Occasional Papers, NO.4 (Winter 2001)
Jane Austen and Her Men

Following research into Elizabethan drama, Ivor Morris lectured at university before entering the Free Church ministry. He is author of Shakespeare’s God (1972) a religious criticism of the great tragedies, Jane Austen & the Interplay of Character (1999), a study of motivation in the novels, and Hamlet, King of Denmark (London première, 2001), an alternative tragicomical ending to Shakespeare’s play.

Faults be in flesh,” laments the bard, “as motes be in the sun.” Jane Austen’s distinction lies in her showing that this need not be a cry of despair. She presents us with the auspicious paradox of a sharp-eyed realist relentlessly critical of humankind, yet benignly compassionate towards it - and able, what is more, to convert the instincts of the reader to her own charitable regard. All who have experience of that conversion must wonder at it; and even where it might not be present, a book of hers will rarely be set aside without the thought, “That strain I heard was of a higher mood” (Letters 9 July 1816). Consciousness that she is dealing with, and reconciling us to, a flawed humanity is at once part of the secret of her dedication and a source of the enduring interest and appeal of her portrayal of men and women. And if her Mr. Knightley can find his domestic bliss in an Emma who is “faultless in spite of all her faults,” we may be in no doubt that Mrs. Knightley will in due time find cause enough to come to a corresponding appreciation of the man who is now her life’s companion.  

The subject of Jane Austen’s men recalls to mind a shrewd elderly widow lady of my early acquaintance, who on occasion would give me the benefit of her wisdom. Once, the topic of matrimony having arisen, she confided, “It’s dead easy for a woman to keep a man.” “Is that so?” I inquired politely.  “Simple,” was the rejoinder. “Just flatter them. Make them think they’re wonderful.” I was mildly affronted at an estimate of my sex that made them out to be helpless victims of the vanity and pride Mary Bennet had so platitudinously pronounced human nature to be so prone to. But I must confess to having pondered the matter since then.

Jane Austen does, to be sure, give us examples of vanity rampant in men. One need only consider Sir William Lucas, who, having upon being knighted developed a distaste for residence in a small country town, moved from Meryton to Lucas Lodge, “where he could think with pleasure of his own importance”; or a person more grandly addicted, of whose character we are told, “Vanity was the beginning and the end.” The handsomeness and the baronetcy that he enjoyed were for him the highest of blessings: “and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.” The same may be concluded of Mr. Collins, who not only cannot conceive that any woman should reject him as suitor, but regards the office of parson “as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom – provided that a proper humility of behavior is at the same time maintained.”

These lesser characters embodying an extreme of vanity put one in mind of Shakespeare’s Dogberry who, on being named an ass by his betters, protests with felicitous fury,

I am a wise fellow, and, which is more, an officer, and, which is more, a householder, and, which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to; and a rich fellow enough, go to; and a fellow that hath had losses, and one that hath two gowns and everything handsome about him. (Much Ado About Nothing, IV.ii.85-92)

When it comes to the vanity or pride of possession, he speaks for many greater than himself who are to be found in Jane Austen’s novels. General Tilney, certainly, derives no small satisfaction from the vast Abbey he is master of, and the magnificence of its dining room, “of which . . . the General could not forego the pleasure of pacing out the length, for the more certain information” of the unconcerned Catherine Morland. But can we for a moment doubt that, in quieter ways, pride of ownership also suffuses Mr. Darcy, Sir Thomas Bertram and Mr. Rushworth, the possessors of Pemberley, Mansfield Park and Sotherton Court? And the prospective possessors, too – like Miss Eliza Bennet, who upon her first setting eyes on it, “felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” or Emma Woodhouse, whom “the respectable size and style” of Mr. Knightley’s Donwell Abbey, her destined home, moves to an “honest pride and complacency,” no less; or Maria Bertram, whose “Rushworth-feelings” become so obviously pronounced in the vicinity of Sotherton, and whose spirits, as the barouche drives up to its principal entrance, are “in as happy a flutter as vanity and price could furnish”?

From pride and vanity in this and other forms few can be free; and the comedian’s task is to set the snares of ridicule for it in the social context, and laugh us back to sense. But it is a long step from a Dogberry to a Malvolio or a Shylock – to personalities in whom self-regard has become obsessive, and a controlling force. Neither the entreaties of good-nature nor the techniques of the happy ending can assuage the hurt they suffer: comedy fades, and drama takes on tragic tones as they leave the stage unappeased, vowing or dreaming of revenge. They draw us with them away from the fragile fabric of man’s society to the sheer cliff face of things: for tragedy’s role is to display the essence of our human nature to us. Its protagonist heroes we can identify with, for, though built on a bigger scale, they are entirely like ourselves. And their motivation can be summed up in a single word: pride.

Othello goes forward with an absolute belief in himself – in what he consciously terms, “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul” (I.ii.31). Lear’s self-concept is an innate royalty of disposition: in his madness he professes himself, significantly, “Ay, every inch a king: / When I do stare, see how the subject quakes” ( Disaster for him comes through a refusal to be treated as anything less than his own estimate of himself. Macbeth murders his way to the “golden round” because it will, as he assumes, confer a deserved greatness upon him. Hamlet alone abandons the path of pride. Though he can find it in himself, like the others, to “do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on” (III.iii.416-7) in propitiation of his own image, he turns from the tragic self-assertion to become, in Dr. Johnson’s words, “an instrument rather than an agent” (196)—acted upon, rather than himself acting.

It is a woman, in the person of Lady Macbeth, who makes plain what lies at the heart of the heroic pretence. Her husband hesitates at his appalling task: it is for her to steel him to resolution. She does so by appealing to the basic quality of manhood within him—and succeeds by taunting him with the lack of it:

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? (

Are you afraid to assert what you have it in you to do, and to be? In that scornful challenge is revealed that it is pride in himself which makes her man, and any man, what he is: that self-esteem is the dominant constituent of the male ego: that, in truth, men most characteristically need to have the feeling that they are wonderful!

Why, in discussing Jane Austen’s men, do I argue from Shakespeare? Because he was her tutor. As she says in Henry Crawford, speaking for herself, “Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. . . . One is intimate with him by instinct.” And, as a fellow dramatist, though writing in novel form – Macaulay is not alone in rating her second only to him (qtd. Southam 122)—she likewise will fathom the soul of man, as of woman. Do, then, her heroes also exhibit the heroic pride? For an answer, I would point to what is less than half a hero – to the young Lucas who happens to overhear Elizabeth and Mrs. Bennet in agreement upon the detestable pride of the rich Mr. Darcy, and Mary’s ensuing observations upon that failing. “If I were as rich as Mr. Darcy,” he pipes up, “I should not care how proud I was. I would keep a pack of foxhounds, and drink a bottle of wine every day.” And when Mrs. Bennet interposes that he would be drinking a good deal more than he ought, and that if she were to see him at it she would take away his bottle directly, “The boy protested that she should not; she continued to declare that she would, and the argument ended only with the visit.” This young gentleman will patently not be afeard to be the same in his own act and valor as he is in desire. The child here is father of the man, is he not? More than that: he is the very archetype.

Is he, though? Surely this exalted notion of the self is not evident in Jane Austen’s men. She is appraising, not man in the abstract, but in the drawing room and dining room: not the bedrock condition, but that fashioned by education, culture, social modes and pressures: personages of the leisure reading of a polite age. Tragic heroes may indeed pursue their own shadow, take a lofty self-regard to its logical conclusion, and go down to splendid or gory destruction; but they are not her concern, her heroes do not imitate them. Indeed, the men of her novels would consciously reject any such grandiose pretension and vaingloriousness as absurd, scorn it as being in the worst possible taste.

