JANE AUSTEN “UNAWARES”: Spontaneous Dislike As A Virtue

“Austen’s comedy participates in the Western tradition of komos –that is, comedy as a revelry in mischief. Liberated from what Charles Lamb calls “the burden of a perpetual moral questioning,” Austen’s mischievous humor specializes in truths uncongenial to the sentimentally-based morality of the novel of courtship and marriage, but fundamental for the moral clarity and complexity of her comic art.”

portrait of Sarah Siddons. Fergus:The devoted Austen scholar R. W. Chapman bemusedly wrote that although surely the remark on Mrs. Hall’s miscarriage is “ribaldry,” is even “heartless,” something that the older “Miss Jane Austen of Chawton would not have allowed herself to be amused by” (he is definitely wrong here), nevertheless when he presented the sentence to “an audience of young women” he found it “received, not with the pained silence I was prepared for, but with a shout of merriment” (106-07). What we have here is a classic example of how comic aggression works. If it attacks your own group, the one you identify yourself with, it’s not funny— as Chapman felt and as Forster did as well, despite his otherwise exemplary sense of humor. Forster’s allegiance to other men trumped his sexual identity here, outweighed his lack of allegiance to heterosexuality...

Only Jane Austen devotees are likely to have read all her novels, but there is hardly anybody who has not read “Pride and Prejudice”. It is unquestionably the most entertaining of her mature works. There had never been anything like it before, not have its innumerable imitators been able to come anywhere near its level. Its popularity rests undoubtedly on the brilliance of its characterizations, the ebullience of its wit, the universal humanity of its psychology, the nimble elegance of its style, and the irresistible comedy of its dialogue and plot.

Of the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, her creator wrote:  I must confess that I think her as a delightful a creature as ever appeared in print,” and one cannot but agree with her. Nor can one disagree with one of Jane Austen’s biographers, Elizabeth Jenkins, when she acclaims Mr. Bennet as “one of the most remarkable figures in the whole range of English comedy” and salutes the creation of “the character of a genuinely witty man” as a unique feat. Mr. Bennet,s aesthetic delight in the pompous foolishness and clumsy scheming of the sanctimoniously sycophantic Mr. Collins will forever be shared by all readers. Although every actor in the comedy in brilliantly characterized, Jane Austen surpassed herself in the terse delineation of young mary, the intellectual in the Bennet family: “They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough bass and human nature.”

....To return to Austen: whether or not we find her joke about Mr. and Mrs. Hall funny, we can agree that Austen packs the word “unawares” with significance. It can be harder for some people, however, to accept that Jane Austen is so frank, so comfortable in this instance with the connection between the mind and body, so easy about sexuality and birth and death that she can joke about them, apparently offhand. Virginia Woolf, noticing the letters’ frankness, at first thought that they would reveal “why she failed to be much better than she was. Something to do with sex, I expect; the letters are full of hints already that she suppressed half of her in her novels—Now why?...

…To begin with the simpler one, “merit”: Austen writes, “I do not like the Miss Blackstones; indeed I was always determined not to like them, so there is the less merit in it” (9 January 1799). The line presents disliking people, depreciating them, as meritorious, though if you are determined in advance against liking people, actually disliking them is the less praiseworthy. Spontaneous dislike, spontaneous denigration of others, is the assumed virtue: Austen loves the way we tend to be proud of our faults, our prejudices, our
foolish hasty judgments. She offers to us here in one sentence a condensation of the whole comedy of Pride and Prejudice, but we see the humor of claiming inappropriate merit in various sentences from some of the novels…. ( Jane Austen letters to Cassandra. Jan Fergus )

Kate Beaton.

Reading “Pride and Prejudice” is like drinking a bottle of champagne. “Elizabeth loved absurdities,” says Jane Austen, and “pride and Prejudice” brims over with such an abundance of bubbling absurdities that the happy reader, with his nostrils tingling and his mind defogged, is likely to mistake it for a mere comedy of manners and to fall in love with all the characters indiscriminately. Jane Austen’s novels are amusing enough if read on the surface, but they yield a richer reward if reread thoughtfully.

