in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood is more attractive than her sister Elinor, despite the “delicate complexion, regular features, and . . . remarkably pretty figure” of the latter: “Marianne was still handsomer. Her form, though not so correct as her sister’s, in having the advantage of height, was more striking” (46).
As noted by Carol Shields, physical description in Austen is typically “minimalist” (133), so that our attention is drawn to those passages that break the silence with physical description. Such detail contributes significantly to character development, as Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., Lori Hope Lefkovitz, and Robyn Warhol have all noted in their discussions of eyes and perception in Austen. Descriptions of height also serve as guides to characterization.
In Austen, stature tends to indicate status, elegance, and the ability to attract potential mates of similar height and station. Height is slightly less reliable, but sometimes employed nevertheless, as a guide to moral stature. In her works, the “advantage of height” transcends gender, serving to distinguish elegant females as well as handsome gentlemen. While other eighteenth-century and Regency novelists praised heroes and heroines for their height, Austen’s emphasis on physical stature is unusual. It is quite possible that Austen favored tall characters because she herself, and her favorite brother, Henry, were both tall. Tomalin cites three comments by contemporaries who described Austen as tall and slender; Henry considered her of “middle height,” but he himself was six feet tall (111, 79).
Height in Austen is nearly always stated in terms of a comparison between two characters. Thus, Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth surpasses his brother officer Benwick in height (Lefkovitz 53). In Pride and Prejudice we learn that Mr. Darcy has a “fine, tall person,” while Mr. Bingley’s height is apparently not worth mentioning (10). Mr. Darcy’s superior height signals his superior birth and fortune, and his stronger personality. Although Mr. Bingley is indulging in irony when he claims that interactions between friends are determined to a great extent by “their comparative height and size,” he is also accurately describing the influence of appearance, particularly the appearance of a “such a great tall fellow” as Mr. Darcy (50). Similarly, Emma Woodhouse is influenced by Mr. Knightley’s “tall, firm, upright figure,” which contrasts to his advantage with “the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men” in Emma (326). The community of Highbury by its deference to Mr. Knightley seems to agree with Emma that his “figure and look,” as well as his “situation in life,” justify his “downright, decided, commanding sort of manner” (34).
In the world of Austen’s fictions, height is not gender-specific: for a woman to be tall is not only acceptable, but also a clear advantage. Lydia Bennet boasts of her height, implying that it will attract suitors (PP 8), and disdains Mary King as “a nasty little freckled thing” (220). Caroline Bingley draws attention to Georgiana Darcy’s height in a positive way, attempting to elicit praise of her own appearance from Mr. Darcy: “‘Is Miss Darcy much grown since the spring?’ said Miss Bingley; ‘will she be as tall as I am?’” (38). Mr. Darcy’s answer, moving quickly from Miss Bingley’s to the height of a woman whose appearance interests him far more, also implies that height in women is attractive or at least neutral: “‘I think she will. She is now about Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s height, or rather taller’” (38). Tall Emma Woodhouse with her “firm and upright figure” (E 39) sees “short, plump and fair” Harriet Smith as possessor of a particularly admirable type of beauty (23), yet in her sketch, Emma “improves” Harriet’s height: “she meant to throw in a little improvement to the figure, to give a little more height, and considerably more elegance” (47). With the exception of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, Austen’s short women are not elegant. As with the male characters, height often indicates a female character’s class: Harriet Smith is short; Emma Woodhouse and Lady Catherine De Bourgh are tall (PP 162).
The characters themselves tend to be conscious of physical differences, although not always with Emma’s generosity in “improving” Harriet’s height. In Austen’s juvenile spoof “Lesley Castle,” Lady Lesley describes her stepdaughters Matilda and Margaret Lesley as “over-grown Girls,” “Scotch Giants” whose “tremendous knock-me-down figures” are not “in the least degree elegant” (123, 126). Yet, she comments, they “will do very well as foils to myself” (123). Margaret seems similarly self-satisfied as she complains that her stepmother is short: “there is something so extremely unmajestic in her little diminutive figure, as to render her in comparison with the elegant height of Matilda and Myself, an insignificant Dwarf” (122). The equally biased Mrs. Marlowe considers herself (and her friend Miss Lutterell) a happy medium relative to the Lesleys: “I am sure you will agree with me in saying that they can none of them be of a proper size for real Beauty, when you know that two of them are taller & the other shorter than ourselves” (134). Similarly, in Mansfield Park the tall Bertram sisters look down on Fanny in all possible ways, while conceding Mary Crawford to be a satisfactory contrast:
[T]hey were too handsome themselves to dislike any woman for being so too, and were almost as much charmed as their brothers, with her lively dark eye, clear brown complexion, and general prettiness. Had she been tall, full formed, and fair, it might have been more of a trial; but as it was, there could be no comparison, and she was most allowably a sweet pretty girl, while they were the finest young women in the country. (44)
The relative heights of men and women, on the other hand, are left unclear, although tall women tend to attract tall men. Significantly, Emma’s “firm and upright figure” (E 39) is described in the same terms as Mr. Knightley’s “tall, firm, upright figure” (326). Lady Lesley, who rightly surmises that her brother William is falling in love with one of the Miss Lesleys, contradicts her previous assertion that opposites attract: “there is nothing I hate so much as a tall Woman: but however there is no accounting for some men’s taste and as William is himself nearly six feet high, it is not wonderful that he should be partial to that height” (124).
