Last week, I discussed Bingley and how some view him as spineless and stupid. Today, I want to consider Jane Bennet.
Fan Fiction usually portrays her as simplistically angelic or stupid and disgustingly naive. A few make her less angelic or maybe even evil. Rarely does one give her a sort of dreamy approach. I tend to disagree with all of these approaches for Canon Jane. Again, this is not criticizing any fan fiction but rather examining the character as Jane Austen wrote her. Be merry and recreate however you please for a re-imagining!
We first learn about Jane with her mother defending her chances with Mr. Bingley while her father has said he would champion his second daughter, Elizabeth.
Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia.
To which Mr. Bennet replies:
“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he; “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”
Now, the next interaction reveals Mr. Bennet’s teasing personality and we can be sure he doesn’t actually think so little of his daughters. Jane Austen undoubtedly did this to help reveal Elizabeth as the primary protagonist. It’s worth noting that, usually, in novels of the day the heroine was perfectly demure and beautiful. She was often naive and the target of a cad who she had believed to be a hero. She lacked independence and her romantic interest was usually as pure as she was. In other words, the ingenue. The flip side to the ingenue was the femme fatale who used feminine wiles to try and achieve her means.
If the latter sounds familiar, then it’s because Lady Catherine accuses Elizabeth Bennet of using her wiles to entrance Darcy. However, just as there is far more to Elizabeth than her charming personality which “bewitched” Darcy, Jane Bennet is no ingenue despite it seeming so on the surface. Austen does not give us blank characters.
Jane is not really mentioned again until she dances with Mr. Bingley who is soon revealed to have a heart of gold. While Jane reveals her thoughts about Bingley’s sisters, the reader understands that Elizabeth believes Jane is being too kind-hearted. She also says things to the effect.
As the book is from Elizabeth’s perspective, it seems that Elizabeth would be justified in thinking Jane too naive to see the guiles of Caroline and Louisa Bingley. Jane is also mentioned as being the only one who saw merit in Mr. Darcy (although I think Elizabeth was the only one who thought him so bad. I think the rest of the area was mostly indifferent to him while it was an all-consuming obsession for Elizabeth). We learn about half way through the book that Darcy isn’t actually bad, most of it was Elizabeth’s prejudices. Jane is also vindicated in regards to Caroline Bingley. She was not alone in arguing for her brother to stay in London. Darcy, he admitted himself, had more weight there. I could say more about Caroline and her motives, but I’ll leave it at the fact that in the end we’re told that she learns enough to stay in Darcy and Elizabeth’s good graces.
So is Jane stupid for seeing the good side in Caroline and Darcy when Elizabeth did not? I’ll admit, I always had trouble with this quote.
if the same circumstances were to happen again, I am sure I should be deceived again.
Ms. Austen is very authentic about human nature. It takes many times for us to learn. Elizabeth is wrong about Charlotte and she did not learn. She was wrong about Mr. Darcy and still she did not learn. She continued to doubt him. It is not until the final chapters that she really overcomes her prejudices about the world. Why should Jane be any different? Why is it forgivable for Elizabeth to be prejudiced in a hateful way while Jane is prejudiced in a sweet way? If you’re going to make mistakes about people and how the world operates, I think having a rosy view on things would be the better way. Both sisters faced separation and heartache. Elizabeth’s cynicism did not protect her from anything and it does not make Jane naive for being so tenderhearted.
Ah, but there’s more to this impression of a naive, stupid Jane than just Caroline and Darcy. What about Mr. Wickham?
What a stroke was this for poor Jane! who would willingly have gone through the world without believing that so much wickedness existed in the whole race of mankind, as was here collected in one individual. Nor was Darcy’s vindication, though grateful to her feelings, capable of consoling her for such discovery. Most earnestly did she labour to prove the probability of error, and seek to clear the one without involving the other.
Elizabeth has just confessed she was mistaken about Darcy’s character. Jane has learned she was mistaken about Caroline’s. It is only sensible then to consider that they might be mistaken regarding Wickham as well. Elizabeth is very hot-headed and largely believes Wickham and then Darcy based on their own words and appearances. Consider that Elizabeth did not consult with Colonel Fitzwilliam, as was offered. Even if she had, he might have lied to corroborate Darcy’s story. Elizabeth really hadn’t learned very much from the ordeal by this point and it was just as likely that Darcy could still have been a villain. The fact that he wasn’t, I believe, was Austen’s way of reinventing the trope.
Elizabeth argues with Jane and tries to make her pick a side. Hmmm…refusing to change one’s opinion is not generally stupid. It might later prove to be so but we typically call that stubbornness. That’s something the entire Bennet family has in spades. Mrs. Gardiner even says Darcy’s real fault is his obstinancy. So, if we do not fault Darcy for his stuborness and often gladly wear Lady Catherine’s intended insult of “obstinate, headstrong girl” as a badge of honor, why then should we fault Jane for sticking to her understanding?
Jane shows even more prudence when she says this regarding Elizabeth asking if they ought to expose Wickham:
To have his errors made public might ruin him for ever. He is now, perhaps, sorry for what he has done, and anxious to re-establish a character. We must not make him desperate.
