Jane Austen’s women are so wrong they're almost right
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Greetings to you, and hope we’re all surviving the heat and the back-to-school and end-of-season transitions. Glad you are here!
Let’s talk about Jane Austen’s heroines. First of all, they’re some of our best friends, are they not? We know their intimate histories and we celebrate and agonize over them and with them all day long, those of us electing to hang out in this Jane Austen universe.
And one of our favorite things about these heroines, from Lizzy Bennet and Catherine Morland to Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse, is how Austen gives them intelligence, strength, and expectation-defying agency, yet at the same time allows them to be oh-so-wrong about various things, or everything, sometimes for the entire length of a long novel. (Looking at you, Miss Woodhouse).
And when you think about it, every heroine of Jane Austen - with one exception that proves the rule - is wrong about something.
And usually our heroines are not only wrong, but wrong in a way that drives the entire enterprise - challenging our assumptions and expectations (this is always happening, as we’re always pointing out!) in ways that reveal the philosopher, humanist, and artist in its creator: Jane Austen, ladies and gentlemen.
[O]ur heroines are not only wrong, but wrong in a way that drives the entire enterprise - challenging our assumptions and expectations … in ways that reveal the philosopher, humanist, and artist in its creator: Jane Austen, ladies and gentlemen.
So after a recent post about anti-heroines and Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland and some wildly indulgent (thank you for indulging us) parallels to Alia Shawkat’s character in the TV series Search Party, we asked about heroines and anti-heroines on the twitter, and received a storm of a reply, friends!
So we’re providing a parade of your answers in this post - below - and feel free to skip through to the end if that’s what you’re after! Also, it’s not too late to weigh in: What is your favorite example of a wrong heroine from Jane Austen? You can let us know here, and also at the end of this post.
Too long for email! If you are getting this post by email, it will be cut off at the end - but you can simply click the link at the end to continue and view the Twitter conversation, and you can always read the entire post on the Austen Connection site.
Here we go - let’s look at the Wrongness of Austen’s heroines and what Austen’s doing with that Wrongness, because, as we always point out, she’s doing something - of that you can be sure!
Lizzy’s snap judgments
Elizabeth Bennet is, of course, wrong about Mr. Darcy. And she’s even more wrong about Mr. Wickham, which in its essence is being wrong about Mr. Darcy. This is what the whole Pride vs. Prejudice is about. She makes a snap judgment, understandably, based on Wickham’s direct lies but also on Darcy’s own arrogance, but then she is quite slow to discover either his true character, or her own feelings, which lucky for us readers requires the entire length of a novel.
It’s a little difficult to catch Elizabeth in her wrongness because she is otherwise so self-assured, lively, and clever - not to mention judgmental, a trait both she and her future husband share and with fairly good reason.
Because it’s easy to miss, we’re including here an entire wonderful passage that exhibits both Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s play of mind that is so wonderful and smoldering, but also exhibits how wrong Elizabeth is in her judgment.
To set it up: They are dancing-while-arguing in a scene that ignites the spark that will smolder for the rest of the novel as Lizzy jibes at Darcy about the necessity of making conversation while dancing, a scene we love in the adaptations, where Elizabeth says, “It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy.”
And it’s easy to overlook the way that this scene deepens, to move on to Elizabeth observing in a way that connects the two of them in our minds immediately and forever: “I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds …”
But it goes on, and deepens further into a conversation about Wickham, where Elizabeth accuses Darcy of rejecting Wickham “and in a manner which Wickham is likely to suffer from all his life.”
So as they dance, Lizzy is throwing up not only Wickham, but also the suffering of Wickham! LOL.
But it gets worse, to a degree we did not remember until we went looking for the Wrongness of Lizzy. Here’s the ultimate wrongheaded exchange, as Elizabeth frankly interrogates Darcy about his attitudes toward humanity, with Wickham as the background subject of this interrogation - take it away, Lizzy:
“I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave, that your resentment once created was unappeasable. You are very cautious, I suppose, as to its being created.”
“I am,” said he, with a firm voice.
“And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?”
“I hope note.”
“It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”
“May I ask to what these questions tend?”
“Merely to the illustration of your character,” said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. “I am trying to make it out.”
“And what is your success?”
She shook her head. “I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.”
“I can readily believe,” answered he gravely, “that report may vary greatly with respect to me; and I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either.”
(Volume I, Chapter XVIII)
Here we have Darcy, and Austen through him, basically requesting that Elizabeth not rush to judgment and prejudice or pride, and to hold back from a complete “sketch” of his character - and the irony that is so brilliant and funny here is that of course he’s explicitly asking Elizabeth to not do what she’s actually accusing him of doing to Wickham: rushing to judgment. And both of them throughout this conversation are struggling - both are attempting to shrug off “gravity.”
