February 2013 meeting: Despair in the novels of Jane Austen

Prepared by Bill

At our February 2013 meeting JASACT members discussed despair in the novels of Jane Austen. Participants had a variety of approaches which lead to a fascinating but discursive discussion. Many members had sought ideas on despair in Austen in the writings of various literary critics. Others sought out examples of Austen’s actual use of the word despair.

A member opened discussion by offering a dictionary definition of despair: it was “complete loss or absence of hope”. This definition itself led to some discussion, one member wanting to stress that despair as presented in the novels was something different from the modern construct of clinical depression.

It may be of interest to seek a definition of despair as the word may have been understood by Jane Austen. One source is Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary published in 1755. Jane Austen’s “dear Dr Johnson” gives three meanings for ‘despair’:

  • Hopelessness, despondence, loss of hope
  • That which causes despair; that of which there is no hope
  • (In theology) Loss of confidence in the mercy of God.

Johnson also defines ‘to despair’:

  • to be without hope; to despond.

A member pointed out that Jane Austen used the actual word despair in a variety of contexts, occasionally even in humorous passages. It was suggested that real despair is usually depicted in the novels by the use of such words as despondency or hopelessness; Jane Austen used the “emotion” of despair and, particularly, the reaction of the character to despair to further develop or “round out” a character.

It was suggested most of Jane Austen’s heroines face a crisis when all hope is gone, and that their reactions vary. The heroines react differently: in the early novels the heroines have sisters with whom they talk freely, while in later novels, Emma and Persuasion, the heroines must suffer alone and their despair is internalised. Emma, for example, did not discuss with her sister her despair after Elton’s proposal.

Elizabeth Bennet, after reflecting on the long letter handed to her by Darcy after she refused his proposal at Hunsford, “grew absolutely ashamed of herself….she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.” However, a member reminded the group that we are told early in Pride and Prejudice that she had “a lively, playful disposition” when she quickly recovered from Darcy’s snub when he declared her “not handsome enough to tempt me” and told the story “with great spirit among her friends.”

Emma Woodhouse, at the end of Chapter 48, believes she faces a life of increasing isolation and loneliness, imaging Knightley married to Harriet, Mrs Weston occupied with her family and Frank Churchill living in Yorkshire. Emma deals with this in a very private way and in one of the few instances in her novels Jane Austen uses ‘pathetic fallacy’ to emphasis Emma’s despair:

The weather added what it could of gloom. A cold stormy rain set in….

It was pointed out that Janet Todd in her introduction to The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen suggested that, of all the novels, Sense and Sensibility had the bleakest vision of society. It was a novel replete with selfish characters. The despair of the Dashwood sisters was exacerbated by the pervading fear of poverty in the novel. The novel referred to “sick”, “heavy” and “wounded” hearts. Elinor Dashwood’s flood of tears on learning that Edwards Ferrars was not married to Lucy Steele indicated the depth of feeling and despair that she had until then controlled. It was suggested that Willoughby felt genuine despair during his short visit to Cleveland during Marianne sickness. A less forgiving member agreed, “yes, maybe for a day or so”.

There was some speculation about the possible relationship of some of these themes to the realities of life facing Mrs Austen and her daughters after Mr Austen’s death.

One member offered a contrary view, quoting the arguments of Sarah Emsley in Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues in which Emsley argues against interpretations of Jane Austen that suggest she defends traditional conservative values or, conversely, interpretations suggesting Austen was some sort of proto-feminist, who presented, necessarily subtly, her anguish at the limits a patriarchal society placed on women. Rather, Emsley argues, Austen in her novels is responding creatively to the challenge of uniting the classical cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice with the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. As one example, Emsley argues Anne Elliot “maintains her spirits and her very existence by not succumbing to the temptation to despair, even surrounded as she is by a cold family and wounded as she has been by her past disappointment.”

A member raised the issue of despair among male characters suggesting that at different times Brandon, Darcy, Benwick and Knightley could be regarded as in a state of despair. Even Frank Churchill must have despaired when Jane Fairfax determined to take up the offer of being a governess. In response one member agreed that this was an interesting idea but to her it highlighted the difficulty of discussing the concept of despair in the novels as so many circumstances facing characters could be argued to reflect a character in despair; reaction to the ups and downs and the uncertainties facing the heroines and heroes as the stories evolved was at the core of the novels; discussing just this one somewhat uncertain concept, despair, was a challenge; and, after all these were romantic comedies. (Incidentally, the blurb on a recent Chick Lit edition of Pride and Prejudice says it is “the DNA of all romantic comedy”.)

A member quoted a recent article by Peter Conrad on Jane Austen in which he argued that the novels rather than being “frothy, frilly, romcoms” reflected frictions between the individual and society with much of Austen’s humour a “reflex of despair”.

The quiz prepared for the meeting illustrated a variety of ways and varied circumstances in which Austen used the word despair by presenting examples of her use of the word in the novels:

  • An insincere Caroline Bingley writing to Jane Bennet from Netherfield before departing for London wished Jane might be in London for the winter “making one of the crowd—but of that I despair”.
  • Mr Elton, after Emma rebuffed his approaches, assured her that he “need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith!”
  • Some weeks after Lovers Vows was abandoned Henry Crawford recalled Mr Rushworth labouring to learn his two and forty speeches: “I see him now-his toil and his despair.”
  • After Louisa Musgrove’s fall on Cobb “ ‘Is there no one to help me?’ were the first words to burst from Captain Wentworth, in a tone of despair….”

After this wide-ranging, discursive afternoon of discussion no clear conclusions or consensus emerged except it had been an interesting, provocative and very enjoyable meeting.


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