Persuasions #3, 1981 Pages 14-15, 24-28
After dinner speech at San Francisco
JANE AUSTEN AND THE TRADITIONS OF COMIC AGGRESSION: Sense and Sensibility *
by Ian Watt
I’m very sorry that I have not been able to work out a topic that is suitable for this happy occasion. Instead, I have had to fall back onto a theme from a work in progress.
I’ve long been intending to develop some things that were omitted from The Rise of the Novel to make it shorter and clearer in structure. It is to be called Gothic and Comic: Two Variations on the Realistic Tradition. As regards the comic tradition, one of the central arguments is that when Jane Austen began to write there was no established narrative tradition that would serve her turn. More specifically, earlier writers of English comic novels, such as Fielding, Smollett, and Fanny Burney, had in different ways adopted the polar opposition between good and bad characters which is typical of stage comedy from the Greeks on. Through the finer and more detailed psychological calibration of her narrative, Jane Austen made the hero and heroine psychologically complex, and therefore capable of internal and external development. By this means the traditional conflict of “good” and “bad” characters in comedy was internalised as a conflict within and between the “good” characters; and this enabled Jane Austen to discover the answer to Horatio Bottomley’s prayer – “I pray that the bad be made good, and the good nice, and the nice, interesting.”
The prayer is very rarely answered – alas! – either in life or in art; but one can surely say about Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse that they are not only good and nice, but interesting. They are made interesting because they are idiosyncratic mixtures of character traits, mixtures by no means limited to the good and unexceptionable qualities. For the purposes of comedy there remained a further task – the protagonists had to take over many of the aggressive functions which stage comedy has traditionally allotted to other actors – to the witty helpers, blocking characters, and villains. It is this, I think, that constitutes Jane Austen’s greatest originality as an artist; and I would add that this literary originality is based on her psychological and moral realism, which gave the aggressive impulses a role which went far beyond the thought of her time, and, in some ways, of ours.
I will first illustrate the general idea by looking at Emma and Pride and Prejudice; and then I will consider Sense and Sensibility as an early stage in Jane Austen’s development of the treatment of aggression.
Jane Austen’s novels contain three main types of comic aggression, and all of them involve the “good” characters as well as the others. The first category – which I will call the social – is concerned with how people have different ways of hitting back at the restraints which social life exacts.
Most of the social gatherings described by Jane Austen provide illustrations. In the first social occasion in Emma, for instance, the party at the Westons’ is dominated by the dialectic of constraint and hostility, and it thus serves as symbolic prelude to the novel’s climactic scene on Box Hill. On the one hand, there are the positive, outgoing feelings, however strained, which are directed towards congeniality and sociability, and are expressed through compliments, jesting, and amiability; on the other hand, there are the contrary negative impulses of resentment at whatever threatens or inhibits the individual’s status, habits, or convictions.
Every topic of conversation, we notice, evokes some note of hostility. For instance, Isabella Knightley’s maternal zeal leads her to an odiously gratuitous pretence of benevolence in connections with Mrs. Churchill: “What a blessing that she never had any children! Poor little creatures, how unhappy she would have made them!” Then Mr. John Knightley comes in to give an alarmist account of the snow, “Concluding with these words to Mr. Woodhouse: ‘This will prove a spirited beginning of your winter engagements, sir. Something new for your coachman and horses to be making their way through a storm of snow.’ ”
Others try to comfort poor Mr. Woodhouse, but his tormentor is “pursuing his triumph rather unfeelingly,” and continues sardonically: “I admired your resolution very much, sir … in venturing out in such weather, for of course you saw there would be snow very soon. Every body must have seen the snow coming on. I admired your spirit; and I dare say we shall get home very well. Another hour or two’s snow can hardly make the road impassable; and we are two carriages; if one is blown over in the bleak part of the common field there will be the other at hand ….”
