Yours Sincerely: Jane Austen's HeroesOriginal content by Rhian Fender
“There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.” (Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham of Pride and Prejudice)During the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, there was one virtue which was strenuously promoted amongst men: sincerity. In November 1844, the young Lord Ashley declared: “We must have nobler, deeper, and sterner stuff, less of refinement and more of truth; more of the inward, not so much of the outward, gentleman.” Inspired by the cultural phenomenon of medievalism, and the resulting revival of the importance of chivalry, the very nature of masculinity began to be questioned and adapted to suit the conventions of society. The ‘polite’ society of the eighteenth century into which Jane Austen was born was not the most suited to true chivalry, for ‘politeness’ was synonymous with status and wealth, rather than the inherent goodness endorsed by the medieval chivalric code, which stressed the importance of traits such as generosity, loyalty, duty and devotion. A figure who it may be argued truly represents this society was Lord Chesterton, whose letters to his son illustrated the façade of sincerity which many created, instructing his son to “be upon your own guard, and yet; by a seeming natural openness, to put people off theirs.” The call for more authenticity resulted in ‘politeness’ being viewed as rather outdated, with ‘manliness’ emerging as the male ideal. This consideration of masculinity is evident in the work of Jane Austen, with the heroes of the novels embodying the spirit of manliness. The ever-popular Mr Darcy from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice undoubtedly does not make the best first impression, described as being “haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well bred, were not inviting,” in addition to rather publicly insulting the heroine of the novel. It comes as a surprise to Elizabeth Bennet, therefore, when Darcy seeks her out to profess “how ardently I admire and love you.” Darcy’s first proposal is anything but polite – his description of Elizabeth’s inferiority allows the reader to perfectly comprehend how she can turn down his well-known and admired ten thousand a year –yet one thing cannot be denied: his sincerity. Darcy truly believes that his position as master of the great estate of Pemberley warrants a consideration of his future wife’s lineage, and his proposal to Elizabeth, whilst hardly flattering, is unfailingly honest. Similarly, Austen is careful to stress the depth of his emotion, emphasising the feelings Darcy has “long felt for her”. Indeed, Elizabeth’s declaration that “it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner” sees the usually composed Darcy visibly “start at this,” and the sincere depth of his emotion is apparent when “he hastily left the room”. Darcy’s sincerity is also apparent in his love of truth. Darcy’s infamous letter to Elizabeth following the failed proposal is described as “a faithful narrative of every event,” whilst Darcy is notably unhappy when he discovers Elizabeth’s aunt has told her niece about his role in the marriage of Wickham and Lydia, declaring “I did not think Mrs Gardiner was so little to be trusted.” It is not only Darcy’s words, but also his actions which reveal his sincerity. Darcy’s attempts to discover the lovers, and his success in securing their marriage, is done for his love of Elizabeth, and that love alone. Indeed, he is “exceedingly sorry” that she discovers his actions. Similarly, Persuasion’s hero Captain Wentworth’s substance is shown in his subtle actions regarding the heroine, Anne Elliot. In one particular scene, Anne struggles with her sister’s children and Wentworth proves the falsity of his apparent indifference to the woman who rejected him: “his kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed.” Another example of Wentworth’s silent devotion is in his determination to see Anne, tired from her walk, taken home with his sister in a carriage. As Anne reflects:
“Yes; he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed here there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest.”In a manner similar to Darcy’s proposal, Austen leaves the reader in no doubt of the depth of emotion felt by Wentworth for Anne. Indeed, Wentworth’s letter to Anne lays his very heart and soul on the line, concealing nothing, sincere in everything: “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.” Treacherous Mr Elliot may make a show that “he had looked at her [Anne] with some earnestness” when first happening upon her at Lyme, but Austen allows the reader to know the true worth and sincerity of Wentworth’s “eyes of glowing entreaty” through his unashamed confession of his undying love for Anne. Mr Knightley of Austen’s Emma uses the vocabulary of ‘politeness’, with an elite education and knowledge of French – at this time a sign of refinement – yet his character evokes those values which were to emerge as the essence of the “new” gentleman. Knightley is never rude, yet he does not falsify politeness; his publicised emotions are a manifestation of his true feelings. This sincerity is most evident in Knightley’s discourse with Emma; it is she who he tries to please least, for it would be at the expense of truth. Knightley frequently reproves Emma when he deems it necessary, regardless of his knowledge of Emma’s character – she does not take kindly to criticism – and