May 2020 meeting: The absent hero in Austen’s novels: Social distancing Austen style, or does absence make the heart grow fonder?

This May meeting, early in the COVID_19 shutdown, was conducted as an email conversation. An experiment that worked well enough! Read on …

Introducing the discussion …

Mansfield ParkThe discussion started with our convenor proposing that it’s a pattern in most of Austen’s 6 novels that the hero leaves the action and when he returns there’s a proposal. Mansfield Park is an exception, as here it is Fanny who leaves for a prolonged stay in Portsmouth, and there’s a variation in Northanger Abbey too.

Austen, continued our convenor, writes from the female perspective. She wondered how important the heroes are in the novels, compared to her female characters. She’s often thought that one of the reasons for the success of the BBC’s Pride and prejudice television series is that it filled in what Darcy was feeling and doing when he was off the page. Darcy isn’t as elusive, here, as he can be in the novel, though, she added, this is his attraction, dark and brooding and misunderstood! In an article on Mr Darcy’s Absences, Eliza Shearer states that although the novel takes place over a year, Darcy and Elizabeth are only in the same neighbourhood for about 12 weeks, less than 25% of the novel.

However, there’s far more to all of the 6 novels than just the romance between the hero and heroine. What happens while the hero isn’t around is the growth in the character of the heroine. How galling, our convenor said, it would be to have to wait around for the hero to propose, but then we get to understand the workings of the heroines’ minds, especially Emma who realises in an hour that she may have lost the man she finally realises she loves. There’s also torment for Elinor, Elizabeth and Anne.

With this introduction, the emails got going …

Starting with a member suggesting that Pride and prejudice’s Charlotte Collins (nee Lucas) is the queen of social distancing:

The room in which the ladies sat was [facing] backwards. Elizabeth at first had rather wondered that Charlotte should not prefer the dining-parlous for common use; it was a better sized room, and had a pleasanter aspect; but she soon saw that her friend had excellent reasons for what she did, for Mr Collins would undoubtedly have been much less in his own apartment had they sat in one equally lively; and she gave Charlotte credit for the arrangement.

As another member added, Charlotte also encourages her husband to be in his garden. She was, added yet another, a very smart cookie – totally realistic and not romantic.

Absent heroes …

Book coverSense and sensibility caught the attention of a member regarding how its characters manage their emotions. ‘Drama queen’ Marianne goes through agonies wondering why the absent Willoughby doesn’t come back to her. When she finds out the truth, she almost dies from her rash actions. Elinor, on the other hand, keeps her pent up emotions to herself. She is tormented when she thinks Lucy and Edward are married. When Edward returns, her happiness and emotions result in uncharacteristic weeping. Edward, shows his emotions by using the scissors cut up the embroidery.

A member felt that unlike P&P, S&S doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. Marianne marries Colonel Brandon, whom she’d previously thought too old. Our member feared he will smother her with his love and caring. Elinor “thinks she will be happy” but, from our member’s point of view, Edward is “a bit of a worry”! This brought about a comment about who is the hero in S&S. Is it Brandon or is it Ferrars? Brandon fits the pattern of the older suitor while Ferrars has few true hero qualities. Another member added that Brandon is a hopeless romantic as revealed by his talks with Elinor but seems to become paralysed once his feelings are aroused, while Ferrars, she said, “really is quite hopeless”.

Book coverOn another tack, a member commented on the length of time it took between when the hero returns and his actual proposal. Henry Tilney is quite prompt, she said, taking just 2 days. Then, with each novel, it takes a longer time for them to gather courage until Frederick Wentworth who is absent for 8 1/2 years, then spends 6 weeks with brother in Shropshire, and still has to express his feelings by letter! “Now really!”, our member wrote, ”Poor Anne”. Still, responded another member, Wentworth’s letter is very beautiful! And, to be fair, she implied, he had come to Bath in the hope of finding Anne and proposing to her. The problem was that Walter Elliot got in the way for a while, resulting in Wentworth leaving the concert feeling ‘there is nothing for me here.’

As for Edward Ferrars, after being at Oxford for what appears to be several weeks, he turns up, ruins a good pair of scissors and its sheath, and THEN has to walk to the village for 3 hours before Elinor can “almost run out of the room and as soon as the door was closed burst into tears of joy.” Later “it required several hours to give sedateness to her spirits, or any degree of tranquility to her heart.” Our member commented that the most collected and dignified woman has the most tumultuous reaction, commented our member.

Austen, she said really honed her skill of creating suspense and tension with each book.

Our convenor noted that there may have been social distancing in houses but what about the crowded balls, the dinner parties and being crushed into coaches. Manners kept people apart but, socially, they were all in small space together.

Jane Austen, EmmaOne member said that the most powerful instance of “the absent hero” and its result was George Knightley’s flight to London and his subsequent reappearance to propose to Emma – the intensity of feeling of this usually composed man was palpable.  She suggested that Austen has started to build these feelings between the two with Emma’s observation of his form, and her dance with him at The Crown. She would like to have made a comparison between these emotions and those displayed on the return of Bingley to propose to Miss Bennet. She can’t imagine, she said, such passionate feelings being generated by Bingley or Jane.

A member commented that Mr Knightley was only away for three days. She was amused by the latest Emma film’s attempt to depict George as feeling passion.

