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Elizabeth Mansfield on Jane Austen

My First Loves

A Trio (Or Maybe a Quartet)

Of Austen Men

Among the fascinating things that we Janeites like to share with each other is the tale of our Austen beginnings: how did we first discovered her?…what was the first book we encountered?… when did it happen?… where?…and how did we feel about it? Since the facts of my beginnings with Austen have significance for my topic, I’d like to share them with you. Though it won’t quite be a how-I-slogged-fifteen-miles-through-the-snow-to-school story, it’ll be close enough.


I grew up in the Bronx, BT – Before Television. I’ve always had a severe case of a malady I call story hunger, and I was, therefore, an early and avid reader. We weren’t exactly poor, but there was no such thing as disposable income. So we would certainly never buy anything you could get for free, and in America, my father said, you didn’t have to buy books. There were libraries. I can’t remember a time I was not a bonafide library member. I think I got a library card with my birth certificate. So from the time I learned to read, every two weeks I trekked to the library and exchanged an armload.

It’s hard to describe what reading was like for me back when I was, say, between 10 and 12 years old. Fortunately for me, I don’t have to describe it; I think you who love Jane Austen all know the feeling. So you can understand how, back in those days, if I had a new book, two or three hours of free time, and an apple, I was in heaven. It was sheer joy, a feeling that, sadly, I’ve lost with age. But I do remember it. I would climb out onto the fire escape in good weather, or in bad weather hide out in the bathroom or behind the hall stairwell where the light was just barely good enough, and I’d lose myself completely to worlds that had nothing to do with my surroundings.

Sometime during those years, the librarian gave me permission to use the adult library, so I was able to choose anything I wanted from this tremendous array of books, and one day I brought home a fat volume in green library binding called The Complete Works of Jane Austen. (It was, I now know, a misnomer. Neither The Watsons nor Sanditon nor the juvenilia was included in those complete works. But I never heard of those until lifetimes later.) But the six major novels were there, and though I don’t know how much I understood of them, I know that I read them over and over. Loved them all, but especially Pride and Prejudice, probably because I understood it best.

I can’t imagine that I understood much of the adult books I read in those days, but I can tell you that with Jane Austen it was an instant attraction. The reason for the Austen attraction is still mysterious to me, though in Rachel Brownstein’s book Becoming a Heroine, she describes a somewhat similar experience. She writes:

“Behind the locked bathroom door, sitting on the terry-cloth-covered seat, I was transformed into someone older, more beautiful and graceful. I moved subtly among people who understood delicate and complex webs of feeling, patterned perceptions altogether foreign to my crude real life.”

I suppose there was something of that in my own experience, though I suspect my life was cruder. We didn’t have covered toilet seats. And to be honest, I think my hunger for love stories was my strongest urge. The strange thing was that I didn’t like trashy ones like those my friends read in True-Romance-type magazines. Jane Austen seemed absolutely perfect. I read that green-covered book over and over again in the next few years.

The part of this experience which is relevant today is that in these Austen books I formed my first – and lasting – standards for my ideal man. I had no brothers and my father was awesome and distant, and therefore I had no male role models. There were boys in school, of course. I remember one who actually had a crush on me. He showed his affection by pulling my braids during fire drills and by walking behind me on the way home from school shouting such romantic declarations as “Comes the revolution and the blood will flow like borscht. “

So you can understand why my first loves were men in books. Three particular men. Darcy and Knightly and Wentworth were the first men in my life that I adored. And after repeated trysts with them, I had some definite ideas of what manly virtues I admired. Their characteristics became my standard of manly excellence. What is most surprising, these standards have changed barely at all in the more than half century since I first met them . . .which either says something pleasing about my precocity or something very discrediting about my emotional development.