The inhabitants of Meryton and its environs, each with his enduring weakness, are  no means uniformly lovable. Most of them are excruciating bores- it is jane Austen’s unique talent to make bores entertaining; in addition Mr. Bennet is a weakling; Mrs. Bennet is not only a disastrous fool who threatens the happiness of the family, she also has the ideals of a brothel keeper; the younger Bennet sisters, in separate ways, are silly geese; Charlotte lucas is a girl who sells her soul for security; Mr. Collins, whom Charlotte marries, is am an with a soul of a lackey and the potentialities of a tyrant; Mr. Wickham, by no means the worst of the lot, is a bounder; Mr. Bingley, with his excellent dispsition, is a character remarkable for the fact that he has no character at all; lady Catherine de Bourgh, who likes to scold her tenants into harmony and plenty,” is Arrogance personified.

Caricature of Emma Hamilton. Jan Fergus : ( Virginia Woolf):That is, she found the letters more sexually candid than the novels, and according to a later comment, she apparently allowed this candor to revise her opinion of sex in the novels: she said that she had “often thought of writing an article on the coarseness of J.A. The people who talk of her as if she were a niminy priminy spinster always annoy me” (qtd. Southam 118). It is a loss to us that she never wrote the article, one that would have shown Austen herself to be carnal and sexual, just as some of the more recent work on Austen’s novels does—finding open bawdiness in the ha-ha into which Fanny fears Maria Rushworth will slip or in Mary Crawford’s pun on rears and vices in the Navy.6 Whether or not we accept these as bawdy allusions, I actually don’t think we need them to read the novels as focused on carnality. In the first essay I published on Austen, I contended that every page is full of sex as long as you don’t confine expression of sexuality to what we do and feel in bed, as long as you see sexual activity as it operates in public, in the verbal and physical maneuvers of social life, that is, in sexual attraction, flirtation, infatuation, and love.

“Austen’s witty humor was influenced by the Restoration-style wit of Georgian comedies. Offering an alternative to the qualities of sensibility common in the heroines of fiction, the witty heroine of English comedy served as a model for Austen’s comic heroines. Focusing on the Juvenilia and Lady Susan , … shows that in addition to the acclaimed burlesque of the sentimental heroine, Aust

enerates another kind of humor from the exploits of female mischief-makers whose egotism and other morally-questionable but engaging qualities appeal to us. The spirit of komos peaks in Pride and Prejudice and Emma : our enjoyment of mischievous humor makes us complicit with the comically-misbehaving heroines, so we do not wish to see Elizabeth’s love of witty sparring or Emma’s charismatic narcissism sacrificed to moral reformation.”…

“I am proud to say that I have a very good eye at an Adultress, for tho’ repeatedly assured that another in the same party was the She, I fixed upon the right one from the first. . . . she was highly rouged, & looked rather quietly and contentedly silly than anything else” (12 May 1801). Notice Austen’s sly dig at gossip, the way everyone is focused on the lady and everyone is wrong, pretending to know her when they do not. At the same ball, Austen enjoys the sight of a wife running “round the room after her drunken Husband.— His avoidance, & her pursuit, with the probable intoxication of both, was an amusing scene.”

Of the truly sympathetic characters, Jane Bennet is too good- a fault deliberately intended by the author: she finds excuses for everybody, and her sister Elizabeth tells her, “You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity.” Only two among the leading characters possess the qualities of principle and integrity: Elizabeth herself and Mr. Darcy. And because they possess them and are not, like the others, static and unchangeable they are ultimately able to transcend their respective faults-Mr. Darcy his aristocratic pride, ùElizabeth her middle-class prejudices against the aristocracy.

