“Mary Crawford may be officially rebuked by the outcome of Mansfield Park. Yet—disturbingly—Mary shares Jane Austen’s own kind of wit,” writes Margaret Doody in her latest book, Jane Austen’s Names (9). Why should a perceived resemblance between Mary Crawford and Jane Austen be disturbing? It seems that Austen, perhaps more than many other authors, is an object of admiration, even veneration, among readers and literary scholars, and anything that might complicate her status as a secular saint is potentially troubling.
For this reason it is a useful exercise to re-examine the evidence on which we base our beliefs about Austen’s identification with her characters. There are subtle signs that even those heroines who seem most like her are distinguished from her in some ways. As Rachel Oberman writes of Emma,
Although the similarity between the two voices may fool the reader into misreading Emma’s opinions as authorial statements at crucial points in the novel, careful attention to whose voice we are actually hearing helps the reader to find the places where Emma lacks narrative authority. The two voices are frequently at odds, despite their shared vocabulary and style. (5)
In this paper I will take up Oberman’s challenge and consider the techniques that Austen uses to signal the distance between her own authorial persona and her heroines’ perspectives in the three Chawton novels, with a brief look at the surviving fragment of her last work, Sanditon.
Knowledge of any historical figure can never be more than partial. One can try to reconstruct a personality from Austen’s letters and from the recorded opinions of those who knew her, always allowing for the effect that context has on these personal remnants. There is a marked difference between the Jane Austen we find in her letters—confident, sharp, and witty, especially in the letters to her sister—and the Jane Austen presented by various of her family members after her death—pious, kindly, and unambitious, having led what her brother Henry called “a life of usefulness, literature and religion” (29). Her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh was keen to assure readers that “her needlework both plain and ornamental was excellent” and that “she was considered especially great in satin stitch” (337).
For most readers, however, the chief source of information for constructing a personal picture of “the real Jane Austen” is the narrator—or the narrators—of her novels. Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne Elliot, different as they are, are more like what some might imagine and perhaps want Jane Austen to have been than Catherine Morland, Fanny Price, or Marianne or even Elinor Dashwood. Nevertheless, there are many ways in which Austen distinguishes her own voice from those of her heroines, and equally there are passages in each of the novels where she can be seen aligning herself with these young women.
The other side of the coin from the discomfort some might feel with Austen’s occasional similarity to Mary Crawford might be the impatience many readers feel with Fanny Price—with her primness, self-righteousness, and complete lack of humor. Some readers have been uncomfortable with the moral world that seems to be implied in Mansfield Park. Fanny sometimes sounds, as John Wiltshire remarks, “slightly like an Evangelical moralist” when she makes statements like, “‘I am persuaded that [Henry Crawford] does not think as he ought, on serious subjects’” (115; MP 350). It can be argued, from the context, that this statement doesn’t express Fanny’s true feelings, as she is trying to explain to Edmund why she is not prepared to marry Henry, without admitting the embarrassing fact that her feelings for Edmund are the chief obstacle.
But Fanny has a particular combination of mental toughness and passive rectitude that has not attracted many admirers among Mansfield Park’s readers. Her moral principles are doubly undercut: first, by being contaminated by her overriding passion for Edmund, the resulting jealousy, and the need to be occasionally less than truthful; and second, by the ironic asides of the author. Fanny’s chief antagonists, Henry and Mary Crawford, have faults, but they are human and not incorrigible. Fanny’s moral world is not that of the novel as a whole.
It is in Mansfield Park, however, that Austen starts finding new ways of creating imaginative identification with her characters. In Portsmouth, Fanny sits in the parlor on a hot day:
She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust; and her eyes could only wander from the walls marked by her father’s head, to the table cut and knotched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca’s hands had first produced it. (439)
This passage is more grittily realistic than anything else in Austen, but it is not unmediated realism (if there is any such thing). We see the room through Fanny’s eyes; we feel her lassitude, her oppression, her disgust. But she is too polite (or timid) to insult her mother’s housekeeping by complaining or even offering to help.