Consciously, they would; but what about their more inward promptings? Might it not be that their literary creator is better aware than they of what lurks beneath the urbane surface of their demeanor? Would she not have known, as all do, that her men, like all men, are grown-up schoolboys—and found the demon of their spirits, in almost every case, to be that proud and aspiring Lucas imp? Certain it is that she entertained no sanguine expectation of the youthful male. When the school term ended, and  “a countless number of Postchaises full of Boys” from Winchester passed by the cottage at Chawton, she saw them “full of future Heroes, Legislators, Fools, & Vilains” (Letters 9 July 1816). Can it be that she saw her fictional heroes as exemplars of the vice of pride? Of whom else should we inquire, for a beginning, than the mature Fitzwilliam Darcy?

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There is not the least bit of vanity in Mr. Darcy. Why should there be, when he has no need of it—when his rank and his income render him indifferent to what others may think of him? But pride—well-regulated pride—he will admit to: proudly. Not so as to claim to be altogether free of faults: “Perhaps,” he concedes accommodatingly to Elizabeth, “that is not possible for any one.” But, he assures her, he has made it the study of his life to avoid the more contemptible kinds of weakness. How far short is Darcy here of asserting, with Othello, “My parts, my title, and my prefect soul”? Not much. Especially when you bear in mind the associated characteristic of an unyielding temper which he so readily confesses: “My good opinion once lost,” he affirms, “is lost for ever.” For what is Othello’s reaction when he loses his good opinion of his friend and comrade, Cassio? It is,

Cassio, I love thee;
But never more be officer of mine. (II.iii.248-9) 

In the earlier Darcy, at least, the heroic pride is strongly evident. There is not only an implicit self-admiration in his attitudes, but a striving after éclat in his speech which Elizabeth has noticed, and had good cause to: a use of scathing unreserve against foe and friend which can impartially charge Bingley with the indirect boast in relation to his handwriting, accuse young ladies of walking about for the purpose of showing off their figures—and remark, concerning his future bride, “She a beauty! – I should as soon call her mother a wit.” His behavior at the Netherfield ball proclaims the man. “He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great!” declares Mrs. Bennet in reporting it. She speaks, as Margaret Kennedy comments, with unusual accuracy (50). Here struts the pride which goes before a fall.

It is in a woman of course that he meets his Waterloo. Not Caroline Bingley—though with commendable feminine discernment she has offered what would have been the right treatment for a more ordinary mortal, in those flattering compliments upon the speed, the evenness, the delightfulness of his writing, as she watches the progress of his letter to his sister; and upon his possessing, furthermore, qualities of mind and disposition so beyond any reproof as to enable him, were he so disposed, to “hug himself.” The difficulty for Caroline is that Darcy is convinced of his being admirable to the point of needing no telling, and has met so many girls who try this tactic as to be heartily weary of it. When, though, he encounters one who will attempt no such thing, but will rather tell him in words as explicit as his own precisely what she thinks of him—who dispels the enrapturing notion of his own consequence—he’s lost: goes down like a ninepin.

From a Darcy to a Knightley is a far cry. Here is no pretentious spirit, but “a sensible man about seven or eight and thirty,” as plain-dealing and principled as they come. But the question does arise in the novel – in relation to his status, moreover – and it is his own Emma who sees through him. Knightley is a countryman, given to walking round his estate—and to social functions, in disregard of the dignity requisite in that era for persons of any consideration in the world. To the Coles’ dinner party, however, he does drive up in a carriage. Emma Woodhouse, following in her own, is pleased; and as he hands her out, observes, “This is coming as you should do, . . . like a gentleman.” Knightley senses and meets the challenge instantly. A carriage, he insists, is irrelevant to the issue: “if we had met first in the drawing room,” he tells her, “I doubt whether you would have discerned me to be more of a gentleman than usual.” “Yes, I should,” she replies – seizing upon an effect Jane Austen herself had often noted in such circumstances.

There is always a look of consciousness or bustle when people come in a way which they know to be beneath them. You think you carry it off very well, I dare say, but with you it is a sort of bravado, an air of affected unconcern…. Now you have nothing to try for. You are not afraid of being supposed ashamed. You are not striving to look taller than any body else. Now I shall really be very happy to walk into the same room with you.

She has caught him out, in a minor yet pompous affectation. What reply can he make? He doesn’t hate her; and he has grace enough to be amused at his own discomfiture. So he just says, “Nonsensical girl!” as must any man when a woman has had the better of the argument. He had presupposed that arriving in a plebeian way could not affect him personally—rather in the manner of Julius Caesar, who, alluding to any menace that might lie in Cassius’s disapproval of him, avers to Mark Anthony,

I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar. (I.iii.211-12)

So Knightley—though not any kind of tragic hero—had been telling himself, “Whatever style I choose to arrive in, I fear no loss of dignity in my own or others’ eyes: for always I am Knightley.” He may be replete with estimable qualities, but amongst them pride has some habitation.

But can it inhabit a person in whom we consistently find (to use the author’s own words) “the gentleness of an excellent nature”? The fact that Edmund Bertram is a man of the cloth is no indication one way or the other: Jane Austen had been in the company of far too many clergymen to be under illusion that the cleric is from that cause “a thing ensky’d and sainted” (Measure for Measure I.iv.34). More to the point for her is that Edmund is inescapably his father’s son. There is an evident likeness: a mutual trust and understanding exists between them, and both are reflective, moralizing natures. Nothing in fact could have exceeded Sir Thomas’s concern that instruction in moral and religious principles should form part of his children’s education; but the novel demonstrates how warped his judgment and personal morality can be by the dictates of social consequence. Seeing full well that Maria has neither love nor respect for James Rushworth, he is nevertheless happy to consent to a marriage “which would bring him such an addition of respectability and influence, and very happy to think any thing of his daughter’s disposition that was most favorable for the proposal.” The same consideration determines his attitude to Fanny Price before she is even in the house. At all costs her being nurtured amongst them must not bring social degradation: Sir Thomas’s one object is “to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are.” —How acute is Margaret Kennedy’s remark that, though he believes he is bringing up his daughters to serve God, “he is really more bent upon fitting them to serve Mansfield Park (67).

His son she finds to be “in search of some better repository of the good” (73). He is indeed. But Edmund’s quest for it can be bedeviled, believe it or not, by this very consciousness, in his father’s terms, of  “what he is.” Consider the problem that faces him when, through his declining to act in Lover’s Vows, it is proposed that that most gentlemanly commoner Charles Maddox be invited to make good the deficiency. Edmund is alarmed at the prospect. He has pained awareness

“of the mischief that may, of the unpleasantness that must, arise from a young man’s being received in this manner – domesticated among us – authorized to come at all hours – and placed suddenly upon a footing which must do away all restraints.”

Every rehearsal in such a situation would tend to create what he terms “licence.” The magnanimity with which he admits to knowing no harm of Charles Maddox will not extend to toleration of this “excessive intimacy” and its dread outcome, “familiarity.” “I cannot think of it with any patience,” he cries—“and it does appear to me an evil of such magnitude as must, if possible, be prevented.”

Edmund’s concept of evil would not withstand theological scrutiny; but in the social context it has an inflexible logic. These are the accents of pride: here speaks the arrogance of rank. In the disdainful idiom of Shakespeare’s Prince of Arragon, Edmund has reacted as he does

Because I will not jump with common spirits
And rank me with the barbarous multitude. (Merchant of Venice II.ix.32-3)

This imperative obliges him to withdraw his objection over Lovers’ Vows and take the part of Anhalt against his judgment: a decision that materially affects the progress of events. Fanny sees, and grieves over, her beloved’s lapse. And Jane Austen is sympathetically aware of the absurdity in itself of that ingrained presumption in Edmund that has helped to make him what he is. Her confidence and ours rests in the small likelihood of anything similar arising, in the sphere in which he and Fanny will afterwards move, to discompose the graciousness of that excellent nature.