The smartest thing Elizabeth says in this entire exchange is: “I am trying to make it out.” She should continue trying, as Darcy is asking her to. And the discerning reader sees the seriousnesss in the background, and can sense the confused wrongness of Lizzy’s point of view.
All this wrongness might be one of the most enjoyable things about Pride and Prejudice. The ways that Elizabeth is wrong - even as, again, she is smarter and righter than her mother, her father, Mr. Darcy, the clergyman Mr. Collins, her smart, loving friend Charlotte Lucas, and most everyone around her - she’s still wrong about the true nature of not only Mr. Wickham but also Mr. Darcy and she’s especially wrong, and oblivious, to that glorious thing that the reader is quickly let in on: Darcy’s “bewitched” feelings for her.
And so we get to sit, ringside, as this smart, lively human figures it out - and we get to wonder whether or not it’ll happen. (Spoiler alert: it happens!) And so when Darcy and Elizabeth come together, it’s that wrongness being made into empowerment, improvement, and evolution of character through love, communication, and connection - all of which makes their coming-right so spectacularly wonderful.
At the heart of this story is a young human finding not only love but finding herself.
In an entirely wrongheaded-world of her own: Miss Morland
Catherine Morland, as we wrote about extensively in this “Wrong Girl” post, has so much wrong-headedness going on that her wrongness powers and animates the suspense and the plot of Northanger Abbey.
Through the power of imagination, she’s getting it all wrong about Isabella, about John (though she figures him out pretty quickly), about the nature of great English houses and their propensity for mystery and murder, and she’s getting it wrong about Henry Tilney’s family.
But also getting it right about Henry Tilney’s family.
So there it is, as we have said: As wrong as naive Catherine Morland is, she’s righter than you, Henry.
Lovely Marianne? Perfect Elinor? Also wrong.
Marianne is of course first wrong, and spectacularly so, about Willoughby. One of the most famous wrong choices of classic literature.
But we forget - she’s also even more wrong throughout this novel about the person who might be the most heroic of all Austen heroes: Colonel Brandon!
And Elinor, right in so many ways, ends up being rightfully wrong about Marianne, and her engagement to Willoughby. Elinor is so good herself she simply assumes that her sister must be engaged to Willoughby, based on Marrianne’s elaborate carrying-on. But she’s wrong!
Here’s a crucial conversation in Sense and Sensibility, when Elinor confronts their laid-back mother about the sudden departure and abrupt change in Willoughby, Elinor’s confusion and concern over it, and whether or not the Marianne and Willoughby have a proper engagement arranged.
Here’s Elinor talking to Mrs. Dashwood of Willoughby, and being so sensible but yet deciding on a course of non-action and non-communication that is going to take her and Marianne down the wrong path:
“In such a a case, a plain and open avowal of his difficulties would have been more to his honour I think, as well as more consistent with his general character;—but I will not raise objections against any one’s conduct on so illiberal a foundation, as a difference in judgment from myself, or a deviation from what I may think right and consistent.” (Volume I, Chapter XVI)
And through Elinor - smart, courageous, right-in-so-many-ways Elinor - and her ultimate wrongness, we are shown something: that even a smart, right, courageous young woman can be duped or misguided in ways that can be dangerous.
Through Elinor, Austen warns female readers: Get it right! And also male readers: Get it right!
Miss Emma Woodhouse: Making a career out of wrongness
Emma Woodhouse of course is the Wrongest heroine in all of Austen - she’s made an entire career, and made the careers of critics, out of her Wrongness. And like Catherine Morland, Emma enjoys an entire narrative about that wrongness.
And a favorite theme to uphold is how Emma repents of that wrongness. But we’d like to go out on a limb and suggest that those little glimpses of future marital life and strife that Austen gives hold every promise of Mrs. Knightley’s continuing to be Wrong and continuing in her career of secrecy and subterfuge - though possibly a toned down version.
Remember that little detail in the post-proposal scene with Mr. Knightley and Emma, when he is giving her the fantastic news of Harriet Smith’s betrothal to Mr. Robert Martin, finally and in spite of Emma’s wrong-headed dealings to misdirect Harriet’s affections, which have ended up landing on Knightley himself - something Emma never feels she can confess? We have in this scene one of Jane Austen’s layered conversations. We have Knightley talking and Emma thinking, and looking away and down and anywhere else but at her future husband. And the narrator, through free indirect discourse, is simultaneously revealing those thoughts and feelings to us.
