Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Lady Susan, Individualism, and the (Dys)functional Family

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Lady Susan, Individualism, and the (Dys)functional Family

Article excerpt

THE RUBRIC FOR THIS YEAR'S annual general meeting, "Jane Austen's Brothers and Sisters," is especially well served by the author who has brought us all together. There are the well-known biographical details of course: brother Henry's affectionate notice, which appeared in the posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, identifying Jane as the author of those novels and of the four she had published previously; and, even more important, sister Cassandra, Jane's primary and cherished correspondent during their various separations. But Jane Austen's novels tell a somewhat different story about the family. In the novels, siblings (or sibling surrogates and in-laws) are not always loved or cherished, particularly by one another, but they are literally everywhere, constituting a social field, in effect, from which the Austen heroine must be extricated for the novels to function as they do.

This emancipation, in many ways a quarantine from family, is readily accomplished by the mode of narration we associate with Austen, where the heroine's consciousness--say Emma Woodhouse's or Anne Elliot's--operates as a filter or lens through which the events and developments in their respective narratives are refracted, conferring a depth and singularity on the heroine that the characters surrounding her, notably her siblings, are generally denied. Or to borrow a terminology used recently by Deidre Lynch, the Austen heroine invariably stands as a "round" and complex character, for better or for worse, amid other characters that are comparatively flat and thematic. Although flat characters, as Lynch argues, are akin to caricatures or cartoons, they are also, as she describes them, characters defined by context as opposed to characters "who take on lives of their own and who thereby escape their social as well as textual contexts" (9). To be flat, then--in the way that, say, Fitzwilliam Darcy and George Knightley are fiat or, in their cases, gentlemanlike--is not necessarily a bad thing in Austen or the largely satirical device it becomes in the examples of either Mrs. Elton or Mrs. Bennet. Nor is it the case always that a fiat character remains flat. The narrator of Austen's novels is a capricious storyteller, conferring roundness or what amounts to temporary depth and autonomy on the likes of Captain Wentworth by way of humanizing him, both as a potential mate and a desirable partner for a heroine who, in the absence of characters like her--that is, those with a recoverable or discoverable depth--appears at times to belong to a different species altogether.

To be sure, it is the narrator--or "Jane Austen" as some of us prefer to call her--who remains the arbiter throughout, demonstrating how a given psychology, for which depth or roundness is naturally a prerequisite, can be limiting even as it is clearly humanizing. Such limitations are evident in Elizabeth Bennet's prejudice and in Emma Woodhouse's tendency to imagine the world according to her predilections, both of which can be attributed to a psychology that Austen labors mightily in each case to reconstruct and represent. At the same time, Elizabeth's prejudice has a dimensionality to it, partly as a trait inherited from her father but more generally as a coping mechanism in a world where marriage is tantamount to survival, that Darcy's pride consistently lacks. We know or can easily infer from Darcy's aunt, Lady Catherine, that pride probably runs in the Darcy family. Still, in contrast to Darcy, who arrives on the scene fully formed as a prideful, if still interesting, character, the psychology from which Elizabeth's prejudice springs--particularly when provoked by circumstance--has an etiology or basis or justification that Darcy's snobbery never fully references. And in this sense Darcy, like Lady Catherine again, is a flat character: a well-born, entitled aristocrat, who is programmed, in effect, to look down on others with the same diminished, or foreshortened, (in)humanity that a character such as Collins displays in the hope of receiving Darcy's notice and to rise in the world. …

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