Jane Austen and British Reserve

These past few days I’ve been reading Jane Austen novels for the first time. So far I’ve read Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. That I’ve never read anything by her before will probably surprise those of you who know me. I always knew the plots from hearsay and movies, so I never felt particularly inclined to bother actually reading the books. And besides, they’re very subdued. But still very good.

Two things stood out to me about Austen’s style and subject matter; first, the almost universal reserve among people of good character, and, second, the extent to which people make judgments about others’ character and “breeding” (which seems to mean education in manners).

As to the first – I don’t know whether the habit of impenetrable reserve is good, bad, or indifferent. Austen herself seems to consider it essential in society, and not unimportant even within families. If a young woman feels an “attachment” forming, she mustn’t speak too freely, even among friends and certainly not out in public, unless she is actually engaged. And even then it’s bad manners to gush about it. It’s much better to be shy and, to borrow a modern word, harbor “repressed” emotions than to be open and risk the censure of everyone. The “define the relationship” stage is when a man proposes marriage. But if he’s treating a young woman with much particularity, he’d better be considering marriage at least, or he’s a complete cad. And if the couple should “form and understanding,” they oughtn’t break the engagement without the consent of both and very good reasons. Otherwise, they’d better stick with each other no matter what, and accept their lot together no matter how dissimilar their temperaments and abilities may be – or risk dishonoring the entire family.

What was most striking in that respect was how very cautious people, especially women, are in respect to the men they’re beginning to love. Even when they aren’t, by the end of the book they mostly wish that they were. The prime example being the two heroines of Sense and Sensibility, where Elinor is always extremely guarded in her reception of Mr Edward Ferras, and Marianne is comparatively open with Willoby, and the resolution comes out strongly in favor of Elinor, and against Marianne, who nearly gets herself killed through excess of emotion, without even doing anything especially excessive. She simply allows herself to be too open and then too obviously sad, and that’s enough to be a near-fatal mistake, though she’s still a good, sweet person.

I can’t help comparing that stance of caution: to be shy, sweet, reserved, kind, and have impeccable manners, sometimes at the expense of sorrow and misunderstanding – with a recommendation I’ve heard much more often: throw away the  masks and always be open with everyone. We have no more reached our ideal than the 18th century British had reached theirs, but I would be curios to know what that difference means for most people. I would imagine that had Elinor and Edward been honest, she would have found out he was engaged immediately, and there would be no plot on her side. But if he were equally open, he would have broken his engagement with Lucy, and would have been available to marry Elinor, and there would have been no plot. But if he were the sort of man to break engagements, it’s hardly likely he would be honorable enough for her to marry in any event. Unless they were going by our standards, not theirs – in which it hardly mattered what either had done, as long as it didn’t harm anyone. She could have slept with the neighbor’s son, and he could have broken two engagements, and it would still be perfectly proper – because hardly anyone takes the idea of there being a “proper” kind of conduct seriously enough to bother defining it. The whole thing is kind of sticky. In the books, it ends with a lot of unhappy marriages. There’s always someone marrying someone else utterly incompatible in temperament and taste, because of money or family or titles. Sometimes it turns out all right, but more often it doesn’t – or lies somewhere in the middle. But the reserve and caution extends past the relationships between men and women, and into every other relationship as well, including within the family itself, to varying extents (it’s more true of the families in Mansfield Park  and Sense and Sensibility than it is of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice – but the Bettets are shockingly improper).

All this made me wonder: to what extent ought we, now, try to be governed by a similar propriety, and to what extent oughtn’t we. It is a fact governed by human nature that no matter my intentions, when a friend writes on his public blog that he and a female acquaintance had sex in a library after previously agreeing to it and practicing for the occasion – and not as a confession, but as an amusing anecdote – I think worse of him. But not much worse, and that’s a concern in itself. I’m not very proper myself – and on the whole say far more than I ought.

That last thought touches on the second thing I noticed in Austen’s books. People – including, or especially, good people – make a point of evaluating the character of those around them. They may never say anything. Certainly the good people would only mention it to someone very close, or who needs to know it for their protection. But they do make those judgments. All through Mansfield Park Fanny Price is making judgments about the Crawfords based upon a consistent record of small but frequent indiscretions – a little vulgarity, some slight lack of concern for the feelings of others, a bit too much flirting. As it turns out, she’s right. But not by chance – perhaps the strongest message in the book is that people only become intimate with those of questionable character at their perils. And it is “character,” or even virtue, rather than “values” that is professedly at issue in all cases.


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