Would Henry Tilney have found as much to unnerve and offend him in a commoner’s proximity? In so humorsome, as well as charming a man, we might be inclined to expect a reaction of more amused sort. For Tilney is genuinely witty. Now if wit can be supposed a fault, is it possible, in Hamlet’s phrase, for a person to “take corruption” from it? (I.iv.35). Tilney can be viewed as having succumbed, to the point of turning into a dedicated satirist. Who has so viewed him? Why, Catherine Morland. At the start of their acquaintance Catherine fears “that he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others,” while she listens to the grave assent he confers upon Mrs. Allen’s divulgings as to the properties of muslin and the amenities of Bath. In their first conversation he has been busily running intellectual rings round Catherine to his own complete satisfaction and gratification, if not hers: diverting her with Assembly Room chatter and posturings, teasing her with what she might privately think of him, and enthusing upon the perfection of women’s letter-writing save for the three characteristics of its deficiency of subject, inattention to punctuation and ignorance of grammar.

With what delighted energy he pounces upon any infelicity in Catherine’s speech. Her pleonastic concept of a “faithful promise” from Isabella Thorpe receives, perhaps, the short shrift it merits. But her undiscriminating use of “nice” is met with open ridicule; and her declaring that she has “just learnt to love a hyacinth” by the mockingly ironical, “And how might you learn?—By accident or argument?”

The spirited humor of Henry’s upbraidings seems to free them from offense. Who could really be solemn about his protestation, on being charged to state his acknowledgement of women’s intelligence, that “no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” And we dismiss it as brotherly banter when he sports with Eleanor’s alarmed incomprehension of Catherine’s prophecy that “something very shocking indeed” – by which she means an horrific novel—“will soon come out in London.” “Forgive her stupidity,” he urges Catherine. “The fears of the sister have added to the weakness of the woman; but she is by no means a simpleton in general.”

This trenchancy may, however, be somewhat less agreeable—bring in asperity of tone, and manner bordering on the inquisitorial, as for example in Henry’s relentless questioning upon finding Catherine in an unexpected part of the Abbey. But the cleverness that discomfits her then can, on occasion, be too much even for himself. When he is driving her to Northanger, he diverts her with an extempore Gothic tale so compelling that he has to break off through being able no longer to “command solemnity of subject or voice.” His very triumph in the jest incapacitates him. To adapt a definition from a different context, he becomes inebriated with the exuberance of his own virtuosity.

What symptoms are these but of pride in high intelligence: of a self-congratulation on his own brilliancy in the style of Shakespeare’s Benedick? But while Benedick meets his match in both senses in Beatrice, Tilney is properly vanquished by his very antithesis in Catherine Morland. As Jane Austen coolly remarks as to their encounter,

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.

Catherine has no cleverness to conceal from Henry, and no art to conceal it if she possessed it. Not for nothing is she made to reply, when he declares that he understands her perfectly, “Me? –yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.” Her entire response to him is an innocent flattery: in his company she is “listening with sparkling eyes to every thing he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself.” When, therefore, he comes to propose to her, he is soliciting a heart “which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own.” His is a deep and true affection; but as to its origin, we are told “that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” He loves Catherine for those fine attributes which flow from unpretentiousness in human nature—but also, to some degree at least, because she is, and happily cannot help being, a living confirmation of his high opinion of himself.

Henry Crawford is not the hero of the novel, but he might well have been. When that other Henry, Jane Austen’s brother, got to book three of Mansfield Park, he thought that Crawford might win Fanny Price in the end; and we owe to Margaret Kennedy the insight that he would have made a better husband for someone of her qualities than Edmund Bertram (74-75). And yet the author shows us that vanity, pure and simple, is largely determinative of his actions and hopes. The giving free rein to it accounts for his characteristic unwillingness to look beyond the present moment, and his consequent drifting course through the story. It explains also his arid relations with Maria and Julia Bertram. The sisters “were an amusement to his sated mind”: his pleasure in their company stems from the deeper joy he evinces in the adroit exercise of his engaging powers, in conferring attentions sufficient to attract both girls while never seeming directed at either. Jane Austen’s term for behavior of this type is “to trifle”; and what could better describe the blandishments Crawford bestows on Maria that day at Sotherton Court? It is vanity, again, or pique arising from its frustration, which provokes him to gain the satisfaction of  “making a small hole in Fanny’s heart”: for despite his best efforts he had unaccountably got nowhere with her. Attempting it he finds himself, more unaccountably, in love for the first time. But he brings to the task of courtship a mind “sanguine and pre-assured,” which can first imagine affection to exist beneath Fanny’s manifest indifference, and then find “so much delight in the idea of obliging her to love him in a very short time, that her not loving him now was scarcely regretted.” It cannot at any stage enter his thoughts that “Love such as his, in a man like himself,” should ever fail of a return.

Crawford is the perpetrator of what perhaps is the most fulsome act of incivility in the novels. While Lady Bertram peacefully slumbers on the drawing room sofa at Mansfield, and Edmund, indulgently taking what is going on to be the lovers’ tiff that it is not, hides himself in a newspaper, Crawford remorselessly cross-examines the helpless Fanny Price as to her impression of him. He persists in forcing a confidence in utter disregard of her embarrassment, anguished feelings, and appeals—and in defiance of manners, as of manliness. For rudeness is none other than the external indication of people’s being wrapped up in and existing for themselves.

And it is vanity that brings Crawford to his ruin. He loves Fanny still; but the same compulsion which led him first to exert his charm upon her obliges him to try to re-animate Maria’s former regard when they meet at Mrs. Fraser’s party, and he is received by her with dismissive coldness. He is, we are told,

mortified, he could not bear to be thrown off by the woman whose smiles had been so wholly at his command; he must assert himself to subdue so proud a display of resentment.

So he begins the attack in which he is overwhelmed by the strength of feelings in Maria Bertram beyond what he had supposed to exist. The self-concern that so aided him in his trifling had been all along deluding him as to the realities of relationship. A justice of inexorable consequence brings it about, therefore, that at the end, “He was entangled by his own vanity.”

Anyone listing the instances through the novel of conduct in Crawford deriving from this feature of his personality would find they had something like the outline of an allegorical figure from a Morality play. But there is nothing abstract about Henry Crawford: with his manifold accomplishments he is solidly human—all too human. If, nonetheless, his portrayal should offer the least suggestion of the Morality, it will be neither as Vice nor Vanity, but, alas, much nearer an Everyman.

There is no point in looking for pride and vanity in Edward Ferrars. A stern critic might say it is not easy to find much else, or wonder in the common phrase what Elinor sees in him. But so culpable an innocence could be the legacy of two disadvantages he almost throughout labors under: that of being engaged to another according to the strict standards of the times, and that of being without fortune and thus dependent on a parent’s whim. That the rigors and inhibitions of the latter state are not readily discerned today is hardly surprising, when they could escape the notice of contemporaries. Emma Woodhouse can admonish her friend with, “You are the worst judge in the world, Mr. Knightley, of the difficulties of dependence.” Its disabling force is perhaps visible in Captain Tilney, upon his father’s denouncing him for coming down late to breakfast. He listens in silence, attempts no defense; and, we learn, Catherine “scarcely heard his voice while his father remained in the room, . . . so much were his spirits affected.” Making allowance for the restrictions Edward Ferrars finds himself under permits one to think there could be more to him than meets the eye. The contrasting effusiveness of his younger brother is explainable as simply the token of Robert’s deeper kinship in stupidity with his all-powerful mother.

But there is not the slightest prospect of Edward Ferrars’ bearing comparison with Frederick Wentworth, the most heroic of Jane Austen’s heroes: a man, according to Margaret Kennedy, “completely masculine in all he says and does” (88). If this is so—and few would deny it—should there not be found in him a correspondingly greater impulsion, typical of his gender, to look well in his own eyes, or in the eyes of others, or both? Wentworth does, in fact, contrive to leave the inhabitants of the Great House at Uppercross in no doubt as to his abilities. He talks happily and unrestrainedly about his doings: about his “taking privateers enough to be very entertaining” when in command of the Asp, and of having “such a lovely cruise” off the Western Islands in the Laconia. “How fast I made money in her!” he assures the assembled party. —But you’ve to be careful with a man like this. When you consider that these expressions “entertaining,” “lovely,” and “making money” are euphemisms for fights at sea, and that he is giving very keen listeners an account of events, and making no bones about it, in the manner of any sailor telling a yarn, you find you are in the presence of something that merits respect. If there is a trace of vanity in Wentworth’s disposition to talk freely of his exploits, it is the product, at least, of exceptional achievement. He wouldn’t be human if he were not conscious of personal claim and merit: in Charlotte Lucas’s words, “If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.” It would never come into his mind, though, to use this implied prerogative for the purpose of boasting. We know it would be quite beneath him; and we are left with the fact of Wentworth’s natural impressiveness.