John Knightley’s gleeful malice towards poor Mr. Woodhouse’s timidity is authorised by his ideology; he is unkind only in the pursuit of a higher truth. The truth is the pointless folly of social life in general, and it has as its primary axiom that dinner-parties are “in defiance of the law of nature” – an axiom which strikes a death blow at two of the cardinal values of comedy – laughter and feasting.
Here, as in most of the social gatherings in Emma, harmony only prevails when the group is happily engaged in the malicious criticism of third parties. The most intransigent and socially-destructive manifestation of aggression occurs when some challenge arises to the imperative need of the individual ego to maintain its own image of itself in the face of the outside world. This need produces the cruellest deliberate act in Emma, when Mr. Elton refuses to dance with Harriet Smith at the ball in the Crown; his pride has been offended, and seeks revenge. In Jane Austen, however, unconscious cruelty is much commoner, and most often arises from a mere refusal or inability to understand other people. Mr. Woodhouse, for instance, is genuinely kind in his way; but, lacking the controls of intelligence or awareness, his phobias often lead him into the milder forms of cruelty, invective and lying. Thus his tyrannical valetudinarianism leads him to disappoint Mrs. Bates’ eager anticipation of a “delicate fricassée of sweetbread and asparagus,” on the grounds that the latter were not “quite boiled enough”; the same phobia emerges in a more rancorous verbal form when the arrival of gruel in his family circle becomes the occasion for “pretty severe Philippics upon the many houses where it was never met with tolerable.”
It would certainly be wrong, I must observe, to infer that Jane Austen condemns all social forms of aggression. For one thing, it is manifested by every character in Emma about whom we can make a judgment, except for two, and they are the exceptions which prove the rule: I mean Mrs. Bates and Harriet Smith – good people no doubt, but intellectually null, with one of them – Harriet – not yet arrived at maturity, and the other – Mrs. Bates – long past it.
I come now to the other two kinds of comic aggression – the interpersonal and the internal – as they are manifested in Pride and Prejudice. The personal relations between Elizabeth and Darcy are dominated by the aggressive elements in their characters; these alone replace the roles of the villains, the blocking characters, and the mistaken identities in traditional comedy. This replacement depends on two narrative techniques: first, the aggressive impulses at play in the comic arena are psychologised in the “courtship” of the protagonists; and they are also psychologised as conflicts inside the egos of both the lovers.
These conflicts in the personalities of Elizabeth and Darcy provide the mechanism of the main plot. At first the aggressive aspects of their characters block their separation even before they are actually acquaintances. Darcy’s pride leads him to reject Bingley’s suggestion that he dance with her – “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” Elizabeth overhears him, and her offended pride, exacerbated by Meryton gossip and Wickham’s lies, insulates her from Darcy’s rapidly changing feelings. The whole of their relationship is thus presented as an adaptation and recombination of one of the most standard modes of comic aggression, invective, to the purposes of psychological and moral realism. Elizabeth and Darcy begin by insulting the other to third parties; later their acquaintance develops almost exclusively through bouts of contemptuous raillery which are as close to the verbal combats of Greek comedy as the manners of Regency England allowed.
The reason for the tradition of invective in comedy is presumably that it offers a symbolic release from the constraints on which civilisation depends; as Freud put it, “The man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilisation.” But in the kind of novel which Jane Austen wrote the invective and the wit-combats cannot be treated as they usually are in stage comedy, in Aristophanes, for example; they cannot merely stop, and be succeeded by a quick change to feasting, song, dance, and marriage. For in Pride and Prejudice the substance of the debate between the two lovers is very real – it expresses the deepest divisions in the way the protagonists see the world and experience the circumstances of their place in it. Jane Austen’s moral solution to these divisions is exactly what the solution, if any, would be in real life: the pains of self-education – the realisation of the errors, the delusions, and the prejudices of the self. In narrative terms Jane Austen brings the pattern of invective to a climax by a dual psychological transformation: interpersonal aggression is internalised in both hero and heroine.
