For November, our topic was to explore the way Jane Austen used dialogue (the language, tone, etc) to delineate her characters.
The member who suggested this idea was not present, but sent some introductory thoughts to start us off. Jane Austen, she said, saw her characters as ‘her children’. They were very real to her and, suggested our member, it’s likely that she heard them too. It follows, she believes, that Austen wrote their dialogue as she heard them speak. As a result, each character, being a distinct individual in her mind, naturally has their own rhythm, pace and emotional key. Even though they may be similar people, they are not the same.
This member also reminded us that Austen’s work was read aloud within the family and to guests. Pride & prejudice was first read aloud to Miss Benn very successfully, by Jane Austen herself. When Miss Benn visited again, Mrs Austen did the reading and Austen wrote ‘I beleive something must be attributed to my Mother’s too rapid way of getting on – and tho’ she perfectly understands the Characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought.’
Finally, said this member, Jane Austen’s knowledge of the theatre also influenced her handling of dialogue. You can easily enact her writing as it is, she said, it has an energy and life that feel spontaneous.
Also by way of introduction, our member who researched Marianne Dashwood suggested that the private world of communication can be seen to offer “both linguistically and morally, the most unambiguous indication of people’s true identity.”
And now, a summary of our research and thoughts …
One member found an article which analysed the language, including dialogue, in Mansfield Park. To give us a flavour, she shared some of the ideas Moore presented about two of the characters, Mrs Norris and Fanny, but she recommended the whole article to us.
Mrs Norris, writes Moore, is “an angry, bitter, strong-willed character, deeply egocentric and limited” and this is conveyed through her language. Moore in fact suggests she is autistic (see our recent discussion on autism in Austen). Moore continues that “in a world in which women have less of a voice than men, she never stops talking”, but then, Moore sees Mrs Norris as “an honorary man”.
She holds forth noisily, and doesn’t listen – not even to herself, witness her admonitory words to Fanny: “I do … intreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion …”. (II.ch.5) She relentlessly turns conversations back to herself. She uses rhetorical questions: “Dear Lady Bertram! what am I fit for but solitude?” (I.ch.3) She is abrupt: “suppose you speak for tea.” (II.ch.1) She speaks for others: “and as for Edmund … I will answer for his being most happy to join the party. He can go on horseback, you know.” (I.ch.8)
… and so on.
Fanny is introduced to us, Moore writes, in “language of inferiority”. She is “delicate, damaged by dislocation, inarticulate” and so “adopts a defensive stance, reticence”. Austen achieves this characterisation, with, for example, “reported speech, that muffles her actual words”. Fanny is also often silent, and speaks through her body (“through blushes, sighs, tears, headaches, fatigue, a stitch in the side, pallor, trembling and insomnia”). She is also a listener. But there’s much more in the paper, including analysis of speech patterns. It’s well worth reading.
Sense and sensibility
A couple of members looked particularly at some characters in Sense and sensibility, Lucy Steele and Marianne.
Lucy Steele, said one, reveals her cunning through her dialogue. She “drops bombs and leaves the room”! Our member read Lucy’s speech to Eleanor about her secret engagement, demonstrating how she manages to make Elino promise something she’d rather not, while Eliot is struggling to make sense of what she is saying. She makes long speeches, indicative of little education (like Emma’s Miss Bates). She exposes her street cunning through words like “trusting you” and “upon your secrecy”. This is moral blackmail of Elinor who has no real confidante.
The other member looked at Marianne Dashwood, and noted that the scene in which Marianne fall and meets Willoughby is all reported, that is, there is no dialogue. When Willoughby leaves her, safely settled back at the cottage, he appears to be wonderful. Marianne, on the other hadn’t, often shows herself to be unkind, particularly in her comments on Col. Brandon: “he has no brilliancy, his feeling no ardour, his voice no expression.” She openly expresses herself, showing eagerness but no moderation. Her language tends to be declamatory and theatrical
She accuses Elinor of coldheartedness for not being effusive in her description of Edward, her use of terms like “esteem” and “liked”. By contrast is the declamatory style of her farewell of Norland, which reads almost like burlesque. Later, when she hears about Edward’s argument with her mother, she’s theatrical
Here Marianne, in an ecstacy of indignation, clapped her hands together, and cried, “Gracious God! can this be possible!”
She’s guilty of imprudence, such as her excitement about Willoughby’s horse offer – “I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him, than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama. It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy… ” She is similarly imprudent in visiting Allenham alone with Willoughby, justifying herself again, after a little nod to Elinor’s reaction: “Perhaps, Elinor, it was rather ill-judged in me to go to Allenham; but Mr. Willoughby wanted particularly to shew me the place; and it is a charming house I assure you.”
She doesn’t want to be “guided wholly by the opinion of other people” but she needs to learn to tamp her sensibility with her own moral code. By the end we have a changed Marianne, with a new moral character, revealed in a long, thoughtful confession, starting with:
My illness has made me think — It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my own behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave….
This is a different Marianne … and it shows in her language. Our member noted that authorial comments prepare us to see Marianne the way Austen wants us to, such as earlier in the novel, during Edward’s visit to the cottage, “Marianne spoke inconsiderately what she really felt — but when she saw how much she had pained Edward, her own vexation at her want of thought could not be surpassed by his”.
