A Couple of Minutes with Jane Austen
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Some time ago, we held a program meeting for various members to speak on whatever sparked their fancy, as long as it had to do with Jane Austen, her contemporaries, or some aspect of life during Regency times. Thirteen members agreed to talk for two minutes each. In my foolish youth (lo these three long years ago), I thought that it would be easy to stand up and talk about something for two minutes. Our problem was that people couldn't speak for that long of a time, but the opposite. Hardly any of us (and I was the first culprit) were able to keep our talks down to two minutes. So... the meeting ran long and we still didn't get to hear everyone's talk.
I gathered the written notes or fully written pieces from each of those who had not been able to speak, saving them for the newsletter. Only to have our newsletter suffer the "ax" when we couldn't find someone to take it on. When we decided we'd completely overhaul our online presence, we decided a blog could cover the articles sections of the newsletter. And so, here is our very first blog post of one of those wonderful talks. This is Debbie Johnson's essay on the deftness of Jane Austen's work.
Much has been written about Jane Austen’s genius for characterization, and in my two minutes I want to highlight a small aspect of that genius—which is her deftness.
The dictionary defines “deft” as “quick and skillful in action” and throughout Jane Austen’s works we see this “deftness” at work when she precisely and economically reveals character in one or two sentences, often spoken by the character him or herself.
My first example of this deftness is from Emma, and the character is Mrs. Elton during the party at Hartfield, speaking to Mr. Weston about her brother-in-law, Mr. Suckling. By this time in the story the reader is already aware of Emma’s opinion of Mrs. Elton--that she is ill-bred yet proud--and that the source of that pride is her sister’s marriage to the wealthy Mr. Suckling of Maple Grove.
In this scene Mrs. Elton is speaking about her disgust for “upstarts”, such as the Tupman family who have only lived a year and a half in large house near Maple Grove, yet who evidently think themselves equal “even to Mr. Suckling”. Mrs. Elton’s final sentence of that scene shows how ill-founded her arrogance is when she adds: “Mr. Suckling, who has been eleven years a resident at Maple Grove, and whose father had it before him—I believe, at least—I am almost sure that old Mr. Suckling had completed the purchase before his death.”
In just that one sentence Mr. Suckling’s own status as an “upstart” is revealed, and that revelation punctures Mrs. Elton’s arrogance—second-hand arrogance, no less--in a deft and wickedly funny way.
The second example is from Sense and Sensibility, in the scene where Mr. John Dashwood has just been introduced to Mrs. Jennings. After telling Elinor that he believes Mrs. Jennings will leave her and Marianne a large legacy, and further, that the wealthy Colonel Brandon is sure to ask Elinor to marry him, we have this sentence about Mr. Dashwood:
“He had just compunction enough for having done nothing for his sisters himself, to be exceedingly anxious that everybody else should do a great deal”.
Not only is this a deft summation of Mr. Dashwood’s feelings, but it is (to me) a profound insight into one aspect of human motivation that is not often discussed—that of encouraging other people to do something that we ourselves should have done; or worse, criticizing others for not doing something that we also did not do. Jane Austen has described this particular form of hypocrisy in a few deft and memorable strokes.
My third and final example of deftness is from Persuasion, at the end of the novel when the narrator summarizes what happens to the other characters after the marriage of Anne and Captain Wentworth. In describing how Elizabeth and Sir Walter bore the deception and loss of Mrs. Clay the narrator says: “They had their great cousins, to be sure, to resort to for comfort; but they must long feel that to flatter and follow others, without being flattered and followed in turn, is but a state of half enjoyment.” In addition to the delicious irony of this statement (irony for which Jane Austen is of course also famous), it sums up in one phrase the vanity of Elizabeth and Sir Walter and by extension, that of all people whose self-worth depends solely on their worldly status. It can equally be applied to today’s cults of “celebrity”, where many of those who become famous—through no particular accomplishments—are “flattered and followed” into believing that their mere fame—like the mere fact of being born into the aristocracy--is proof of an innate superiority. And like Elizabeth and Sir Walter, when the world stops “flattering and following” them, it will be “but a state of half enjoyment” indeed.
The fact that Jane Austen could deftly sketch the foibles of her individual characters, and cause readers to draw from those deft sketches eternal lessons about mankind is yet one more aspect of her genius, and one more reason to love her writing.
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