In Darcy’s case we do not see the process of self-punishment at work; but we can surmise that nothing else would lead him to propose marriage to Elizabeth. Then her insulting rejection apparently causes Darcy to take his self-punishment much further and he writes his abject explanatory letter. Now it is Elizabeth’s turn. At first reading she is sure that “it was all pride and insolence,” as regards Jane, while as regards Wickham, “she wished to discredit it entirely.” Elizabeth then protests “that she would never look in (the letter) again,” and we are already expecting the quick change of mind which the comic reversal requires. It soon comes: “in half a minute the letter was unfolded again.” Elizabeth faces “the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham.” From this second perusal there slowly emerges the deep personal humiliation of having to recognize how completely she has been taken in by this handsome scoundrel. From this traditional comic discovery of having been deceived, Elizabeth’s negative emotions, which had previously all been directed outwards against Darcy, rapidly now alter their course and are directed inwards in a self-discovery of unflinching psychological rigour:
“How despicably have I acted!” she cried. – “I who have prided myself on my discernment! – I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust – How humiliating is this discovery! – Yet, how just a humiliation! – Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. – Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
Now Elizabeth must come to terms with the fact that in many matters she shares with Darcy the same moral impulses, of which the most basic is to face the truth, even when it is deeply mortifying to the self. As a result Elizabeth joins Darcy in emerging from her deepest humiliation with a salutary increment of self-knowledge: they both undergo a parallel process of education through mortification.
Sense and Sensibility offers many examples of social, interpersonal, and internalised aggression. At the same time Sense and Sensibility is also, as one would expect from an earlier work, much closer than Pride and Prejudice or Emma to the classical tradition of comedy, and to Fanny Burney. The characters in Sense and Sensibility, for instance, tend to be more simply good or bad; the plot develops almost entirely through external events rather than inward changes in the protagonists; and although at the end Marianne and Edward Ferrars blame themselves for their past actions, they do so in spoken apologies to Elinor, and so there is no real analogy to the mortification scenes of Elizabeth or Emma.
First, social aggression. In Sense and Sensibility the battlefields of civility are littered with casualties. The most openly hostile characters are those who are wholly concerned with improving their financial and social condition; the way that John and Fanny Dashwood treat Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Marianne is as gratuitous and persistently malicious as the behaviour of any stage villain. Having forced her husband to betray his promise, and his father’s last wishes, Fanny Dashwood persuades herself – and John – that it is they who have been wronged; in the last tortuous extravagances of aggressive projection, John and Fanny even come to the persuasion that Elinor is as falsely designing as they are, and that she is trying to ensnare Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, in marriage. So, we observe, Fanny’s observations of Edward’s affectionate manner to Elinor give rise to her rudest outburst: “it was enough … to make her uneasy; and at the same time, (which was still more common), to make her uncivil. She took the first opportunity of affronting her mother-in-law on the occasion, talking to her so expressively of her brother’s great expectations, of Mrs. Ferrars’ resolution that both her sons should marry well, and of the danger attending any young woman who attempted to draw him in; that Mrs. Dashwood could neither pretend to be unconscious, nor endeavour to be calm.”
Jane Austen pursues her theme remorselessly; and we see manipulative aggression becoming compulsive in the best stage traditions of the miser’s monomania. The parallel hostility of Lucy to Elinor is expressed in false pretences of friendship which make it merely a polite variation on the same theme of ruthless social competitiveness. For example, when she meets the Dashwood sisters in London, Lucy gushes: “ ‘I should have been quite disappointed if I had not found you here still,’ said she repeatedly, with a strong emphasis on the word. ‘But I always thought I should. I was almost sure you would not leave London yet awhile, though you told me, you know, at Barton, that you should not stay above a month. But I thought, at the time, that you would most likely change your mind when it came to the point. It would have been such a great pity to have went away before your brother and sister came. And now to be sure you will be in no hurry to be gone. I am amazingly glad you did not keep to your word.’ ” Lucy’s attempts at poisoned badinage are as unsatisfactory as her grammar; a fatal garrulity betrays her intentions long before she has finished, and thus reveals her unwitting violation of the first law of sarcasm – a rapidity that leaves no time for a riposte, let alone a yawn.
