As I said in giving this paper at Chawton House Library in July 2009, it was the greatest imaginable honor and pleasure to be invited to open the “New Directions” conference there in celebration of Jane Austen’s settling in Hampshire, and especially it was a pleasure to present together with my friend and colleague Juliet McMaster. We decided to look at the impact of the new in the beginnings and the endings of Austen novels: the new face met, the new understanding arrived at. I therefore am going to begin at the beginning, with the heroine’s first sight of the man who will become her hero. How does Jane Austen handle this delicate moment in unfolding her stories?
Before beginning with Northanger Abbey, it is appropriate to remember that at the time celebrated by the conference, two hundred years and two days before Juliet and I spoke—when Jane Austen arrived at Chawton, dug out her carefully-packed manuscripts, and in the eighteenth-century phrase “commenced author” in earnest—she was in fact no novice. She had written that crucial first-sight moment again and again in her juvenilia in many different styles. She had chosen the Blatant mode in “Henry and Eliza,” in which Eliza is an anti-heroine who steals her benefactress’s daughter’s fiancé. Here “Mr Cecil, the Lover of Lady Harriet, being often with the family was often with Eliza. A mutual Love took place and Cecil having declared his first . . . ” (Juvenilia 40). For Eliza to see is to conquer: for the young author this is the Telegraphic as well as the Blatant mode. In Love and Freindship, on the other hand, first sight is heralded in elaborate, almost baroque style. The heroine Laura, writing her story to the daughter of her girlhood confidante, opens her “Letter 4TH” with “Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted only of your Mother” (105). “Letter 5TH” describes the first-sight experience. Laura and her parents in their “rustic Cot” are thrown into panic and dithering by a violent knocking on the door, which “introduc[es] the most beauteous and amiable Youth, I had ever beheld” (106-07). The information that he is lost and cold has already awakened Laura’s “natural Sensibility,” and “no sooner did I first behold him, than I felt that on him the happiness or Misery of my future Life must depend” (107).
What a debut is signaled by these two first-sight moments! What a new voice in the echo-chamber of fiction, or rather what capacity for different voices, equally adept at the curtly predatory or gushingly sentimental! There can be no doubt, from these two heroine-hero encounters picked at random from the many in the juvenilia, that the child Jane Austen was fully aware of first sight as a test for the author of a love-story. To borrow Virginia Woolf’s image of writing a novel as riding a steeple-chase course, passing this moment is the first fence (122).
Northanger Abbey, as of course we should expect from its purpose as spoof, presents the very reverse of those two juvenilia moments. Everyone remembers the early conversations between Catherine and Henry: the first, when they have been “chatting some time on such matters as naturally arose” (17), and he interrupts by inflicting on her the 1790s version of stereotypical first-meeting small talk in the manner of “do you come here often?” Spread throughout this meeting and their next comes the bravura display of Henry’s command of mock-clichés: girls writing journals, women being better letter-writers than men, the dance as an emblem of marriage, etc. etc.
But those clichés lie beyond the first-sight moment. Catherine is introduced to Henry in an entirely conventional manner, by the master of ceremonies at the Lower Rooms in Bath: an introduction from humdrum life, not from romance. Henry is “a very gentlemanlike young man”1 who, “if not quite handsome, was very near it.” He has a good “address” (that is, social manner). “Catherine felt herself in high luck” (17). They dance first, talk afterwards. In talking, “she found him as agreeable as she had already given him credit for being” (17). Catherine, of course, is following a script, a script which might incorporate some version of “the most beauteous and amiable Youth [she] had ever beheld,” in which even “a mutual love took place.” She goes home to dream of Henry—or would, if Samuel Richardson had not forbidden her to (NA 22 and note). But dreams are strictly for night-time. Next morning the humdrum is restored as Mr. Allen ascertains that Henry is “not objectionable as a common acquaintance, . . . being a clergyman, and of a very respectable family in Gloucestershire” (22).
So while the text says gentlemanlike, agreeable, good address, respectable, not objectionable, even very nearly handsome, the subtext says, quite loudly, someone to dream about. That subtext is vital to this novel, and perhaps to the ur-novel, the indispensable romance blueprint. But the overt text is very important too. Those words—“gentlemanlike,” “address,” “respectable,” the descriptors of ordinary acceptability—may be as derogatory to the dignity of a hero as it is for a heroine’s dignity to be loved only reciprocally. But both these undignified circumstances are in Austen true to “common life.” And the dignity of a hero has to survive such treatment in almost all her other novels too, not just the burlesque one. Descriptions like this one, emphasizing ordinariness, are deployed on almost every first sighting of a hero.