Readers often complain about Fanny’s passivity, and, whatever the explanation, it puts her at a disadvantage to other characters. Austen allows other points of view to be seen: another author might have made Mansfield Park the tragedy of Edmund and Mary. But this narrator always comes back to her heroine: “My Fanny indeed at this time, I have the satisfaction of knowing, must have been happy in spite of every thing,” Austen writes at the beginning of the final chapter (461). Although this address to the reader is unusually direct, the narrator’s voice is usually in the omniscient third person and often quietly ironic in tone. Despite the intellectual distance readers often feel from Fanny, however, Austen works effectively to enlist the reader’s sympathy almost viscerally on her behalf. When Mary Crawford insists on speaking to Fanny alone, to remonstrate with her for refusing Henry’s proposal, her request is in “words that Fanny felt all over her, in all her pulses, and all her nerves” (357). This sentence is formally third-person omniscient narration rather than free indirect style, but it gives us access not just to Fanny’s thoughts but to her physical sensations.
I have discussed elsewhere the idea that the narrator of Mansfield Park is “considerably more worldly than Fanny” (Dooley). Fanny Price is the only heroine Austen ever mentioned within a novel with the tenderness implied by the use of the first person possessive pronoun: “My Fanny.” It is possible to argue that this attitude only increases the distance between the narrator of Mansfield Park and its heroine. It implies that Fanny is a creature comprehended within the narrator’s broader vision—the narrator who claims for herself the power of restoring “every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort” (461).
In a striking contrast with her protective attitude to Fanny, Austen, according to her nephew James Edward, thought that Emma would be “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (376). But she contrives quite cleverly to ensure that this prediction is not true.
We witness Emma’s self-deception and partial vision. She watches other characters and thinks she sees it all, but, as John Wiltshire writes, “it is the intermittency of human attentiveness to another the novel understands” (133). She is often, if not usually, wrong, sometimes with potentially disastrous consequences for the happiness of those she purports to be helping. We can see her faults, and laugh at them, and if we do not condemn her it is because Austen carefully manipulates the narrative point of view. More than fifty years ago Wayne Booth appreciated the technical brilliance of Austen’s portrayal of Emma:
Though Emma’s faults are comic, they constantly threaten to produce serious harm. Yet she must remain sympathetic or the reader will not wish for and delight sufficiently in her reform. . . . The solution to the problem of maintaining sympathy despite almost crippling faults was primarily to use the heroine herself as a kind of narrator, though in the third person, reporting on her own experience. 244–46)
Unlike the unreliable first-person narrator that is a feature of eighteenth-century fiction, this device allows Austen to pass almost imperceptibly between Emma’s own sometimes outrageous and often mistaken thought processes, and more straightforward narrative commentary.
Given that we are aware that we cannot trust Emma, we are likely to look elsewhere among the characters for good sense and reason. Austen appears to provide a model in the character of George Knightley. According to Booth, “since Knightley is established early as completely reliable, we need no views of his secret thoughts. He has no secret thoughts, except for the unacknowledged depths of his love for Emma and his jealousy of Frank Churchill” (254). These exceptions, however, are hardly minor matters. It is certainly true that most of what he says to and about Emma is sensible and salutary. The narrator informs us that “Mr Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (11). But there is comedy directed against him as well: the clearest case is this paragraph near the end of the novel where Emma and Mr. Knightley finally sort out their future together:
He had found her agitated and low.—Frank Churchill was a villain.—He heard her declare that she had never loved him. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate.—She was his own Emma, by hand and by word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow. (433)
Margaret Doody cautions that Emma is a novel that “centers on the fallibility of assumptions,” and we should take nothing at face value (395). Emma is certainly the queen of misconstrual, but Mr. Knightley is not immune to fallible assumptions. Love and jealousy cloud his judgment in the same way that they cloud Fanny Price’s judgment. The difference is that he can express himself more freely than Fanny, so he doesn’t have to tell lies to others, though he may not always be honest with himself.
