Can We Talk About How Austen’s Characters Tend to Blur Together?
Emily Hodgson Anderson on Jane and Jane and Jane
Two years ago today found me sitting, à la Louisa Musgrove, in a precarious place. I know this because Facebook reminded me it was the anniversary of my “most liked” post: not a funny picture or a popular meme, but a lengthy narrative about an attempt to leave my son’s soccer practice that had ended with me stuck atop a chain link fence.
I’d been rushing to get to student-teacher conferences; the gates to the field, despite practice being held as scheduled, had been locked. As a family we’d scaled them to get in, but egress was proving harder; I’d been both terrified to jump down and, as I soon realized, tethered in place by the back of my shorts. (My release would depend upon the shorts tearing; the underwear I was wearing that day was blue.) I’d described all of these details online: my children, laughing at me from the sidewalk; the other parents, starting to notice a 41-year old woman awkwardly perched; my vertigo, the fence links pressing into my thigh, the expanse of leg that now showed more prominently than when I was standing, clothed as I then thought appropriately in running shorts. But how to explain the teleology of these incidents, the life events that had led me to such a pass? Apparently, I’d turned to Jane Austen to make sense and comedy of my fate. “I lack a Wentworth!” I had joked, in a catch-all explanation, referring to the lover of Louisa Musgrove in Austen’s novel Persuasion, who promises to catch her when she jumps.
I think I had Jane Austen’s novels read to me for the first time when I was about ten years old. She was part of an evening bedtime ritual that began with Northanger Abbey and ultimately featured all of her works. As a young and sometimes sleepy listener, I could become fuzzy on the details of my nighttime stories, and I know that with Austen, characters and plot lines became especially tangled in my head. Knightleys overlapped with Darcys; Pemberleys and Highburys all seemed the same. Lizzy Bennet, the heroine of Austen’s self-described “light, bright, and sparkling” novel Pride and Prejudice, for me blurred into Emma, the protagonist of the one novel named after its titular character, and a character distinguished emphatically from Lizzy by her author: not sparkling, but “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”
I find it interesting that I’d see such similarities in characters that Austen contrasts. Even now, with multiple re-readings under my belt, my own love of detail, and the conscientious study of her letters, fragments, juvenilia and the like, I’ll find her characters and plots bleeding together, blurring, turning fuzzy in my head. I’m saved from full-on-fears of senility by the fact that my much younger students suffer from these Austen confusions, too. My reading quizzes reveal to me that one courtship plot or protagonist feels to them very much like another, a reaction that confirms my own initial experience of her work. Maybe, I think, instead of naive reading, or weakening neural synapses, these confusions reflect something about life, love, and Austen’s analytical concerns.
Specifically, I see a purposefulness in how Austen plays with character fungibility within the marriage plot. The very plot that encourages us to root for soul-mates and one-of-a-kind pairings itself works formulaically, suggesting that pairings produce patterns we can track. While reading Emma I can wish, along with her, that she and only she will be the fit partner for Mr. Knightley. But I can simultaneously confuse her life-changing events with those of Elizabeth Bennet and see Emma’s story as roughly equivalent to that of every other female protagonist in Austen’s work.
As my Facebook post indicates, I’m also encouraged to track equivalences between their courtship experiences and my own. Austen’s most successful protagonists achieve their ultimate desires through a process of becoming better known to their suitors and to themselves. Such a statement may sound like a generic summary of the bildungsroman, but Austen’s protagonists aren’t maturing or “coming of age,” so much as learning how to be less hidden from others, and themselves. In her early work Austen conveys this development rather literally, by having Catherine Morland move from her tiny village into the larger sphere of Bath, where “she was now seen by many young men who had not been near her before.” The process of becoming visible starts geographically, it seems. Or, in contemporary parlance, by “putting yourself out there,” wherever “there” may be.
Nowadays, “there” often means the amorphous space of the internet, where aspirational dating profiles collide against each other like atoms and rebound. The new ease with which one can emerge from the shadows—a step now possible for anyone with an internet connection or a phone, a step less labored than a pilgrimage to Bath—makes this process seemingly more deliberate than the chance re-appearance of a prior lover or the gradual shift in feelings of a brother-figure or old family friend. The volitional quality of these acts of self-revelation, however, also makes these profiles feel like carefully curated self-narratives, easily exchangeable, designed to reflect back to the individual sharing them a sense of who he or she wants to be.
And yet maybe I’m being too hard on Austen, on myself. There remains something to be said for that first step, in Austen or today, of articulating the desire to be desired. Maybe sharing a curated self-presentation is sharing, of a sort. Maybe by positioning ourselves against the background of formulaic prompts and poses, certain idiosyncrasies may emerge. Maybe in “putting ourselves out there” with everyone else in the world, we take the first step in letting ourselves be known.
Novels have long been celebrated as a literary form that offers readers unique access to that illusory and intoxicating kind of “knowing” not otherwise possible in real life. In classical mythology, this desire was emblematized through the character of Momus, possessed of a “glass” in his breast through which one could peer into his soul. Our longing for this access and ability is strong. “If the fixture of Momus’s-glass in the human breast…had taken place,” speaks the protagonist of Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy, “nothing more would have been wanting, in order to have taken a man’s character, but to have taken a chair and gone softly…and looked in.” The novel gives us, narratively, this impossible access. Characters unburden their souls to us; omniscient narrators excavate for us the most hidden recesses of a heart.
