Jane Austen founded character and caricature at the same time—which is the essentially satirical, essentially English approach to fictional character. Dickens learned from her that characters can survive on one big attribute and still be plump with life. Forster learned from her that characters do not have to change to be real; they should only reveal more of their stable essence as the novel proceeds. Yet at the same time, and most significantly, the first glimmerings of what would become Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness are found in Austen; she invented a new, rapid semaphore for signaling a person’s thought as it is happening. It is this innovation, the discovery of how to represent the brokenness of the mind’s communication with itself, that constitutes her radicalism.
Still, Austen’s heroines are not modern characters as we encounter them since Henry James (who, significantly, somewhat disliked her fiction). They do not change in the modern sense, because they do not really discover things about themselves. They discover cognitive novelties; they probe for rectitude. As the novel moves forward, certain veils are pierced and obstacles removed, so that the heroine can see the world more clearly. In the course of that process, more and more of the heroine’s stable essence is revealed to us. Thus plot is inherently rational and problem-solving in Austen. “Rational” was one of Austen’s favorite words, and it is used often by her heroines. The habitual stance of the Austen heroine is that of the reader, one who reads and reflects upon the material of the novel before her, and, when all that material is complete at the end of the novel, makes her decision. It is probably for this reason that readers so adore Austen’s heroines—not because they are especially real or “rounded,” but because, like us, they are readers of the novel in question, and thus on our side. Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, craves “the relief of quiet reflection.” Elinor describes this process of reflection several times in Sense and Sensibility. When she reappraises Willoughby, she is “resolved not only upon gaining every new light as to his character which her own observation or the intelligence of others could give her, hut likewise upon watching his behavior to her sister with such zealous attention, as to ascertain what he was and what he meant….” Similarly, Elizabeth Bennet, at the end of Pride and Prejudice, finally sees Darcy as he really is, not as she mistook him—that is her triumph; she does not learn anything really decisive about herself. She is, at the end, perhaps, less proud and judgmental, but she has hardly transformed herself.
Emma Woodhouse is the nearest Austen came to creating a character who discovers something about herself. Like Elizabeth Bennet, she must rationally solve a problem—which is the problem of who is right for whom, and ultimately, who is right for her—and the novel allows her to conduct several disastrous experiments. To that extent, she learns, at the end of the novel, what we have always known about her, that she is blind, headstrong, and foolish. But she, too, is essentially stable, for she is incorrigible, indeed, is not the incorrigibility of Austen’s heroines what makes them so appealing? Do we not imagine that Emma will continue to act foolishly in the future, even with Mr. Knightley by her side? One of the reasons that we know from the beginning of the rowel that Emma is essentially good but willful (as opposed to bad and hapless) is that we sense that Mr. Knightley loves her, mid we feel that Mr. Knightley is a repository of the novel’s highest values. A fairy-tale cradle protects Emma from real harm.
A comparison may be made with a modern heroine, Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Ralph Touchett is Isabel’s higher understanding, her Mr. Knightley. Yet in James’s tragic, psychological vision, Ralph cannot save Isabel from herself. She must make mistakes for herself. Emma, by contrast, makes mistakes on behalf of others; for herself, she makes the right choice, and chooses Mr. Knightley. In an early conversation, Mrs. Weston says to Mr. Knightley that Emma “will never lead any one really wrong.” This observation the novel is about to prove untrue. But in the same conversation Mrs. Weston says that “she will make no lasting blunder,” which is quite correct. Within this capsule, Emma’s subjectivity tides.
Austen’s heroines do not discover, then, what is best in themselves; they discover what is best for themselves and for others. Austen’s work is not therapeutic but hermeneutic. As it happens, hermeneutic study was given its fullest development at this time by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the German Protestant theologian. But we know from contemporary texts that the words “hermeneutical” and “hermeneutics” were in wide currency in English long before Schleiermacher, and that they were applied to people as often as to the study of texts. Someone who understood other people, who attended to their secret meanings, who read people properly, might have been called hermeneutical. Schleiermacher himself stressed repeatedly that hermeneutics could be applied to ordinary conversation as well as to the Scriptures. In 1829, in his Academy Address “On the Concept of Hermeneutics,” he referred to the art of reading “significant conversations,” and added: “Who could move in the company of exceptionally gifted persons without endeavoring to hear ‘between’ their words, just as we read between the lines of original and tightly written books? Who does not try in a meaningful conversation, which may in certain respects be an important act, to lift out its main points, to try to grasp its internal coherence, to pursue all its subtle intimations further?”
