As we collectively celebrate Austen’s arrival at Chawton, the New Place that was to become the scene of her creative triumphs, Isobel Grundy and I turn from Austen herself to her heroines. Isobel has addressed the heroine’s first registering of the New Face of the man she falls in love with; and I want to explore the New Understanding that she achieves, along with that man, in analyzing their relationship, and the errors, vicissitudes, and desires that have brought them together.
“To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavor” (E 449). So Emma seriously reflects when she has astonished herself by that sudden and unexpected “developement of self,” the instantaneous discovery that Mr. Knightley must “marry no one but herself!” (445, 444). Understanding one’s own heart is not a simple undertaking for a heroine; understanding the heart of the man she loves is tougher still. But this strenuous effort of the brain to comprehend the workings of the heart, and the technique by which Austen dramatizes it, are the subject of my part of this dual presentation.
Austen, we know, writes “intelligent love stories.” She submits sensibility to sense, she brings the mind to analyze the passions. The best locus to study this process is what I call the “debriefing scene.”
The verb “to brief” is a term from law, from the summary of a case presented to a lawyer before the fact. To debrief, to “obtain information . . . on the completion of a mission or after a journey” (OED), was originally a military term from the second World War, but has spread to psychology and other disciplines. As we know, a debriefing is an interview after the fact, for exchange of information, learning from errors, deciding on future conduct. In fact it’s about “understanding, thoroughly understanding,” as Austen’s courting characters are required to do. Characteristically, Austen ends her novels not with the declaration and acceptance—the mission itself—but with a scene of recapitulation and acknowledgement, following the mission accomplished. Here the heroine and hero, newly freed from suspense and imperfect understanding, can reveal themselves to each other, and achieve the kind of “developement of self” that is so valuable to both. The scene carries an important burden of meaning, not only in demonstrating the principals’ hard-won achievement of knowledge of themselves and each other, but also much of the larger moral thrust of the novel too.
To a large extent, we already know about the heroine’s consciousness—though Emma’s rather remarkable ignorance of her own heart makes her an exception. But as Emma Clery has recently pointed out, “It is a radical aspect of Austen’s art that with few exceptions she denies direct access to the unspoken thoughts and views of her heroes” (335). The debriefing scenes, strategically placed at the dénouement of the novels, afford the access to the hero’s consciousness that has been much needed, not only by the heroine, but by us as readers too.
We know that no one can beat Jane Austen at a happy ending, at conveying the achieved mutual understanding that proves the perfect and satisfactory meeting of minds and hearts. Some of her novels are more successful in this than others, and she had to work hard at finding just the right way to do it, for each disparate couple. The happy ending bears within itself the great threat of toppling over into banality or sentiment or saccharine. Initially, I suggest, Austen was so determined not to descend into “a bathos of sentiment,” as Jane Eyre calls it (chapter 24), that she was perhaps overly cautious, backing off at moments from celebrating union with some sardonic or cynical comment, or by-passing dramatization altogether. As we all know, she has defeated many a romantic expectation on the way. Anthony Trollope, who could never get enough of proposal scenes, complained—in a note in his copy of Emma
In the final scene between Emma and her lover,—when the conversation has become almost pathetic—she breaks away from the spoken dialogue, and simply tells us of her hero’s success. This is a cowardice which robs the reader of much of the charm which he has promised himself. August 17, 1864.1
Trollope is regretting what isn’t there. But here I want to enjoy what is there, by looking closely at Austen’s recurring declaration and debriefing scenes, where heroine and hero take their huge new step in analyzing their relation, and how they got there.
Northanger Abbey provides a rather brief and embryonic version of the declaration and debriefing scenes. But Austen already has a grasp of how to provide the kind of satisfaction her reader expects and her heroine deserves. There must be some mystery, some painful uncertainty that can be alleviated by an éclaircissement. There must be a transition at a bound from misery to happiness—and readers often measure the success of a happy ending according as this transition is one small step or a giant leap. The romantically inclined reader will hope for huge obstacles, to be overleapt by huge passion; and the same reader, as the narrator very well knows, will be disappointed to learn that the passion is not so huge as all that. Here in Northanger Abbey it is the narrator’s business to defeat romantic expectations, while still maintaining steady sympathy for her principals.