Austen follows in this tradition, to a point. She is famous for her detailed character vignettes, her ironic and detached narrator, and for the narrative style known as “free indirect discourse” that makes it unclear if the thoughts being shared emanate directly to us from the character’s mind or are somewhat subjective assessments of the character’s thoughts given to us omnisciently by the narrator herself. Either way, she’s celebrated for the personalities she develops. The readers that love her, love her protagonists as role models, friends.
Yet I’m not so sure Austen is invested in the Momus approach. For all her novelistic play with psychological access, for all the pleasure in empathy and projection that Austen’s novels are said to offer up (Which Austen character are YOU, demands of me a Facebook quiz), her novels offer equally purposeful exercises in disidentification: experiments in what pushes us away from another character or person, or what makes another person hard to know. I’m not just talking here about Austen’s unlikeable characters, which in her novels are not hard to find.
Not liking certain Austen characters is as easy as cathecting onto others, and the Freudian in me often wonders why the sympathetic protagonists don’t spend more time worrying about the fact that they share a gene pool with the folks we dislike. (“All women become like their mothers,” states Oscar Wilde; how is it Lizzy Bennett never seems anxious about this claim?) But I’m also thinking about a character like Jane Fairfax, who has all the trappings necessary for adulation, and who is presented within Emma as a fit counterpart for Emma herself. “She would be such a delightful companion for Emma!” announces Emma’s sister, sensing the scarcity of acquaintance which characterizes Highbury and leaves Emma to associate, Pygmalion style, with the lower-class Harriet Smith. “One knows Jane Fairfax to be so very accomplished and superior—and exactly Emma’s age.” A brunette foil to Emma’s blonde, Jane should be the experiment in character fungibility par excellence.Those of us who fear emerging from our Jane-dom fear being common, being misread; we fear the risk of exposure.
So why are these the two characters I’m never in danger of mixing up? “I wish Jane Fairfax very well, but she tires me to death,” states Emma, in an early assessment of her character, though why Emma so dislikes Jane remains hard to explain: “‘she could never get acquainted with her: she did not know how it was, but there was such coldness and reserve—such apparent indifference whether she pleased or not . . . and it had been always imagined that they were to be so intimate—because their ages were the same, everybody had supposed they must be so fond of each other.’ These were her reasons—she had no better.” My hunch is that Austen thinks these are quite good reasons, and they inform my own dislike of Jane. I don’t like her because I don’t know her, and I don’t know her well enough to confuse her with anyone else. Her closest parallel for me is that other Jane, Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, likewise a protagonist whom characters aside from her sister struggle to read, and who almost loses her prospective husband as a result. These types of exceptionalism feel sad, as sad perhaps as the status attributed to yet another Jane: the author who according to the critic D.A. Miller uses her novels to achieve an unique and “absolute impersonality” that allows her to float, godlike and omniscient, above the fray of human life. She’s the author whose loves and losses remain shrouded in mystery, whose novels tell us everything about humanity but nothing about herself.
Maybe Austen is coaching me, then, with all those other details and formulae and mannerisms, all those shared narrative excursions that cause me or my students to mix up her characters and plots. Maybe the lesson of Jane, and Jane, and Jane is that we don’t need a window in our chests to be known to others. Maybe we just have to let ourselves participate in these social formulae, accept that the most momentous experience for one person fits into a narrative trajectory experienced by us all. Maybe we have to let ourselves be common in order to be unique.
These lessons are—I admit—hard for me to swallow. I’ve spent most of my life as a Jane. I always interpreted my reserve as stemming from humility, privacy, or shyness; often, I felt it as a sign of pain or suffering which I thought others could track. It’s hard to read my behavior from the other angle, as something designed to keep intimacy at bay, or worse—as a supercilious gesture meant to shut out others and something at which others would take offense. Those of us who fear emerging from our Jane-dom fear being common, being misread; we fear the risk of exposure (an expanse of thigh, a sudden vertigo, a partner’s affair).
Fortunately, Austen also understands these fears. She sketches them through Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, a character who blends something of an Emma with the benefits of a Jane. Anne needs to learn to express her feelings to those she cares for, yet Austen also distinguishes her from the indiscriminate “oversharer” represented by Louisa, who for some of the novel is a potential competitor with Anne for Captain Wentworth’s affections and the alternate model of self-presentation against which Anne’s reserve is placed. I feel relieved to track in Anne’s happy ending a more mature trajectory of second chances, of measured judgment, and a uniqueness bred of being willing once more, on the basis of this judgment, to speak her mind.
And so: soccer practice that afternoon. “You were literally on the fence,” a friend later exclaimed, an idiom-made-real that for all my aspirations to wit I had failed to note. In Persuasion, when Louisa finds herself atop the steep stairs that line the harbor wall at Lyme, she flings herself forward before Wentworth is ready with his catch. As a result, she hits her head, knocks herself unconscious, and subsequently falls in love with someone else; her loves and lovers are interchangeable as whims. But Louisa leaps because she assumes someone will be there to catch her, an assumption Anne, watching from the shadows, can no longer make. I feel for Anne, for myself, for all the Janes. Like Louisa, I sat on top of my chain link fence, but like Anne, I didn’t jump. I didn’t move at all, in fact, until a random dad finally approached me, placed his hands on my waist, and helped me down.