For us the readers the hero, especially in the earlier novels, is usually met at the same moment that he dawns for the first time on the heroine’s sight. More and more often as her career progressed, Austen chose to hide the heroine’s first-sight moment from the reader, leaving us to meet the hero through a third party, the narrator. But her earliest mature texts lay down some patterns and open some suggestive lines of thinking.
In Northanger Abbey the first sighting occurs in Chapter Three. Austen has devoted most of Chapter Two to subjecting her heroine to the dreadful tedium of being at Bath without knowing anybody, and experiencing a total dearth of eligible young men. The point is driven home by the repetitiousness of Mrs. Allen’s laments, wishing she had a large acquaintance at Bath, wishing she knew anybody at all, wishing Catherine could get a dancing partner, until Catherine cannot hide her great yawn. Henry, presented after all this tedium, comes across as entirely ordinary, yet he comes like a reprieve, a rescue, an answer to prayer. The first sighting of an ordinary, eligible young man may not be quite such a revolution for other heroines as it is for Catherine, but for most of them it is in itself a far from ordinary occurrence. The “development of self” (E 445) that Juliet will be talking about has no chance to happen, no chance even to begin, until after formidable barriers have been surmounted.
Commentators on Austen often discourse at length on the imperative for gentry-class girls to get married, the absence of any alternative to marriage as a satisfactory choice of life. Austen writes this into her novels only in the most oblique fashion, in Charlotte Lucas’s acceptance of Mr. Collins, or in Jane Fairfax’s comments on the governess trade. What Austen does foreground is the desperate tedium of life as a girl at home, marriageable but unmarried, and the extreme difficulty of ever meeting an eligible man. Addiction to company, boredom with one’s own “resources,” is something she makes fun of, but how feelingly she depicts the narrowness of a boring life! The talk of her middle-aged women is above all excruciatingly boring, and among them I believe that Mrs. Allen of Northanger Abbey could give points to Miss Bates of Emma for tedium if not for length. Northanger Abbey’s second chapter is a painful study in boredom, and in boredom, ironically, experienced at a place devoted to pleasure. It is a study too of the difficulty of making human contact in a place designed expressly for that purpose. The scene is almost a circle of hell: Mrs Allen and Catherine, severely crushed by the crowd, are unable to find a seat or see the dancers for the press of people, yet unable to exchange a word with anybody, while Catherine’s feelings slide from being happy to being tired, disappointed, uncomfortable and awkward.
Comparing social conditions in Austen’s day with those of our own is not often a very fruitful approach to her novels. Nevertheless, without raising the issues of the class system or the etiquette of introductions, I should like briefly to contrast the position of twenty-first-century or even twentieth-century young people with those in Austen’s novels. Her heroines have no circle of school friends, or brothers’ school friends, no acquaintances met on holiday or colleagues met on casual jobs, no means of transport for getting more than a very few miles from their country villages, no means of communication except pen and ink—and generally somebody to carry a letter after it has been written. Laura in Love and Freindship hardly exaggerates the typical situation of her contemporaries real or fictional when she writes: “Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted only of your Mother.” Catherine Morland seems to have no friend or confidante until she gets to Bath and falls into the clutches of Isabella Thorpe. No wonder that meeting an ordinary young man sets her dreaming!
For the sister-heroines of Sense and Sensibility, one would suppose there would have to be two first-sight moments, at least. But in fact readers are denied a first-sight moment between Elinor and Edward. Edward is presented more or less through the mind of Elinor’s mother, with a soberness unusual for her. She reports that there is “growing attachment” between Elinor and a young man who (like Henry Tilney) is “gentlemanlike and pleasing” (17) but who unlike him is straight-out “not handsome,” without “any peculiar graces of person or address,” and unlikely ever to make himself “distinguished” (18). He already loves Elinor; she “return[s] the partiality” (17). Though with hindsight there might be something ominous in the fact that he “gave every indication of an open affectionate heart” (18, my italics), for the moment we register merely ordinariness as text, with no subtext of matter to dream about. And we register it before Edward is subjected to Marianne’s outcry against his lack of spirit, fire, grace, taste, etc., before she confides her fear that she herself will never find a man she can really love.
