Monday, 19 September 2016

Jane Austen: Judging People

Jane Austen leads us to admire the good, wish well to the deserving, and disapprove of the selfish and mean. An underlying message of her novels is that individuals do not find happiness unless they put the interests of the community above themselves. Yet, she presents characters with impartiality (conceding that the Miss Bingleys are agreeable company, that Edmund Bertram is capable of acting against his better judgement, that Jane Bennet's goodness leads her to deceive herself, that even Mrs. Norris has a strength of character).

Jane Austen allows all her main characters to have clear views of life, often quite different from her own. Yet she leaves us in no doubt of what she values. Such words as becoming, proper, just, decorum, respectable and order are important. The word judgement, for example, appears thirty-seven times in 'Mansfield Park'. If a person fails, Jane Austen passes sentence. 

Her disapproval of human behaviour ranges from the fun made of Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Elton to the sharper irony exercised against Mrs. Norris and especially the telling exposure of the mercenary, heartless Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood. The scene in which his wife convinces John Dashwood that he should do nothing for his sisters (after he proposed giving them £1000 each) is a tour de force

Jane shows us we should not make snap judgements about people, or see issues in black and white. There are no villains in her novels. Consider Henry and Catherine's discussion about Captain Tilney and Miss Thorpe: there is tough honesty (Henry sees the woman as being to blame) but there is also more subtlety, for Catherine is thinking of the disappointment for her brother. The head goes with Henry, the heart with Catherine. Jane Austen records both. 

Original revulsion and subsequent acceptance is a familiar pattern in Jane Austen. Think of Elizabeth Bennet's reactions to Charlotte's marriage. Look at Elinor's emotions after Willoughby races to call at the home where he believes Marianne to be dying and seeks to explain his behaviour. 

Jane Austen prized qualities for which we prize her: she admired simplicity and truthfulness and scorned hypocrisy. She liked people to work hard and be kindly, modest and humorous. Her novels endorse behaviour which gives the impression that all can be right with the world. This is why they make us feel good. 

Jane knew that it was possible to love people whilst at the same time seeing their imperfections: She has Elizabeth Bennet saying: 'There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it'. 

Although the useful word 'snob' did not exist in Jane Austen's day, snobbery is everywhere condemned. She says of Lady Catherine de Bourgh: 'her air was not such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank'. Even a heroine – Emma Woodhouse ('I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin, of Abbey-Mill Farm') – has to be cured of snobbery. And the haughty Darcy learns to be ashamed at the behaviour of a relative when he witnesses Lady Catherine's impertinence to Elizabeth. 

Jane Austen's heroines work hard for their reward - marriage to the right man. The major heroines, Elizabeth, Anne, Elinor, Fanny, Emma, and even Catherine, achieve marriages of equality and respect. Others who achieve that reward and deserve it are Jane, Harriet, and Marianne. Charlotte Lucas gets the reward she aims for, and is respected by Mr. Collins insofar as he can comprehend what 'respect' means. Lydia gets the reward she sought, though far from equality and respect. Jane Fairfax gets the reward she sought as well, though one does not have confidence in Frank's commitment to equality and respect. It is the 'equality and respect' aspects that make the heroines' marriages so satisfying. 

In contrast with the purity and truth of her heroines, Jane Austen delights in producing clever, manipulative women - such as Lucy Steele and Isabella Thorpe - who take advantage of gullible men with naive notions of honour.