Can we locate Austen herself among these vacillations? The early pages of Emma, like all Austen’s novels, are narrated in the third person by an omniscient narrator, who introduces the characters. Soon, however, we are introduced to Emma’s point of view: Austen “turns over more and more of the job of summary to Emma as she feels more and more sure of our seeing precisely to what degree Emma is to be trusted,” as Booth writes (257). Such free indirect style depends on a certain subtlety of reading and has to be carefully set up by the author; otherwise, it is easy for the reader to attribute the views expressed to the author. As Oberman writes, “Narrated monologue complicates the project of dividing characters’ voices from the narrative voice; it challenges the notion of the third-person narrator as detachable from the characters it depicts” (14).
A perfect example of this potential for ambiguity is Emma’s interior monologue when she first meets Harriet:
she found her altogether very engaging—. . . , shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield . . . Encouragement should be given. . . . The friends from whom she had just parted, though very good sort of people, must be doing her harm. . . . [T]hey must be coarse and unpolished, and very unfit to be the intimates of a girl who wanted only a little more knowledge and elegance to be quite perfect. She would notice her; she would improve her. . . . It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers. (23–24)
This is all very revealing: Emma’s assumptions about people she hasn’t met, her susceptibility to flattery, her self-deception about the kindness and disinterest of her undertaking, her terrible snobbishness.
The next paragraph, however, takes us outside the character and back to that omniscient narrator. Supper is served, and
[w]ith an alacrity beyond the common impulse of a spirit which yet was never indifferent to the credit of doing every thing well and attentively, with the real good-will of a mind delighted with its own ideas, did she then do all the honours of the meal. (24, emphasis mine)
We are now beyond Emma’s point of view to a gentle but acute critique of Emma’s motives. She is “never indifferent to the credit of doing everything well and attentively”—that is, she is not disinterested and altruistic but concerned with her own reputation. And the “real good-will of a mind delighted with its own ideas”—the good-will is genuine but depends on her being satisfied with herself. Later, at Box Hill, that good will evaporates when she is out of sorts: as a result she forgets all her good principles and publicly insults Miss Bates.
The omniscient narrator implicitly guides the reader’s opinions. Booth regarded this narrator as “a perfect human being, within the concept of perfection established by the book she writes” (265). Oberman has analyzed more closely the way Austen manipulates the distance between the narrator and character: “As the novel progresses, Emma’s voice begins to resemble the narrator’s in its ability to mix with another’s consciousness. Her narrated monologues begin to incorporate the voices of others, almost as if she has learned the narrative technique that Austen herself uses” (6). Emma makes progress of a kind: she becomes more mature, though she never becomes totally aligned with the narrator.
There are various ways that Austen guides her readers’ thoughts. According to Booth, her “technique is determined by the needs of the novel she is writing. . . .In Emma there are many breaks in the point of view, because Emma’s beclouded mind cannot do the whole job. In Persuasion, where the heroine’s viewpoint is faulty only in her ignorance of Captain Wentworth’s love, there are very few” (250).
A selection of the scholarly literature on point of view in Persuasion, however, provides an example of how interpretations can vary between even expert readers. Wiltshire shows, in The Hidden Jane Austen, how in Persuasion Austen
is interested in the way that depression interferes with the modalities of both hearing and sight. To use the novelist’s own term, Anne is often “self-occupied,” without sufficient psychological energy to address or fully register the outside world. Persuasion is concerned with such states of self-absorption, internal reverie, introspective musing, half-absence and grieving, and then, in the course of the novel’s action, with their gradual alleviation, the returning of the self to occupy the world. (147)
Wiltshire, then, sees the novel’s point of view as limited, or clouded, by Anne’s depressive state. On the other hand, early in the novel, upon the first introduction of Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove in chapter 5, we can see that Anne has a healthy consciousness of her own worth relative to theirs:
Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments. (41)
Rather than a criticism of Anne, this passage is a graceful acknowledgement that none of us, even the author, is immune from “some comfortable feeling of superiority.” The implied author in this case is not the perfect human being Booth identified in Emma. Interestingly, Austen herself told her niece Fanny, “You may perhaps like the Heroine [Anne], as she is almost too good for me” (23–25 March 1817).
