Regency Impudence: Jane Austen

“..certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.—It depends upon the character of those who handle it.”

–Emma

Thus the heroine describes Frank Churchill, who has surprised her by admitting he posted to London merely to get his hair cut. She knew him to be a charming fellow, with good address and a handsome appearance. From this she inferred him to be of good character and sensibility.

Seems he might have to go back for another haircut.

Now she is not so sure.

Tonnish gentlemen valued a good barber, particularly one who was awake on every suit in the dressing of hair. But Mr. Churchill wasn’t seeking such services because they were scarce in the country. He went to London at great expense and difficulty to attend to his appearance because of the reaction such impulsive conduct would provoke in others.

He was proud, impudently so, of his folly.

Impudence is the lightning rod that strikes the placid treeline of Regency society. Jane Austen uses the impudent character to put her heroes and heroines in a bustle. Her Churchills and Willoughbys and Wickhams bring conflict and disorder to what would normally be harmonious and orderly.

What Marianne saw in him I confess I shall never know.

‘Brandon is just the kind of man,’ said Willoughby one day when they were talking of him together, ‘whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.’

— Sense and Sensibility

Austen heightens the tension the impudent character brings by placing him very near to his polar opposite. Fully aware of this contrast, the impudent Willoughby does not shrink from commenting on Colonel Brandon’s character.  He is so far unrepentant of his impudence he can scarcely refrain from making the insult so exquisitely wrought in the passage above.

What a bore to be like Colonel Brandon. Now this is impudence indeed!

Mr. Wickham is perhaps the most impudent of Austen characters. Without him, the delicious sparring between hero and heroine would be rather less so. It is near the end of  Pride and Prejudice when the author unveils the tip of impudence’s sword, sharpening folly’s dull blade without warning.

When Wickham returns after marrying Lydia, darling Lizzie is amazed.  She expected Lydia to declare herself well-satisfied, for that gel is unthinking folly itself. But Wickham had been positively constrained to enter into wedlock. Chagrined was he? Indeed, no! Miss Bennet learns a valuable lesson from this unveiling, leaving her to resolve privately that henceforth she will “draw no limits in future to the impudence of an impudent man.”

But my favorite illustration of Wickham’s impudence is delivered by Mr. Bennet.  Mr. Collins has the effrontery to warn against an alliance between the rector’s daughter and Mr. Darcy. Couched in the following ode to such unconscious foolishness, Mr. Bennet makes a despairing admission.

“I cannot help giving [Mr. Collins] precedence even over Mr. Wickham, much as I value the impudence and hypocrisy of my son-in-law.”

Mr. Collins is completely unaware of how offensive his conduct is, immersed as he is in self-satisfaction. Mr. Bennet finds this amusing. But he views Wickham’s behavior with grim dismay.  Lydia’s happiness has been placed in careless, selfish hands.

Her father is particularly bothered since he knows Mr. Wickham knows. Impudence is very self-aware. It appreciates the consequences of its conduct.

And impudence doesn’t care.

 

 

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Wordsworth: Edward Ferrars

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) is the Romantic poet who once said he wrote to “shew that men who did not wear fine clothes can feel deeply.”

Austen must have known of his poetry when she wrote Sense and Sensibility. She does not mention the poet in her work, least of all in connection with the slightly awkward Edward Ferrars.

Nevertheless, I believe the screenwriter Andrew Davies was onto something when he included a passage from Wordsworth’s beloved Tintern Abbey in the 1995 film adaptation of Austen’s novel:edward ferrars

I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air…

What connection can one possibly fathom between pedestrian Ferrars and the highflown language of Wordsworth? Besides, it was Willoughby who recited that passage.

Well, I’ll tell you…

A strong theme in Sense and Sensibility is the promotion of honesty, particularly in Christian marriage. Austen was the daughter of a cleric and strongly invested with the ideals of the good old C of E:

He, too, was awkward like Edward Ferrars, with a shy demeanor and a good humour adored by Charles Lamb.

He, too, was awkward like Edward Ferrars, with a shy demeanor and a good humour Charles Lamb adored.

In particular, for Austen, the marriage of men and women who have been transformed through “naked self-disclosure”, who have acknowledged their mistakes and who are now “poised to be active forces for good in their spheres, from village to town to nation to world.” — The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo from a book review by Friar Paul Byrd, to be read in its full content here

Willoughby may have read Wordsworth’s words, but he was a dishonest character and we cannot suppose he felt “sense sublime” at all honestly. Edward Ferrars, on the other hand, was the honest character that Elinor Dashwood needed in a life-long companion. He revealed his mistake in engaging himself to Lucy Steele, yet remained faithful to it, without sentimentality attendant on thwarted love.

Once released, he turned his full devotion to the one he would best love, who was best suited to helping him be fully devoted to the ideal of Sense, versus Sensibility.

Recall how Edward read Cowper, and rather poorly in Marianne’s eyes. He did not fully engage in the feelings of overwrought nature:

“I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees…I have more pleasure in a farm-house than a watch-tower.”

He preferred the honesty of “nature put into practice” — a pleasure taken in nature, yet glorifying the utility it is put to. Any other “romanticizing” of nature is simply that–a useless ornament.

Like love that idles dormant.

The Real Regency Reader: Jane Austen

“It is difficult to think of a novelist who makes reading a more animating part of her characters’ lives than Jane Austen.”

–John Mullan, What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (2013)

We know how Northanger Abbey’s heroine, like Cotillion’s Kitty, was much guided by knowledge gleaned from novels and therefore committed foibles as a result of such reliance. Or Fanny of Mansfield Park who had rather more learning from books than those rich Bertram girls who supposed her ‘stupid at learning.’ Already mentioned is Sir Elliot of Kellynch Hall in Persuasion whose reading was limited to the Baronetage and so, too, was his conversation. Recall in Pride and Prejudice Miss Bingley’s spectacular attempts at diverting Mr. Darcy from his book when a day earlier she had attacked our darling Lizzie for not playing cards because she loved books.

1940's Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier

1940’s Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier

I did not understand the significance of reading in Jane Austen’s world until it was illuminated by Professor Mullan:  being literate during the Regency means reading books. In Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele is illiterate not because she can’t read, but because she does not read.

“Lucy’s ignorance of books will be as much a torment to poor Edward, her future husband, as her cunning and self-interestedness.”

This blog has mentioned the value of book collecting during the Regency, A library of any size was a mark of distinction because it conferred upon those who had access to it an erudition valued in those days. Professor Mullan points out that Austen had no more than two years’ formal schooling but yet had access to her father’s library which was vast for a country clergyman.

One must suspect that her admiration for books and reading must reflect what Regency readers must have thought:

“I only mean what I have read about.  It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho (Penguin Classics). But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” — Mansfield Park