Which Jane Austen Character Do You Most Indentify With?

Gentle Readers, Vic  from Jane Austen’s World and I both freely admit to being passionate Jane Austen fans, which tends to infiltrate our everyday world in ways that have us viewing friends and ourselves through Austen’s unique prism. Here is a bit of fun today for your amusement:

LA: Vic and I were chatting on the phone today. Over the course of our three plus year Austen-inspired friendship we have mostly emailed, so this was a treat. She has the most infectious laugh which made me laugh too. Of course we were talking about our favorite author and she remarked that Austen excelled at humor and the amazing secondary characters she developed. Somehow it just popped out and I boldly asked her what Jane Austen character she most identified with. Without hesitation she replied, Lady Russell from Persuasion. “Lady Russell?” I replied in surprise! “Well, yes.”

Jane Rus.., er, Mrs. Russell

She then revealed that she is often wrong about the advice she gives people. At work she gathers the young-uns around her and freely offers opinions, whether they are solicited or not. When she gives wrong counsel – which she admits is more often than not – she torpedos herself in a most spectacular fashion. “The error of my ways does not go unnoticed by this unforgiving crowd. Unlike Lady Russell, I will own up to a misteak, er, mistake or two, and apologize for having interfered, but I hold the line at groveling.”

Another reason why she identifies with this character is her independence. Lady Russell is a widow with a healthy income and she has no intention of remarrying and being subjugated by a man. “I am a divorced woman who has discovered the joys of living singly on my own terms and by my own schedule. Ah, what total, selfish bliss!”

Vic further admitted that at a party, or when she lets her hair loose, she starts to resemble Mrs. Jennings. You know the type: a bit vulgar, out for a good time, giggling at precisely the wrong moments, and making those with a more composed nature feel uncomfortable with crass jokes and loud language. “Like Mrs. Jennings, I have a good heart. But I can be out there and in your face too. I might seem unseemly to a quieter person like Elinor, and be totally disliked by the likes of a Marianne, but my friends and family get me, and that’s what counts.”

Oh Vic! You are such a card. Lady Russell and Mrs. Jennings? She then turned the tables on me. “Now, who do you identify with in Jane’s novels? Are you like me, a bossy and interfering carouser? Or are your a bit more sedate and ladylike?”

Harriet Smith (Tony Collette) patiently poses for Emma

Vic: “Sedate. A total Harriet Smith,” LA replied. Many years ago a dear Janeite friend tagged her as a Harriet to her Emma. “It seemed appropriate since I was often asking for advice and was very mailable to change.” In her view, Harriet was a bit of a ditz and gullible which she has been accused of too. The thing she liked about being a Harriet is that Austen gave her such a great ending. She is resilient, and after being tossed about in love no less than three times in a year, Harriet gets the man she wanted in the first place and proves Emma, with her self-important airs, was totally clueless about the human heart. “I like having the last laugh, and being right.” ;-)

Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy) and Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs)

Lately LA thinks she has evolved into Sir John Middleton from Sense and Sensibility. He was the Dashwood’s cousin and landlord of Barton Cottage. He is very gracious and likes to pop in and make sure his tenants are comfortable and entertained. He is a bit of a bore and talks too much about things that are not of interest to his young companions, but he likes dogs, has a good heart and loves to laugh. “As an enthusiastic bookseller, I like to inform customers of their choices and make suggestions. I am also a bit of an organizer and enjoy planning events on my blog, and orchestrating the 23 authors in my anthology. It is like herding cats, but I like being the boss of my own world!”

One man’s ways may be as good as another’s, but we all like our own best. Persuasion, Ch 13

Now our question. Which Jane Austen character do you, estimable viewer, most identify with, or which character are you afraid of becoming? Feel free to leave your comments!

Emma Woodhouse: Poverty, Marriage & Pedestals!

Illustration by Edmund H. Garrett, Emma, Roberts Bros, Boston (1892)“Dear me! it is so odd to hear a woman talk so!”  

“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.”  

“But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!”  

“That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet; and if I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly — so satisfied — so smiling — so prosing — so undistinguishing and unfastidious — and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. But between us, I am convinced there never can be any likeness, except in being unmarried.”  

“But still, you will be an old maid — and that’s so dreadful!”  

“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse, Emma, Chapter 10 

Miss Emma Woodhouse is such a prig! She proclaims that only poverty makes an old maid contemptible. Oh really? She need not marry because it offers her nothing that she does not already possess: fortune, employment or consequence. Arrogance! The first time a read Emma, I scowled so much my face hurt. 

Some readers complain that they can not identify with Emma. Jane Austen has certainly created “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” It is difficult for a reader to sympathize with her struggles, because her arrogance is her biggest fault, and who can feel empathy with that? When I think of other literary heroines we love to hate, I think of Scarlet O’Hara, that smug southern belle in Gone With the Wind. Even though we want to give them both a swift kick in the rear, we are mesmerized over the prospect of what silliness they will do next and who will eventually knock them off their self appointed pedestals. It’s along fall, but worth the wait! 