In Persuasion, Wiltshire points out, “Anne’s point of view is represented, not like Elizabeth Bennet’s, Fanny’s or Emma’s, as transcriptions of her thoughts, but veiled, held at a distance from the reader by the narrator’s own sympathetic mediation” (148). Nevertheless, there are moments when we almost seem to be inside Anne’s skin—perhaps not with her thoughts but in such close empathy with her that distance is eliminated. These are usually moments of surprise, especially when Captain Wentworth makes some unexpected gesture. An example is the scene in Uppercross Cottage when Anne’s young nephew Walter is climbing all over her while she is attending to his sick brother. Charles Hayter reprimands him:
But not a bit did Walter stir.
In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.
Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. (80)
Passages such as this one, and also the scene in which Wentworth unexpectedly hands her into the carriage with the Crofts, are akin to those in Mansfield Park where we almost physically experience Fanny’s feelings as we read. Later, when Anne first sees Captain Wentworth walking down the street in Bath, there is no ambiguity. The implied author is completely sympathetic with Anne’s feelings, even with her slightly disingenuous self-examination of her motives for going to the window to see if it was raining: “Why was she to suspect herself of another motive?” (175), the narrator remarks wryly.
There are some passages in Persuasion that are less easy to disentangle, however—for example, when Mrs. Musgrove calls upon Captain Wentworth to share her grief at her son Richard’s death. We have already been told the “real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history” (50), seemingly in the narrator’s voice, though in an almost angry and certainly dismissive tone: the “‘poor Richard’” spoken about by his sisters had “been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead” (51).
This judgment is very severe on a boy who died at sea before he turned twenty. Margaret Doody confidently attributes this opinion only to Anne. It is part of the “quiet nervous tension” she sees reflected in this novel (182)—in accordance with Wiltshire’s observations. She also sees this particular instance as reflecting Anne’s difficulty coping with the daily evidence of the Musgroves’ parental love, so lacking in her own life, and accentuating her own loss of Captain Wentworth: “Anne doesn’t want to hear more of the Musgroves’ grief because it jangles her own” (182). Arguably, though, this judgment of Dick Musgrove is shared by Anne and the narrator. There seems to be nothing in the narrative to mark the narrator’s disapproval.
To add to the uncertainty, we might consider the scene where Mrs. Musgrove raises the subject of her dead son with Wentworth:
“Poor dear fellow!” continued Mrs. Musgrove; “he was grown so steady, and such an excellent correspondent, while he was under your care! Ah! it would have been a happy thing, if he had never left you. I assure you, Captain Wentworth, we are very sorry he ever left you.”
There was a momentary expression in Captain Wentworth’s face at this speech, a certain glance of his bright eye, and curl of his handsome mouth, which convinced Anne, that instead of sharing in Mrs. Musgrove’s kind wishes, as to her son, he had probably been at some pains to get rid of him; but it was too transient an indulgence of self-amusement to be detected by any who understood him less than herself; in another moment he was perfectly collected and serious. (67, emphasis mine)
This passage is certainly partly focalized through Anne’s point of view, which is explicitly referred to in the italicized passage. But what of the next paragraph?
They were actually on the same sofa, for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him;—they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier indeed. Mrs. Musgrove was of a comfortable substantial size, infinitely more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humour, than tenderness and sentiment; and while the agitations of Anne’s slender form, and pensive face, may be considered as very completely screened, Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for. (68, emphasis mine)
The “agitations of Anne’s slender form, and pensive face” must come from the narrator, not from Anne herself. Anne is agitated by being suddenly so close to Wentworth. She is in no frame of mind here for an uncharitable comparison between Mrs. Musgrove’s figure and her own. This fact is confirmed by the following paragraph, which broadens out into a general observation:
Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain,—which taste cannot tolerate,—which ridicule will seize. (68, emphasis mine)
This statement could be merely a rather rueful acknowledgement of the way things are, or it could be a satirical statement in a similar vein to the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. It seems to give many readers pause as unnecessary and unlikeable.