And even though Knightley has expressed to Emma that sincere, truthful candor in all their dealings with each other is the way forward, Emma is withholding her intense joy and relief that Harriet may indeed be engaged to Robert Martin (and disengaged from her unhappiness and her unreturned affections for Knightley, which are Emma’s fault.) And Emma even goes so far as to doubt that Knightley heard Mr. Martin correctly: Was Martin really talking about Harriet, or was he perhaps talking about “the dimensions of some famous ox” Emma asks. To which Knightley replies, “Do you dare say this?” He does not know the half of it.
Here’s Emma’s final inner reflections on the subject, once she is alone with her thoughts:
High in the rank of her most serious and heartfelt felicities, was the reflection that all necessity of concealment from Mr. Knightley would soon be over. The disguise, equivocation, mystery, so hateful to her to practice, might soon be over. She could now look forward to giving him that full and perfect confidence which her disposition was most ready to welcome as a duty.” (Volume III, XVIII)
But perhaps not so fast. All this candor and openness is placed firmly in the future. And we sense that Emma, though changed, is not completely changed. She’s still talking to herself. And she is always going to contain multitudes, while Knightley is always going to have his work cut out for him.
Take it away, fanfic writers - and best wishes, Mr. and Mrs. Knightley!
Fanny Price, Regency nightmare
Fanny Price appears to be an exception that proves the rule. She is Right, yes, but she is Right to an intolerable extreme.
Because not only is Fanny Price always right; everyone around her who appears to be Most Correct in fact turns out to be desperately and dangerously wrong in this hellscape of a novel.
Even Edmund, and even Patriarchal Sir Thomas, whom we look to with Fanny as the voice of reason, could not be more wrong.
Fanny’s Rightness and Wrongness are so very interesting! As we’ve said before, Fanny Price goes from mousy to monstrous. But in a good way. Fanny’s correct-ness throughout this novel (and in direct proportion to the Wrongness of everyone around her) shows us something important - it shows us that Fanny is beating the Bertrams at their own game. As she ascends, they descend, and proportionally.
Fanny is in fact the Destroyer.
Fanny’s correct-ness throughout this novel (and in direct proportion to the Wrongness of everyone around her) shows us something important - it shows us that Fanny is beating the Bertrams at their own game. As she ascends, they descend, and proportionally.
And in Regency-world one couldn’t come right out and destroy, one had to ugly-cry and submit in order to dominate. (If, as Brandon Taylor offers, Mary Crawford is a top, then Fanny Price is topping from the bottom, friends.)
She is going to destroy. That is going to happen. But in order to keep us reading, Jane had to make her the Ultimate Regency Ideal Woman - and that means Fanny has to be a passive-receptacle-martyrous-angel.
But it turns out Fanny Price is the Regency’s worst nightmare. She makes a religion out of being personally correct. And in doing so she is, ultimately, an avenger.
Yes, Fanny is right and not wrong, but with all of these complexities she just doesn’t count! She’s so right that everyone around her is wronger than can be! She’s so right we’re desperate for her to be wrong!
And Fanny is not Rightness Personified accidentally. We are inhabiting all this Outrageous Rightness for a reason. And perhaps that reason is to force us to see through this extreme rightness the difficulty of actually achieving the standards being upheld, wrapped as they are in hypocrisy, disparity, injustice and marginalization (yes it is all there in Mansfield, friends, that parkland is the underworld), and to force us to think through the reasonableness of these expectations.
We are inhabiting all this Outrageous Rightness for a reason. And perhaps that reason is to force us to see through this extreme rightness the difficulty of actually achieving the standards being upheld, wrapped as they are in hypocrisy, disparity, injustice and marginalization … and to force us to think through the reasonableness of these expectations.
We find, do we not, that we don’t want Fanny to be good anymore. We’re sick of her goodness. It makes us “sick and wicked,” to use Jane Austen’s own words.
And as we are sick and wicked, we are responding, reacting, and thinking about how we got here, and we are rethinking what it all means.
The incredible rightness of being: Anne Elliot
Like Fanny Price, Anne Elliot is a character so right - but in this case also profoundly lovable, quite an achievement - that any wrong moves on her part are only there to accentuate the rightness of a young woman navigating life with courage, sincerity, integrity, and searching for love and meaning.
Oh how we love her for it.
But of course Anne Elliot’s life is permeated, as the story of Persuasion is permeated, by one perceived wrong decision that we are forced throughout this novel to relive, reconsider, and agonize over: Anne’s decision to follow Lady Russell’s advice to decline Captain Wentworth’s proposal and to let him go.