Lucy Steele, like John and Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars, is a one-dimensional comic villain; she evokes unremitting dislike from the reader and the narrator alike. The other main group in the cast of Sense and Sensibility are also one-trait comic characters whose function is to be the butt of the narrator’s running joke. Whenever they appear, we are asked to join in mocking Sir John Middleton’s smothering hospitality, his wife’s bored egocentricity, Mrs. Jenkins’ misguided preoccupation with matchmaking, Mr. Palmer’s boorish rudeness, and Mrs. Palmer’s silly laugh.
Mr. Palmer cannot be denied the honour of being the ancestor of John Knightley; he never says anything that is not aggressive, and utterly refuses the slightest concessions to social civility. At Barton Park he draws even that most minimal of conversational counters, the weather, into his aggressive symbolic system: “ ‘How horrid all this is!’ said he. ‘Such weather makes every thing and every body disgusting. Dullness is as much produced within doors as without, by rain. It makes one detest all one’s acquaintance. What the devil does Sir John mean by not having a billiard room in his house? How few people know what comfort is! Sir John is as stupid as the weather!’ ” Elinor, astonished at Mrs. Palmer’s forbearance at her husband’s rudeness, observes him closely, and decides that he is not “so genuinely and unaffectedly ill-natured or ill-bred as he wished to appear . It was the desire of appearing superior to other people.”
The nearest parallel in Sense and Sensibility to the wit combats of Darcy and Elizabeth are – I suppose – the dialogues between Elinor and Marianne. There are, of course, many important differences: for one thing, the fairly strict dichotomy in the novel between good and bad characters means that Elinor and Marianne are often the victims of unprovoked social aggression from the rest of the world, so that the reader usually sympathises with them against all the unfair, unjust, and hostile circumstances in which they find themselves; secondly, Elinor comes to us as a person having, unlike Marianne, nothing to learn, so that there is a built-in asymmetry in the relations between the two sisters; and thirdly, their dialogue does not lead to change or permanent understanding. Sense and Sensibility was originally entitled “Elinor and Marianne”; and this would have been appropriate in a way that “Elizabeth and Darcy” would not have been, because although Elinor and Marianne have some of both qualities they function as symbolic and permanent opposites as far as their relationships to each other are concerned.
Marianne never has a hostile thought which she forces herself to repress; she openly attacks Edward for his reserve, speaks very rudely to Mrs. Ferrars in defense of Elinor, and is openly indignant at John Dashwood’s account of Mrs. Ferrar’s disinheriting Edward. In each case, Marianne’s anger is justified, but Elinor’s obtrusively different behavior brings into question her openness in expressing it.
Whenever Elinor’s criticism has ethical foundations and she believes that speaking may be useful or is morally obligatory, she gives her view openly and earnestly. Thus Elinor cautions Mrs. Jenkins against her gossiping about Marianne and Willoughby: “you are doing a very unkind thing”; and she upbraids Miss Steele for listening at a keyhole and reporting what she has overheard. Under other conditions, and if her target is sufficiently dense, Elinor voices her opinion ironically; for example, when John Dashwood complains to her about his financial difficulties, we are told that Elinor, recalling how much cash he has withheld from her family, at first “could only smile.” But when John presses his demand for her sympathy, saying “‘You may guess, after all these expenses, how very far we must be from being rich, and how acceptable Mrs. Ferrars’ kindness is,’” Elinor responds with adroitly ironical duplicity: “‘Certainly,’ said Elinor; ‘and assisted by her liberality, I hope you may yet live to be in easy circumstances.’” She has read the barometer of complacent self-importance correctly, and her sarcasm goes right over John’s head: “‘Another year or two may do much towards it,’ he gravely replied.”
