An Excerpt From
Dear Jane Austen
A Heroine’s Character
“Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
-Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
Dear Jane Austen,
My love life is the pits. Everyone says I’m pretty and nice and smart but I can’t hold on to a boyfriend. I am obsessed with the idea that if I were only taller, or thinner, or more athletic, or had thicker hair, or wore better clothes, or danced better… if I were just different – somehow better – I could keep a boyfriend. What do your heroines know that I don’t know? How can I be perfect the way they are?
Dear Hating Heroine,
Your mistake is one that millions of women fall into. In your distress you imagine my heroines to be without flaw but a moment’s cooler reflection will show you your error. Pictures of perfection, like the heroines of romance novels, make me sick and wicked, and you will not find them in my books. I shall reserve my discussion of a heroine’s positive attributes for another place in this chapter; you are rather in need of instruction regarding the all too evident faults my heroines display.
Perhaps you are thinking of the way women on Internet dating sites (extraordinary notion!) write of themselves. “Beautiful, brilliant, witty, athletic; the figure of a Victoria’s secret model, the voice of Renee Fleming; Anna Kournikova type, but better at tennis.” This also seems to be the model for the women gentlemen are seeking there, if one an judge by the descriptions of their ideal mates. And you compare yourself to this paragon, a modern version of the “accomplished woman” Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy discuss:
“A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages… and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
But surely you did not put down Pride and Prejudice before hearing Elizabeth’s reply to these self-serving remarks: “I never saw such a woman. I never saw such a capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united.” No woman is without weaknesses and flaws. Elizabeth does not torment herself with invidious comparisons, although she knows very well that she is only moderately accomplished, her musical performance “by no means capital.” And as for her looks, Mr. Darcy at first pronounces her “not handsome enough to tempt [him].” Her manners, moreover, are “not those of the fashionable world.” Yet she has pride in herself, pride enough to refuse a most desirable marriage proposal when she is offended by the gentleman’s behaviour and manner of address.
JANE AUSTEN SAYS: A HEROINE HAS PRIDE DESPITE HER IMPERFECTIONS
My father, you know, was a clergyman and wrote many a sermon on the subject of Pride. I am far from recommending that my heroines take as their ruling principle a Deadly Sin. But pride is a complicated matter, a word with more than one meaning, as that memorable discussion in Pride and Prejudice—surely you recall it—illustrates:
“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”
You will recall that this is the voice of the pompous, pedantic Mary. (Do you not love the way I slip something of real pertinence into her tired prosings? Harriet Smith, Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bates—how often a home truth comes out of the mouths of those characters whose speech is otherwise largely nonsense!) I speak to you here of real pride, not mere vanity, although in my novels I too use the word “pride” at times to mean something less admirable than the trait I consider requisite for all heroines.
Emma Woodhouse, though she too is a delight, is also far from perfect, being proud and sometimes vain as well. You will recall that Mr. Knightley told Emma she saw in Jane Fairfax “the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself.” And why is Emma not accomplished? Mr. Knightley again supplies the answer: “She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” When one considers that Emma would not apply herself diligently to her lessons, her playing and drawing are not at all bad. Still, “… she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.” Ah, there is Emma’s vanity at work in her greater concern for her reputation than the actual level of her accomplishment. And yet, dear Hating Heroine, can it admit of doubt which woman—Emma or Jane—is worthier to be preferred by the hero?
Young Catherine Morland similarly fails in becoming highly accomplished: “… she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid” during her studies, showing no aptitude for either music or drawing. No, talents and accomplishments are not the measure of a heroine. And they are certainly not the means to captivate a hero, as my Lady Susan, middle-aged (for her era, though perhaps no yours) yet irresistible to men, knew very well: “… to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing, etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list.” Indeed, it is Catherine’s eagerness to learn from Henry Tilney, not her accomplishments, that he finds irresistible. Her ignorance assures him that he has something valuable to offer her: he has a service to perform in her life.
Yes, but surely great physical beauty is necessary in a heroine, I hear you say. I could name many famous women who are reputed to be great beauties in your society, and yet if they are examined objectively, how many will, like Elizabeth, be seen to have “more than one failure of perfect symmetry in [their] form”? This one has no neck and, to put it as delicately as possible, an unusual and vulgar heaviness to a certain part of her figure, another has a large flat nose, another a diminutive stature, yet another the inelegant frame of a giantess. I shall devote a later chapter entirely to the discussion of the subject of beauty, but suffice it to say here that these flawed women simply do not let their imperfections erode their opinion of themselves and neither should you. They present themselves to the world in confidence—or at least the appearance of confidence—in their worthiness to be adored, and the world takes them at their word. For the next line of Lady Susan’s letter quoted above is: “Grace and manner after all are of the greatest importance.” And whence derive a heroine’s grace and manner? Read my answer to the following query from your sister heroine and you will learn the answer.
Stay, I feel I must add a final note to this answer or risk leaving you in some confusion. Do not mistake me. I am certainly not encouraging ignorance. My heroines appreciated wit and accomplishment and despised ignorance. Dear Emma mightily wished she were more accomplished. Anne Elliot preferred the company and the conversation of clever, talented people above all other. Although Catherine herself was ignorant and not at all witty, Henry Tilney’s cleverness interested and amused her. Heroines should certainly strive to be accomplished, and moreover, beautiful if they possibly can be. I merely point out that heroines should not suffer the least feelings of inadequacy if they are deficient in any of these areas except insofar as such feelings will spur them to make up the deficiencies. For it is not the deficiencies themselves but the heroine’s belief in her unworthiness that will prevent her from attracting a hero or, indeed, achieving any ends she desires to achieve. Would I have become an authoress—and one not without admirers—if I had paused to compare my modest talent and education to those of the giants who strode before—Fielding, Richardson, Smollet, Johnson, Burney, Radcliffe, and Edgeworth—and weighed my own worth on a scale against their undisputed excellence?
Believe me ever your faithful friend,