This is what the Austen heroine does. Even the wild and undisciplined Emma is such a reader. When Mr. Knightley finally proposes to Emma, Austen writes: “While he spoke, Emma’s mind was most busy, and, with all the wonderful velocity of thought, had been able—and yet without losing a word—to catch and comprehend the exact truth of the whole.” This is the hermeneutic task of the Austen heroine, to which is added a distinctly Protestant, or even Evangelical, bent. For Austen’s heroines read themselves, and carry their spirit inside them. In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford asks Fanny for advice, and she replies: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” Our inwardness is our God and our guide; we apply to it for aid.
The inwardness of Austen’s heroines is precisely what makes them heroic in the novels. This is measurable, because Austen maintains a hierarchy of consciousness: the people who matter think inwardly, and everyone else speaks. Or rather: the heroines speak to themselves, and everyone else speaks to each other. The heroines are the only characters whose inner thought is represented. And this speaking to oneself is often a secret conversation, which Austen almost invented a new technique, a precursor of modernist stream-of-consciousness, to represent. We cart watch the development of this technique. Her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811), has almost none of this kind of stream-of-consciousness. Sense and Sensibility abounds in passages such as this one, in which Austen’s notation of excited thought seems to strain to outgrow itself, yet stays inside conventional narrated thought:
What felt Elinor at that moment? Astonishment, that would have been as painful as it was strong, had not an immediate disbelief of the assertion attended it. She turned towards Lucy in silent amazement, unable to divine the reason or object of such a declaration, and though her complexion varied, she stood firm in incredulity and felt no danger of an hysterical fit, or a swoon.
Lucy has just told Elinor that she is engaged to Robert Ferrars’s brother, and Elinor is revolving this shock in her mind. But Austen stays outside Elinor, noting her change of color, and calming the reader, as it were, with the promise that Elinor will not become hysterical. The reference to an external change—a change of color—is significant, for it suggests that Austen is using the idea of the stage, that a character will physically register a shock, on the outside. Austen’s meaning, of course, is that Elinor is not like one of these stage-actors; Elinor is too calm to register agitation as anything more than an almost-invisible change of color. She thinks “in silent amazement,” and is therefore inaccessible to us. (“What felt Elinor at that moment?”) Elinor, in this sense, anticipates the later Austen heroines: from an almost-invisible blush, it is only a small increment for the novelist into the very mind of a character. At this moment, however, in Austen’s development, we cannot enter Elinor’s mind; her “silent amazement” is actually silent.
Pride and Prejudice (1813) allowed Austen to burst into the interior of her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. But she rations a gradual increase in the reader’s access. At first, Elizabeth resembles Elinor; she does not speak to herself, except in Austen’s indirect report. Slowly, her intensity deepens, and Austen’s registration of Elizabeth’s self-conversation begins to gather its mass. When she first heat’s that Darcy has separated Bingley and Jane, she goes to her room, where she could think without interruption of all that she had heard.” Here Austen begins to expand the range of Elizabeth’s mental revolutions, and we witness Elizabeth “exclaiming” to herself bitterly about how poorly Jane has been used: “All liveliness and goodness as she is! Her understanding excellent, her mind improved, and her manners captivating.” But this self-exclamation soon ends, the agitation having brought on a headache. (A headache, tears, or sleep will often end the representation of female inwardness in early Austen, as it does also in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out.) But only twenty pages later, Elizabeth is unbound. Darcy has written to her, and she has taken the letter with her on a walk. She is alone. As she reads it, she is burnt with shame, and her speech to herself is rapidly broken up into different stumbling inroads:
“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 hove, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my filly.—… Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
This, in essence, is a stage soliloquy. In the course of Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816), Austen uses it with ever greater sophistication, dispensing with quotation marks, and blending the heroine’s soliloquy with her own third-person narration, so that she is able to move in and out of a character as she pleases. At the same time, her heroine’s mental speech loses the last tinctures of the staginess that still cling to Elizabeth’s (“How despicably have I acted!”), becoming looser and more conversational. Fanny Price is seen thinking to herself much earlier in Mansfield Park than Elizabeth is seen doing the same in Pride and Prejudice, and of course Emma fills the entire book with her lively self-disputations: Emma is one large mental chamber. Where before Elizabeth had to roam outside to express her thoughts, Emma’s thought arises in the most ordinary and domestic settings, among her puffs, powders, and billet-doux. Austen novelizes the soliloquy, in effect:
The hair was curled, and the maid sent away, and Emma sat down to think and be miserable.—It was a wretched business, indeed!—Such an overthrow of everything she had been wishing for!—Such a development of everything most unwelcome!—Such a blow for Harriet!—That was the worst of all. Every part of it brought pain and humiliation, of some sort or other; but, compared with the evil to Harriet, “all was light; and she would gladly have submitted to feel yet more mistaken—more in error—more disgraced by mis-judgment, than she actually was, could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself.
