Friday, 26 February 2016

Coincidence in Jane Austen's Novels

Jane Austen, in common with most novelists of the preceding years, uses coincidence as a plot device, though less clumsily than most. Nothing wrong with that. There are several much-discussed examples of conspicuous contrived coincidence, the most notable for which is Mrs. Smith’s history.

But sometimes it is hard to spot the coincidences until we think about the story afterwards. 

We have the closed circle of Pride and Prejudice in which Mr. Darcy is related to Lady de Bourgh who is patroness of Mr. Collins, who is the heir to Longbourn and cousin to Elizabeth (who just happens to call in at Pemberley in the course of a tour). In Persuasion, who should Sir Walter Elliot let his house to but the brother-in-law of his daughter's ex-fiancé? In Emma, we have Frank Churchill - far away - happening to get engaged to a niece of a resident of Highbury, where his father happens to live. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Jennings is cousin to the Steele sisters, one of whom is engaged to the very man the heroine is in love with.

Mrs. Allen in the Pump Room at Bath meets an old school friend, not seen for fifteen years; but it also happens that Catherine's brother, James, is well known to the Thorpes and has stayed at their house as a guest. This one could perhaps be excused as an example of Jane's parodying the coincidences in gothic novels of the time.

But even within chapters, it is often possible to detect contrivance. Consider Chapter 12 of Persuasion. The surgeon's house happens to be somewhere past Harville's. So Harville happens to be disturbed by Benwick's flight, comes to investigate and - how conveniently for the future relationship of Benwick and Louisa - happens to propose taking the invalid into his own house. Also, Anne happens (according to Harville) to have succeeded in bringing Benwick at this very time out of his gloom - how convenient for Louisa!

On top of that, we have the more striking coincidence that Walter Elliot just happens to be in Lyme. He happens to pass Anne and to give her a look which she - in a second - interprets as admiration (and Captain Wentworth happens to appear just in time to notice this and to be affected by it); and Walter and Anne happen not to forget each others' faces afterwards.