Many critics have been unsure about whose opinion is reflected in this passage. Margaret Doody writes, “When her lost lover is in close proximity, and Mrs. Musgrove is engaging his attention, Anne loses herself—or consoles herself—in the Kellynch mode. . . . The mental insulting of Mrs. Musgrove is one of the few moments when we see Anne as her father’s daughter—and it is a low moment” (183). Doody thus reads the passage as free indirect discourse. On the other hand, on their website Austen Said, Laura Mooneyham White and Carmen Smith have coded the above passages in Persuasion as narration rather than free indirect discourse. In this project, they have attempted to assign “each word in the novels . . . to a given character or the narrator, or, as in the case of indirect speech, to a mix of characters or character and narrator.” As they point out, “One of the major problems presenting itself here is the inherent subjectivity of the reader in the experience of FID [Free Indirect Discourse] in a given text.”
Who is right? Can we be sure either way? The Austen Said project is just as interesting in the way it shows the indeterminacy and subjectivity of readings of Austen, as it is in any conclusions that can be drawn from its analysis.
In Austen’s last fragment, now known as Sanditon, we see the beginnings of a novel without being able to predict how it will continue, though other unfinished work might give some indication. Jocelyn Harris quotes Virginia Woolf’s assessment of The Watsons: “The stiffness and bareness of the first chapters prove that she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere” (37–38). Harris finds that the abandoned chapters of Persuasion, which she analyzes in close detail, “confirm Woolf’s insights, for here the suppressions, insertions, artful devices, and conjuring by which Austen overcame the baldness and stiffness of her bare first draft are clearly to be seen” (38).
Similarly, Sanditon seems like notes towards a novel, very much a first draft. It also seems to hark back to the juvenilia in the vitality of its satirical urges. It is impossible to know how Austen would have continued this beginning: whether it would have been a confident mid-career reversion to the outrageous exuberance of the juvenilia, or whether she would have refined it into another polished novel with a realist sheen, like the others only in its uniqueness and accomplishment.
It is reasonable to assume, from the fact that she accompanies Mr. and Mrs. Parker on a visit to Sanditon, and from her exemption from the mocking satire that many of the other characters attract, that Charlotte will be the heroine of this novel. Austen makes us wait, however, for confirmation, and for the means to gauge the relationship she is likely to bear to the narrator. Charlotte’s transformation from “a very pleasing young woman of two and twenty” (Minor Works 374) and to the heroine of the novel does not come until chapter 3, about fifteen pages in: “Charlotte listened with more than amusement now” (378). Here is the first clue that Mr. Parker’s lengthy account of the personages of Sanditon is causing her the same amusement that the reader probably has for some time been feeling.
By the end of the fragment we have seen several more instances of Charlotte’s amusement, and other more serious sentiments that the narrator invites the reader to share. She finds Miss Denham’s behavior “very amusing—or very melancholy, just as Satire or Morality might prevail” (396). She is slower to judge Sir Edward Denham, but soon “she began to think him downright silly” (398). Her sympathy is recruited on their behalf, however, when she is engaged in conversation by the dowager Lady Denham, who betrays her meanness towards her young relatives. Charlotte’s reaction is “divided between amusement & indignation” (402), and this complicated response leads to a meditation on the pervasive effect of a rich person’s bad character on all who come into contact with her.
Charlotte’s affections are not yet engaged. Perhaps they will be when she gets to know Mr. Sidney Parker, who has just arrived when the fragment breaks off. Charlotte would perhaps have been a heroine quite closely aligned with the implied author, as might be assumed from the intelligent and sensible way she reacts to the words and actions of the other characters, but there is no way of knowing.
So what can be said about Austen and her heroines? None of them is Austen: as Harris points out, it is a damaging generalization about female authors that they can only write “confessionally, self-reflexively, and realistically about themselves” (13). It limits our appreciation of Austen’s consummate artistry not to see how carefully constructed and varied are the relationships between the narrators and heroines in each of her novels, and the profound effect that these relationships have on the world of each novel and our experiences in reading them.