*Illustration by Edmund H. Garrett, Emma, Chapter 10, Roberts Bros, Boston (1892)

Vintage flourish urn

Austen’s Emma: Dear Miss Woodhouse, do advise me.

Illustration by Philip Gough, Emma, McDonald & Co, (1948)“I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him. If she can hesitate as to “‘Yes,'” she ought to say “‘No'” directly. It is not a state to be safely entered into with doubtful feelings, with half a heart. I thought it my duty as a friend, and older than yourself, to say thus much to you. But do not imagine that I want to influence you.” Emma Woodhouse, Emma, Chapter 7 

Have you ever been in the position to advise a friend on a serious decision knowing full-well what the practical decision should be, – but held back your true opinion for fear of it turning around and biting you in the rear? I was faced with such a dilemma this week, and I was reminded of this passage in Emma. Did I take the high road you ask, or the Woodhouse way? 

Jane Austen’s heroine Emma Woodhouse knows the power of a friendly omission, actually taking it one step further adding clever manipulation to achieve her goal. She advises her friend Harriet Smith by not advising her at all; – asking well placed questions that prompt Harriet’s insecurity, and skillfully guides her toward the decision that Emma wants her to make. Scary stuff! 

Illustration by Philip Gough, Emma, McDonald & Co, London, (1948)

This scene was one of the earliest examples in the novel of how full of herself Miss Woodhouse can be. I have often wondered how a young woman raised without a mother and in a secluded environment learned how to be so conniving beyond her years. The way she moves the conversation away from her having to give Harriet a direct answer to Harriet coming to the conclusion that she should decline Robert Martins proposal is disturbing. 

Some people might admire her strength of conviction and say her cunning was ingenious, but it just throws up a big red flag for me. How can we like a heroine who is so controlling? What will she do next to poor naïve Harriet and the rest of the Highbury community? Was Jane Austen correct in warning her family that she had created a heroine “whom no-one but myself will much like.”? 

Illustration by Philip Gough, Emma, McDonald & Co, London (1948)

Anyone who has read the novel or seen one of the movies knows the answer, but did you also remember the lesson that Jane Austen gave us about advice and when it turns to avarice? I did, and it may have saved me from a very uncomfortable situation. 

*Illustrations by Philip Gough, Emma, McDonald & Co, London, 1948

A valuable woman

Image of watercolour painting of poet Sara Coleridge & Edith May Warter, by Edward Nash (1820)VALUABLE

“I cannot rate her beauty as you do,” said he; “but she is a pretty little creature, and I am inclined to think very well of her disposition. Her character depends upon those she is with; but in good hands she will turn out a valuable woman.”Mr. Knightley on Harriet Smith, Emma, Chapter 8

Ah, Harriet Smith, that dear docile creature. So willingly amenable to Emma’s advice and guidance. Sweet natured and supple. Putty, ready to be sculpted into the woman that Emma thinks she ought to be.

Some say that she is a sop, but I LOVE Harriet. Pure of heart, even tempered, and truly artless. Jane Austen has given us a treasure to cherish and root for.

Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition; was totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to. Her early attachment to herself was very amiable; and her inclination for good company, and power of appreciating what was elegant and clever, shewed that there was no want of taste, though strength of understanding must not be expected. Ch 4 

 Even Mr. Knightley, the voice of reason and authority in the novel, who was at first opposed to Emma’s choice of companion, later thinks very highly of her. So why do some misguided souls dislike her?

Image of the cover of Emma, published by Dover Publications (1999)I have heard/read shocking slander about her character. In the introduction to the novel in the Dover (1999) edition of Emma, Harriet is described as “pretty but dreary“; from the on-line article The Modern Sorcerer, author Scott Horton thinks Harriet is “the naïve and rather simple illegitimate daughter of a somebody“; and in The Enigma that is Harriet Smith, further debasement by Ivor Morris ensues.

The question arises whether Harriet’s moderate mental powers would be a hindrance. Emma sees the want of cleverness as adverse; and our own early impressions are of a thoughtlessness and indecision implicit in the “‘Oh, dear, no'” and “‘Oh! dear, yes!'” of Harriet’s hasty assents during their first walk (87), the see-saw response to Emma’s inference that Mr. Martin does not read – “‘Oh, yes! – that is, no – I do not know – but I believe he has read a good deal – but not what you would think anything of'” (29) – and the agonising at Ford’s as to the destination of the purchased muslin and ribbon.

Ok, enough already. If her greatest faults are that she uses short sentences to express herself, and has difficulty choosing ribbon colours, then I think her critics as snobbish as Emma herself. Honestly, I think that poor Harriet is a target and easy prey to those who choose to place her beneath them because of her social position “the natural daughter of somebody“, her scrambled education at Mrs. Goddard’s School, and her inexperience of the ways of the world. Geesh, give her a break, she’s only 17!