This is immensely supple, Austen marvelously extending what is sometimes called free indirect style, in which the author describes the heroine’s thoughts with such sympathetic agitation that the heroine seems to be writing the novel. In free indirect style, though narration is still in the third person, the heroine seems to flood the narration, forcing it onto her side. (“It was a wretched business indeed! —Such an overthrow of everything she had been wishing for!”) In her later novels, Austen tends to alternate free indirect style with a first-person stream-of-consciousness. Mansfield Park abounds in examples of the latter. Near the end of the book, Fanny, in Portsmouth, receives a letter from Edmund. She is sure that Edmund will marry Mary Crawford:
As for the main subject of the letter—there was nothing in that to soothe irritation. She was almost vexed into displeasure, mad angel against Edmund. “There is no good in this delay,” said she. “Why is not it settled?—He is blinded, and nothing will open his eyes, nothing can, after having had truths before him so long in vain.—He will marry her, and be poor and miserable. God grant that her influence do not make him cease to be respectable!”—She looked over the letter again.” ‘So very fond of me!’ ‘tis nonsense all. She loves nobody but herself and her brother. ‘Her friends leading her astray for years!’ She is quite as likely to have led them astray…. ‘The only woman in the world, whom he could ever think of as a wife.’ I firmly believe it … Edmund, you do not know me. The families would never be connected, if you did not connect them. Oh! write, write. Finish it at once. Let there be an end of this suspense. Fix, commit, condemn yourself.”
In this superb passage, quite characteristic of the later novels, Austen combines third person narration (“She looked over the letter again”), first-person soliloquy (“Edmund, you do not “know me”), and scraps from Edmund’s letter which are not quoted in first-person, but which Austen turns into free indirect style in order to hurry the effect of the passage, and to stamp on the reader the sense of Fanny’s thought, of Fanny having taken and converted Edmund’s words into her own. As the paragraph develops, so third-person narration falls away, and we entirely enter Fanny’s mind. This kind of writing, moving rapidly between different modes, hurriedly capturing the very stammer of ratiocination, makes Austen a much more radical novelist than, say, Flaubert. Although Flaubert has a deeper, more “modern” commitment to a character’s interiority than Austen, he never allows Emma Bovary quite such a broken self-conversation, such a failed and interrupted communication with the self. Unlike the smoothly controlling Flaubert, Austen wants to capture the difficulty of solitary thought, and in this her modernity lies.
This solitary thought is a kind of concealment in all of Austen’s novels except in the free and open Emma. Austen’s heroines withdraw, or wait until visitors have departed, or go on walks, in order to think. (The two enormous modern changes that are found in Woolf and Joyce are that a character need go nowhere particular to think, and that thought need not have the gravity of emergency or agitation in order to earn its place, need not have an arrow-shower of exclamation marks to exist. Thought is as natural as narration, and has in fact become narration.) Austen’s heroines are separate, different from everyone else in the novels by virtue of their ability to speak to themselves.
In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford asks Edmund if the young Fanny is “out, or is she not?” Mary means presentable, or socially adult, and Edmund replies that his cousin is an adult, “but the outs and not outs are beyond me.” Mary comments, reprovingly, that “it is much worse to have girls not out, give themselves the same airs and take the same liberties, as if they were….” Mary decides that Fanny is “not out,” and seems obscurely irritated by the challenge that Fanny’s being “not out” represents. Austen no doubt implies another kind of “out” or “in,” the “out” of outwardness and the “in” of inwardness. We might think of Austen’s heroines, despite their vivacity, as always “in,” insofar as they are the only characters who hoard their thought, and who are seen to do so.
It is through inwardness that we get to know a character. Emma complains (to herself) that Jane Fairfax is “so cold, so cautious! There was no getting at her real opinion. Wrapt up in a cloak of politeness, she seemed suspiciously reserved.” If Jane Fairfax seems reserved to us, as well as to Emma, it is because Austen never shows her speaking to herself. We feel we cannot “get at her real opinion,” because we do not witness her thinking it. But we are always close to Emma’s real opinion, even if it is the wrong one. In this sense, Emma’s reality. is what is most right about her. We delight in the rightness of her reality even when she is wrong.
When one says, then, that Austen’s heroines are “in,” it is not that they are like Jane Fairfax, who seems lost to herself; rather that they are real to themselves, and thus to us. And they are heroines because of this quality of being “in.” Austen refers to Emma as being in “mental soliloquy,” and while Austen’s heroines are soliloquists, the obviously bad people in the novels are monologists, people who speak at others. Mr. Collins, Mrs. Norris, Miss Bates, Mrs. Elton (who “only wanted to be talking herself,” writes Austen), all speak as if on stage, to an audience. Austen’s heroines, by contrast, speak to themselves, like people in a novel. Her heroines belong to the novel; her villains belong to the stage.