In this one aspect, Miss Lesley resembles Squire Western’s sister in Fielding’s Tom Jones, a lady who attracts no one: “her masculine person, which was near six foot high . . . possibly prevented the other sex from regarding her . . . in the light of a woman” (237). In fact, tall women are more numerous and more feminine in Austen’s fiction than in English novelists before her, with the possible exception of Smollett; her female predecessors in novel writing are particularly vague about physical stature. In Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, Harriet Byron is “something above the middling” (11). The “intended heroine” of Tom Jones (130), Sophia Western, is “a middle-sized woman, but rather inclining to tall” (135), while the title character is apparently the “tallest, properest man in the world” (253). Other Richardson and Fielding heroines, if not short, are no taller than these two. In contrast, Smollett’s Roderick Random loves a lady named Narcissa, of “stature tall” and “shape unexceptionable” (219). Ferdinand Count Fathom is “struck dumb with admiration” for the tall, lovely Monimia (201), and Peregrine Pickle is attracted to tall and “exquisitely shaped” Emilia Gauntlet (94). The novels of Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Charlotte Smith, on the other hand, feature handsome heroes and lovely heroines of unspecified height. One exception is Burney’s Camilla, “of a tall and striking figure” (308); however, Camilla’s sister Eugenia marries a man who sees beyond her stunted stature and smallpox scars: “Where her countenance was looked at, her complexion was forgotten; while her voice was heard, her figure was unobserved; where her virtues were known, they seemed but to be enhanced by her personal misfortunes” (912).
Although Austen emphasizes height more than the novelists she read, she clearly agrees with Eugenia’s suitor Melmond that moral virtues outweigh the merely physical. As Anne Elliot comments to Elizabeth in Persuasion, “‘There is hardly any personal defect . . . which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to’” (35). Thus Edward Ferrars, marked by no “peculiar graces of person or address” (15), is apparently of average height: “‘his figure is not striking,’’ remarks Marianne (17); however, his “open affectionate heart” and good understanding (15) soon alter Elinor’s opinion of his appearance: “‘At present, I know him so well, that I think him really handsome; or, at least, almost so’” (20). Similarly, Mr. Bingley’s manner creates a better first impression than that of Mr. Darcy, despite the latter’s fortune, “fine, tall person, handsome features, [and] noble mien” (10). Austen’s works are full of gentlemen like Colonel Brandon whose plainness is excused because they look and behave like gentlemen: “though his face was not handsome his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike” (34). In many cases, however, looking like a gentleman becomes synonymous with being above average in height. Thus John Knightley is “a tall, gentleman-like, and very clever man” (92); and Henry Tilney, although “not quite handsome,” is “a very gentlemanlike young man” and “rather tall” (25). While Edward Ferrars and Mr. Bingley may not be tall, no gentleman in Austen is short.
Just as Austen’s heroes are not immune to a pretty face or pair of fine eyes, neither are her heroines oblivious to a handsome profile or a tall figure. Elizabeth Bennet believes Mr. Wickham (who, like Mr. Bingley, is apparently not remarkable for his height) because “there was truth in his looks” (86), and thinks him “handsomer than ever” (80) as he tells of the wrongs supposedly done him (Morgan 91). Similarly, General Tilney’s height helps mislead Catherine Morland: “That he was perfectly agreeable and good-natured, and altogether a very charming man, did not admit of a doubt, for he was tall and handsome, and Henry’s father” (129). Catherine’s error lies in equating charm with height, for as with other characters, General Tilney’s height is an uncertain indicator of moral stature. Shields comments, “Occasionally physical references go hand in hand with psychological insight and thereby gain their weight” (133). Shields cites Harriet’s increased height during Emma, a physical growth that mirrors emotional maturation. While not universal in Austen, such a pairing of appearance and reality is more than occasional.
In the most fully developed instance of judgment by inches, Mr. Rushworth’s explosions concerning Mr. Crawford are ludicrous but perceptive, for Crawford’s moral stature is as unimpressive as his physical: “‘Nobody can call such an under-sized man handsome. He is not five foot nine. I should not wonder if he was not more than five foot eight’” (102); “‘I do not say he is not gentleman-like, considering; but you should tell your father he is not above five feet eight, or he will be expecting a well-looking man’” (186). Mr. Rushworth’s own height marks his solid morality, but like Mr. Collins he is “a heavy young man, with not more than common sense” (38).
In contrast to the morally stunted Crawfords, and like Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, Edmund is upright. His height and manner impress Miss Crawford, who writes to Fanny from London, “‘my friends here are very much struck with his gentleman-like appearance. Mrs. Fraser . . . declares she knows but three men in town who have so good a person, height, and air’” (416). Fanny’s expostulation decries the superficial emphasis of Mary Crawford’s commentary: “The woman who could speak of him, and speak only of his appearance!” (417). While serving to put height in its place, Fanny’s comment in no way denies Edmund’s superior appearance, or the connection between his stature and his character. After all, unlike Mary Crawford, Fanny has grown a bit herself during the novel. As Henry Crawford enthusiastically declares in justification of his attraction to Fanny, “‘her air, her manner, her tout ensemble is so indescribably improved! She must be grown two inches, at least, since October’” (230).
(The author, who stands five feet, six inches tall, wishes to thank her six-foot, one-inch colleague and fellow Janeite, Jim Brazell, for his perceptive comments on this essay.)
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