This fact, perhaps, is mainly responsible for the singular lapse on his part with respect to the Miss Musgroves—a fault for which Ann Elliot, predisposed as she is in his favor, knows not how to excuse him. “ He was only wrong,” she concludes, “in accepting the attentions—(for accepting must be the word) of two young women at once.” But he had hardly been acting by design, and is shocked when the import becomes clear. The involvement is one that seems to have grown around him in the general warmth of regard at Uppercross, there being “so much of friendliness, and of flattery, and of every thing most bewitching in his reception there.” Indeed, Jane Austen queries, “If he were a little spoilt by such universal, such eager admiration, who could wonder?” While Wentworth is blamable for his insensitivity, his willingness to bear the consequence frees him from discredit.

When, eight years after their broken engagement, he had come to stay with the Crofts at Kellynch Hall, Ann Elliot wondered what his wishes were with respect to meeting her again. She tries to work them out by adopting his standpoint and reasoning from it.

Had he wished ever to see her again (she tells herself) he need not have waited till this time; he would have done what she could not but believe that in his place she should have done long ago, when events had been early giving him the independence which alone had been wanting.

Her conclusion is that therefore, “He must be either indifferent or unwilling.” But in this she is wrong: the very opposite is true. She is in error on a vital matter, simply because it is a woman’s mind that she has employed upon it. As a woman she knows of nothing that would have prevented her from renewing acquaintance if she had desired to; it takes a man to make her aware of what the impediment had been, —the man being Wentworth himself. During the card party at Camden Place, when they have drawn aside from the other guests, he asks her the very question she had posed to herself: would she have renewed the engagement if he had written after a couple of years? And her smiling response draws from him a passionate confession not only as to his wishes, but as to his nature: “It is not that I did not think of it, or desire it, as what could alone crown all my other success. But I was proud, too proud to ask again.” Self-esteem in Wentworth issued the command that had to be obeyed, in defiance of every other appeal of his being. The whole story of Persuasion turns upon the reality and consequence of masculine pride.

*                 *                 *

By this stage some will be saying, “Wait a moment. What’s going on? An insidious attempt, it would seem, to typify Jane Austen’s men—excellent fellows—as pitifully presuming and vainglorious sorts of creatures. Is this to be endured?” So, before I am drummed out of the regiment, let me hasten to say that the women in principle are just as bad. Think of Lady Catherine sallying forth to confront the fractious residents of Hunsford, and “settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty” by that awesome sincerity and frankness for which her character has ever been celebrated. With some slight adjustment of rank (overdue, without doubt, in her estimation), would she not make a fitting consort for a monarch, and be heard declaring herself, “Ay, every inch a queen,” as with complacency she perceives the trembling of her subjects? Or consider Mrs. Elton, a parvenue in Longbourn, presuming to detach the social initiative from its rightful and incensed custodian, with her, “Miss Woodhouse, we must exert ourselves,” and her detestable “You and I”’s. Isn’t it the first article of her faith that she is wonderful? And this applies to the Miss Bertrams, who were popular wherever they went because “Their vanity was in such good order, that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs,” as it does to Mary Musgrove, whose tenacity about the deference due to her as a baronet’s daughter is constantly causing annoyance even among those close to her.

Yes, Jane Austen’s women are as vain and proud as the men in principle—but not quite so in fact. Not because they are better, but merely because it was, and is, harder for a woman to fulfill the requirements of self-magnification. They are not really compatible with the feminine role of bringing harmony, social and musical, into the life of the household; or that of bearing children; or of dealing with demanding husbands enjoying a freedom they were denied. And, to a woman’s quicker and finer sensibilities, the very notion of glorifying the self will tend to appear a little suspect. Her duties and perceptions alike are of a humbling kind: and the more salutary for being so.

This, presumably, is why an American professorial friend once confided to me that he had no trouble choosing whom to vote for in an election. “If there’s a woman candidate, I vote for her, regardless of party." His explanation was as follows: “Because it’s impossible for a woman to be worse than the men; and there’s a slight chance she might be better.”

And this is also the reason why Jane Austen, who is not strictly a satirist, here and there allows herself the luxury of parodying her own male characters. You hear its ring in the protestations of the necessitous Sir Walter Elliot that, “It had not been possible for him to spend less; he had done nothing but what Sir Walter Elliot was imperiously called on to do; but blameless as he was,” and so on. But it is at Mansfield Parsonage, in the course of one of Sir Thomas Bertram’s “dignified musings,” this time upon attentions Fanny Price appears to be receiving, that the mimicry is more pronounced:

 . . . though infinitely above scheming or contriving for any the most advantageous matrimonial establishment that could be among the possibilities of any one most dear to him, and disdaining even as a littleness the being quick-sighted on such points, he could not avoid perceiving in a grand and careless way that Mr. Crawford was somewhat distinguishing his niece.

That she will parody wherever it is merited, regardless of sex, is delightfully demonstrated in the set-piece of Mrs. Elton’s dulcet utterances amidst Donwell Abbey’s strawberry-beds. But the men more aptly incur such ridicule because of her knowledge that they are more inclined than women to build a pretentious and brittle self-image, and that in this respect they are vulnerable, and women stronger.

For proof one has only to compare the quarrel between Ann and Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion with that between Edmund and Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park. The circumstances are similar. In both, the younger tries to warn and advise the elder about a course of conduct which could be personally and socially harmful: in the one case, embarking on amateur theatricals in Sir Thomas’s absence, and in the other, permitting the commoner Mrs. Clay to remain a member of the household. But for the sisters the issue is far more serious. Tom Bertram risks no more than arousing his father’s and the neighborhood’s displeasure; but what threatens Elizabeth is not only the disgrace of complicity in Sir Walter’s marrying beneath him, but loss of all her rights as mistress of Kellynch Hall, and even at Camden Place.

Yet where most is at stake, there is least offense given or taken. Elizabeth, vexed by the reflection on her judgment and what she must regard as an upstart endeavor in Ann, conveys her displeasure in answers of shortness and warmth. But, compared to what takes place between the brothers, the combat is ceremonious, the exchanges ritual. Anger seems to have been at once anticipated; it is allowed for, and promptly dismissed: the contenders part confirmed, naturally, in their own attitudes, but unshaken and unscathed.

With the men it is otherwise. Although annoyance is as much as possible dissimulated at the behest of good breeding, there is nothing ceremonious about their encounter. Tom, in surprise and irritation at the challenge, from the start makes a defiantly contradictory riposte: to the plea of Maria’s delicate situation it is, “I have no fears, and no scruples”; to the argument that his father will disapprove, “And I am convinced to the contrary.” When Edmund persists in urging Sir Thomas’s strong sense of decorum, Tom is, in Jane Austen’s understated term, “displeased.” His answer is a scathing affirmation of his status as Mansfield’s heir and acting head that shows him touched to the quick. “I’ll take care that his daughters do nothing to distress him. Manage your own concerns, Edmund, and I’ll take care of the rest of the family.” Against his brother’s charge that staging a play would be taking liberties with his father’s house, Tom, “in a decided tone,” attempts a studied sarcasm. “His house shall not be hurt. I have quite as great an interest in being careful of his house as you can have.” But vehemence and ridicule burst forth in his cries of “Absolute nonsense!” and of “prodigious!” at the likely expense; and the last, as he walks out of the room, is plain denunciation. “Don’t imagine that nobody in this house can see or judge but yourself. Don’t act yourself if you do not like it, but don’t expect to govern every body else.”