I’m sure you’ve all noted that Edward Ferrars, Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney were not included in my list of men I adored. Henry Tilney seemed – and seems – to me a bit arrogant and snobbish, and in his sharp wit, sometimes unkind. Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park seemed too proper and stiff. I tried very hard to love Edward Ferrars, especially later, when I wrote a musical based on Sense and Sensibility, but I never did succeed. Not until Emma Thompson brought him so brilliantly to life in her movie and made the adorable Hugh Grant play him. Nevertheless, when I describe those qualities that Austen convinced me make up the ideal hero, please understand that the list is drawn mainly from the characters of only the three mentioned above: Darcy of P&P; Knightly of Emma and the one who became for me the ultimate in manly appeal – Captain Wentworth of Persuasion.

The first and probably most important quality I learned to admire from my reading of these men is honor, which in my mind is almost synonymous with honesty. A hero is, above all else, honorable. He is constitutionally straightforward; deceit is simply not in his nature. This is probably the single most important quality that distinguishes the heroes from Austen’s charming scoundrels. I don’t want to claim that these honorable heroes don’t have flaws, or that the scoundrels don’t have virtues. I simply claim that every hero possesses an intrinsic sense of honor, and every scoundrelly charmer lacks it.

Another quality I noticed in Jane’s Leading Men is a superior intellect. But it is an intellect that is not at all showy, but rather solidly grounded in common sense.

A third quality is Gentlemanliness, a natural, inborn refinement. There is nothing vulgar in Austen’s heroes. In dress, speech and deportment, they are always modest, temperate, gentlemanly. It can be argued that this modesty of manner lacks dash. In order to be dashing, one can’t be temperate. One needs the spice of immodesty. But I learned early, from Marianne Dashwood, that dash is not a virtue in the long run.

A fourth quality – and a most unusual one for Jane to have incorporated in her heroes at that time is a sensitivity toward and a respect for the mind and spirit of the woman he loves. He desires, in his women, intellectual equality. The Austen hero does not want what so many men of his time required: “a beautiful subordination.” He wants, not an abject clinging vine but a woman with whom he can match wits. Claudia Johnson, in her very fine book Jane Austen, Women, Politics and the Novel, uses that masculine quality to show how radical and forward-looking Austen’s ideas are. In her chapter on Persuasion, she writes:

“Wentworth spurns young Anne Elliot because he believes she showed ‘feebleness of character’ in relinquishing their engagement. His anger deserves particular attention, because it was anything but customary to fault women for diffidence. In another kind of novelist, Anne’s initial hesitation would strike Wentworth and us alike as exemplary…But Wentworth does not appear to believe that the inconvenient modesty of the maiden will be redeemed by the submission of the wife, or to value the feebleness so often held to be part of woman’s duty as well as her charm. The ‘beautiful subordination’ is precisely the kind of persuadableness in women that Wentworth scorns.”

Humor and Wit: They all have it because, of course, Jane has it. I heard Professor Laurie Kaplan remark that Jane’s attractive villains have humor but her heroes don’t. I don’t think that’s true. To prove it, I opened Emma at random – word of honor! – and found myself at the page where Knightly meets Miss Fairfax going to the post office in the rain and he chides her, saying that letters are a positive curse.

“You are speaking of letters of business,” she replies. “Mine are letters of friendship.”
“I have often thought them the worst of the two,” he says. “Business, you know, may bring money, but friendship hardly ever does.”

Not the sharpest of quips, perhaps, but certainly good for a random find.

Wentworth does indeed seem serious, but there is the scene when he teases Benwick about a couple of funny occurrences that show him quite humorous when he’s in comfortable surroundings with good friends. And as for Darcy, much of what he says is delightfully tongue-in-cheek. Olivier and Colin Firth, who seem to me very good physical approximations of my mental picture of Darcy, nevertheless played him with too strong a seasoning of melancholy. If one reads the book without hearing their readings in the mind’s ear, the humor becomes stronger.

