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Arts & Letters: The Novels of Jane Austen
BY Amy Smith
“To you I shall say, as I have often said before: Do not be in a hurry. The right man will come at last.”
That’s what Jane Austen told her niece Fanny Knight in a letter.
Well said, Jane!
Waiting for the right man is the theme of all of her novels. She has provided us with great examples of true heroines: women who wait for true love — and work on becoming better women while they wait for Mr. Right.
Through her witty plotlines, Jane Austen gives us deep insights on courtship and marriage. She champions marriages that foster the development of love, such as those of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and Jane and Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.
That’s not to say there’s no courtship strife. Romantic comedy, Jane Austen style is the best. But the drama gives way to love — and self-improvement.
No More Pride and Prejudice
For example, Lizzy and Darcy, as their opinions of each other change, try to better themselves for the other. After Lizzy’s rejection of him, Darcy is compelled to explain his motives for dissuading Bingley’s attachment to Jane and his behavior toward Wickham. His search for Lydia and Wickham proves beyond a doubt his love for Elizabeth. The utter contempt he feels for Wickham (rightly so, given the scoundrel’s attempt to seduce his sister) would have ordinarily kept him in a silent, unresponsive stupor. But his love and esteem for Lizzy lead him to take action. As he tells her, “That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. … I thought only of you.”
When Lizzy accepts his second proposal (which is much more romantic; thanks Jane!), Darcy pours out his heart, rejoicing in her love for him. For Darcy, love helps him become a better person, more attuned to his own feelings and those around him.
She softens his pride, as his actions help her overcome her inclination to prejudice. Elizabeth comes to see those around her in a new light, particularly Darcy. Her love for him deepens when she reads his letter, visits Pemberly, and learns from her aunt the complete account of his role in Lydia’s marriage to Wickham. She is overwhelmed when she realizes she had grossly misjudged Darcy and Wickham. This revelation prompts her self-discovery: “Till this moment I never knew myself.”
Austen emphasizes that virtue and character help that “right man” become interested in the right heroine. Jane Austen’s novels are good reads because her characters are rewarded for being moral and having character. Having virtue wins them the heart of a gentleman: a true fairy-tale ending. I think it’s fair to say that Jane would be most shocked to see today’s society of “hook ups” and couples living together.
One of my favorite scenes is at the end of the book, when Lizzy and Darcy declare their love for one another. Their love was based on virtue and character, not some fleeting feeling. Yes, Lizzy thought Mr. Darcy was attractive, but more than that, she admired his character, character which prompted him to come to her sister’s aid: “Her heart did whisper that he had done it for her.”
And when she refuses to say she will never marry Darcy when his intrusive aunt, Lady Catherine, asks her, he says that news “taught me to hope as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.”
In contrast, there’s Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, who declares, “Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.”
But our author shows us the error of this thinking. Marianne falls head over heels in love with Willoughby, only to discover he’s a cad who abandoned a girl he got pregnant. She is so heartbroken she almost dies! But later, the steady love of Col. Brandon awakens her to what real love is.
Although Pride and Prejudice is my favorite Austen novel, Mr. Knightley from Emma is my favorite Austen hero, not Darcy (gasp!), because he’s a good guy throughout. Handsome and gentlemanly, he also exhibits another trait important to love: He corrects Emma. When she is unkind to a poor neighbor, he is the only one willing to point it out. He wants her to be the best person she can be. And she follows through, apologizing to the neighbor and deciding that she should be more charitable. That’s love.
Knightley’s constant goodness and care for Emma and her family (even her quirky father) — and the thought of losing him forever to her friend Harriet — makes her realize she’s in love: “It darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”
Worth the Wait
Then there’s Persuasion, which is perhaps the most romantic Austen novel. Well-off Anne Elliot is persuaded to reject the proposal of poor Frederick Wentworth, but neither stops loving the other.
Their patience pays off. When they are reunited years later when he is Capt. Wentworth, it is a beautiful testimony to the power of love — and the grace of second chances. “A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman,” he tells her in a letter. “I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it. … I have loved none but you.”
Anne’s quiet delight is charming: “It was overpowering happiness.”
Single women worldwide long to find a Darcy or Knightley of their very own. Why else are there so many movie and TV versions as well as literary spin-offs and retellings of these classic stories? Besides, how often do we see knights in shining armor in the world today? Very little. That’s why we cannot help but cheer when Edward tells Elinor he still cares for her in Sense and Sensibility, when Emma realizes that Mr. Knightley feels the same love for her that she feels for him, and Lizzy and Mr. Darcy overcome their pride and prejudice to love one another.
Jane Austen gives us hope that our own story will achieve the happily ever after that’s meant for us. Austen does what she always does: Everything works out for the right couples in the end. Hooray for happy endings.Amy Smith is the Register’s associate editor.