Latimer as losing interest in the beautiful Lilias simply because she obeys her uncle's wish to kiss the young man, Scott does what Austen could not do: he treats courtship and the pursuit of pleasure as starting from the same impulse (chapter 18 of part 2). It is not that Austen ignored this common origin but that, being an undifferentiated appetite (like gluttony), it does not activate her system of moral coordinates. Only after the point of division between reverent courtship and licentious chase does the impulse have meaning for Austen.
Scott cannot handle moral implications, sexual passion, or courtship so subtly as Austen. The reason is that he is taken up with politics and religion. The conflicts inherent in such issues are so bold that they dominate his methods of characterization and capture the plots of his novels. In Waverley , for example, the entire childhood and education of the hero are designed to station him between Jacobitism and Whiggery. The course of the story then serves to place Waverley where the strains between the two sides will tug at him.
In The Heart of Mid-Lothian , the division between the old faith and the new overwhelms the portraits of Jeanie Deans, her father, and Reuben Butler. The novelist must plan his incidents and dialogue to exemplify this conflict. Even Jeanie's heroism becomes a tribute to the conscience of the saving remnant.
In Rob Roy none of the difficulties hindering the romance
between Diana Vernon and Frank Osbaldistone derive from the character of either. All are due to politics and religion. The personality of the villain Rashleigh is a caricature of the Gothic novelist's Jesuit. In portraying the heroine as a mysteriously inaccessible virgin huntress, Scott almost reduces her to an emblem of the goddess for which she is named, while her Roman Catholic faith places her, temporarily out of reach, in a nunnery.
Austen, who does not work with conventional symbols, must play down the issues that fascinate Scott if she is to liberate her genius. So it is that her clergymen, whether heroes or fools, never discuss doctrine. If they did so, by her scheme of moral, metonymic contrasts, she would have to treat one sect as superior to another, and the religious distinction would bury the individual traits. So also, as Gilbert Ryle has observed, the protagonists of Austen's novels face their moral crises without visible recourse to religious faith; nor do they ever seek the advice of a clergyman.
For Austen, religion is a universal but indiscriminate context. She is not concerned to rank types of Christians any more than she ranks types of Englishmen. She chooses families that share the same region, the same church, the same social order—the same opportunities to strengthen their moral natures; and then she sees what the individuals make of themselves under these conditions.
It seems clear that Austen was reacting against sanctimoniousness. The strength of her own piety will be acknowledged by those who read with care the letters she wrote on her father's death, or her sister Cassandra's letters on Jane Austen's death. This impression is deepened by the admittedly protective Memoir written by her nephew J. E. Austen-Leigh. But living
in a milieu in which overstatements of zeal were suspect, it was natural for her to look askance at the Evangelicals and to shrink from noisy expressions of spirituality.
Nevertheless, by the quietest implications, Austen does establish something like a religious position in the novels. I do not refer to hints like Anne Elliot's distrust of her cousin for tolerating Sunday travel (Persuasion , p. 161), or even Edmund's speech in Mansfield Park on the powers of a clergyman (pp. 92–93), but to a far more general suggestion. This is the notion of rewards flowing from acts of kindness and charity. Now and then in the novels this principle delicately shows itself. Benevolent deeds become not only pleasures in themselves but also the mysterious causes of personal advantage.
In Persuasion the novelist early establishes the charitable disposition of her heroine. When Anne goes to Bath, she feels sorry for an old schoolmate, Mrs. Smith, who is now a poor, widowed invalid. Anne goes regularly to comfort and entertain this obscure and isolated woman whose story is a negative analogue of her own. Sir Walter and Elizabeth, the selfish father and sister, tease Anne for connecting herself with so mean an acquaintance. But Anne persists. And it is from Mrs. Smith that she then receives an autobiographical tale of the sort used by Fielding in Tom Jones .
Mrs. Smith not only illuminates the perils in Anne Elliot's path. She also gives her precious information that keeps her from any possibility of yielding to Mr. Elliot. Austen dwells on the link between goodness and its reward:
She had never considered herself as entitled to reward for not slighting an old friend like Mrs. Smith, but here was a reward indeed springing from it!—Mrs. Smith had been able to tell her what no one else could have done.
Perceptive critics have drawn attention to the large part played by coincidence and chance in the plot of Persuasion , and one has observed that these elements traditionally suggest the interposition of Providence in the affairs of men. I think his interpretation is borne out by the allusion to rewards in Anne Elliot's reflections on Mrs. Smith's providential exposure of Mr. Elliot. The whole course of the novel seems calculated to encourage us to trust in Providence. This is how I understand Anne Elliot's language when she goes over in her mind the melancholy decision she had once made to reject Wentworth's proposal. How eloquent, says Austen, "were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence!" (p. 30). When the lovers are securely reunited, Austen contrasts the fortunate Wentworth with the undeserving Sir Walter, who had failed "to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him" (p. 248).
