The Smartest Person in the Room
How Jane Austen’s women transcend their (banal and brutal) world
Hello dear friends,
If you’re like me, when you mention the works and stories of Jane Austen, you have some explaining to do. Many of the non-Austen readers in our lives envision Austen novels as stories about women sitting by a hearthside embroidering and dreaming of marriage.
Our colleagues, and family, and friends might think of Austen’s plots as the traditional Romance, where the nice, well-behaved girl gets the handsome, rich, action-oriented guy.
What does that possibly have to do with us, and our lives, today?
But when you actually dive into these novels you see how Austen subverts the very form that she helped create, and how she uses most of her air time to challenge, critique, and send-up those traditional roles.
Sure, in the end in the Austen girl gets the guy - and it works out rather nicely if he is rich. But in the process of getting to that romantic fantasy, Austen drags us through an awful lot of Regency-mud that these heroines have to endure.
And like Jane Austen herself - and others such as Charlotte Bronte and later Dickens - these dreamy endings arise out of the real, endured deprivation of real life.
It’s fascinating to me that these stories - that ultimately end in escape - are born of endurance. Not only are these stories made of strong stuff, they also unearth a lot of bold themes about restrictions people face based on their identities.
In 2021, after the year we’ve all been through, it’s inspiring to remember that these stories are born of a sort of strength. You have to look for it, but it’s grit that you can find right here, in the stories - hidden, by Austen, in plain sight.
And here’s what’s awesome once you think about it: Austen heroines, from Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, to Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse, are the smartest, most courageous, and strongest characters in the room - and they fall in love with the one other person in their banal world who can match them, or - even better - surpass them.
Of course for Austen, that romantic happy ending never happened. And it’s possible that her Realist astuteness didn’t allow her to think for long that it ever would. She seems to know that most of us are simply not going to meet someone smarter, more morally courageous, and beautiful than we are - especially if we are, like Austen’s women, already the smartest person in the room.
You have to look for it, but it’s grit that you can find right here, in the stories - hidden, by Austen, in plain sight.
But as adept as Austen was at showing us the complicated realities of the lived experiences of women, still she used, and devised, that romantic structure to not only subvert established notions but also to provide us all - and perhaps herself - with an imaginary escape into the dream-land of a Marriage Plot featuring an intellectually challenging, fiercely equal and authentically intimate relationship. And here we are more than 200 years later, still dreaming.
So what’s really going on in Austen, that even to this day we don’t point out or consciously realize a lot of the time - is that the women being rescued happen to be the smartest character in the small rooms they inhabit - and they are transcending, through a resourceful, intense inner life and mind, the banality and absurdity of the Regency rooms and worlds they inhabit.
Still with me here?
Let’s take them two at a time, and look first at the most obvious and complicated two heroines of Austenland: Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse. And then we’ll look at the leading men who help them transcend their worlds: Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley.
First, Eliza: Within the first seven short chapters of Pride and Prejudice, we know the exact income, the housing situation - renting or owning, new-ish or ancient properties - and the intelligence levels of all of the principal characters, including Mr. Bingley, the Lucases, Darcy, and the Bennets.
While our leading men are notoriously judgey (looking at you, Knightley, Darcy, Henry Tilney), the real measuring up is being done as an aside to us, dear reader. So it is our illustrious, intimate Narrator, or Austen herself, who is immediately, thoroughly, and consistently taking stock - and detailing to us, again, the level of their inner resources (their intelligence, their temperament) and their outer resources (the solidity of their housing, or lack thereof; their 10,000 pounds, or hundred thousand pounds, or a mere 4,000 pounds in Mrs. Bennet’s case).
And, again: Eliza and Emma are smarter than everyone around them. Let’s take it first from the haughty, prideful Darcy himself, who, as soon as he disallows any redeemable features, to his friends the Bingleys, quickly reverses himself and notices that Eliza’s face is, hilariously, “rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.” (Vol I, Chapter 6).
People, if we did not realize we are in Romantic turnabout territory yet, perhaps our first clue is that we here are experiencing the relentless Male Gaze of a Regency gent who has deemed our heroine beautiful and intelligent in the same sentence, with the intelligence being the characteristic that leads the way.
The powerful thing that Austen does with Eliza’s interiority is to return that Male Gaze with an equally-discerning and “satirical” Female Gaze. Eliza can judge and disparage with the best of them. She can be, and is, just as biting, self-righteous, harsh, and wrong as Darcy. And just as superior.