A Study of Dialogism, by Barbara Seeber, McGill Queen Press (2000)For further reading in defence of the amiable Miss Harriet Smith, you will enjoy General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study of Dialogism, by Barbara Karolina Seeber, published by McGill Queen Press (2000), where an entire chapter entitled “Exactly the something which her home required“: The “unmerited punishment” of Harriet Smith, is devoted to the author’s opinions and others, of Miss Smith and how she is solely and undeservedly maligned in the novel. Bravo Babs!

*Image of watercolour portrait of poet Sara Coleridge, and Edith May Warter, by Edward Nash (1820) National Portrait Gallery

English verdure

Illustration by Joan Hassall, View of Abbey-Mill Farm, Emma, Folio Society, London (1961)VERDURE

It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive. The Narrator on Abbey-Mill Farm, Emma, Chapter 42

These poetic lines were prefaced by a description of Abbey-Mill Farm, which Emma and her party of family and friends view on an excursion at Mr. Knightley’s estate, Donwell Abbey. They have assembled to pick strawberries. As they stroll across the countryside, they come to a rise.

it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty. The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.

This is one of the rare instances when Jane Austen gives more than a brief description of the physical environment. When she does elaborate, it is usually by design. In this scene we see the pastoral beauty of the English countryside, specifically the view toward Abbey-Mill Farm, the property of Mr. Knightley and the residence of the prosperous farmer and former beau of Harriet Smith, – – Robert Martin. This is Jane Austen’s underlying irony at it’s best.

This subtle enlightenment places Emma’s disqualification of Robert Martin as a suitor for her protegee Harriet Smith in a new perspective. Previously through Emma’s eyes, we thought that he was a lowly tenant farmer, below the station in life that she feels her friend is equal to. Now we learn of the extent of Abbey-Mill Farm and it’s improvements and question her decision. 

*Illustration by Joan Hassall, “It was a sweet view”, page 285, Emma, published by The Folio Society, London, (1963)

Exceedingly hilarious

Illustration by Niroot Puttapipat, Emma, Chapter 39, Folio Society (2007)EXCEEDINGLY

they had suddenly perceived at a small distance before them, … a party of gipsies. A child on the watch, came towards them to beg; and Miss Bickerton, excessively frightened, gave a great scream, and calling on Harriet to follow her, ran up a steep bank, cleared a slight hedge at the top, and made the best of her way by a short cut back to Highbury. But poor Harriet could not follow. She had suffered very much from cramp after dancing, and her first attempt to mount the bank brought on such a return of it as made her absolutely powerless; and in this state, and exceedingly terrified, she had been obliged to remain. The Narrator on Miss Bickerton & Harriet Smith, Emma, Chapter 39

Jane Austen has such a sense of humour. She has taken a potentially dangerous situation for two young ladies walking in the countryside and turned it around; – -making us laugh at them instead. Miss Bickerton high tails it over a hedge, and poor Harriet unable to follow because of dancers cramp (oh my) is paralyzed with fear, throwing money at the gipsies and begging for mercy. Hilarious!

With my over-active imagination in high gear, I envision Jane Austen as a contemporary woman. No doubt that she would be brilliant at whatever profession that she chose, but I believe that she would excel as a comedy writer, testing her material on her family and friends … “a Gentleman, a Baronet, and a Clergyman go into a pub…”

If you too are feeling in the adventurous spirit and ready for a waggish romp through Regency society, check out Laurie Viera Rigler’s exceedingly hilarious new book, The Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, available at Barnes & Noble Booksellers; – – and join her online at her diverting website.

*Illustration by Niroot Puttapipat, “Such an invitation for attack could not be resisted” page 296, Emma, published by The Folio Society, London (2007)  

Incomprehensible imaginist

Frontis Illustration, Emma, Published by J.M. Dent & Co, LondonIMAGINIST

“Oh! to be sure,” cried Emma, “it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her.” Emma Woodhouse, Emma, Chapter 8

Emma has just told Mr. Knightly that her friend Harriet Smith has declined a marriage proposal from Robert Martin, that he thought was very suitable, but Emma did not. He suspects that Emma’s influence upon Harriet has motivated her decision, and is angered by her interference.

Jane Austen has endowed Emma with an active imagination that fuels the novel along like dry brush to a forest fire. She imagines Harriet is a gentleman’s daughter, (not because she has evidence to support it), and as such, deserves a better match than Robert Martin the tennat farmer. It suits her fancy to influence Harriet, and defends her decision to Mr. Knightly by blaming his objections on the jaded male perspective!

Many Austen scholars have written about Emma the imaginist, crediting Jane Austen for coining the word. You can read further how Emma imagines up all sorts of misapplyments in the novel deemed by many critics to be Austen’s masterpiece, on-line at Mollands circulating library. 

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