Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. The opinions are mine, but I don't claim originality. Much has been written about Austen. Click here for the first in the series.
“Well, well,” returned she, "we are not all of us born to equal honour. Some of us are to be set up for warnings, some for examples; and the first are generally of greater use to the world than the other." -- Miss Charlotte Grandison, in Sir Charles Grandison
In her early, 18th century incarnation, the sidekick is often in danger of upstaging the heroine, because she is livelier and funnier. The sidekick can say cutting things about the other characters in the novel, while the virtuous heroine can only say something very mild and forbearing.
In Hollywood rom-coms, the wise-cracking sidekick is made less of a threat to the heroine because she is reliably plumper, plainer, or older than the heroine. Whatever her other characteristics, some traits are consistent -- she is devoted to the heroine, intensely interested in her doings, and always looking out for her interests.
Sir Charles Grandison rescues the beautiful Harriet Byron from an abduction attempt (as one does) and takes her to safety to his sisters' house. Caroline and Charlotte are delighted with Harriet and soon are openly hoping that Sir Charles will marry her so they can all really be sisters. Alas, there are about a thousand pages of complications to get through before that can happen.
Sir Charles Grandison is an epistolary novel, and most of the letters are written by the heroine who must devote many hours a day to the task. We meet Charlotte through her eyes, and later, Richardson includes some of Charlotte's letters. Samuel Richardson allows Charlotte a little leeway in making her subversive remarks, so long as she settles down and becomes a good wife and mother in the end. Also, as mentioned, she has more freedom because she's not the main exemplar of virtuous womanhood in the novel -- that's Harriet's job. More about Charlotte Grandison later, let's look at some other sidekicks.
Rosanna is also fiercely loyal to Julia, praises her goodness, and is indignant on her behalf over how her family has wronged her. "True indeed, she is an angel, but angels fare worse than mortals in some families." Here we see the value of the sidekick in expatiating on the virtues of the heroine.
Charlotte Lennox has given her heroine Euphemia (1790) a cheerful sidekick, Maria Harley, to help her bear her many tribulations. Maria entertains her by letter with the story of how her uncle's servant fooled her avaricious aunt into thinking he was dead, so as to test her character. (The lady, believing that she is now a widow, kicks her husband's dog and tells the servants to get rid of it.) The virtuous Euphemia writes back that she is "entertained, but not quite pleased with the method" as it involved telling "a direct falsehood."
You might think at first she is another Lydia Bennet but her main function in the novel is to make saucy remarks about her disagreeable relatives, to say the cutting things that the virtuous heroine cannot say. She especially loves teasing her sister Barbara, the female pedant. Her vocabulary and fluency is far above Lydia's. “'Shall I confess the treasonable thoughts I have had upon this subject' said Christina, looking very droll, 'my notion is—but don’t betray me, dear cousin—that Barbara’s pretensions to science are all a juggle? Nobody has hitherto presumed to question her very closely, and she talks so confidently, that her superiority is taken for granted.'”
Sophia writes to tell Clarentine that Mr. Elsham (a Henry Crawford type) has come to the country to nurse his broken heart after Clarentine rejected him. Half-teasing, half-sympathetic, Sophia gets him to confide in her. As she describes to Clarentine:
I said nothing more, however, but moving to the piano forte, stood turning over some of the music that lay scattered upon it, and among the rest, spying the stale old song ; ‘Why so pale and wan, fond lover?' sat down to the instrument, and with all the expression I could give it, began playing and singing it, I may almost say at him, rather than to him. Very indecorous, Clarentine, was it not? The poor man could not stand this—but approaching me with a look somewhat angry and tremendous—‘Miss Sophia,’ cried he… 'these significant looks, your choice of this song, the strange and repeated questions you have asked me—what do they all mean ; what is you wish me to understand by them?'
I thought it best to be honest with him at once, and therefore answered very calmly—‘Only that I am extremely curious, Mr. Elsham, and have a earnest desire to know, when the case becomes my own, how it will be most proper and well-bred to discard an unsuccessful lover; I am sure you can give me this information, for your whole aspect tells that you have been discarded...'
Charlotte is attracted to a dashing military man with charming, insinuating manners, but before it's too late, she discovers that he’s a worthless, dishonest, fortune-hunter. Luckily, Sir Charles sees the pesky suitor off and Charlotte is once again her gay and happy self. She "makes it a rule," Harriet writes, "to remember nothing that will vex her.” Does any of that sound familiar?
Jane is "all loveliness and goodness." Only Jane is truly "candid" with everyone, that is, she takes the good of everyone's character and overlooks the bad. Her kindness and forbearance is not a performance, an "affectation." "Till I have your disposition, your goodness," Elizabeth tells Jane, "I never can have your happiness."
The expectation that heroines be "pictures of perfection" is met with Jane, who is indeed a lovely character. But it's Elizabeth who carries the story.
Update: Scholar Veena P. Kasbekar says of the saucy sidekick: ''The only comic relief in sentimental novels came from the heroines' epistolary best friends, who almost all, beginning with Anna Howe in Clarissa , possess the heartening qualities of vivaciousness, independence, wit, assertiveness, and a feminist pride in their own sex.'' [from Kasbekar, Veena. Power Over Themselves: The Literary Controversy about Female Education in England, 1660 - 1820.]
In Jane Austen's Art of Memory (2003), in the chapter about Pride & Prejudice, author Jocelyn Harris finds many parallels between characters and scenes in Sir Charles Grandison and Pride & Prejudice. For example, she illustrates the parallels in the texts between Elizabeth Bennet's initial attraction to Wickham and the way that Charlotte Grandison falls for Captain Anderson.
JAFF author M. Mitt has written a trilogy, telling Pride & Prejudice through Jane Bennet’s eyes.