Her heroines belong to the novel; and indeed, they art not only like readers, but like novelists, too. Like novelists, her heroines enable people to speak through them, they are arrangers and conduits of others’ feelings. Anne Elliot in Persuasion (1818) dislikes that the Musgroves speak to each other through her; dislikes “being treated with too much confidence by all parties, and being too much in the secret complaints of each house.” Like novelists, the heroines have to retreat to their study, to reflect, as it were on their material, as if they were both writing and reading the material that the novel has presented them with. This is Anne Elliot’s first instinct at the end of Persuasion, when she feels she might have won Captain Wentworth’s love: “Anne went home to think over all that she had heard.”
All of Austen’s heroines retreat to a room of one’s own, often prompted by the intimacy of a letter (which functions a little like the written contract that allows female subjectivity). Like novelists, her heroines have the capacity of memory, while the rest of the characters have only “pasts.” It is the heroines who must learn about these pasts, who must inquire into the past. When they are gregarious, these heroines have the novelist’s genius for negative capability, the capacity to find justice in the other side, to act a role. Emma catches herself doing this in an argument with Mr. Knightley: “to her great amusement, [she] perceived that she was taking the other side of the question from her real opinion, and making use of Mrs. Weston’s arguments against herself.”
Mansfield Park makes perhaps the strongest case for the power of the novel, and for the heroine’s novelist-like powers. When the household at Mansfield Park decides to stage a play in the house (it is Kotzebue’s Das Kind de Liebe, translated by Mrs. Inchbald as Lovers’ Vows). Fanny Price objects to the impropriety, in particular to the prospect of the ladies of the house acting in compromising roles with the gentlemen of the house. Fanny’s objection, which appears to be supported by Austen and by toe thrust of the entire novel, seems priggish, and has occasioned much comment, because Austen and her family used happily to stage, as children, amateur dramatics. But Austen’s objection might be that the play does not act like a novel. Recall that Fanny’s first response to the idea is to withdraw with the text of the play and read it like a novel. Though Austen does not say so, there is a sense in which the play is improper because, by forcing people to act in highly charged emotional situations, it might precipitate actual emotional situations, off stage, that should remain latent. In other words, the stage artificially speeds up dilemmas and relationships. Things ought to go at a novel’s pace (and Mansfield Park is a lengthy, spacious novel) and not at the pace of two melodramatic hours on stage. Though we don’t know it yet, Fanny is right. The play, which intimately throws together Henry Crawford mid Maria Bertram (who is already engaged to her foolish neighbor Rushworth), accelerates their flirtation: later in the book, Henry elopes with Maria, now married to the unfortunate Rushworth.
Austen’s fiction is either celebrated or attacked for being conservative; but it is, of course, a strenuous argument on behalf of the deserving poor—deserving not because of gentility but because of goodness. Austen’s ideal world, glimpsed in the puff of harmony that is exhaled at the end of her novels when the heroine gets her husband, would be an ethical meritocracy, in which the best dowry the heroine can bring to her match is her goodness. These best virtues are earned, not bestowed, and are internal. Recall Anne Elliot at the end of Persuasion. She knows that Captain Wentworth “must love her,” and she goes around the room, looking at her father and sister and Lady Russell, and feels inclined “to pity every one, as being less happy than herself…. Her happiness was from within.” Now Anne is in love, and is pitying those who are not, just as Levin does in Anna Karenina when he secures Kitty. But Austen’s argument is stronger than that. Tolstoy describes Levin’s happiness as a temporary advantage: he is in love, it is a gorgeous spasm of early love, it will pass. It is a sublime hallucination, really. But the whole of Persuasion—indeed, the whole of Austen’s oeuvre—suggests that Anne will always be happier than those around her. Anne’s horrible father and sister might, conceivably, fall in love, but Anne will still be happier than they will be. And why? Because her happiness is “from within” and the others do not exist “within.” They are “out.” She is a heroine.
It is consciousness that makes one happy. Consciousness is intelligence, and consciousness is inwardness. Even when the agitation of consciousness is not happy, it is always welcome, it is always good—and a good. Elizabeth Bennet likes to “indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections.” I suspect that Jane Austen, so private, so enigmatic and contradictory, went through life as if she were the possessor of a clandestine happiness. Like her heroines, she saw things more clearly than other people and therefore pitied their cloudiness.