There is more regarding Jane’s opinion about Wickham to examine. After Lydia’s elopement, Jane remains hopeful that Wickham intends an honorable marriage. When Mrs. Gardiner tries to calm Elizabeth and remind her of Jane’s views, Elizabeth replies in a fit of passion:
Of whom does Jane ever think ill? And who is there, whatever might be their former conduct, that she would think capable of such an attempt, till it were proved against them?
Well, gosh. Is it stupid to give someone a chance to prove themselves? The benefit of the doubt? The idea of innocence until proven guilty? Regardless of what Darcy’s letter said Wickham had never displayed such dishonorable actions to them. Elizabeth had once hated Darcy on Wickham’s behalf. Next, she hates Wickham on Darcy’s behalf. Jane is level-headed and considers that Wickham might have reasons for his treatment to Darcy but that does not necessarily translate to maltreatment of all mankind. She is wrong, we discover, but I can’t fault her for being cautious to condemn the man who, hopefully, would be her brother-in-law.
Throughout the ordeal, Jane supports Mrs. Bennet’s anxieties alone until Elizabeth arrives. Once Elizabeth is there, she can split that burden but must also soothe her sister. Elizabeth blames herself for not exposing Wickham but dearest Jane replies with this:
“But to expose the former faults of any person without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable. We acted with the best intentions.”
Having lived years with guilt and regret and seeking professional help, I can say the line about best intentions can give you a world of freedom. While Elizabeth is busy flaying herself with regrets which adds to the stress she’s feeling, Jane can handle it better. She was not quick to jump to conclusions, she did not act in haste, and had the best intentions at heart. She has nothing to reprove herself with and can bear this entire situation all the easier.
As the crisis continues, and stories about Wickham rip through Meryton, Jane and Elizabeth both reassess their first feelings.
Elizabeth, though she did not credit above half of what was said, believed enough to make her former assurance of her sister’s ruin more certain; and even Jane, who believed still less of it, became almost hopeless, more especially as the time was now come when, if they had gone to Scotland, which she had never before entirely despaired of, they must in all probability have gained some news of them.
When more evidence came to light, Jane did not stubbornly stick her head in the sand. When Mr. Gardiner writes after Darcy finds Wickham and arranges for them to marry, Jane offers this piece of wisdom:
“We must endeavour to forget all that has passed on either side,” said Jane: “I hope and trust they will yet be happy. His consenting to marry her is a proof, I will believe, that he is come to a right way of thinking. Their mutual affection will steady them; and I flatter myself they will settle so quietly, and live in so rational a manner, as may in time make their past imprudence forgotten.”
Elizabeth refuses to believe that others will forget about the situation but, once more, she over reacts. Of course, people will soon forget. A greater scandal will come and in the end, Lydia is married and respectable. That’s hardly the enduring scandal people need to remember the situation forever. I am convinced Elizabeth’s concerns on the matter shrink significantly when Darcy and Bingley arrive, even more so once Bingley proposes and they likely evaporate entirely when Darcy asks for her hand a second time. Let’s be honest, Elizabeth’s real concern here is how Lydia’s actions will affect her possibilities with Darcy. Not with just any suitor but a man who has reason to hate Wickham. The text explains as much so I won’t go into it here.
There is one more character that Jane is sometimes accused of being wrong about. The love of her life, Mr. Bingley. What does the text say about how she handles seeing him again? She was anxious before his arrival and told Elizabeth she could meet him without a problem if only others did not constantly stare at her or talk about it. After he visits Longbourn, Jane says this:
“Now,” said she, “that this first meeting is over, I feel perfectly easy. I know my own strength, and I shall never be embarrassed again by his coming. I am glad he dines here on Tuesday. It will then be publicly seen that, on both sides, we meet only as common and indifferent acquaintance.”
That does not seem naive or stupid to me. Elizabeth, for whatever its worth as her powers of judgment are in serious question by this point, replies:
“Yes, very indifferent indeed,” said Elizabeth, laughingly. “Oh, Jane, take care.”
“My dear Lizzy, you cannot think me so weak, as to be in danger now?”
“I think you are in very great danger of making him as much in love with you as ever.”
Hmmm…but does Jane take care to not make Bingley love her? Or does she act as she ever does and he chooses to seek out her feelings? She did not really change her reactions to him as though she learned from the “mistake” of concealing her emotions too much. She can be stubborn, after all. She can only be herself, as much as any other Bennet daughter can be. But she does not send him flying in the other direction. And I think that was encouragement enough for Bingley. He knew as well as anyone that she had every right to hate him but the fact that she met him with as much attention as she had before when at worst she was accused of being indifferent toward him, I think was a sign he rightly interpreted as reason for hope. Additionally, if she were suddenly bold, she would not be the Jane he fell in love with and had as much potential for disaster as it did for success.
I hope I’ve made a case for a more complex Jane that is neither all angelic or naive and stupid. She is delightfully complex as full of flaws, insecurities, anxieties, and worries as the next person but she also has wisdom, intelligence, and fortitude.
If you would like to read more about my observations regarding Jane Bennet, I invite you to read my posts on A January of Janes in which I compare and contrast Jane Bennet and Jane Fairfax.
What do you think of Jane Bennet?