"Your wit and vivacity, I think, must be acceptable to [Lady Catherine de Bourgh], especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite." -- Mr. Collins to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice
Edmund Bertram, the man they both love, disclaims having any wit: "there is not the least wit in my nature. I am a very matter-of-fact, plain-spoken being, and may blunder on the borders of a repartee for half an hour together without striking it out.”
But their creator Jane Austen was very witty. Sly and subtle jokes abound in her private letters and in her novels, even in the more serious Mansfield Park. Her earlier works are hilarious. Why did such a witty author create Fanny Price, a heroine without wit? Why did she create a heroine so unlike herself?
Endowment is related to the word dower, as in dowry. Edmund Bertram says regretfully of Mary, "For where shall we find a woman whom Nature had so richly endowed?"
Endowments are gifts from God, and referred to variously as gifts from a Creator, or Providence, or Nature, as in "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." Today, we might also use the phrase "God-given talents."
To the innate qualities we've discussed in the previous posts, such as understanding, disposition, and temper, we can add qualities or endowments such as artistic ability and wit. Being witty is allied to being quick in apprehension, or being “quick-sighted.” But not everyone appreciated a witty disposition in Austen's time.
The influential writer Hannah More argued at length against wit in females in her Essays on Various Subjects: “[T]hose who actually possess this rare talent, cannot be too abstinent in the use of it. It often makes admirers, but it never makes friends.”
“The fatal fondness for indulging a spirit of ridicule," More explains, "and the injurious and irreparable consequences which sometimes attend the too prompt reply, can never be too seriously or too severely condemned. Not to offend, is the first step toward pleasing. To give pain is as much an offence against humanity, as against good breeding…”
More notes that under the rules of gallantry, a gentleman cannot say unkind things of a lady, but women are not so constrained. “It is this very circumstance which renders them more intolerable. When the arrow is lodged in the heart, it is no relief to him who is wounded to reflect, that the hand which shot him was a fair one.”
The beautiful Laura in The Shepherdess, a short story in the Lady's Magazine (1789), is intelligent, but not too intelligent: “Her discourse was always pretty and sensible, never deep or pedantic. Wit she had no pretensions to, always thinking it too sharp to play with."
Another author who disparaged wit was Arabella Argus. In Ostentation and Liberality (1821), the governess opines that “Wit is the union of cultivated intellect with a lively imagination. Of course, we do not expect to meet it in the young. I believe the talent to be most rare; and even where it does exist, I never heard that it added to the happiness of its possessor, or increased the number of friends.”
Austen was not a fan of Hannah More, or at least she had mixed feelings about her. But I believe Austen thought about the issues that More raises about wit and raillery. Nor was More the only one. Laura Mooneyham White notes that "[m]oralists of the eighteenth century endeavored to make clear distinctions between morally acceptable wit and the wit of malice, often without success."
Austen clearly saw that wit in females was not the prescribed ideal in her society. The idealized heroines of the fiction of Austen's day were not witty. Wit was reserved for the wise-cracking female sidekick, and I’ve got more to say about that in this blog post. In her satirical plan of a novel, Austen lampooned these heroines, who are “faultless… with much tenderness and sentiment, and not the least Wit.” Austen’s hypothetical heroine's “friendship [was] to be sought after by a young woman in the same Neighbourhood, of Talents and Shrewdness… but having a considerable degree of Wit, Heroine shall shrink from the acquaintance."
But many of Austen’s own heroines and heroes are witty, like Elizabeth Bennet and Henry Tilney. Some drop a few dry witticisms, such as Elinor “it is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves" Dashwood. I think even Edmund Bertram has a subtle, dry wit, as when Fanny worries that the others will crow with triumph when he comes down off his high horse and agrees to join the private theatricals. "They will not have much cause of triumph when they see how infamously I act," Edmund responds.
We are told that Emma Woodhouse is "clever," and she is. But Emma's quip at Miss Bates's expense is a turning point in the novel. Miss Bates says of herself: "I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?" Emma replies: "Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.” After Mr. Knightley rebukes her, Emma realizes that her retort was cruel and thoughtless. Wit can go over the line.
In Mansfield Park, Edmund and Fanny discuss Mary Crawford's wit on several occasions.
Mary had remarked, "What strange creatures brothers are! You would not write to each other but upon the most urgent necessity in the world; and when obliged to take up the pen to say that such a horse is ill, or such a relation dead, it is done in the fewest possible words."
Fanny was peeved at Mary's raillery and later asks Edmund: "And what right had she to suppose that you would not write long letters when you were absent?”
“The right of a lively mind, Fanny," [Edmund answers] "seizing whatever may contribute to its own amusement or that of others; perfectly allowable, when untinctured by ill-humour or roughness; and there is not a shadow of either in the countenance or manner of Miss Crawford: nothing sharp, or loud, or coarse."
(An aside: I've got to take Edmund's side of the argument here, and in addition, I admire how subtly and naturally Austen has shown Fanny as being prejudiced against Mary, and Edmund as prejudiced in her favour. This is human nature which we can all recognize. When we don't like someone, their most minor remark can set our teeth on edge, whereas if we like someone, we overlook any faux pas on their part.)
To resume: Cleverness and wit, especially cynical wit, is thrown away on Fanny. When Henry Crawford decides to flirt with Fanny and "make a hole in her heart," she finds his levity offensive. Then Henry begins to admire Fanny and tries to woo her in earnest. He trims his sails and starts talking up more serious subjects when he’s around her. Edmund notices this: “This would be the way to Fanny’s heart. She was not to be won by all that gallantry and wit and good-nature together could do; or, at least, she would not be won by them nearly so soon, without the assistance of sentiment and feeling, and seriousness on serious subjects.”