There’s no mistaking it. Here are the throbbings, the whirls and eddies of humiliation and pain: both young men experience raw emotions which bring them near the limit of the tolerable. It is with an image of animal savagery that the author, appropriately, concludes this scene. “Family squabbling is the greatest evil of all,” Edmund confides to Fanny Price, “and we had better do any thing than be altogether by the ears.” One wonders how things would have gone if she had not been there; but even with her present, Jane Austen is revealing a man’s world to us—and the depth of her understanding of the male ego. For it is wounded vanity and pride that makes this quarrel so much more damaging than the other. Not that women don’t also have their pride: it is just that in their natures pride tends not to dominate.

Love, rather, preponderates with women, does it not? —a thing apart in the lives of men, but for women their whole existence, if Byron is to be believed. Surely, men are in this respect the hardier, the less susceptible? Only an affirmative, seemingly, can come from the novels, for the sentiments of woman are Jane Austen’s main theme: she will not normally enter into male preserves, or much into the minds of her male characters. The tendernesses and apprehensions of love and falling in love are registered in all her heroines, and its pains movingly displayed in a Marianne Dashwood—or in an Ann Elliot, when she undergoes “All the overpowering, blinding, bewildering first effects of strong surprise” upon glimpsing Captain Wentworth in Milsom Street. But perturbation is also apparent in Wentworth as, seconds later, he recognizes her. It is described from without; yet the words, “He was more obviously struck and confused by the sight of her, than she had ever observed before” convey a great deal—as does Darcy’s similar reaction to Elizabeth upon his encountering her at Pemberley.

Are Jane Austen’s men to any extent freer from love’s tyranny than her women? Is the passion less potent or compelling for them? It is a hard question, as Ann Elliot and Captain Harville find in their conversation at the White Hart. But a parallel may be drawn between the pathetic state of Marianne Dashwood and that of Edmund Bertram, who, under love’s constraining, is through much of the novel a shadow of the man he was. He becomes a creature of desperate confessions and confidences, the agonized victim, even, of every new token of Mary Crawford’s inclining towards him, or otherwise. Rarely can the horror of a perceived imperfection in the beloved have found such expression as it does in him. “She does not think evil,” he tells Fanny, “but she speaks it—speaks it in playfulness—and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.” Nor can the predicament of the anxious lover have been often better exemplified. Despite all his self-knowledge, and knowledge of Mary’s failings, he knows not how to come to terms with his promptings or settle on a purposive action, and is left clinging to fitful hope like a drowning man to a straw. —Or we might take note of Harville himself, speaking form his soul of a love which for him is in no sense a thing apart; whose one wish—words failing as they must, and his composure with them—is that he might convey “all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do for the sake of these treasures of his existence!”

It is, though, the ending of that discussion at the White Hart that would appear to be decisive. Love’s like hold upon men is not to be doubted, at least—to use Ann Elliot’s words—“while the woman you love lives, and lives for you.” She claims for her sex what she calls an unenviable privilege, which Harville cannot bring himself to deny her: “that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” But there is more than a hint of the privilege’s not being woman’s alone, in, of all people, Willoughby—the man who has knowingly sported with Marianne’s affections, and discarded her as deliberately, to marry upon financial consideration a woman he does not care for. His precipitate journey to Somerset upon news of Marianne’s dangerous illness may have a touch of bravado about it, as may his manner to Elinor during their strange interview at Cleveland that stormy night; but what quickly becomes clear is the bitter thoughts and torturing regret which animate him. Realization of his true state softens Elinor—more, moves her beyond pity to the near-affection which she has to struggle against. But it is Willoughby’s final plea that is most instructive. He desires to know that Marianne has forgiven him. He is assured, with sympathy, that she has. But he wants something beyond this: to be able to fancy, as he puts it, that “a better knowledge of my heart, and of my present feelings, will draw from her a more spontaneous, more natural, more gentle, less dignified, forgiveness.”

Only love itself could so wish, so crave, so rejoice in such a relenting, in one for ever separated—could find her regard still so infinitely meaningful when hope is at an end. Ann Elliot’s assertion on behalf of her sex of loving longest well attests her own constancy, and gives Captain Wentworth, as he sits writing at the nearby table, the intimation vital for its finding a return. But the claim she makes is one which Jane Austen, from her own observation of love in men and women, knows to be untrue.

*            *            *

This awareness of equality between men and women where the profoundest instincts of the heart are evoked might seem hard to reconcile with a disparity in the presentation of the sexes in the novels. Jane Austen certainly appears to devote less attention to her men, and depicts them almost invariably from external vision. But that her achievement in characterization is more pronounced with women has more to do with the obligation she was under of conformity with her generation’s idea of the novel, than with lesser ability in delineating men, by whatever method. In Mr. Bennet, if not elsewhere, we assuredly have a demonstration of the extent of her powers. Elizabeth Jenkins sets it down as “next door to impossible” for him to have been created by a woman. His having been drawn by a man would be more credible, she goes on, “except that it is difficult to think of a man who could have drawn him so well”(qtd. Jenkins 161). We have all been entertained by the idiosyncrasy that expresses itself now in a distant and dismissive courtesy, now in elaborate irony and sarcasm, now in a judicial expansiveness, as occasion serves; and we are aware of the sudden impatience, and the capacity for fierce self-reproach and momentary gloom which belongs to a personality at once forceful and withdrawn. But nowhere else in the novels—and, one suspects, in anyone else’s novels—do we come upon such chameleon-like change of attitude as occurs in Mr. Bennet when he is challenged to the depth of his being by his favorite daughter’s seeming abandonment of her standards, in suddenly wanting to marry the man she has hitherto hated.

“What are you doing? Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man?” he asks her, in shock and grief. But his mood, as Elizabeth rather confusedly assures him of her attachment, is instantly that of disdain. “Or in other words,” he puts it to her, “you are determined to have him. He is rich, to be sure.” Upon her steadfastly declaring her love for Darcy, Elizabeth hears accents of the tenderest fatherly concern. He has given Darcy his consent; he is prepared to give it to her; but, forewarning of the miseries of an unsuitable match, he pleads, “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.” It is he, however, who is prevailed on to think again when Elizabeth, much moved, explains the change which has come about in herself, and urges Darcy’s constancy and his good qualities. Bennet, still unconvinced, gives grudging approval: “I have no more to say. If this be the case, he deserves you.” The tone is now that of resigned disappointment; but as Elizabeth recounts what Darcy has done for Lydia, it transmutes itself into elation. “And so Darcy did everything; made up the match, gave the money, paid the fellow’s debts, and got him his commission!” There follows, in rapid succession, relief blended with humor: “So much the better. It will save me a world of trouble and economy”; and outburst of hilarity, as he laughs “some time” at Elizabeth over her earlier embarrassment at the warnings against Darcy in Mr. Collins’s letter; and, finally, a comfortable relapse into the ironic courtesy of his customary manner: “If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure.”

The most fanciful and volatile of womankind in the novels could scarcely display such variation of mood. Yet these manifold states are truly Mr. Bennet: in them all, he is consistently himself, behaving exactly as we would expect him to behave—and entirely masculine. By no stretch of the imagination can his conduct (to use Elizabeth’s previous words about her father) “be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.” And in none of her heroines does Jane Austen evince a greater triumph of comprehension.

She is as successful with men as with women in the concise rendering of character. The description of Mrs. Bennet as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” sets us smiling, and speaks eloquently. More might be held to devolve from the single point of taciturnity in Mrs. Ferrars: “She was not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.” This piece of summarizing does not, however, outdo her performance with respect to Sir William Lucas and Sir Walter Elliot—or in Admiral Croft’s illuminating self-caricature through speeches like, “A new sort of way this, for a young fellow to be making love, by breaking his mistress’s head! – is not it, Miss Elliot? —This is breaking a head and giving a plaister truly!” But her introduction of John Thorpe perhaps exceeds these in inspired inventiveness. This plain, rather stout individual “seemed fearful of being too handsome unless he wore the dress of a groom, and too much like a gentleman unless he were easy where he ought to be civil, and impudent where he might be allowed to be easy.” The man’s native worth, and the manner of his subsequent conduct, are alike deductible from this searing definition.