However, we are provided with plenty to be pleased with. Catherine, after the humiliating expulsion from the Abbey, suffers sorely from the consideration that she has lost Henry for good. Her mother can’t think what’s the matter with her usually cheerful daughter: “in her silence and sadness she was the very reverse of all that she had been before” (NA 249). Enter Henry Tilney, to precipitate the swift change from misery to happiness. But for the rest of the novel, there is no direct speech, only narrative summary. After he has explained his father’s conduct and apologized for it, Tilney’s
first purpose was to explain himself [good!], 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. She was assured of his affection [there’s the declaration]; and that heart in return was solicited [there’s the proposal—don’t miss it!], which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own. (252)
Then we get the bit about the foundation of his love being only gratitude for her visible love for him—“dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity” (253) it certainly is! Austen would not be this cavalier about her heroine’s dignity again. But the burlesque habit of the juvenilia still pertains in Northanger Abbey, and there are few concessions to the sentimental.
The declaration and proposal thus summarily disposed of, a “very short visit to Mrs. Allen” (253) is all that divides them from the debriefing scene, which reveals only the General’s misinformation, not the protagonists’ hearts. “The anxiety” about the General’s consent “can hardly extend . . . to the bosom of my readers,” confesses the narrator; and “the tell-tale compression of the pages” hurries us all too precipitately to “perfect felicity” (259), with few of the sentimental particulars we come to expect in later novels.
Sense and Sensibility
In the declaration and debriefing scenes of Sense and Sensibility Austen takes a large stride forwards in satisfying romantic expectations. There’s a much steeper change from pain to joy. Elinor moves from believing the man she loves is actually married to the Other Woman to an assurance of Edward’s legitimate freedom and love, and she is “overcome with her own felicity” (SS 412). Likewise Edward is “brought . . . from misery to happiness” (410), and the joy is compounded by being shared with the family, whose initial agonized enquiries about the new “Mrs. Ferrars” can be abandoned in their communal joy.
These states of mind are figured forth with much more effective drama than there was time for in Northanger Abbey. The acute awkwardness attending Edward’s arrival—married, as they all believe he is, to Lucy Steele—issues in Austen’s wonderful understatement: “When Elinor had ceased to rejoice in the dryness of the season, a very awful pause took place” (407). Edward’s agony of embarrassment, while he enlightens them with the news that Lucy is actually married to his brother rather than to him, is fully conveyed in that irrational physical motion that we all remember:
He . . . took up a pair of scissars that lay there, . . . spoiling both them and their sheath by cutting the latter to pieces as he spoke. (407)
It’s a scene to satisfy high expectations.
The drama of the occasion is largely used up in that revelation scene, which ends with Elinor running out of the room and bursting into audible tears of joy, and Edward lapsing into silent reverie and becoming deaf to all Mrs. Dashwood’s enquiries. We are told only that he goes for a walk; and of his following declaration and proposal we hear only “in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told” (409). (“Who says it needn’t be?” Trollope might ask.) The big scenes thus summarily disposed of, a kind of debriefing scene follows, but it scarcely deserves the name, for it’s hardly dramatized. “His heart was now open to Elinor, all its weaknesses, all its errors confessed,” we hear—and would like to hear more. But the narrator turns with relief, it seems, from romantic particulars to irony: “[H]is first boyish attachment to Lucy [was] treated with all the philosophic dignity of twenty-four” (410). We hear about the entanglement with Lucy, and his need for an “active profession,” but not of his growing love for Elinor. Why, otherwise engaged as he was, did he spend so much time with Elinor at Norland? “He could only plead an ignorance of his own heart” (417), we hear, promisingly. But he says nothing of the process by which he learned to “understand, thoroughly understand” (E 449) that heart. Nor does Elinor need to speak much about the process of coming to understand her own heart. It seems that she, like Catherine, has not been very difficult to read. “[I]n spite of [Edward’s] modesty, . . . he did not, upon the whole, expect a very cruel reception. It was his business, however, to say that he did, and he said it very prettily” (415). This is as much as we are to hear of his agonies of doubt and suspense. Again, somewhat “derogatory of an heroine’s dignity”!
The drama of the declaration, proposal, and debriefing scenes in Sense and Sensibility, such as it is, belongs all to Elinor and Edward. Marianne too is to go through a revolution of feeling in falling out of love with Willoughby and into love with Brandon, but we have no developed scenes here. Apparently her “conviction of [Brandon’s] fond attachment to herself” (429) is a major reason for Marianne’s change of heart. So we can even the score by considering that this love too is born of gratitude—and this time it’s the hero’s dignity that suffers.
But Austen was preparing for better dénouements in what was to come. Like Anne, she “learned romance as she grew older” (P 32).
Pride and Prejudice
In Pride and Prejudice we have another large stride forwards in the management of the declaration, proposal, and debriefing scenes. In fact I suggest that this fact—along with the wonderful vitality of the heroine and the piquant hostility of the principals for much of the novel—largely accounts for this novel’s transcendent popularity as book and on stage and on screen. Here Austen achieves her best romantic dramatization of the coming together of her heroine and hero, and the finest matching of scene to character, theme, and the full realization of mutual understanding.