And while Austen drags us through this agony for 24 chapters, she does in the end, as always, offer us a post-game analysis that simply and candidly tells us what to think: And what we are to think is that Anne is both right and wrong. She was correct in following Lady Russell’s advice given Anne’s youth, inexperience, and given Lady Russell’s huge role in Anne’s life. But because Lady Russell was perhaps wrong (and even in this we are invited to think critically) Anne herself may have taken the wrong path.
But even as Austen reveals and revels in this Great Wrong that animates the novel, ultimately, as with Fanny Price, she uses the wrong to show the rightness of Anne - her correct regard for her family friend and elder who had taken the place of a parent, and most importantly to show the wrongness of Captain Wentworth.
Yes, that’s correct: When it’s all said, done, sealed, delivered, the narrator of Persuasion places the blame squarely on Captain Wentworth - and Wentworth willingly accepts it. He’s much happier, it turns out, being wrong than being Wronged.
When it’s all said, done, sealed, delivered, the narrator of Persuasion places the blame squarely on Captain Wentworth - and Wentworth willingly accepts it. He’s much happier, it turns out, being wrong than being Wronged.
And friends, this novel that is so steeped in a sense of time and past regret and future hope, is really not about the Past Eight Years of separation; but it turns out that because of Wentworth’s own wrongheadedness, it comes down to the Past Six Years. Six years that were unnecessary separation - when Wentworth willfully stayed away because of his own pride and resentment.
Here’s the breakdown of all this resolution, from Persuasion - we start with Anne:
“I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend …”
[Wentworth:] “… But I too have been thinking over the past, and a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady? My own self. Tell me if, when I returned to England in the year eight, with a few thousand pounds … would you have answered my letter? would you, in short, have renewed the engagement then?”
“Would I!” was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough. (Chapter XXIII)
What we have in this penultimate passage between Anne and Wentworth is an explicit explanation following chapters of uncertainty and confusion: While Anne has guided the reader through an entire novel’s worth of doubt and regret over the possible wrongnesss of her decision, which the reader has certainly been invited to share, in the end it is only to highlight the actual wrongness of a “too proud” Wentworth, who had every opportunity and agency in coming to her where she was, and did not.
Her perceived wrong decision only points in the end to his - giving her every rightness, and giving her future husband the task of resigning himself only to “being happier than I deserve.”
Some men just don’t like being driven. And some just don’t like being taken for a ride.
By showing us heroines, and anti-heroines, who are smarter than the rest, exhibiting agency (some sooner like Emma, some later like Fanny), and yet still Getting it Wrong - Austen is forcing an examination of everything. If Emma and Anne can give it right back to men like Mr. Knightley and Captain Wentworth, challenging assumptions and authority, then we’re all being challenged along the way and we’re in for a ride.
In fact, as it turns out it’s us - we readers - who are the Wrongest of all. And it’s Austen herself who is the Most Right. That’s fine - that is what an author gets to do: to argue, to seduce, to orchestrate, to take wild turns, and ultimately to win the argument.
It reminds me of a scene from James Bond - in Thunderball, after a death-defying car-ride with Luciana Paluzzi driving recklessly and joyfully, she pulls up to the curb, let’s him out of the car, and says demurely, “You look pale … some men just don’t like being driven.” And Sean Connery hits back with, “Some men just don’t like being taken for a ride.”
When you are the author you get to drive, and y’all Jane Austen is taking us all for a ride.
It’s Austen’s story, Austen’s heroine, her writing, her world; it’s Austen’s vehicle and she’ll take us where she wants in it.
In fact, as it turns out it’s us - we readers - who are the Wrongest of all. And it’s Austen herself who is the Most Right. That’s fine - that is what an author gets to do: to argue, to seduce, to orchestrate, to make wild turns, and ultimately to win the argument.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again - all the complexity, the complications, the conundrums that delight and entertain us are also revealing the creator of these stories to be a humanist, a rationalist enlightenment thinker, a realist writer and a basic badass artist driving us through these stories that we’re still navigating today.
Thank you for being here, friends.
Keep reading for the parade of Twitter wrong-ness that we loved - and let us know right here your own favorite wrong-headed heroine of Jane Austen.
Stay in touch, stay well, and have a beautiful weekend.
Your wrong-headed friend always,
You’re brilliant - thank you, Jane Austen Twitter!
And now a word from our friends in Jane Austen Twitter. What is your favorite anti-heroine? We asked and many of you weighed in.
Here’s our question:
Novelist Jessica Bull kicks off this parade with a revisioning of Emma Woodhouse as Ms. Ariana Grande, saying to Frank Churchill and perhaps to the entire population of Highbury, “Thank you, next.”
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