Not only her men’s differentiation, but their similarity, can prove the measure of Jane Austen’s skill. In a notable respect they are less outwardly distinguished from one another than their counterparts among the ladies. By air and accent, Charles Musgrove, Edmund Bertram, Edward Ferrars, Charles Bingley, and Edward Gardiner are not easy to tell apart. They share the unassuming matter-of-factness and moderation which typified the country gentlemen of Jane Austen’s personal acquaintance. Nevertheless, they are quite unlike as individuals: each seems to exist within a unique mental climate. The fact denotes an extraordinary sureness of touch.

So also does the variety of splendidly realized male types to be found in the novels. They are as abundant as those of the women; and comparison will show that for most female categories there is a male equivalent. For that of mindlessness and vacuity, we may have the agreeable occupation of choosing between Lady Bertram and Mrs. Allen on the one side, and Sir William Lucas and Mr. Rushworth on the other. When it comes to egotism and the will to dominate, Lady Catherine and General Tilney have much in common; some of his performances might conceivably be deemed to outclass hers. The principled and deliberative personality is at least as well exemplified in Sir Thomas Bertram as it is in Lady Russell. If the comportment of Mrs. Weston may (as Emma maintains) be regarded as the model of “propriety, simplicity, and elegance” in a female, that of Mr. Gardiner for much the same reason is to be recommended to any man. In terms of what is avowedly ladylike and gentlemanly, Ann Elliot and Mr. Knightley would appear to be outstanding; and if Mrs. Grant merits praise for the preservation of cheerfulness despite being married to a perverse husband, Charles Musgrove, espoused to a fretful wife, is the man so distinguished.

Vulgarity, as Jane Austen was all too aware, is a plant that can never cease to flourish; and many, amidst its convoluted branches, share an occult relationship. Those fine cronies, Mrs. Jennings and Sir John Middleton, are not alone in displaying a consanguinity defiant of the widest divergence in the social scale: the gushing Anne Steele and vaunting Robert Ferrars are likewise linked in the species of vulgarity that feeds upon silliness and finds fulfillment in garrulity. That which is the mere offspring of underbreeding is demonstrated by the siblings Isabella and John Thorpe respectively in their consummate coquetry and rattledom; while the sort produced unawares by those engaged in the nefarious art of social posturing and pretence is personified in Mrs. Elton and her caro sposo.

But, human nature being what it is, gentility itself can carry the seeds of infelicities too numerous to recount; and many are the ramifications of those who, endowed with manners, yet sin against them. Some contrive to do so by excess, like Sir Walter and Elizabeth, in whom may be observed the self-congratulating haughtiness which can freeze a crowded room into silence, or the adulation of rank that makes Ann Elliot so oddly wish that her family had more pride. Far from being a garb of innocence, manners can mask the duplicity of the mercenary predator, a creature as well represented amongst the men by Wickham and Willoughby as it is by Mrs. Clay and—yes, it must be said, Charlotte Lucas amongst the women. Mannerliness may even beget a blatant self-assurance that spurns the very intimations that give it life: Marianne and Willoughby have both indulged in this refined abandon.

For representatives of that ease and cleverness in otherwise charming people which can be tempted into the reprehensible, one need look no further than to Emma Woodhouse and Frank Churchill. When the deceptions he secretly so much enjoyed are known and forgiven, she makes a statement for which he has no other answer than a bow of assent: “to tell you the truth, I think it might have been some amusement to myself in the same situation. I think there is a little likeness between us.” They are so alike in this that it is well they go separate ways. And of the rather more questionable quipping and quibbling propensity, which twenty thousand pounds and the assurance it gives has created in Mary Crawford, we have as positive a masculine representation in the jovial irresponsibility and barbed outspokenness which comes so naturally to Tom Bertram as elder son. His observing that the “desperate dull life her’s must be with the doctor” shows Mrs. Grant’s dire need of a lover, and Mary’s likening Maria’s marriage and Edmund’s ordination upon Sir Thomas’ return from abroad to sacrificial offerings made to some heathen deity, are about equal in irreverence, if not quite so in ingenuity. That the paths of this pair diverge is also, one must think, probably a merciful provision.

But Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse are eternally neighbors and friends, twin and potent reminders as they are of how socially disastrous good nature can be if unaccompanied by both of two other needful complementary qualities. Miss Bates has perception in plenty, but not the least discretion; in Mr. Woodhouse is a teeming discretion that is without any perception to work upon. As characters they are not too ossified to be compatible: put together, they get on famously—though, curiously enough, not without a little straining of good nature on either side. For whereas she must grieve at his not letting her eat the choice food which is put before her at Hartfield, he is driven to confessing with some irritation that she talks a little too quick.

For some of course there is not a corresponding person of the other sex. There is to be found no woman like Admiral Croft in his endearing and sometimes alarming breeziness—or man comparable to Lydia Bennet, “this robust, noisy, natural creature,” as she has been called (Jenkins 162).

Mrs. Norris also is without a masculine counterpart in her presumption and petulance as indigent sister. Similarly, it is pointless looking for a true female version of Mr. Collins, for the reason that women are simply not capable of being so obtuse. And there is no gentleman remotely resembling Mrs. Bennet—but who on earth would expect one? The striking thing, however, about these novels concerned with the amours of women is the range of male characters drawn from many social conditions they set before us.

One category makes what might be thought an improbable appearance: that of the evil man. In Lady Susan, Jane Austen had drawn a wicked woman who pursues her designs with cold subtlety; General Tilney betrays a malevolence crude and unrestrained. But use of such terms in relation to him can readily appear an exaggeration. Is he not, after all, something of a joke, designedly and actually: a character whose purpose is to show Catherine being so naively under the influence of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothic horrors as to suppose the General, “slowly pacing the drawing-room for an hour together in silent thoughtfulness, with downcast eyes and contracted brow,” another villainous Montoni, when he is merely thinking over the latest batch of political papers and pamphlets – and turning out, in the end, to be no more than an irascible old buffer, anyway?

Henry Tilney is right when he accuses Catherine of having formed a surmise of such horror as makes him at a loss for words. The General is innocent of the despicable murder she had suspected him of; but we should be unwise to dismiss those suspicions as idle without giving some thought to what they are grounded on. At an early stage Catherine is aware of an effect seemingly without cause. General Tilney’s children are oppressed in his company; and she herself finds it “a release to get away from him,” despite his pointed courtesies. Indeed, it is through his absence, Jane Austen declares, that she derives “the first experimental conviction that a loss may be sometimes a gain.”

Catherine finds nothing sinister in the incidents of their journey to Northanger—his wrath about the carriage, “his discontent at whatever the inn afforded, and his angry impatience at the waiters” —but accepts them as the given fact of a life-style she is unfamiliar with. Though this brand of assertiveness compares strangely with the civility which can rise to such height of compliment as beg her, while in Bath, to “quit this scene of public triumph” in order to be his guest, and bestow on her “one of the most graceful bows she had ever beheld,” it does not detract from her pleasure in being so honored, or cause her to fancy a hollowness in his attentions.

Might she not have sense pride of possession, at least, beneath the mock-modesty which could concede the Abbey’s palatial dining room to be “by no means an ill-sized room,” and the apologetic of, “Why, as he had such rooms, he thought it would be simple not to make use of them”? And was she at all led to wonder at the persistence of the Generals’ s questioning about her friend Mr. Allen’s rooms, his garden, and his succession houses, as he showed her round his own—or, on her assuring him of their inferiority, at his exclaiming of Mr. Allen, “‘He is a happy man!’ with a look of very happy contempt”?