But in the end, Edmund Bertram rejects Mary after she shocks him by "coolly canvass[ing]" the best way to overcome the scandal of Maria's elopement with her brother, rather than showing "feminine loathing" at their transgression. Mary's wit blinded Edmund to the fact that she does not subscribe to values and beliefs he regards as fundamental--suddenly, the truth is brought home to him.
Is Fanny's triumph over Mary a message that Austen repudiates wit in females? Do we have any evidence that she struggled with this issue in her own life? Was she ever rebuked for being a smart aleck, or did she ever rebuke herself?
No self-respecting modern scholar of Austen can stroll past the Biographical Notice written by Austen’s brother Henry or the later Memoir by her nephew without aiming a kick at their portrayals of Austen as a sweet-tempered spinster. Her brother Henry insisted that although Austen clearly saw “though the frailties, foibles, and follies of others,” she was invariably kind. He praised her just as Elizabeth praises her sister Jane in Pride and Prejudice. “The affectation of candour is not uncommon; but she had no affectation.” (“Candour,” in this sense, meant kindness and forbearance, refraining from judging or criticizing others.)
Austen’s surviving letters belie this portrait. She made lots of snarky and personal remarks about people. And who knows what else went up in smoke when her sister Cassandra burned the majority of those letters.
As we've seen, mainstream culture, conduct-books and sermons told Austen that being witty was unladylike and unchristian. But on the other hand, she also believed that her talents were God-given talents. Why had God made her so quick-sighted and witty, if he intended for her to deny her very nature? As Austen scholar Juliet McMaster wrote: "The principles of the parson's daughter clearly jostled with the shrewd perceptions and sharp judgements of the satiric writer."
Her tart remarks in her letters (“I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me”) were for Cassandra's eyes alone. As well, she could safely hold her fictional characters up to ridicule. After her death, her brother staunchly denied that any of her brilliantly-crafted fools, such as Mr. Collins or Mrs. Elton, were portraits of real people. "She drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals." As a writer of fiction myself, I have to smile wickedly at that assertion.
Austen fully recognized that wit could be unkind. In one of her prayers written for family devotion, she wrote: “bring to our knowledge every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creature… Have we… willingly given pain to any human being?” In 1814, she counselled her niece about a suitor who was virtuous but not lively: "Wisdom is better than Wit, & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side."
Despite any qualms Austen might have had, her own wit was irrepressible. Wit was an inextricable part of her voice from her earliest writings. Her precocious wit brought her praise and attention in the midst of a large and active family. It was who she was, whatever Hannah More or anyone else might have said about it. And her wit flowed forth in her novels and in her characters.
For more about how the theme of education in Mansfield Park aligns with Hannah More's Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), read this excellent (pdf) article by scholar Jane Nardin in JASNA's Persuasions journal.
Laura Mooneyham White more fully explores the question of wit and Christian morality in her excellent book: Jane Austen's Anglicanism.
I'm far from done with Mansfield Park, and have more to explore concerning Fanny, Maria Bertram, and Mary Crawford, but more from the point of view of the morality and message of Mansfield Park. Oh, and some thoughts about how brilliant the writing is. But first, a segue back to some forgotten heroines of the long eighteenth century and a few other topics. Next post: A heroine whose gaiety was "irresistible; for her wit, so playfully delicate, was pointed without being severe; it had the rare talent of delighting the ear without wounding the heart.”
Previous post: Education that stresses character Next post: Seraphina, the lively heroine
Uses of the Term "Wit"
Some of Lady Russell's resistance to Anne Elliot's match with Lieutenant Wentworth is due to their clash of personalities. Anne loves Wentworth's “confidence, powerful in its own warmth, and bewitching in the wit which often expressed it; but Lady Russell saw it very differently. His sanguine [unworried] temper... operated very differently on her… Lady Russell had little taste for wit, and of anything approaching to imprudence a horror. She deprecated the connexion in every light.”
“Wit” in the example above must mean something akin to eloquence. It can also mean cleverness. Fanny Dashwood has to think fast to get out of inviting her sisters-in-law to stay with her; on the spur of the moment, she proposes inviting the Steele sisters instead, and her husband agrees. We are told Fanny is “proud of the ready wit that had procured” her “escape” from hosting her poor relations by marriage.
Emma thinks Mr. Elton must be blinded by love for Harriet Smith if he thinks Harriet is clever enough to solve the riddle in his charade-poem: "Thy ready wit the word will soon supply." Emma is blind to the fact that he has really written it for her, not Harriet.
Austen also describes teasing remarks as “wit,” whether or not the people doing the teasing are actually successful in being witty. Miss Bingley directs her spiteful remarks about Elizabeth Bennet at Darcy in the hopes of frightening him off her, ('her wit flowed long') and Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings aim their heavy-handed wit at the Dashwood girls. ("The letter F [was established] as the wittiest letter in the alphabet.")
It's strange how the meaning of the word "candour" has changed so much. Today it means being open and honest, and relates more to what you say. In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, it is used in its previous meaning of being open-minded in terms of how you judge others: "let Facts be submitted to a candid world."
Scholar Sarah Emsley discusses Austen's "uncharitable" remarks in her letters and that jibe at Mrs. Musgrove's weight in Persuasion in this article.
Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. I’ve also been blogging about now-obscure female authors of the long 18th century. For more, click "Authoresses" on the menu at right. Click here for the first in the series.