However, when John goes on to tell Elinor of his having pulled down all the walnut trees on the Dashwoods’ beloved old property, Elinor in the best tradition of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Emily de St. Aubert and Goethe’s Werther, is really angry: but, we note, “Elinor kept her concern and her censure to herself; and was very thankful that Marianne was not present, to share the provocation.” There is the same reserve when she watches the hopelessly duped Mrs. Ferrars being kind to Lucy Steele: “while (Elinor) smiled at a graciousness so misapplied, she could not but reflect on the mean-spirited folly from which it sprung, nor observe the studied attentions with which the Miss Steeles courted its continuance, without thoroughly despising them all four.” As Robyn Housley has observed, “Elinor at her angriest is Elinor at her most silent”; Elinor knows that in her circumstances discretion is the best weapon which sense supplies for the defence of sensibility.
Compared to her behavior in public, Elinor’s responses to her sister are much less reserved. From the beginning Elinor teases Marianne about the imprudence and danger of her excessive sensibility. Thus Elinor attempts to caution Marianne against her fast-growing friendship with Willoughby: “‘You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott, you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper. But how is your acquaintance to be long supported, under such extraordinary dispatch of every subject for discourse? You will soon have exhausted each favourite topic. Another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty, and second marriages, and then you can have nothing farther to ask’ –.” Marianne rejects the warning and counter-attacks by asserting her superior sensitivity: “‘But I see what you mean … I have erred against every common-place notion of decorum; I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful: – had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.’”
Later, when Marianne has received Willoughby’s letter, Elinor’s advice becomes passionately serious: “‘Exert yourself, dear Marianne, if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer; for her sake you must exert yourself.’” Marianne remains blind to Elinor’s efforts and responds with self-indulgent insult: “‘I cannot, I cannot,’ cried Marianne; ‘leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me! but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion!’”
Marianne’s willful ignorance would remain invincible but for a combination of further accidents – the discovery of Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele, and Marianne’s recovery. On both of these occasions, Marianne certainly voices bitter self-accusation, and her words certainly sound like attempts at self-mortification. But her change of heart surely lacks inwardness and depth.
“Oh! Elinor,” she cried, “you have made me hate myself for ever. – How barbarous have I been to you! – you, who have been my only comfort, who have borne with me in all my misery, who have seemed to be only suffering for me! – Is this my gratitude! – Is this the only return I can make you? Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away.”
The ensuing commentary suggests that the narrator, at least, is not wholly persuaded that Marianne’s remorse may not be yet another form of high emotional self-indulgence:
In such a frame of mind as she was now in, Elinor had no difficulty in obtaining from her whatever promise she required; and at her request, Marianne engaged never to speak of the affair to any one with the least appearance of bitterness: – to meet Lucy without betraying the smallest increase of dislike to her; – and even to see Edward himself, if chance should bring them together, without any diminution of her usual cordiality. – These were great concessions; – but where Marianne felt that she had injured, no reparation could be too much for her to make.
The listing of Marianne’s promises builds up to a climax that is surely one of tolerant irony; and it suggests that there is still a residue of self-dramatising emotionalism in Marianne: her prime need is still to make herself interesting to herself. Of course, we don’t really know if we are dealing with a reliable narrator or not, or what she is reliable about. Is it a prediction, coming out of authorial foreknowledge of the future, that Marianne will never change her ways? Or is it just the persistently ironic tone that everyone except Elinor evokes from the narrator? We do not know, and so, although we are not persuaded that Marianne undergoes the mortification of internal aggression, as we are with Elizabeth and Emma, neither are we persuaded that we know how we should see her.