It was suggested that there are only two really emotional proposals out of the six, Darcy’s extraordinary first proposal and Wentworth’s letter. The others are obscurely described. Are proposals important to Austen, she asked, or is it the process of getting there?

The heroines, waiting and otherwise …

Also, what, our member asked, do we think about the need for the women to wait? Does Austen torment them? Or does she torment the men as much?

She argued that Edward Ferrars is tormented by his mother’s expectations, by his mistake in proposing to Lucy, and by having to suppress his love for Elinor. Is such turmoil is part of successful fiction? Think, too, she said, of the flawed detective in Nordic Noir.

One member to ponder whether it’s because Austen makes both suffer that her books are so successful?

Another member looked at two of the most tormented heroines feeling it was a bit hard to say who is the most (longest) tormented, Fanny or Anne. Wentworth eventually says he never gave up loving her, but he was pretty much occupied with his career in the meantime. Edmund didn’t seem to suffer, and took a very long time to come to the point. One member responded that she loves the way Austen never reveals how long it takes for Edmund to come to his senses.

This generated further discussion about Mansfield Park. One member offered that this was one of the two instances where the heroine was sent away, and suggested this alters the balance a bit. Another said she was left wondering what exactly was the trigger that made Edmund think of Fanny as a potential wife. Was it of a somewhat romantic nature or because fanny was there, he was fond of her, his parents were fond of her. Did he ever realize how much he had hurt her by talking about Mary to her in the way he did?

This raised the issue of “incest”. Was their relationship viewed as alright because they were cousins, or was it concerning because Edmund (and Mrs Norris) did see Fanny as being like a sister. One member asked, though, whether it their being cousins that delayed the proposal, or was it simply that Edmund was a ditherer – to which another member quipped “not just a ditherer, but totally oblivious”!

One member said that for her the interest in Austen’s novels lies in the obstacles the hero and heroine face in getting together and how they are overcome. There’s Lady Catherine, Lady Russell, Darcy’s pride, General Tilney sending Catherine home, Lucy dumping Edward, Emma’s endless misguided machinations, Edmund’s fascination with Mary Crawford, the pressure on Fanny to marry Henry …

Another commented on the reactions of those around the happy couple, such as Mrs Elton’s acid comments, and the delirious Mrs Bennet.

Jane Fairfax was submitted by another member for discussion. Her engagement occurs off stage, she tries to leave by getting a job as a governess aided by Mrs Elton. She attempts, said our member, to leave the scene of the action. Little of a romantic nature  happens to her. She would have enjoyed a lockdown, our member suggested. A member concurred, calling her an introvert, and another commented that there was plenty of social distancing around poor Jane caused by Frank.  Certainly, a woman in turmoil contributed another: remember her being seen wandering in the fields?

Yet, it was suggested, at least Frank’s letters (or the hope of receiving them) gave her an excuse to go to the post office. And his mysterious gift gives her something to do!

Moving to another heroine, one member raised Emma’s behaviour at Box Hill, and suggested that perhaps too much closeness after social distancing took her to the edge! She was probably showing off responded a member, but “when you think what it must have been like putting up with Mr Woodhouse all the time perhaps she was letting of steam obliquely!”

Emma is the novel with the most isolation, a small group of neighbours, with little travel: the Knightleys, one at Christmas the other at the end, and Frank Churchill. When they do travel, ie to Box Hill, there’s trouble as if the behaviour is changed by being free from the lockdown of the stultifying company they all have to bear, think Mrs Elton and Mr Woodhouse too, what a host he was! A member added the strange behaviour also at the Donwell strawberry picking party.

Another instance of social distancing was that of Willoughby who leaves Marianne without, apparently, much of an explanation, and then actively avoids her when she comes to London. Marianne was courageous to approach him int a ball and speak to him, though unfortunately the impact of that was nearly fatal.

Back to the absent hero…

Finally, the discussion returned to the absent hero. One member suggested that the hero’s absence provided an opportunity for the heroine to go through some introspection during the separation, though another added that Darcy did some introspection himself (as we learn through his letter.) A great letter, said a member, to which another replied “although those few lines of Wentworth  left an impact”.

Two members who were unable to join in for health reasons had a little two-person conversation about the absent hero. They offered the following ideas about whether absence makes the heart grow fonder:

  • Darcy: it builds/confirms his love
  • Captain Wentworth: it confirms his love, but also builds up his resentment
  • Edward Ferrars: his love stays strong, but he stays away to protect himself and his love object
  • Mr Knightley: his love stays strong, but he goes away to soothe himself

The meeting explored the topic widely and imaginatively, looking at those who isolated or who were isolated, at the torment both female and male characters experienced, at the impact of the different proposals, and the implications of the absent hero.

Overall, it was felt that meeting via email had worked (well enough) though it was a challenge. A different skill is needed to track the threads but the group managed to stick to the topics pretty well for a first attempt. This method also allowed our remote member to join in, and it enables everyone to have their voice heard clearly.

2 Responses to May 2020 meeting: The absent hero in Austen’s novels: Social distancing Austen style, or does absence make the heart grow fonder?

  1. wadholloway says:

    I don’t find Emma at all convincing as a romance. E and K are just paired off at the end, almost as an afterthought. (I like E’s early declaration that she can be a maiden aunt because she’s wealthy).

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