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Passion in Austen

Passion? Austen? What does that even mean? Passion in terms of a love between heroine and hero, and how it is presented to the reader by the author, or the concept of passion as an intense emotional state? An Austen novel is normally categorised as a ‘comedy of manners’: Austen could be said to be ‘passionate’ about an approach to situations that are painfully but also ironically or comically true.

Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, Emma and Mr Knightley share, eventually, a passion in the lovers’ sense. Austen’s use of language during key passionate exchanges between these couples reveals an awareness of narrative viewpoint: she primarily employs direct speech for most of the dialogue throughout the story, but when Elizabeth finally gives Darcy ‘to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change…’ readers are denied direct access to the actual words she speaks, and to Darcy’s actual reply: ‘he expressed himself on the subject as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.’ We get direct speech up to the very moment of declaration: ‘I believe I thought only of you…My affections and wishes have not changed…’ but are afterwards ‘unplugged’ and only hear about what occurred rather than experiencing it. Mr Knightley sums this up from a character’s perspective: ‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more…’

At these key moments of passion, then, Austen adopts a reporting, omniscient narrative with a touch of comedy that downplays the romanticism slightly: ‘She spoke then, on being so entreated. – What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. – She said enough to show there need not be despair…’. Austen communicates the passion, in effect, by not communicating it. After the lovers come to harmonious understanding, out of our hearing, as it were, direct speech is resumed. Crucial moments of passion which the novel, the characters and the reader have been building up to are thus held at arm’s length by the author.

Far from reducing or removing passion, however, this technique, and her return to gentle comedy (‘A lady always does’) permits the reader to fill in the remaining brushstrokes, the words, the exact looks, the tones of voice and any physical interaction of the characters. This would not work had the moment not been carefully prepared for: but it is almost as though Austen is crafting a gap, a hole, a void, right at the heart of each novel into which she leads the reader carefully and delicately, sentence by sentence, until we are willing to fill in the blank ourselves with our own emotion.

Passion as an intense, overpowering emotion bursts like fire from Austen’s writing at those times when she is intent on drawing the reader fully into Emma and Elizabeth’s mind during moments of acute feeling. The third person narrative at these moments ceases to be detached, or ironical, and instead the author makes the emotion metaphorically physical: ‘Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck… She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!’ Were it not for the pronoun ‘she’, this is almost a first person report, completely personal; authorial presence disappears between the characters and ourselves.

Emma’s genuine compassion for Jane Fairfax’s situation in life as a gentlewoman forced to consider life as a governess (something pitiable to the gentry of Austen’s era) exemplifies Austen’s passionate treatment of issues or characters containing pain too truthful to be satirised. Similarly, Austen has little in the way of irony for the character of Charlotte Lucas, who is so convinced of looming poverty as a spinster that she marries Mr. Collins, one of the most repulsive characters in Austen. Absence of satire on these points acts to demonstrate Austen’s true feeling. Openly passionate writing is not Austen’s style; compassionate heroines who feel situations inwardly, refraining at key moments from satire, is her way of portraying passion.

One of the best ways of creating an emotional effect is to avoid emotionalism. Austen is able to keep calm and remain aloof as a dispassionate observer, one who objectively assesses social situations. A dispassionate author who simply lays out the scene as a conflict of opposites can actually heighten the emotional effect. Were she to descend into overly emotional writing, her own unsentimental and almost clinical comedy might be undermined.

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