Deborah Yaffe

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How dare you?

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 9 2015 02:00PM

It’s not exactly news that we Janeites feel very, very strongly about Jane Austen’s characters. Like, more strongly than we do about most real people. But I was reminded of this fact recently by my own visceral reaction to an article, via the British digital-TV company UKTV, headlined, “Which Austen Couples Would Last?”


Predictably, the piece finds Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet to be a perfect long-term match (“They didn't just fancy each other - they came to genuinely like and admire each other”), and it also gives good odds to Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney, and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars.


Unsurprisingly, though incorrectly, the author is equally certain that Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon are doomed. “Marianne will be hankering for another pretty boy soon enough,” s/he writes, ignoring Jane Austen’s authoritative verdict: “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.”


I’ll grant you that the phrase “in time” has given many of us a pang, as we imagine Marianne initially embarking on marriage without the passion she had expected to feel. But hankering for another pretty boy? Puh-leeze. The point of the book is that she’s learned something. She’s grown up. She’s moved beyond the pretty-boy stage.


Missing the point again, the piece gives us this verdict on Emma and Mr. Knightley: “There's no denying he's good for Emma. . . . But the fact is that Emma, despite playing Cupid for others, never really showed much of a romantic yearning for anyone herself. And there's definitely the sense that she's settling for Mr Knightley simply because getting married is the ‘thing to do’, rather than because she's been overwhelmed by passion. Long-term chances: So-so, but he definitely likes her more than she likes him.”


Um, read the book much? Emma has no social or financial need for marriage. She has already announced to Harriet that she isn’t going to get married merely because it’s the thing to do. She changes her mind precisely because she suddenly realizes who stands at the center of her life, and always has: “Till now that she was threatened with its loss, Emma had never known how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection. Satisfied that it was so, and feeling it her due, she had enjoyed it without reflection; and only in the dread of being supplanted, found how inexpressibly important it had been.”


Personally, I’d say that the intense language of that passage – threat, loss, dread, inexpressible importance -- evinces passionate attachment. Emma’s moral growth and maturation demand that she come to understand her own heart. That's the point of the book. If he likes her more than she likes him, then what has she learned?


Still, my annoyance at the running down of the romantic prospects of these people – sorry, these fictional characters – really hit overdrive when I came to the section on Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth: “They've spent so many years remembering and romanticizing each other, how can they be trusted with their feelings now?. . . Long-term prospects: Dodgy.”


Excuse me? Jane Austen tells us exactly why they can be trusted with their feelings now: “More tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.” And you – you random blogger – dare to question this relationship? I think not.


4 comments
Nov 9 2015 03:31PM by Kirk

Right on Deborah!!!!! I've been thinking about Emma/Mr K recently and that one especially annoys me since Mr K is my favorite hero. There are a few sequels that go that way too....I picture Jane Austen wanting to have "a word" with authors who really mess with her happy endings.

Nov 9 2015 03:59PM by dyaffe

You know, I think you can wonder about how Emma and Mr. Knightley will work out based on their differences in temperament and his sometimes patronizing attitude toward her (admittedly, often wrong-headed) opinions. It seems likely to me that there will be issues in that relationship, as there are in every marriage. I was just irked by the suggestion that she isn't really that into him, since that is something that Jane Austen makes crystal clear. But I suspect a lot of these predictions were based on the movies, not the books. . .

Nov 9 2015 09:05PM by Kirk

Hmmmm....I see. I don't think they will never have any problems...nor do I think that they will fall apart in a couple years...as an unpleasant bit of fan fiction suggests.

I see Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot being almost as happy as Admiral and Mrs. Croft. Mostly calm waters going forward..:)

Nov 9 2015 09:54PM by dyaffe

Yes, I see no reason to anticipate problems for the Wentworths. Among other things, I think Jane Austen implies a strong erotic bond between them, which is not so apparent with some of her other couples. Plus they're older when they get together, and they have learned from their long separation to appreciate this second chance at being together.

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