Colonel Brandon is introduced virtually under false pretenses, as the friend of Sir John Middleton: of the generation of the girls’ mother, not themselves, though only Marianne and Margaret see him as “an absolute old bachelor” because he is past thirty-five. “He was silent and grave” (40), but many of his marks of ordinariness are shared with Henry Tilney and Edward Ferrars: his appearance “not unpleasing” (40), his face “not handsome” but “sensible, and his address . . . particularly gentlemanlike” (41). The chapter ends with Marianne’s music being greeted with transparently insincere raptures by the Middletons but with “the compliment of attention” from Brandon (41). This point in his favor is at once driven home with almost too pointed irony by the immediate fixation of Mrs. Jennings on the idea of making a match between Brandon and Marianne.
Willoughby’s entrance is of course entirely different. It is a version, in fact, of a juvenilia-style cliché: the hero’s rescue of the heroine, which some of Austen’s contemporaries seem to rank as virtually indispensable to a love-story. Willoughby turns out to be no hero but a Wrong Man: the potential bad choice with which every Austen novel after Sense and Sensibility distracts its heroine. This wrong man comes closest of all to being chosen, and the structure of Sense and Sensibility seems to demand a look at his first appearance. Both the reader and Marianne meet him as an anonymous gentleman with attributes of outdoor masculinity, “carrying a gun, with two pointers playing round him,” arriving in the nick of time (50). There is no need here for introductions from a master of ceremonies, from relations or hosts or hostesses. Willoughby is first experienced through his actions: picking up the injured Marianne, carrying her home. He does not look ordinary or act ordinary. He compels admiration not just from the relevant heroine but from Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor, too, by his “manner so frank and so graceful, . . . his person . . . uncommonly handsome,” and the charms of “his voice and expression” (50, my italics). His “youth, beauty, and elegance” (50) or “manly beauty and more than common gracefulness” (51) are insistently mentioned. Why, a reader may wonder, are Austen fans so fixated on Darcy? Willoughby outgoes Darcy or any other as a hero to dream of, and poor Marianne goes through a great deal before she is ready to relinquish her dream for a sensible, gentlemanlike, not handsome reality.
The first sight of Darcy seems to compress Marianne’s first sight with the reader’s gradual experience of Willoughby: dazzlement barely preceding disillusion. He and Bingley are introduced as potential heroes, into a society fully aware of its desperate need. Bingley has all the attributes, if not of the default hero of fiction, at least of the heroes in Austen’s mature fiction so far. He is “gentlemanlike,” even “good looking,” with “a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners” (10). Darcy outshines him, looking less like a dyed-in-the-wool ordinary Austen hero than like Willoughby or the hero of Love and Freindship, with “his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien,” and the report of his wealth. But before this first scene is over “his manners gave a disgust,” and he attracts dislike for being proud and “above his company” (10). If Elizabeth gets him wrong, she does so in just the same way as does Longbourn society in general. The dominance of Darcy in the public mind among Austen heroes seems to me to signify our difficulty in accepting Austen’s habitual message that the ordinary person is good enough for love and for “development of self.”
In her later novels Austen often almost sidesteps that seemingly indispensable first-sight moment. In Mansfield Park Fanny is ten (and little for her age), and Edmund is sixteen when they meet as foster-brother and -sister. Most of his attributes are described in common with those of his brother and his actual sisters. Both he and Tom are “tall of their age” and have “all the grandeur of men” in Fanny’s eyes (13-14). They are “very well-looking,” well-educated, “forward” in their “address” in a way that is foreign to her. Fanny is “as unhappy as possible” (14). Her feelings, which “were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to” (15) do not ostensibly include any adult-style reaction to a good-looking man with a good address. In re-reading for this paper I found myself more moved than ever before by the scene in which Edmund discovers Fanny crying on the stairs, and “with all the gentleness of an excellent nature” (16), sets out to identify the problem and to offer not just sympathy but practical help. He takes her on a walk in the park; he helps her to write to her brother William; he gives her excellent advice. He assuages her dire need: not social need like that of Catherine or Elizabeth, but nakedly emotional need. She worships him at once, not for his looks but for his character, while he finds her interesting. The whole matter of a heroine being loved for nothing else but for loving, while it is described in Catherine and Henry, is first made real and living and inescapable for us in Fanny and Edmund. Or at least, its first stage is made real, and it is first stages only that concern us here.
