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Monday, 28 March 2016

Jane Austen's Novels: Characters studying Character

Although Jane wrote wonderful dialogue, the absence of it on rare occasions causes a character to disappoint. Examples are Lady Russell (who has very few words) and Colonel Brandon (whose few speeches are almost always gloomy). Jane's numerous memorable characters come alive even more in what they say than in those succinct descriptions she is also famous for.
Jane's fascination with the problem of assessing character is expressed through Eleanor Dashwood. Explaining to Edward that he is wrong to consider Marianne, despite her animation, 'a lively girl', she adds: 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. How well Jane understood how our impressions of others are formed!

In the eighteenth-century epistolary novels, letter-writers spent their time analysing and commenting on the behaviour of others. It is natural that this custom should be found in Jane's heroines. The reader is influenced by the heroines' opinions, partly because we sympathise with them and partly just because they take character analysis so seriously. Elizabeth Bennet makes a declared hobby of studying character. If people show ill-breeding, she makes no excuses for them, as her sister Jane always does. She speaks her mind. And she is right about most people, particularly the women. With 'more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister', she finds Bingley's sisters proud and conceited. Lizzy says 'intricate characters are most amusing'. When Darcy suggests there may be limited scope for studying such people in a country neighbourhood, she replies, 'But people themselves alter so much that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.' (Jane Austen's own pleasure in rural observations is manifested here; and ironically it is the something new in Elizabeth that forms the subject matter of much of Pride and Prejudice.) Elizabeth says: I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can – what better manifesto could there be for Jane Austen?

There is a long paragraph where Elinor Dashwood sums up Mr. Palmer. She thinks his temper may be soured by finding like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman. (One is reminded of the situation of Mr. Bennet.) Palmer's habit of abusing everything comes from a desire to compensate and make himself appear 'superior to other people'. 

Since Edward Ferrars is such an undemonstrative character, it is also through Elinor's evaluation that we have to accept his worth. The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent.... I have seen a great deal of him, have studied his sentiments, and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste; and, upon the whole, I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure. Jane Austen makes it clear from Chapter One that Elinor Dashwood, at the age of only nineteen, is a girl whose judgement we can trust. She has more sense than her mother and dissuades her from rushing away from their home as soon as it has been occupied by Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood.

Presenting characters through the eyes of others is a tricky technique. We must first understand the prejudices of the observer. Thus, for example, when Caroline Bingley describes Elizabeth Bennet's lack of beauty, we know she is jealous of Elizabeth and therefore we do not give much weight to her opinion. 

Jane's heroines are indeed keen students of character and she sometimes allows them to express the kind of opinion she might have given herself. Tom Musgrave in The Watsons is a poseur. He likes people to think him stylish and fascinating. Emma Watson sums him up after one meeting: he seems very vain, very conceited, absurdly anxious for distinction, and absolutely contemptible in some of the measures he takes for becoming so. In criticising the mean and arrogant, even Elinor Dashwood can exercise a sharp tongue. When John Dashwood assures her that 'Mrs. Ferrars can never forget that Edward is her son', she replies: 'You surprise me; I should think it must nearly have escaped her memory by this time'.

Even in the early work Catharine, the heroine makes comments which a more sensitive person than Camilla would recognize as sarcastic. When Camilla reports how Lady Halifax had to buy clothes for Mary Wynne and adds: 'Is not it shameful?', Catharine retorts, 'That she should be so poor? It is indeed, with such wealthy connexions as the Family have.’