Anyone who has read Forster’s novels knows that Forster makes the birth of a child almost sacramental, worshipful—think of the babies in Where Angels Fear to Tread or in Howards End. So no wonder he hears the whinnying of harpies in Austen’s very carnal, very irreverent line about a woman who has miscarried. The humor arises centrally, I think, from one word, “unawares”: without it “I suppose she happened to look at her husband” would not be so funny. “Unawares” yokes the mind to the body. It implies—comically—that in this case the female body can be unsettled by the female mind’s contemplation of the male body without adequate preparation. Sightings have to be fully conscious not to be frightful. Since wives can unfortunately scarcely avoid looking at husbands, particularly if they are to produce children, Austen’s sentence implies that conception is only possible for the female body if the female mind is shrouded in darkness.

Liz Wong

It’s hard, unpacking the word “unawares,” not to conjure years of Mrs. Hall’s summoning full consciousness, complete stolid
preparation, for any glimpse of the conjugal body—so that at one careless, unprepared look all the hard, dark work of fertility is undone. It may seem extreme to get so much out of a single word, and

There is only one other character in the book who is truly respectable-Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle, Mr. Gardiner, who plies some “low” trade in the City- like Jane Austen’s brother, the banker Henry Austen- and who, to his niece’s great surprise, wins the unqualified esteem and friendship of the haughty Mr. Darcy.

---Mrs. Knight, Austen’s good friend who is widowed, about 48, and also Edward’s benefactor, has been sick but is now recovered; Austen writes: “I cannot think so ill of her however inspite of your insinuations as to suspect her of having lain-in. I do not think she would be betrayed beyond an Accident at the utmost” (22 January 1801). Austen jokes by projecting scandalous gossip onto Cassandra and then by making herself the even worse gossiper—for an “Accident” after all is another miscarriage joke. It claims a false distinction between the scandal of giving birth to an illegitimate child and the scandal of losing it—and in a sense, gossip about a miscarriage is worse: after all, how could it be disproved?---


“Like Forster,( E.M. Forster ) most male analysts of comedy find aggression and hostility. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan analyzed laughter as “sudden glory” and in those two words we get two important elements, suddenness (or the unexpected) and glory (or the sense of superiority—as when we laugh when someone else falls, slips on a banana peel). Sigmund Freud analyzes the unconscious release of tension and aggression in jokes; one example that he considers is when a joke is triangulated, as when two men make a sexual joke about a woman, bonding over her humiliation. And certainly, we can see some of this aggression and hostility in Austen’s humor, both in the novels and in the letters.

Cassandra and Austen are united together in laughing over the frightful Mr. Hall of Sherborne, or over their unpleasant aunt. And
we can also see in the letters what Freud calls humor, distinguishing it from jokes: humor discharges pain rather than hostility. It is a coping strategy, a distancing strategy: instead of getting angry at what is causing pain, the humorist finds something to laugh at, which sounds very like what I’ve been calling Austen’s perverse hopes, her delight in taking pleasure in displeasure. And some analysts of comedy from the Greeks onward focus on its celebration of community and fertility—its conclusion with marriage, its alignment with demands that, as Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing puts it, “the world must be peopled.”

I don’t see this sort of community in the humor of Austen’s letters; I see instead the community of two, generally between Austen and Cassandra, laughing together at the absurdity of their social world. Whether their humor is discharging aggression or distancing pain, or even more, whether it allows them to laugh at themselves and one another, it depends on their deep connection, their full understanding of each other (and of other people) and cements that connection and understanding, that complete intimacy. For me, that’s what humor and laughter do, especially the kinds that circle back on ourselves: not the whinnying of harpies but the whining of fully-conscious, self-aware human beings, in touch with our own absurdities. ( Jan Fergus )

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2 Responses to JANE AUSTEN “UNAWARES”: Spontaneous Dislike As A Virtue

  1. Rosie says:

    The Bennets from “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” were not members of the middle class. They were members of the upper class . . . the landed gentry. Social position was not merely determined on how much income one earned . . . at least not during the early 19th century.

    The Bingleys, on the other hand, were members of the middle class. Their wealth was earned through trade and Bingley was not a landowner. By marrying Bingley, Jane Bennet ended up marrying someone socially inferior to herself.

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