The Reading Room
Jane Austen and the Perks of Imperfection
After Jane Austen died, her brother Henry penned a "Biographical Notice of the Author" verging on hagiography. The restrained author he depicts--"as she never deserved disapprobation . . . she never met reproof"--evokes a lady who slept in her stays and prayed hourly for world peace.
While Austen was devout, she was no paragon, nor was she interested in depicting one. As she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight, “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.”
Austen's heroines are flawed, and we like them the better for it. During the month of Austen's birthday (16 December), it's worth recalling why, starting with the protagonist of Emma, a heroine whom Austen reputedly said "no one but myself will much like."
Emma's errors alternately incite laughter and outrage. Having encouraged the marriage of her former governess and Mr. Weston, Emma believes she has a talent for matchmaking. She therefore befriends Harriet, a young lady of uncertain birth, and sets out to find her a husband. Why not the local clergyman, Mr. Elton?
One reason is that Harriet loves a farmer, Mr. Smith. Another reason, Emma's brother-in-law suggests, is that Mr. Elton has designs on Emma herself. She secretly laughs at "the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are for ever falling into."
Following the Westons' Christmas Eve party, Emma repents when Mr. Elton proposes to her in the carriage. Initially she attributes his advances to the very good wine at dinner, or what Emma in Douglas McGrath's film adaptation calls "the Party Spirit." Finally Emma has to admit that she erred in believing Mr. Elton to be in love with Harriet: "she had taken up the idea, she supposed, and made everything bend to it."
This is why Emma's story endures. The imperfect heroines of literature interest us because we watch them face our own challenges: finding purpose, understanding others, understanding ourselves.
In Austen's most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, that process is doubled because both hero and heroine overcome their foibles to find happiness together. Moreover, Austen brilliantly shows how they not only fall in love but make each other better.
In their first interaction, the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, laughs at a rich gentleman who refuses to dance with her at an assembly. Mr. Darcy's pride, it seems, prevents him from condescending to "give consequence to young ladies slighted by other men."
Yet the prejudice that Elizabeth develops against him is also a flaw that clouds her judgment. She realizes this point after he proposes (badly!), and she accuses him of a string of offenses (some accurate, some not). Mr. Darcy follows with a letter explaining his past and present conduct. Reading it over and over, Elizabeth comes to see herself as well as Mr. Darcy: "Til this moment, I never knew myself."
Likewise, Mr. Darcy is stunned by Elizabeth's rejection. Part of his identity depends on being the perfect gentleman, so when she lists his flaws, including failing to propose in a "gentlemanlike" manner, he reassesses his sense of superiority.
Austen's novels encourage us to engage in the same process of self-reflection, especially through the process of rereading. One of my students recently said that the first time she read Pride and Prejudice, she loved the plot and identified with the protagonist. The second time, she was able to analyze the characters more objectively. She became, as Adam Smith might say, an impartial spectator, just as Elizabeth learns to see her world and herself more objectively.
Austen's imperfect heroines offer us the opportunity to learn and grow with them, an especially useful exercise as we hurtle toward the end of the year and the promise of a fresh start. There is good reason for Helen Fielding adapting Pride and Prejudice into the modern Bridget Jones's Diary, which starts on New Year's Day.
And if Henry Austen's biography of Austen descends into clichés--"faultless herself, as nearly as human nature can be"-- Austen's novels acknowledge the complexity of developing moral judgment by depicting the imperfect. Watching Emma become "acquainted with her own heart," we see a model to our own self-understanding and the happiness to which it leads.