For one thing, the physical and temporal locating of the scene is specific and effective. The fresh matching of Jane and Bingley allows Elizabeth and Darcy to hold their long ambulatory tête-à-tête under the radar, unsuspected and unheeded by anyone else as they wander happily “without knowing in what direction” (PP 407). Then we have none of the disappointing de-pressurizing of the love, as with Catherine and Elinor, by the narrator’s admitting the suitor is pretty sure of a favorable reception. Darcy, having been once so roundly refused, is on real tenterhooks. And Elizabeth’s initial prejudice means that her need for understanding him is the more acute, the evolution from dislike to love more revolutionary.
“‘We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us,’” Anne Elliot famously characterizes the woman’s lot (P 253). One way Austen has of dramatizing that intense but passive waiting is to show her heroines firmly incarcerated in the home, but waiting and watching for him to come riding back into her life.
[T]he figure of a man on horseback drew her eyes to the window. . . . It was a gentleman, it was Colonel Brandon himself. . . . . But—it was not Colonel Brandon. . . . Were it possible, she should say it must be Edward. She looked again. . . . [I]t was Edward. (SS 405-06)
So Elinor. And so also Elizabeth:
Mr. Bingley arrived. . . . [O]n the third morning . . . , [Mrs. Bennet] saw him from her dressing-room window . . . ride towards the house. . . . Jane resolutely kept her place at the table; but Elizabeth, to satisfy her mother, went to the window—she looked,—she saw Mr. Darcy with him, and sat down again by her sister. (PP 369)
These little vignettes of “longing passion unfulfilled” are recurring reminders of Anne Elliot’s characterizing of the woman as the “fixed foot” of Donne’s “twin compasses,” doomed to wait passively for the man’s approach. So it is invigorating to find that Elizabeth is actually the one to take the first initiative in the crucial declaration scene. As Kitty peels off from the walkers, leaving Elizabeth alone with Darcy, “she went boldly on with him alone” (405)—and “boldly” too she opens an intimate conversation with him by thanking him for his rescue of Lydia. She is perfectly aware that she is prompting him to propose. “‘I wonder when you would have spoken, if I had not asked you!’” she says playfully afterwards (422).
Thus prompted, Darcy proceeds to his own declaration. Not “‘In vain have I struggled’” (211)—that line is used up—but still we get his words verbatim, and with no such ironic dismissal as with Edward that “he was not altogether inexperienced in such a question” (SS 409). Elizabeth’s encouraging response, indicating “that her sentiments had undergone so material a change” since his last proposal (PP 406), is not in direct speech, but the indirect speech is sufficiently specific that Andrew Davies, in writing the dialogue for the famous 1995 television version, hadn’t much to invent; and the text is specific about “the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face” (407).
The declaration and implied proposal parts of the scene satisfactorily accomplished, we blend into the Debriefing scene with the “much to be thought, and felt, and said.” Now we are to hear the history leading up to “their present good understanding,” that Lady Catherine’s angry report on her interview with Elizabeth had an unintended effect: says Darcy, “‘It taught me to hope’” (407).
Despite the seriousness of the occasion, Elizabeth can already bounce back to playfulness: “‘[Y]ou know enough of my frankness. . . . After abusing you so abominably to your face, I could have no scruple in abusing you to all your relations.’” But Darcy, who has always held steadily to what he means, takes this statement as a cue to acknowledge his faults—“‘What did you say to me, that I did not deserve?’” (407)—and at the same time to give her credit for having changed him for the better. Quoting her word for word from that painful first proposal scene, he demonstrates how she has been instrumental in causing his own “developement of self.” Henry Tilney and Edward merely disposed of circumstantial obstacles. But here the debriefing scene demonstrates the impress of one character upon another, the interpenetrating changes that each has wrought upon the other, which make them now so fully dovetailed and at accord.
Their conversation widens to comprehend and account for past actions and feelings, and then to the matter previously in hot dispute between them, the union of Bingley and Jane. Darcy admits he is not surprised, and in fact has given Bingley his blessing. “‘That is to say, you had given your permission,’” Elizabeth responds archly. She certainly avoids the “bathos of sentiment,” and she can stand back from her very deep and genuine love to judge him and be playful. But she thoughtfully reminds herself to rein in some of her irony and penetrating wit, for “he had yet to learn to be laught at” (411-12).
