View Full Version : The frontier of Jane Austen's world

08-05-2007, 01:40 PM
I find it fascinating how a new perspective can be thrown on a subject about which you thought had all been said that was possible. Jane Austen continues to surprise and fascinate.
C.S. Levis in the essay – A Note on Jane Austen, compares four passages from four Austen novels, how the heroines experience and respond to 'disillusionment'. Let me illustrate with two.

Pride And Prejudice - “As to his real character, had information been in her power, she had newer felt a wish of inquiring. His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in possession of every virtue ... She perfectly remembered everything that had passed in conversation between Wicham and herself, in their first evening at Mr. Philip's ... She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered that it had escaped her before. She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct ... She grew absolutely ashamed of herself ... “how despicable have I acted!” she cried; “I who have prided myself on my discernment ... who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blamable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly ... I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away ... Till this moment I newer knew myself.”

Sense and Sensibility - “Oh! Elinor, you have made me hate myself forever. How barbarous Have I been to you! - you, who have been my only comfort, who have borne with me in all my misery, who have seemed to be suffering only for me!” ... Marianne's courage soon failed her, in trying to converse upon a topic which always left her more dissatisfied with herself than ever, by contrast it necessarily produced between Elinor's conduct and her own. She felt all the force of that comparison; but not as her sister had hoped, to urge her to exertion now; she felt it with all the pain of continual self-reproach, regretted most bitterly that she had never exerted herself before; but it brought only the torture of penitence, without hope of amendment. ... [Elinor later saw in Marianne] an apparent composure of mind which, in being the result, as she trusted, of serious reflection, must eventually lead her to contentment and cheerfulness ...”My illness has made me think, ... I considered the past: I saw in my behaviour nothing but series of imprudence toward myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelingshad prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to my grave. My illness, I well knew had been entirely brought on myself, by such negligence of my own health as I felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died, it would have been self-destruction. I wonder ... that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God and you all, did not kill me at once ... I cannot express my own abhorrence of myself.”

Northanger Abbey's passage is almost a burlesque while the humiliation of Emma has a quality comic high tea. All four heroines experience a moral awakening from self deception. This undeception is not confined to the heroines but spans the minor characters. General Tilney realizes the mistake he made about Catherine and Mr. Bennet about Lidia. By such means Austen establishes the social bounds and moral clarity of her novelistic world.

In Persuasion Austen breaks the pattern of histrionics of self disillusionment. Anne Eliot thinks the breaking of her engagement to Wentworth a mistake but she feels that she was right, guided by Lady Russel, who's advice was that of a parent. Anne commits no errors and there is no 'undeception'. Anne does not hold to the truism indirectly attributed to Austen, “it is wrong to marry for money, but it was silly to marry without it.”. Anne and Fanny of Mansfield Park are depicted as plain. They are of 'no consequence' and do not 'matter' in the family circle. They are alone, and suffer in their solitude more so than Elizabet or Marianne who have understanding sisters to turn to.

C.S. Lewis judges, “for Persuasion, from first to last, is, in a sense in which the other novels are not, a love story.” Anne knows passion, though it is not of the sort for public display. Lewis finishes the essay with,”but we are then at the frontier of Jane Austen's world.”