The answers must be in the negative. It would have been beyond Catherine, in her innocence, to make anything of the evidence which even the accomplished reader is disinclined to take in: evidence of a fierce hunger for distinction, a huge gratification in its attainment, and a consonant apprehension of its loss which puts him instantly on the defensive at the slightest hint of criticism. But astonished she is when, after his urging Henry to go to no trouble in receiving him at Woodston, that “Whatever you may happen to have in the house will be enough,” she sees the festive abundance there which he attacks with such obvious inconsistency and relish.

Little does Catherine know that General Tilney’s condescension towards her has been of the same quality as these other manifestations: called forth, that is, by exultant anticipation of receiving an heiress into the family in her person. The full force of his disappointment in this prospect she is soon to feel in his suddenly turning her out of the house; but her own distress at this juncture is somewhat less than the General’s own. Being informed that she is a virtual pauper has, Jane Austen states, “terrified” him. Even this calculated use of the word cannot convey the enormity of such an assault upon such a mind. Here is a man whose manners are in every respect artifice, beneath whose outward politeness broods a barren nature swept by storms of passion: blind will to dominate, zest in self-assertion, greed to possess, rage at hindrance to a wish, —and, underlying all, the primordial fear, adjunct of unhallowed condition, which lends intensity to these malign satisfactions and strivings.

We may smile at Catherine’s detecting a Montoni in Henry’s father. He is, beyond denial, as his son rather aggrievedly points out, an English gentleman and a Christian. But were it to be removed from its particular environment and culture and placed under a less favored dispensation, this personality would quickly decline upon its native barbarism. The best thing Catherine does in the novel is to fall in love with Henry Tilney: the next best is to develop the revulsion towards the General she feels almost throughout.

Another piece of remarkable veracity, though of quite different sort, may reside in the character of Mr. Darcy and his treatment of Elizabeth Bennet. His specifying and detailing to her the social inferiority of her family in the midst of proposing has been deemed unlikely conduct in a hero. Darcy appears to be sinning against the manners and decorum of the age, and against probability in a person of his type: what he might have thought, that is, it would never have occurred to him to speak. The seeming lapse has been explained by critics, the present one included, as due to Jane Austen’s need to make Darcy at this moment the embodiment of the arrogance of rank and wealth she deplores, and her contriving to do so through an action uncharacteristic in someone like him. But is it uncharacteristic? Is there not such a thing as the pride which will not stoop to dissembling—and the constraint to be true to oneself in a searching encounter? Darcy’s is an aloofness of spirit, as well as of attitude. And given, further, that uprightness and even severity of mind which can pronounce, at such a point, “disguise of every sort is my abhorrence!” and the ardor for truth and scorn of pretence in Elizabeth which Darcy has recognized and holds in esteem, might it not rather be that the “understanding” of a coming-together between such a pair can scarcely subsist without a real understanding of each other’s position?

At least it may be said without contradiction that Darcy tells her not a thing about her family’s deficiencies and shortcomings that she does not know and has not ruefully acknowledged to herself—though it is inevitable that she will react with anger to the open breach of decorum his candor is. Nor can it be denied that Darcy by this forthrightness succeeds in apprising Elizabeth of the reality of his love for her. Almost immediately she is experiencing a different form of agitation at the thought of having “inspired unconsciously so strong an affection.”

 Far from dealing here with an artificiality of characterization, we are being confronted with a phenomenal naturalness. There can be no swervings or zigzaggings of politeness with these two when it comes to matters so close to the heart, and to principle: such “mannerliness” would itself have been an artificiality in terms of the people they are. The plainness Darcy uses, and desires, in proposing to Elizabeth at the end proclaims the man: “You are too generous,” be tells her, “to trifle with me.” That their married life will, indeed, never be a refuge from home truths is indicated soon thereafter by the style of this newly-betrothed young woman’s complaisance towards her beloved, when, inquiring what had made him begin to be in love with her, she points out, with devastating frankness, “My beauty you had early withstood.” Can it be that in Elizabeth Bennet we have another Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the making? Perish the thought! Hers is too intelligent and responsive a mind to incur such a destiny. But in this connection it would appear that Elizabeth has found in Darcy, not just her man, but her soul-mate.

Should some hesitate to accept this reading of Mr. Darcy, on the grounds that, whatever might be pleaded in extenuation, no true gentleman could have behaved like that, they may be advised to dismiss their scruple as they can. And to rid themselves permanently of the notion all they need do is devote the odd hour to researching confrontations of Whig and Tory in the House of Commons.

*           *            *

Darcy, Knightley, Wentworth, Bertram, Tilney—even Ferrars: each is markedly individual: yet do they together represent an ideal of manliness for Jane Austen? What, to conclude, are the attributes in men she seems most to approve? Answers will be easily forthcoming, since they are embodied in the gentlemen themselves; but nothing can be better at the outset than to take note of Elizabeth’s plea to Mr. Collins, that he regard her as “a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” The heroes shun the established complimentary mode of address that sets women in a separate and subordinate class. In contrast to the strained gallantry of Mr. Elton, which made Emma want to run away and laugh, there is placed before us with obvious approval the manner towards Mary Crawford and women in general of Edmund Bertram: “he was not pleasant by any common rule, he talked no nonsense, he paid no compliments, his opinions were unbending, his attentions tranquil and simple.”

Equally demanded, we may gather, is the capacity in a man to laugh at himself or tolerate being laughed at. The latter we are assured Mr. Darcy will gravitate towards; but both exist in Mr. Knightley, the former being overlaid by a magisterial outspokenness. Therefore we should not miss the chuckle when, in advising Emma to obtain from Harriet those “minute particulars” of her engagement to Robert Martin “which only woman’s language can make interesting,” he adds on behalf of men, “—In our communications we deal only in the great.” And Frederick Wentworth, wishing to impress upon Louisa Musgrove the desirability of firmness, and by way of illustration plucking a perfect nut from a bough, next moment is brought by sudden sense of incongruity to refer to it as being “still in possession of all the happiness that a hazel-nut can be supposed capable of.” In a woman, a sense of humor is an attraction; but for a man it is, according to Jane Austen’s thinking, a prerequisite.

So is integrity in human dealings. It is the knowledge of its presence in Mr. Knightley that allows Emma at once to dismiss the thought of his being the giver of the unexplained present of a piano to Jane Fairfax. He would, she is sure, never have acted in so devious a way. And the revelation of Frank Churchill’s past course of double-dealing consequent upon the secret engagement rouses Emma to condemnation in Mrs. Weston’s very presence, so horrified is she at the thought of the absence in him of “that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life.” She voices here the mind of her creator, all of whose heroes are typified by a principled directness. So are they by a readiness to accept responsibility for their mistakes or impulsive actions. Having allowed his attentions to Louisa Musgrove to appear too meaningful, Wentworth is resigned. “I was hers in honor if she wanted it,” he says. “I had been unguarded.” In the same way, Henry Tilney will take it upon himself to atone for his father’s clear favoritism and subsequent gross misconduct towards Catherine: to her “He felt himself bound as much in honour as in affection,” we are informed.

Such probity is part of the good manners always requisite in a man. They go beyond the politeness observable at surface level; and even there they are not admissible if they express elaborateness rather than the simplicity that is itself befitting, in its betokening the sincere. Manners do, of course, involve some pretence—a masking for social convenience, if not repressing, of genuine feeling, as when Wentworth responds to Mary Musgrove’s depreciation of her relatives the Hayters with “an artificial, assenting smile, followed by a contemptuous glance, as he turned away.” It is a requirement of good manners also not to defy public opinion “in any point of worldly decorum”: and here, Marianne’s flaunting “particularity” with Willoughby shows her utterly in the wrong. But, as her sister so earnestly tries to impress on her, such abiding by the conventions does not mean allowing them to prevail over personal belief or taste. It is on the contrary imperative, especially in a man, to be able while respecting society’s norms and refinements to see beyond them, and where appropriate act accordingly – above all with regard to the human worth which might perhaps fall short of them, and to the human arrogance which might operate behind them. The respect which Knightley has for Robert Martin, and which he comes to entertain for Harriet, or Elizabeth’s being unaffected by “the mere stateliness of money and rank” at Rosings, and stirred to contempt by the pretensions she encounters there, show them to be, in Jane Austen’s eyes, mannered in the highest degree.

