January 2013 Meeting: Anger in Jane Austen’s Novels

Everyone present at this stimulating meeting agreed thanks were due to the member who suggested the topic. She began our discussion by reminding us of Charlotte Bronte’s opinion that Jane Austen’s novels lacked warmth or passion:

… anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outre and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her ….

Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, she said, disagreed, saying that Austen is “a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears on the surface”.

One of these emotions is anger and there are examples in each of the novels – in some, more intense than in others, but in all cases the anger helps drive the plot. With Pride and Prejudice foremost in our minds as a result of last year’s study, we recalled Elizabeth’s cold fury on the occasion of Darcy’s first proposal and Darcy’s equally angry response to her rejection. Darcy later confesses ‘my anger soon began to take a proper direction’ resulting, of course, in the happy outcome to his second proposal. An instance of a character’s anger promoting quite the opposite of the desired effect is Lady Catherine’s incredibly rude and angry behaviour during her visit to Longbourn. This culminates in her parting angry shot – ‘I send no compliments to your mother’ – and also in the revival of hope in Darcy’s mind.

We discussed the way in which female/male anger differed. Male characters were depicted as directing their anger outwards – Darcy to write his letter, Wickham, Collins and Elton (Emma) to seek revenge by demonstrating their desirability to other women, General Tilney (Northanger Abbey) to dismiss Catherine from his home. On the other hand, women (Elizabeth and Emma, for example), retreat within themselves – Elizabeth to re-read and re-read Darcy’s letter and Emma to rethink her delusory self-belief – before seeking relief in tears.

Another member mentioned having heard discussed a theory about anger and social class: the middle classes, being upwardly mobile, restrained their expression of anger couching it in polite language, whereas the aristocracy, being secure in their social position confidently gave free reign to their anger. Similarly the lower classes, having no position in society to maintain freely let fly! Although there are no lower class characters of importance in Austen’s novels this theory is born out in Lady Catherine’s behaviour, but frequently the anger in the novels is of the suppressed kind, with one of the exceptions being the snobbish, mercenary General Tilney’s explosive reaction, ‘off camera’ so to speak, when he learned of Catherine’s family’s financial standing. Contrast these occasions with, for example, Mary Crawford’s quiet anger when she learns of Edmund’s impending ordination, Mr Knightley’s controlled anger over Frank’s attentions to Emma (prompted by jealousy?) and that of Sir Thomas after Fanny’s refusal of Henry. This suppression, of course, can have dire effects as in Marianne’s case, and one member suggested Persuasion’s Mrs Smith’s illness may have been psychosomatic and caused by anger over her situation brought about by the perfidy of Mr Elliot. Jane Austen did understand the effect of anger in life and used that knowledge in her novels.

There are also many ill-tempered characters whose powerlessness forces them to suppress their anger – Mrs Bennet, Mrs Norris and Mary Musgrave to name but three – but they all contribute to the plotline, providing impetus in some way to the outcome of each of the novels they inhabit.

Our member who suggested the topic quoted DW Harding who, in his essay “Regulated hatred”, expresses the belief that Jane Austen herself was angry at the society which placed her in a position of subservience to the men in her life. Her response was to write satire as a way of expressing her anger.

So, far from being passionless as Bronte claimed Austen’s novels were, they are powered by emotion – it is just not the wild abandoned emotion of, say, Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

Business of the meeting:

On behalf of all those who attended the Christmas/Jane’s birthday celebration luncheon in December, our chairperson thanked:

  • the two members who again so generously opened their lovely homes to us;
  • the member who treated us to Veuve Cliquot and a 2002 Vintage Moët Chandon champagnes;
  • the member who specially ordered in a Constantia wine (made famous to us by Mrs Jennings’ offering some to Elinor for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility);
  • and all who attended for their wonderful food contributions.

It was indeed an occasion we all enjoyed.

Our next meetings will be:

  • Despair in Austen’s novels on 16th February
  • Lust in Austen’s novels on 16th March
  • Selection of Jane Austen’s letters (to be advised)  on 20 April

A movie outing to see Anna Karenina, after it opens, will be arranged if a suitable Saturday afternoon can be found.

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