Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Jane Austen's Heroines Priggish?

Jane Austen's heroines have a sense of propriety and decorum that can sometimes make them a little priggish, notably when they make comments on those whose manners or morals are less perfect than their own. In the teenage novel Catharine, the heroine is a paradigm for those Jane Austen heroines against whose sensitive values other characters are judged and found wanting. These values are acquired from a balanced education, the development of a keen intelligence, wide interests and a concern for others. It is because she knows she has these qualities that Catharine appears priggish.

The priggishness is usually no more than being a little patronising. Elinor Dashwood should be grateful to Mrs. Palmer for inviting her to stay at her home. Yet she dislikes Mrs. Palmer's fatuous laughter. She finds Mrs. Palmer very kind; and 'her folly, though evident, was not conceited; and Elinor could have forgiven everything but her laugh'. Invited to spend the season in London with Mrs. Jennings, Elinor is reluctant to go: it means leaving her mother and risking further distress (from Willoughby) for Marianne. But the patronising excuse she gives is: 'though I think very well of Mrs. Jennings's heart, she is not a woman whose society can afford us pleasure, or whose protection will give us consequence.’ 

Such is Jane Austen's irony that the heroines' opinions are not necessarily the author's. Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse can be mistaken. Marianne Dashwood above all comes in for a great deal of criticism for her lack of propriety and self-control. In the case of Elinor, however, though at times she may appear a little snobbish, Jane Austen implies admiration for her sense of decorum and her stoicism.