There follow some tense scenes as Darcy consults Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth breaks the news to Jane and then her mother, the latter fully dramatized and engaging. But the chapter on phase two of the debriefing begins promisingly, “Elizabeth’s spirits soon rising to playfulness again, she wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her” (421). She makes it her explicit business to “understand, thoroughly understand” his heart, as well as her own. Elizabeth-like, she proceeds by playful sallies, and he, Darcy-like, responds briefly, seriously, and truthfully.
“Now be sincere: did you admire me for my impertinence?”
“For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”
“You may as well call it impertinence at once.” (421)
So they proceed, very much in character, in a dialogue consistently light, bright, and sparkling, and in a manner that clearly gives a preview of the “lively, sportive, manner” (430) that will characterize the future exchanges of Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Having leapt so far in providing final scenes between the principals that so fully advance their understandings of each other, and our understanding of them, why would Austen go niggardly, and deny us in Mansfield Park? It has always been my theory that Edmund, while he courts Mary Crawford, is simultaneously in love with Fanny, and that his rather cruel confiding in her is all part of a process whereby he finally recognizes that he prefers “soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones” (MP 544). I would like to have a scene in which he confides as much; but alas, Jane Austen did not consult me on the matter.
True it is, though, that instead of a fully dramatized scene in which Edmund makes his discovery, declaration, and full explanation of his love for Fanny, the last dramatized scene in Mansfield Park is that scene-within-a-scene, when Edmund narrates to Fanny his last interview with Mary, and discovers that Mary is “‘Spoilt, spoilt!’”—contaminated by her contact with the world (526). Both the scenes are carefully located in time and place. Edmund’s scene with Mary occupied “‘[f]ive and twenty minutes’” at Lady Stornaway’s house on Wimpole Street. His scene with Fanny, in which he describes the interview, happens at Mansfield Park, on “a wet Sunday evening—the very time of all others when if a friend is at hand the heart must be opened” (528, 524). Fanny is at hand, and Edmund does open his heart—about Mary.
He unburdens himself of the scene, and of Mary, simultaneously. Fanny does her part in listening and in revealing that Mary probably sent for him only because she had heard Tom Bertram wasn’t likely to live. And that’s the last dramatized scene we get in the novel: we are to assume that with Mary out of the way, the rest follows as a matter of course. (Not that that satisfies me—I’m too like Trollope!)
The removal of impediments to love is an important part of a love story, and in general the greater the impediment—as with the Montague/Capulet feud—the more poignant the resolution. There wasn’t much of an impediment to the union of Catherine and Henry, other than the General, and lovers have long practice in opposing parents. For Elinor and Fanny, the Other Woman is a much more serious impediment. Neither Elizabeth nor Darcy is seriously committed to Another, but they have to overcome their own prejudice and pride, so the impediment is within, and hence the more interesting.
The impediments when Emma and Mr. Knightley come together are only in their minds, but they are none the less onerous for that: Emma thinks Mr. Knightley is in love with Harriet, and he thinks she is in love with Frank Churchill. By now they have both made large strides in understanding their own hearts; but in that scene in the shrubbery, after the night of doubt and sorrow, each has to find ways to understand the other. Because both the Other Woman and the Other Man are actually parts of separate couples, the resolution of the Emma/Knightley coupling has to happen in the light of the Jane/Frank and Harriet/Robert couplings. Austen has a lot of business on her hands. And all these resolutions are accomplished in dramatic scenes. Such is the measure of Austen’s advancement in complex plotting and full dramatic presentation.
Here they are, in the shrubbery, after the subdued greeting. Each is “trying for a fuller view of [the other’s] face” (463)—in his case literally, in hers figuratively; each entirely wrong about what is bothering the other. The subject of the Frank/Jane engagement is broached, and Emma laments, “‘I seem to have been doomed to blindness,’” thus exciting his “particular interest” and compassion (464). “‘Abominable scoundrel!’” he fulminates. Now Emma has her cue for disabusing him. She can’t treat his assumption lightly, since she realizes her flirtatious manner with Frank had given reason for it; her behavior was the worse, she admits, “‘in one who sets up as I do for Understanding’” (465). Her new Understanding has to be of a much higher order.