And while her superiority - her intelligence, and her discerning judgement on the characters and absurdities of those around her - is set up early on, she is also early on set up as Darcy’s equal in terms of both judgement, discernment and sins of pride.
So, when these two come together on the dance floor, it is not a demure female being pursued by an authoritarian male; it is a clash of the titans. This is, by the way, a clash that we as readers can enjoy more than as viewers, since the novels allow us to engage with the inner evolutions and inner workings of both Darcy and Elizabeth, while the screen adaptations are more restricted to physical blocking.
And on the dance floor, Austen spells it out: Eliza tells Darcy (while dancing, no less): “We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room.” (Vol. I, Chapter 18).
… the women being rescued happen to be the smartest, kindest and strongest of character in the small rooms they inhabit …
As for Emma - She too is superior to those around her, and therein lies her problem. Especially for Knightley - through him we learn that “Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old, she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. … And ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all.” (Volume I, Chapter 5)
As it happens, Knightley tells us that she is also phenomenally good-looking, but, not surprisingly, that’s not much of a problem for him. Her vanity “lies another way.”
In other words, it’s her intelligence that is elevating her so far above those around her, including her father and her governess, and that is the problem - as frankly laid out by Knightley.
And here it’s foreshadowed that Knightley - himself vastly superior, of course, in inner and outer resources of discernment, intelligence, and housing - aims to do something about this.
Another clash of the titans is promised. And delivered - one of the best lines from Emma the novel is missed in the screen stories, when Knightley turns one of his most frustrating, anger-inducing tirades to Emma into a compliment.
Criticizing (judging) the flattering, false behavior of Frank Churchill, Knightley tells her, “My dear Emma, your own good sense could not endure such a puppy when it came to the point.” (Vol. I, Chapter 18)
Austen’s Happy Endings
And so with Eliza and her resolve to impertinence, our challenge is set up for the reader: Alas, the superior, intelligent, impertinent heroine of our story might have met her match.
And as we all know the match indeed will be met, after some sparring and jostling for position.
And ultimately, the Happy Ever After arises when the prototypically powerful, propertied Male sweeps this young woman - clever as she may be - off her feet and carries her off to a large estate (or if he is Henry Tilney or Edmund Bertram, a comfortable parsonage).
So, when these two come together on the dance floor, it is not a demure female being pursued by an authoritarian male; it is a clash of the titans.
So how, exactly, is this subversion of the form?
Here’s an important answer, and it’s the most obvious one of all, but nevertheless one that we should keep in mind: It’s a fantasy.
The brilliant scholars Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar talk of a sort of duality within Austen - her upending of tradition by highlighting the precarities, the injustices, the confines of women’s lived experience in her stories, unresolved by her capitulation to the traditional, romantic happy ending.
But maybe, just maybe, this was not a Problem for Austen. Maybe she simply provided her brilliantly-realized, complicated, smart heroines with an escape hatch. Maybe she was just having fun?
It may or may not be as simple as that. My understanding is that Jane Austen was working within the traditional Marriage Plot. Like Shakespeare did with so many of his gender-busting, class-defying stories, she worked within the genre to not only parody but at the same time elicit empathy for the precarity, even the oppressive, structures Regency-era women endured. Within the form of a romantic comedy, she makes us see the unfairness of it all.
She humanized her heroines - made them “rational creatures,” who are pained and suffer from their confinements.
And then, after convincing us of their rationality, and even of their superiority -unfairly restrained as it is within the narrow confines of their world -Austen gives our heroines an escape.
It’s not a guide to life: Austen herself never managed to achieve it, after all.
It’s a fantasy. It’s romance. And it is, to this day, an awful lot of fun.
My friends, what do you think? Have I convinced you?
What are the favorite ways that Emma, Eliza, Catherine, Anne, and Fanny - and insert your favorite Austen character here - are smarter and nicer, and just better, than everyone around them?
Why do we still - whatever our identity of gender, sexual orientation, race, or class - still seem to like the idea of finding a romantic match that is even smarter, kinder and stronger than ourselves? Someone who will carry us away from all this?
Let me know all your thoughts!
You can comment below, connect on Twitter at @AustenConnect, and/or email me AustenConnection@gmail.com
Meanwhile, wherever you are, stay safe and well and happy in this world,, with comfort, and joy,
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