Other touches evoke a framework of Christian doctrine, though not very audibly. The turning point of Persuasion is the scene on the Cobb at Lyme, when Louisa Musgrove, whom Wentworth has praised for her firmness, insists on being jumped down the stairs a second time but acts too hastily, misses his hands, and knocks herself unconscious upon the ground (p. 109). Louisa's fall reverberates forward and backward over the novel.
First, it recalls Austen's uncharacteristic use of metaphor during an earlier episode, in which Wentworth compared Louisa to an unspoiled hazelnut, beautiful and glossy when its brethren have been trodden under foot (p. 88). The moment faintly suggests the words of Christ, "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it
bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12: 24). Louisa's firmness was of the wrong sort.
Again, Austen recalls the fall in a superb scene near the end of Persuasion , after Anne Elliot has held forth to Captain Harville on the subject of fidelity. Having heard her outburst, Wentworth secretly conveys a letter to Anne, offering his love. Surrounded by three persons who witnessed the fall of Louisa (a fourth has just left), Anne is pressed between the need to hide the message and an impulse to exude some of the emotion that pervades her being. In her embarrassment she looks ill, and Louisa's mother feels anxious until assured repeatedly that "there had been no fall in the case" (pp. 235–38).
Austen seems to be relating the several scenes, drawing parallels between the firmness of whim and the firmness of devotion, or between Louisa's fall and Anne's exaltation, and giving the parallels a Christian aura; for Anne preferred conscience to self-indulgence and was rewarded (p. 246). I have no wish to impose allegory upon Austen's narrative design, or to make the religious overtone more than an evocation. But I think it is present.
Religion and morality join in Austen's broadest method of suggesting ethical principles, which is through the appointment of her characters and the shape of her plots. She had grown up with a choice of traditions in literature. On one side stood the humble domestic scenes of Richardson and Burney, the essays of Johnson, the poems of Cowper—all lighting up an ideal of lowly Christian heroism, opposed to the semipagan ideal of physical courage and chivalric honor. On the other side stood the tragic corruption of the pagan ideal, in the plot of Clarissa , the Gothic novel, the poems of Byron, and Scott's Lord Marmion.
In Northanger Abbey when Austen talks ironically about
the concept of a heroine, she is not merely humorous. Throughout her novels she tries, as Mary Lascelles (her best critic) has said, to show that common life is finally more interesting, that it gives more nourishment to the healthy imagination, than the fantasies of romance. This is of course the meaning of the scene in which Emma Woodhouse looks out from the doorway of a shop and fills her mind with the view of a village street (p. 233). It is implied in Anne Elliot's great speech contrasting a woman's love with a man's (Persuasion , p. 235). It is embodied in the quiet, heroic endurance of Fanny Price, Elinor Dashwood, and Anne Elliot herself.
The same principle appears in the vocations that Austen picked for her heroes: three clergymen, two country gentlemen, and only a single naval officer. Yet two of Austen's brothers became admirals, and her whole nation was at war for almost two-thirds of her life. She had a minute familiarity with naval affairs and could have given an insider's view of battles at sea.
But Austen meant to domesticate the idea of a Christian hero. When Mr. Knightley, in Emma , dances with Harriet Smith to rescue her from Mr. Elton's scorn, he shows the courage that Austen wished to celebrate. When Tilney, in Northanger Abbey , defies his father and goes forth to find Catherine Morland, he is acting out Austen's response to the manners of the Giaour (pp. 247–48). It is no accident that Tilney is a parson while his arrogant father and frivolous brother follow military careers. In Austen's plots the turning points depend not on battles, duels, and hand-to-hand fights (as in Scott's novels) but on moral insights, on the sacrifice of ease not to glory but to duty: Elinor's ordeal of unexpressed misery in Sense and Sensibility , Fanny's resistance to Crawford in Mansfield Park .
Near the end of Persuasion , Austen has Wentworth wittily compare his experience of fortunate love to a heroic ordeal:
Like other great men under reverses . . . I must endeavour to subdue my mind to fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.
The remark is humorous, but the implication is serious: that the naval officer has endured a trial of character not through exposure to storms and bullets but through triumphing over a moral defect. By making such crises fascinating, Austen indicates how one may transform commonplace reality into an epic of the individual conscience.