he risks losing her to his honesty. Whilst those of the eighteenth century might deem Knightley’s frank speech as rude, there is no doubt that every word is sincere. Knightly clearly values sincerity over a mistaken sense of social flattery. Knightley also evokes the chivalric belief in the protection of women when defending Miss Bates who Emma ruthlessly mocks on an outing. A vulnerable elderly woman of reduced circumstances, Miss Bates presents Knightley with a weak individual both worthy of and requiring his protection. Knightley exclaims to Emma: “I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do,” despite the potential cost to their relationship. Knightley also exudes gallantry when he invites Harriet Smith to dance at the ball, hastening to rescue her from the humiliation Mr Elton has inflicted upon her by so publicly refusing to dance with her. Even at the risk of isolating Emma for ever, and the possible judgment of others by dancing with an illegitimate young woman, Knightley’s sincere belief in honesty and doing the right thing prove him to be reflective of the changing masculinity during Austen’s lifetime. The sincerity and noble nature of Jane Austen’s heroes are, of course, all the more obvious when contrasted with the nature of the other men in her novels, those who emerge as the villains and rakes. Austen frequently gives small hints as to the true worth of her male characters, usually through the initial description. For example, those initially most pleasing in countenance are usually those most deficient in any worthwhile virtues. Austen’s first description of Mr Wickham states that “his appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.” George Wickham is deemed the superior amongst his fellow officers, “perfectly correct and unassuming.” These traits, whilst seemingly commendable, are on closer scrutiny mere formalities of the age of ‘politeness.’ Pleasing though an easy and happy countenance may be, it suggests nothing of the true worth of a man. Austen’s sharp wit and irony is apparent when Wickham declares that the world “sees him [Darcy] only as he chooses to be seen,” for Darcy is indifferent to the world’s estimation of his worth, whilst Wickham’s carefully crafted persona of spurned and wronged friend fools all, even – for some time – the novel’s heroine, disguising his true dishonest nature. Emma asserts young Frank Churchill to be amiable, a polite gentleman, with the commendable ability to “adapt his conversation to the taste of everybody” and be “universally agreeable.”It is precisely these traits, however, which make Churchill so insufferable to Knightley who, as a man adhering to the new sincere code of masculinity, knows there apparent virtues to be mere flatteries, a carefully constructed persona, leading him to claim that there is “nothing really amiable” about Churchill. The starkest contrast between Knightley and Churchill is demonstrated in their understanding of duty. Churchill frequently fails to visit his father, professing himself unable to leave his elderly aunt. Knightley does not accept this excuse, proclaiming:
“There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by manoeuvring and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.”Similarly, Mr Elton is described as “a very pretty young man, and a very good young man,” yet in truth there is little good in his character. Emma and her friend Harriet Smith, lacking the perspicacity of Knightley, are fooled into believing that the appearance of sentiment assures its existence in inner virtue. It is not until Elton’s carefully crafted persona slips that Emma is able to discern that his polite manner is but “a charade.” Elton reveals his true self most violently when Emma declares her belief that he cares for Harriet: “[I] never cared whether she were dead or alive… upon my honour!” Elton’s callous estimation of Harriet’s worth, founded upon social standing rather than inner virtue, exposes his lack of integrity. His declaration “upon my honour” is a farcical conclusion to his cruel assessment of Harriet, given his total deficiency in honour. Churchill and Elton’s concerns of appearance above sincerity show them to be far less than heroic. Jane Austen’s heroes have many faults: amongst them, Darcy too proud, Tilney too cynical, and Wentworth too unforgiving. Yet it is these very faults, these unashamed and very human bearings of their souls that make them the true heroes of the beloved novels. The heroes have stood the test of time for we see these faults for what they are: the sincere manifestation of the thoughts and feelings of these gentlemen. Willoughby, Wickham, Thorpe – all have the appearance of chivalry and nobility, yet none actually possess it. Jane Austen thus uses her novels to declare that facades fade: true sincerity, often so subtle, is the real mark of a hero.
Rhian Helen Fender writes: “After a chance viewing of the BBC Pride and Prejudice drama at a very young age, my love of the novels of Jane Austen began. This admiration for the literary works has seen me enjoy many adaptations, sequels and spin-offs, as well as rereading the original texts many times over. This interest has very much shaped my academic studies, resulting in the final thesis of my history degree exploring the changing ideal of masculinity during the lifetime of Jane Austen."
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Absolutely wonderful and insightful. Thank you for this excellent article!
sensibility July 26, 2020