Mr. Knightley cannot have a first-sight moment with Emma because he is already part of the scenery. To the reader he appears (in Chapter One, which is one or two chapters ahead of most heroes) as “a very old and intimate friend of the family,” as Emma’s brother-in-law, as thirty-seven or thirty-eight (older than Brandon!), with a “cheerful manner” (8) and the extraordinary habit of seeing imperfections in Emma. We only hear very much later of his handsome face and figure (and of his looking much younger than many of the Highbury crowd). The unobtrusiveness of his first entrance stands at the opposite extreme from that of Frank Churchill, who is repeatedly heralded before he appears, amid the echoes of a last-minute final fanfare from his father, and who impresses Emma as “a very good looking young man” (204, italics in the text) with unexceptionable address, plus spirit, liveliness, “a well-bred ease of manner, and a readiness to talk” (205). The ordinariness conferred explicitly on other heroes by the narrator, one might say, is achieved by Mr Knightley only through his not making a grand entrance and through the contrast in warmth of the language used about him and that used about Frank Churchill.
In Persuasion too a first-sight scene is strictly speaking impossible. Frederick Wentworth (first mentioned in Chapter Four) is mentioned in the past tense. A reader asked about the first meeting of this heroine and hero might well respond with reference to the well-remembered scene at Mary Musgrove’s, at which
a thousand feelings rushed on Anne, of which this was the most consoling, that it would soon be over. And it was soon over. . . . [T]he room seemed full—full of persons and voices—but a few minutes ended it. . . . [T]heir visitor had bowed and was gone; . . . and Anne might finish her breakfast as she could.
“It is over! it is over!” she repeated to herself again, and again, in nervous gratitude. “The worst is over!”
Mary talked, but she could not attend. She had seen him. They had met. They had been once more in the same room!” (64)
That emotional encounter, a first-sight-after-nine-years, replaces an actual first sight, but it leaves the reader free to assume or imagine that the first meeting, too, was more emotional than those in most of the other novels.
Putting this inference together with Mansfield Park and Emma, one might suspect that Austen has lost interest in emphasizing ordinariness as a first-seen characteristic. But I believe this conclusion would be wrong. Austen as narrator tells us that Frederick, back in the past when Anne was young and pretty, was “a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy” (28). Yet Austen deliberately suggests here that ordinariness might have done just as well. “Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly any body to love” (28). That is to say that the situation of those two gifted young people was not unlike that of Catherine and Henry, or Elinor and Edward. And after their courtship was broken off, it was “the small limits of the society around them” rather than uniqueness in Frederick that ruled out the possibility of a second love to “the nice tone of [Anne’s] mind, the fastidiousness of her taste” (30-31).
Anne Elliot, just as much as the younger, poorer Catherine Morland, needs a rescuer from her painfully restricted life—from, almost, her prison or cage. The rescuer of each has admirable, distinctive, and idiosyncratic qualities: Henry with his creator’s own sense of play and vivid awareness of literary cliché, Frederick with his decisive energies and an ironical spirit tightly controlled (as in his unspoken memories of poor Richard Musgrove). But the effect of setting these first-sight moments side by side for scrutiny is to suggest that the hero’s personality is less important than his role. Austen’s novels are the very contrary of those whose protagonists invite celebrity-worship. All of her heroines have (as part of their ordinariness) a capacity for dreaming which can make an ordinary young man into a hero. And this capacity is reciprocated. Gentlemanlike but usually not really handsome, a hero opens the door for the heroine into that “development of self” that is the subject of Juliet McMaster’s paper.
1. The word gentlemanlike is almost more charged than we can imagine. The sky nearly falls when Elizabeth reproaches Darcy for having proposed in an ungentlemanlike manner (PP 215), and conversely Emma ceases to breathe when Mrs. Elton takes it upon herself to call Mr Knightley “‘quite the gentleman, . . . a very gentleman-like man.’” In the same conversation, Mrs. Elton has already bestowed on the former governess Miss Taylor the accolade of being “‘so very lady-like, . . . really quite the gentlewoman’” (E 300). But what is gross impertinence in Mrs. Elton is fair game to a novelist sketching her heroes.
Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Gen ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: CUP, 2005-08.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Ed. Morag Shiach. 1998. Oxford: OUP, 2000.