Other members looked at the topic more broadly. One based her thoughts on Mandal’s essay “Language” which talks about language in general rather than just dialogue, but he makes some relevant comments. He argues that Austen’s language represents a turning point in18th century literature. She recognised the comic possibilities of language, and the potential for language to be misused. He writes that “misapplication of linguistic conventions by Austen’s characters generate much of her ironic humour”, and cites, as an example, Henry Tilney’s discussion with Catherine Moreland about the uses of the word “nice”, and his understanding of the slippage of meaning. Mandal notes that Northanger Abbey consistently exposes ambiguity of language, particularly as used by Catherine and her tendency to hyperbole and repetition. Her language, and Marianne’s in Sense and sensibility, convey their ingenuousness. Mrs Elton’s “caro sposo”, on the other hand, conveys her moral vacuity. Lucy Steele and Isabella Thorpe, he argues, with examples, use language to hide their mercenary natures and grasping ambitions. Mandal continues in this vein, and is worth reading said our member.
Another member quoted John Mullan who suggests that “one of Austen’s greatest skills is the fashioning of appropriate habits of speech for her characters”. She then commented that when we think of Jane Austen’s characters and their speech, certain examples stand out, like Lydia with her “lord”, Mrs Elton’s “caro sposo”, and Miss Bates breathless run-on speaking, but what about the others, she asked?
Searching Pride and prejudice a little more deeply, she found Lydia’s slangy-y use of “lord” (eg “Lord, how I laughed”), but was surprised to find another character using “Lord”, Mrs Bennet. Her use is slightly more genteel (“Good Lord” and “Oh Lord”), but the usage confirms the behavioural connection between this mother and daughter, and subtly ensures we are not surprised that Lydia is Mrs Bennet’s favourite.
This member also found the Austen Said website, a data mining site that facilitates exploration of Austen’s patterns of diction. Laura White introduces what the site reveals and how it can be used. She says, for example, that in Pride and prejudice, the language used by the narrator, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy (in dialogue and FID/free indirect discourse) is more aligned with each other than with other characters. This alignment of Elizabeth and Darcy with the narrator confirms them as the voice of reason and integrity in the novel. However, data-mining also reveals, interestingly, that Mr Collins’ language is closer to theirs than Jane Bennet’s is. What could this mean? is it that he uses the same words, but in a different tone, something word-frequency data mining cannot so easily capture. So, our member proposed, when Mr Collins uses the same language, he uses it to different effect? Platitudinous? Pompous? Sycophantic? Again, this site warrants further investigation.
Another academic, Chi Luu, commenting on the film and television adaptations, says that in focusing on the subject matter and plots, the adaptations “forget that Jane Austen’s genius lies in how she uses language, not what she says but how she says it”. Clueless, she argues, is an exception. It’s “a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Emma set in Beverly Hills”, that “captures the same comical, ironic linguistic spirit of Jane Austen.” Luu says that the verbal tics we see in Clueless are also evident throughout Emma, such as Harriet Smith’s overuse of “you know” when she’s anxious:
. . . I found he was coming up towards me too—slowly you know, and as if he did not quite know what to do; and so he came and spoke, and I answered—and I stood for a minute, feeling dreadfully, you know, one can’t tell how. . . .”
Notwithstanding John Mullan’s quote above, he in fact focuses on characters who don’t speak. Pride and prejudice, he argues, is full of dialogue and conversation, but there are exceptions. Georgiana Darcy is described as shy, and behaves shyly, never speaking. Similarly, Miss De Bourgh, with such a mother, never gets a word in and Austen tells us she “spoke very little”, which shows she’s under the thumb. She has little agency; she is privileged but is nothing.
Mullan continues through the novels, identifying numerous non-speaking characters like Mr Musgrove (in Persuasion) versus his loquacious wife, and Mr Benwick in the same novel. Mullan suggests that the joke is that while everyone says Mr Benwick is emotional, he in fact has no real expression of individual feeling or opinion. Indeed, he falls rapidly in love with Louisa!
In Emma, Mr Perry is the most quoted character in an Austen novel, but is never heard by us. Mullan suggests his silence mimics his wise practice, “his own canny reticence”. We also don’t hear Robert Martin, because, says Mullan, “Emma cannot allow truth or goodwill to enter her estimate. The silencing of both Robert Martin and one of his sisters, whom we also later meet, is a consequence of seeing the people and events of the novel so much through Emma’s eyes”. Mullan develops this idea, and concludes by saying that “the Martins as a family remain deprived of speech by the novel because Austen is wryly loyal to Emma’s determination that they be considered unworthy of her companion’s attention. Naturally, Austen is not following her heroine’s prejudices but exposing them.”
It’s clear that there is far more to this topic than we were able to explore in one meeting. It could be well worth returning to at a later date.
- Chi Luu, “Jane Austen’s subtly subversive linguistics“, JSTOR Daily, 12 December 2018
- Anthony Mandal, “Language” in Jane Austen in context, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005
- Serena Moore, “Inside the language of Mansfield Park“, JAS Annual Report (2104): 83-99
- John Mullan, What matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty crucial puzzles solved, London, Bloomsbury, 2012
- Laura White, “Background”, Austen said: Patterns of diction in Jane Austen’s novels (Website), University of Nebraska, Lincoln.