At this point, having tried, in the small hours of the night, to bring my argument to some sort of a conclusion, and having failed, I fell asleep. Happily, for the narrator of Sense and Sensibility appeared and claimed the right to speak in her own defence. When I woke up, however, I was unfortunately unable to recall her exact words, except for the first sentence:
I see what you would be at, Mr. Watt, – and, yes, I suppose I am in my own way what you call modern – disgusting word! I first thought about this two generations ago when a copy of Abinger Harvest arrived in Heaven. I noticed that E. M. Forster wrote about T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: The author was irritated by tea-parties, and not afraid to say so …. It set me thinking: “What’s so new about that? And why should people be afraid to say so?” But I suppose we are, and I was. Perhaps that’s why my family tried to cover up the role of aggression in my novels when they put up that memorial brass to me in Winchester Cathedral, in 1872, that ends with the quotation from Proverbs (XXX, xxiv): “… in her tongue is the law of kindness.” Surely they should have noticed from my novels, if they looked nowhere else, that the law of kindness is a very complicated one to obey especially if you also try to obey the law of truth. I think I did that battle rather well in Emma.
Of course it was more difficult, in my day, at least, for a woman: they were supposed to be all kindness, and truth was left to the men, like the right to anger. Men were entitled to have what the psychologists called “pugnacity,” as long as most of it was whipped out of them at school; but women weren’t supposed to have any, or at least not to show it. It wasn’t easy for me when I started writing because I knew I wasn’t like that at all. In Northanger Abbey I gave the “wrong” side of myself, the one that did not always think nice thoughts, to a man, Henry Tilney: and I’m afraid that later on I did the same thing a good deal in the other novels. In a way I wish Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” had been written then, at least the beginning, when he says: “In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts.”
I started trying to do more with my “own rejected thoughts” in Sense and Sensibility; but I was timid: I hid behind Elinor, and let her hide behind me. Of course, we had a lot of fun together – when we collaborated, for instance, when, after one of Robert Ferrars’ interminable vapid pomposities we wrote: “Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” I do believe that it’s no good pretending that society isn’t just what we see it is; and I don’t think my novels make aggression any commoner or more brutal than it is in ordinary life. That’s why I thought that the article by D. W. Harding – “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen” – is unfair. He understands my writing very well, I think, and gives me one good clue about why people have been admiring my novels more and more over the years. But why does he use the word “hatred”? That denies the normality of most of the aggressive feelings and actions which I show in my novels because I observe them in the real world. Does Mr. Harding really think that it would be dangerous to eat the Donwell Abbey strawberries out of fear that Mrs. Elton might have poison hidden away in “all her apparatus of happiness”? Of course, in your century as in mine, the passions take a much less extreme form than those which animated the wars of Troy. But isn’t there still, expressed in different manners, the same flux and reflux of aggressive motives as once inspired Homer, and as still animate the crowd when they laugh to see Punch and Judy trying to knock each other’s brains out??
It is surely misunderstanding of kindness to think it should blind us to society’s lack of it. Shouldn’t we attack those who pretend to ignore that lack? Surely that’s what comedy is for? After all, when intelligent, sensitive and principled people meet, what better thing is there for them to do than share their assurance that they are seeing the same world. Isn’t it bracing to face together our recognition of irremediable truths? And what better use can there be of our wit and experience than to write novels which make people who understand them laugh in liberated complicity at all the foolish and dangerous manifestations of aggression that are there in the world and in ourselves?
But I’ve talked too long. You seem quite gentleman-like, so
I’m sure you’ll keep this talk as secret as Elinor kept
Lucy Steele’s about her engagement to Edward Ferrars. Oh, no,
thank you, don’t get up, I can see myself to the door. In
fact, I don’t use doors any more. I’m much freer than I
was in the old days.
* Since this address was prepared in haste, and for a very particular occasion and audience, Ian Watt wishes it to be considered not as a “publication” but merely as a printed souvenir for the members of the Jane Austen Society of North America.