With Frank Churchill as rival disposed of, Mr. Knightley’s way is clear to his own declaration. But now comes the other impediment—Emma’s conviction that he is in love with Harriet. Unable to bear his confessing his love for the other woman, she stops him on the very threshold of his declaration to herself. It’s an agonizing moment for the reader. Can she really have shut him up, just when he was about to say what she most wanted to hear? Here again Austen pulls off a triumph, in embedding major action and dramatizing change in a brief exchange of words. Emma, the selfish Emma, is ready to undergo the pain that Fanny has endured in being the confidante of the man she loves in his love for another woman. Here the “developement of self” is not just a phrase but a dramatized metamorphosis. Having stopped him, and heard his tone of discouragement, she relents. “Emma could not bear to give him pain . . .—cost her what it would, she would listen” (468). She is even ready to “give just praise to Harriet” (468), a piece of heroism in the circumstances that does indeed prove that her “resolution of her own better conduct” (461) really amounts to something. As with many another happy ending, because she is ready to make the sacrifice, the sacrifice isn’t called for after all. Once given his opening, Mr Knightley speaks “in a tone of . . . sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness” (469). A lovely phrase, that, “intelligible tenderness”—putting in a nutshell the combination of knowing and feeling, intellect and passion, head and heart.
The declaration scene ends with Emma saying “[j]ust what she ought, of course” (470), and (to Trollope’s disapproval) we get no further dialogue in this chapter. But—unlike the tell-tale compression of pages following other declarations—in Emma there are still five chapters and fifty pages to go, for the full resolution of the Emma/Knightley match is necessarily bound up with the resolution of the other two matches. The next dramatized scene between the two principals takes the form of Mr. Knightley’s running commentary on Frank’s long letter about his engagement to Jane Fairfax. By speaking his opinion as he reads, he says, “‘I shall feel that I am near you’” (485). In some sense, with their own mission accomplished, they feel like a couple already, warmly bonded, as they are mutually examining and responding to “some third thing.”2 Now emerge the firstfruits of their achieved wisdom, as Emma remembers his dictum that Frank “‘might have come [to Highbury] sooner if he would’” (485), and Knightley concludes, “‘My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?’” (486). Emma’s conscious blush, as she keeps the Harriet secret, is a saving irony that holds off sententiousness. Not all mysteries can be totally dispersed, even in a debriefing scene.
Two further scenes between Emma and Knightley further advance their understanding of themselves and each other: the discussion of whether his habit of advising and reproaching her did her good or harm, with the back-wash effect it had on him; and the happy resolution of the Harriet story, which had been another issue between them, as well as a real threat to Emma’s happiness. The combined humbling and delight of this erring heroine is rendered, after the new access of happiness and understanding, in the “sort of serious smile” with which she acknowledges that she is more happy than she deserves to be (507).
“The revolution which one instant had made in Anne, was almost beyond expression.” Stricken with disappointment that Wentworth leaves her at the White Hart without a word, Anne’s spirits rise to instant hope when he returns to place his letter before her “with eyes of glowing entreaty” (P 257). Austen, we know, worked hard at this scene, and rewrote the whole thing to achieve her best effect.
Wentworth’s declaration is in his letter, not a separate speaking scene, but we know how his writing is interlocked with her words to Harville about constancy. Her acceptance is wordless: when he joins her and her brother-in-law after delivering his letter, he “said nothing—only looked. Anne could command herself enough to receive that look, and not repulsively” (260). Talk about understatement!
Declaration and acceptance accomplished, the declared lovers proceed to the gravel walk, for the “blessing” of “conversation” (261). Austen helpfully supplies me with what amounts to a definition of the debriefing scene:
There . . . they could indulge in those retrospections and acknowledgements, and especially in those explanations of what had directly preceded the present moment, which were so poignant and so ceaseless in interest. (261-62)
They emerge “more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment” (261). That is exactly what such scenes are meant to accomplish. However, though we hear this pointed summary, and learn about Wentworth’s alienation and resentment, and how those were dispersed, we don’t have it in his words. We get to direct speech only when he explains about the Other Woman, and admits his jealousy of the Other Man.
Some novelists, and some characters, would be satisfied with a cheerful “All’s well that ends well.” Not Austen, not Anne. We have yet to resolve the issue of “persuasion.” In a stolen moment at the Elliot rooms, among a display of greenhouse plants (Bath’s best approach to a shrubbery!), Anne does make her point: “‘I must believe I was right, much as I suffered from it, . . . in being guided . . .’” (267). He, in learning that had he smothered his resentment and asked again, they could have been happy eight years sooner, recognizes that like Emma and Frank Churchill, “‘I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve’” (269). The rights and wrongs, the deserts and serendipitous rewards, must be acknowledged and accounted for to achieve the necessary new understandings of themselves and each other.
1. Trollope’s copy of Emma is in the Taylor Collection in Princeton Library.
2. This compact phrase is from Iris Murdoch’s novel The Unicorn, and it captures the intimate nature of the pedagogic relation.
Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Gen ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: CUP, 2005-08.
Clery, E. J. Austen and Masculinity.” A Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 332-42.