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Austen's Use of Character

One of the defining figures of early 19th century literature, Jane Austen wrote six novels, most of them set in the Hampshire countryside where she lived her whole life. Her work is noted for its economy, formality and subtlety, but what makes Austen’s work tick is people. To write like her, you need to be sharp, observant and witty - but you also need to use the secret language of fiction, as described in the book How Stories Really Work, in particular ways.

Whereas by far the majority of narrative fiction draws upon the question ‘What happens next?’ to draw the reader forward, Austen’s motive force is character. Take for example the opening of her novel Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Two things are set up here: as readers, we wonder why, if our heroine is so handsome, clever, and rich, and has a good home and is happy, we should be interested in her at all. Protagonists are usually defined by what they have lost, what they don’t have. Austen knows this very well, consciously or unconsciously. For a character to be introduced to us in this way, she is drawing upon that knowledge to make us question this description, or view it ironically. And then there is the uncertainty provoked by the last phrase: if she has lived ‘nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’, what is about to happen to upset that pattern?

Austen is using the rock-bottom nature of character-driven fiction to draw us in here: if nothing ‘vexing’ has yet happened, we know that something negative must happen for there to be a story at all; if a protagonist is so perfect, we know something is going to be removed from her for her to be in the least bit attractive as a protagonist.

Austen also uses something that has come to be called Free Indirect Discourse (FID). This is a way of incorporating the thoughts, opinions or general set of vocabulary that the character in question would use into the general text. So, for example, though we have the author’s third person, apparently omniscient testimony that Emma is ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, these are words which Emma might use to describe herself in her vanity, rather than an objective outsider’s assessment of her character. So we, as readers, are subtly invited to see for ourselves whether such characteristics are in fact present or not.

Austen works to build gentle unknowns around character, and in that way glues our attention to her fiction.

Character comes to the fore through dialogue as well as description using FID. Being somewhat removed from the early part of the 19th century by now, we are not used to speaking or even understanding dialogue full of such subtleties, as for instance are present in this conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice:

On his approaching them soon afterwards, though without seeming to have any intention of speaking, Miss Lucas defied her friend to mention such a subject to him; which immediately provoking Elizabeth to do it, she turned to him and said:

‘Did you not think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?’

‘With great energy; but it is always a subject which makes a lady energetic.’

This passage bears close analysis if we are to get to the heart of Austen’s portrayal of character. We are asked to ‘read between the lines’ regarding character a great deal - in fact, what lies between the lines is the essence of the action and the chief magnetic power in Austen’s writing. For example, Darcy here approaches the spot where Elizabeth and her friend Miss Lucas are standing ‘soon afterwards, though without seeming to have any intention of speaking’. It is only when we ponder this that we ask why - why does Darcy approach them and what is it about him that leads them to think he isn’t going to speak? Is Darcy in fact betraying an attraction towards them, while at the same time indicating a shyness about communicating with them?

The point is that we are not sure.

In the same way, Miss Lucas defies Elizabeth to speak to him and the consequence is that Elizabeth is ‘provoked’ into doing so. This is a close observation of human foibles: why would Elizabeth feel ‘provoked’ unless she was somehow emotionally alive at the thought? When she does speak to him, she uses language designed to provoke him in return: how is he meant to respond without disclosing a personal interest? Either he observed the subtlety of Elizabeth’s ‘teasing’ conversation with Colonel Foster and must say so; or he did not, and must likewise admit it. Darcy’s response indicates that he both observed what had happened with intense interest, while immediately qualifying his remark so as to place it in a context meant to defuse or disguise it as a general observation:

‘With great energy; but it is always a subject which makes a lady energetic.’

Had he simply said ‘With great energy’ he would expose a personal fascination with Elizabeth; had he replied ‘it is always a subject which makes a lady energetic’ this would have come across as dismissive and invalidative. The result of saying neither fully is to purposefully magnify the question as to what exactly is he thinking?

Elizabeth’s reply suggests that she has taken a slight offence:

‘You are severe on us.’

When her friend persuades her to sing before the gathering, Elizabeth at first resists, but then gives in. It is noteworthy that her remark on acquiescing to sing is aimed at Darcy:

‘Very well, if it must be so, it must.’ And gravely glancing at Mr. Darcy, ‘There is a fine old saying, which everybody here is of course familiar with: “Keep your breath to cool your porridge”; and I shall keep mine to swell my song.’

She suggests with her comment that she is wondering why he ‘keeps his breath’. By now the central focus is on Darcy and what he is thinking. He is not impressed by the dancing which follows. Austen allows us to be privy to his mood, indirectly:

Mr. Darcy stood near them in silent indignation at such a mode of passing the evening, to the exclusion of all conversation, and was too much engrossed by his thoughts…

What thoughts, we wonder? We get closer and closer to the answer: Sir William tries to engage Darcy in conversation, but is disappointed that none is forthcoming: ‘He paused in hopes of an answer; but his companion was not disposed to make any’. What is it that preoccupies Darcy so much? We draw nearer to the point when Sir William invites Elizabeth over to dance with his distracted companion. It is Darcy’s reaction which is revealing:

‘My dear Miss Eliza, why are you not dancing? Mr. Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure when so much beauty is before you.’ And, taking her hand, he would have given it to Mr. Darcy who, though extremely surprised, was not unwilling to receive it, when she instantly drew back, and said with some discomposure to Sir William:

‘Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing. I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner.’

The reader, finely attuned by now to the back-and-forth of this exchange, notes the contrast between Darcy’s extreme surprise and the fact that he was ‘not unwilling to receive’ her hand; the tension is amplified by Elizabeth’s refusal. Elizabeth, unsettled by her failure to determine what Darcy actually thinks, suffers ‘some discomposure’. Sir William presses his point:

‘You excel so much in the dance, Miss Eliza, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you; and though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for one half-hour.’

‘Mr. Darcy is all politeness,’ said Elizabeth, smiling.

Her smile is ironic - she is playing a game with him, trying to tease his thoughts from him. Is her approach effective? Austen tells us explicitly that it is:

Elizabeth looked archly, and turned away. Her resistance had not injured her with the gentleman, and he was thinking of her with some complacency, when thus accosted by Miss Bingley:

‘I can guess the subject of your reverie.’

‘I should imagine not.’

‘You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner— in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity, and yet the noise— the nothingness, and yet the self-importance of all those people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!’

Miss Bingley voices one idea of what Darcy may be thinking. But we as readers are gradually coming to another conclusion, which is then confirmed by Darcy himself:

‘You conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.’

Miss Bingley immediately fixed her eyes on his face, and desired he would tell her what lady had the credit of inspiring such reflections. Mr. Darcy replied with great intrepidity:

‘Miss Elizabeth Bennet.’

The whole passage has been building to this admission, given ‘with great intrepidity’. Austen opens up a void in Darcy, into which others drop their opinions, while gently revealing to us his interest in Elizabeth. To have this confirmed at the end confirms that Austen is manoeuvring these two together. From being drawn into the tale through character, Austen will now throw character into question and shift the focus onto plot, but we already have the story’s direction from this interchange.


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