A formal mannerliness which however is unaccompanied by kindness takes on the appearance of monstrosity wherever it occurs: whether it be the unsisterly correctness of Elizabeth Elliot, or the polite indifference of her cousin to the distress of his former friend Mrs. Smith consequent upon her loss of husband and affluence. The behavior of the heroes and heroines alike in this connection seems to confirm Geoffrey Chaucer’s dictum that “pitee renneth sone in gentil herte” (I.1761). One would expect it to be less with men, and perhaps least in the manliest of them all; but Frederick Wentworth provides some of the most notable instances. He does so when Mrs. Musgrove’s regrets over her lost son interpose in the conversation at the Great House, as, despite a flicker of amusement at recollecting the midshipman he had been at pains to get rid of, he seats himself by her and talks “with so much sympathy and natural grace, as shewed the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent’s feelings.” His action later during the walking party’s return from Winthrop, in prevailing on the Crofts to give Ann a seat in their gig upon perceiving her tiredness, is “a proof of his own warm and amiable heart.” While still blaming Ann for the past, and indifferent to her in the present, he yet “could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief.” But more eloquent of that heart’s amiability are the words that burst from him at Louisa’s apparent lifelessness after her fall from the Cobb at Lyme. Staggering against the wall for support, he exclaims “in the bitterest agony, ‘Oh God! Her father and mother!’” This incident, according to Margaret Kennedy, shows that in Jane Austen’s view, kindness and even tenderness is not the prerogative of women (88). The evidence from Wentworth’s character, certainly, is that it is in no wise unbecoming in a man.

Nor, for Jane Austen, is that spontaneity and element of impulsiveness which, though it can make mistakes, confirms a correspondence between outward and inward in a man’s comportment. The same Captain Wentworth had unawares inflicted deep pain upon Ann Elliot after the first meeting at Uppercross, when he described her to another as being “so altered he should not have known you again.” Ignoring the possibility that his words might be conveyed to her, he “had spoken as he felt.” But it is precisely this naturalness of his, his “enthusiasm” as she terms it, which has endeared him to her: she prizes “the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others.” The charm it holds for her alone makes it possible for Wentworth to hope. Had she not experienced unease at the absence of “any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight” in Mr. Elliot, she might, chillingly, have been led by the “eligibilities and proprieties of the match” to accept him.

All these qualities, and many more, a man may have; but, put together, they will be unavailing without one further excellence: that of steadfastness. Here we come back to Lady Macbeth, as she strives finally in vain to urge on her faltering lord, and expresses a world of scorn in her accusation, “Infirm of purpose!” (II.ii.52). Such wavering in a man’s nature—above all in relation to the woman he loves—renders him unacceptable and contemptible in Jane Austen’s estimation. A resoluteness—and a readiness as it were to take their lives into their hands in its service at the critical moment—is what qualifies her men as heroes, and enables them, often enough, to win their fair ones. Wentworth, finding himself suddenly released from Louisa, within five minutes has said to himself, “I will be in Bath on Wednesday.” At the White Hart, hearing Ann’ s emotion-charged tones upon constancy in love, he seizes a pen and writes, “I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach”—and asks there and then for her hand, concluding, “A word, a look will be enough.” Darcy, determinedly, twice makes moments to propose to Elizabeth by calling on her when she is alone at the Parsonage. On both occasions the attitude he meets there frustrates his intention; but he wastes no time when, at Longbourn, she has found courage enough to thank him for what he has done for them. Mr. Knightley, coming to Hartfield to console Emma after what he assumes has been Frank Churchill’s betrayal, and finding to his astonishment that she is fancy-free, on “the immediate effect of what he heard” speaks for himself: his proposal is “the work of the moment.” Henry Tilney, ordered by his father to acquiesce in the treatment he has meted out to Catherine, instead declares his intention to propose to her. Arrived at Fullerton, he invites her to walk with him the quarter of a mile to the Allen’s house. “Some explanation on his father’s account he had to give” during the course of it, Jane Austen remarks wryly; “but his first purpose was to explain himself, and before they reached Mr. Allen’s grounds he had done it so well, that Catherine did not think it could ever be repeated too often.”

To such a happy conclusion Henry Crawford has come near enough—when, while devoted to Fanny Price, he allows himself to be swayed from his overriding desire by one purely ephemeral. So, too, Willoughby, knowing himself united to Marianne by every tie of affection and mind, makes himself the willing victim of circumstance, incurring the world’s and his own contempt. And Frank Churchill is of their kindred. It is the irresoluteness she has detected in his character which is largely responsible for distancing Emma from his influence. Heedless of the obligations of secrecy as of love, he can let a mere jocular whim, while the company at Hartfield is playing at alphabets, cause Jane Fairfax embarrassment and alarm, and jeopardize their situation; and his resentment at her declining to arouse suspicions by walking with him from Donwell all but drives them apart. He would have ruined both their lives, had not the death of the formidable Mrs. Churchill made their way clear fro them. Mr. Knightley, with justification, terms Frank Churchill “the favorite of fortune.” Margaret Kennedy, with the same justification, declares him to be “very nearly a villain” (82).

It is as if, in her estimation of men, and men in love, Jane Austen had taken as crowning truth words of her master Shakespeare upon creatures so sadly erratic and self-appeasing:

O heaven! were man
But constant, he were perfect: that one error
Fills him with faults. (The Two Gentlemen of Verona V.iv.110-12).

*            *            *

The charge may be made against this assessment of Jane Austen’s men that it gives undue prominence to the insipid Mary Bennet’s commonplaces upon pride and vanity. But even greater opprobrium may be impending. For it cannot be brought to an end without a bold assertion: that, despite the limitations which literary convention subjected her to, and all that contemporary tastes and attitudes imposed on her as a woman, and whatever disqualification her own being a woman implies, Jane Austen understood men as well as she understood women. The novels, I would claim, show this to be so. And I must venture even further, though upon grounds more commonplace. The number of women who can say of the man in their life, “I can read him like a book” is, by common knowledge, legion. But the tally of men able with conviction to return the compliment will make a relatively modest showing. For, as Oscar Wilde defined the matter, “men can be analysed, women . . . merely adored” (472). I will therefore go so far as to declare that in all probability Jane Austen’s understanding of men exceeded that of her women.

Is this an Aunt Sally by way of conclusion? Or treachery? Or heresy? Upon so grave an issue, I can only, as Mr. Bennet to his spouse, reply to the indignant questioner, “I leave it to yourself to determine.” But I am perfectly sure that, however much feelings may intensify and convictions clash, argument upon such a writer as Jane Austen will never degenerate into dispute: for, with this supreme creator of comedy, truth is at one with good-humor. So if there be matter here for contention, let that battle rage from which each combatant can only emerge victorious.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: OUP, 1995. Macaulay, T.B.  “The Diaries and Letters of Mme D'Arblay'.” Edinburgh Review (January 1843): 561-62. 
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69. Southam, B. C.  Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage.  London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1968.
Chaucer, Geoffrey.  “Knightes Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. l. 1761. Milton, John.  Lycidas.
Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A Biography. (1938)  Indigo:1996. Shakespeare, William.  The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  London: Abbey Library, 1974.
Johnson, Samuel.  Johnson on Shakespeare. Ed. W. Raleigh. London: OUP: 1957.  Wilde, Oscar.  An Ideal Husband.  The Works of Oscar Wilde.  NY: Parragon, 1995.
Kennedy, Margaret.  Jane Austen: The Novelists Series.  2nd ed.  London:  Arthur Barker, 1966.

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