A Sidebar on Kindness

But it occurred to me that maybe one could make a case for humor and wit not to be on this list. Maybe it should be replaced by kindness. There’s no time to go into it now, but perhaps we can talk about it later. If you wish, give some thought to who, among Austen’s heroes might be considered the kindest.

Wit, in particular, can and often is scathing and hurtful. It is not kind. Of course, kindness is not on my list here. It took me a long time to realize what an important attribute kindness is in a man. When in my young womanhood, an elderly relative told me that the first attribute I should look for in a potential husband was kindness, I laughed. Kindness? I thought. What a boring virtue. But the years change us all, and I heard myself saying to a young niece recently, when she described the man she was falling in love with, “Ah, yes, but is he kind?” Thinking of all Austen’s heroes in this light, I came up with quite a surprising answer. Edmund Betram is, of all of them, the kindest. So if you think kindness belongs on this list, you may make my trio of men a quartet. For his kindness, Edmund joins my list.

The final, and for me the most interesting quality possessed by Jane’s heroes is emotional restraint. Here is where we separate the true Janeites from the dilettantes. If you love Heathcliff as much as Darcy, I hereby drop you from the club. If I learned anything from my early experiences with these novels, it is that if one is a hero – or a heroine – one doesn’t wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. None of Jane’s beloved men make their inner feelings obvious. They never indulge in passionate excesses. Heathcliff’s behavior would be an anathema to Jane. And so it has always seemed to me. The men I adore in the Austen oeuvre always behave with rational control. In this quality, more than in any of the others, Austen separates herself from the conventions of romantic fiction.

Juliet McMaster, in her delightful monograph, Jane Austen on Love, makes this point in an interesting comparison between Jane Eyre’s Rochester and Wentworth. She describes Rochester, when he finds himself tied to a woman he doesn’t love, growing quite savage in his disappointment, so savage that he gets dangerous and unlocks a trunk containing a brace of loaded pistols. Quite suicidal. She writes:

“Perhaps Wentworth is not quite the stuff that Mr. Rochester is made of, and Jane Austen gives us no expanded account of his behaviour in his darkest hours after Anne rejected him. But we do have, in the course of conversation at Uppercross, sufficient indication that he too has passed through the valley of the shadow. The Musgrove girls look for his first command, the Asp, in the navy list. ‘You will not find her there,’ he tells them. ‘Quite worn out and broken up. I was the last man who commanded her. Hardly fit for service then. The admiralty,’ he continued, ‘entertain themselves now and then with sending a few hundred men to sea in a ship not fit to be employed.’ When the Admiral says he was lucky to get even that, he admits, ‘I was as well satisfied with that appointment as you can desire. It was a great object with me at that time to be at sea. A very great object. I wanted to be doing something.’ This reference to his state of mind on being dismissed by Anne is clear. We have seen no tear folds, no sigh tempests, no pistols removed from trunks, no withdrawal from the society of man. Just a light-toned conversation with new acquaintance about the course of his profession. But Anne and the reader can understand that his mood was as close to being suicidal as Mr. Rochester was, and that he went to sea in a leaky ship and would as soon have gone to the bottom as not.”

The point McMaster is making so delightfully is that this restraint does not indicate that the passions are not there. They are, and they are very deeply felt, perhaps all the more so because there is no display of them. In Austen, all passion, sexual as well as other strong feelings like grief, anger, jealousy and despair, remains controlled, private, restrained, showing themselves only in the trembling of a hand, the lowering of an eye, the quiver in a voice. So there we have it: Honor, intellect, refinement, humor, a respect for women’s intellectual equality, and emotional restraint. Those were the qualities I loved. And of all those, it is honor – an intrinsic, basic, straightforward, unshakable honesty – that I think is the most important. And I have a living, breathing proof of my convictions in this matter – my husband. He has one quality that is so obvious, it’s recognized even by those who don’t see him with eyes of love – a complete and utter inability to lie. As Austen herself often pointed out, the fictions we imbibe help make us who we are.


— Elizabeth Mansfield




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