Wrongheaded heroines

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From The Austen Connection:

Let’s talk about Jane Austen’s heroines. First of all, they’re some of our best friends, are they not? We know their intimate histories and we celebrate and agonize over them and with them all day long, those of us electing to hang out in this Jane Austen universe. 

And one of our favorite things about these heroines, from Lizzy Bennet and Catherine Morland to Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse, is how Austen gives them intelligence, strength, and expectation-defying agency, yet at the same time allows them to be oh-so-wrong about various things, or everything, sometimes for the entire length of a long novel. (Looking at you, Miss Woodhouse). 

And when you think about it, every heroine of Jane Austen – with one exception that proves the rule – is wrong about something. 

And usually our heroines are not only wrong, but wrong in a way that drives the entire enterprise – challenging our assumptions and expectations (this is always happening, as we’re always pointing out!) in ways that reveal the philosopher, humanist, and artist in its creator: Jane Austen, ladies and gentlemen.

[O]ur heroines are not only wrong, but wrong in a way that drives the entire enterprise – challenging our assumptions and expectations … in ways that reveal the philosopher, humanist, and artist in its creator: Jane Austen, ladies and gentlemen.

So after a recent post about anti-heroines and Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland and some wildly indulgent (thank you for indulging us) parallels to Alia Shawkat’s character in the TV series Search Party, we asked about heroines and anti-heroines on the twitter, and received a storm of a reply, friends! 

So we’re providing a parade of your answers in this post – below – and feel free to skip through to the end if that’s what you’re after!  Also, it’s not too late to weigh in: What is your favorite example of a wrong heroine from Jane Austen? You can let us know here, and also at the end of this post.

Here we go – let’s look at the Wrongness of Austen’s heroines and what Austen’s doing with that Wrongness, because, as we always point out, she’s doing something – of that you can be sure!

First up: 

Lizzy’s snap judgments

Elizabeth Bennet is, of course, wrong about Mr. Darcy. And she’s even more wrong about Mr. Wickham, which in its essence is being wrong about Mr. Darcy. This is what the whole Pride vs. Prejudice is about. She makes a snap judgment, understandably, based on Wickham’s direct lies but also on Darcy’s own arrogance, but then she is quite slow to discover either his true character, or her own feelings, which lucky for us readers requires the entire length of a novel.

It’s a little difficult to catch Elizabeth in her wrongness because she is otherwise so self-assured, lively, and clever – not to mention judgmental, a trait both she and her future husband share and with fairly good reason.

Because it’s easy to miss, we’re including here an entire wonderful passage that exhibits both Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s play of mind that is so wonderful and smoldering, but also exhibits how wrong Elizabeth is in her judgment.

To set it up: They are dancing-while-arguing in a scene that ignites the spark that will smolder for the rest of the novel as Lizzy jibes at Darcy about the necessity of making conversation while dancing, a scene we love in the adaptations, where Elizabeth says, “It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy.”

And it’s easy to overlook the way that this scene deepens, to move on to Elizabeth observing in a way that connects the two of them in our minds immediately and forever: “I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds …”

But it goes on, and deepens further into a conversation about Wickham, where Elizabeth accuses Darcy of rejecting Wickham “and in a manner which Wickham is likely to suffer from all his life.”

So as they dance, Lizzy is throwing up not only Wickham, but also the suffering of Wickham! LOL.

But it gets worse, to a degree we did not remember until we went looking for the Wrongness of Lizzy. Here’s the ultimate wrongheaded exchange, as Elizabeth frankly interrogates Darcy about his attitudes toward humanity, with Wickham as the background subject of this interrogation – take it away, Lizzy:

“I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave, that your resentment once created was unappeasable. You are very cautious, I suppose, as to its being created.”
“I am,” said he, with a firm voice.
“And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?”
“I hope note.”
“It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”
“May I ask to what these questions tend?”
“Merely to the illustration of your character,” said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. “I am trying to make it out.”
“And what is your success?”
She shook her head. “I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.”
“I can readily believe,” answered he gravely, “that report may vary greatly with respect to me; and I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either.”
(Volume I, Chapter XVIII)

Here we have Darcy, and Austen through him, basically requesting that Elizabeth not rush to judgment and prejudice or pride, and to hold back from a complete “sketch” of his character – and the irony that is so brilliant and funny here is that of course he’s explicitly asking Elizabeth to not do what she’s actually accusing him of doing to Wickham: rushing to judgment. And both of them throughout this conversation are struggling – both are attempting to shrug off “gravity.”

The smartest thing Elizabeth says in this entire exchange is: “I am trying to make it out.” She should continue trying, as Darcy is asking her to. And the discerning reader sees the seriousnesss in the background, and can sense the confused wrongness of Lizzy’s point of view.

All this wrongness might be one of the most enjoyable things about Pride and Prejudice. The ways that Elizabeth is wrong – even as, again, she is smarter and righter than her mother, her father, Mr. Darcy, the clergyman Mr. Collins, her smart, loving friend Charlotte Lucas, and most everyone around her – she’s still wrong about the true nature of not only Mr. Wickham but also Mr. Darcy and she’s especially wrong, and oblivious, to that glorious thing that the reader is quickly let in on: Darcy’s “bewitched” feelings for her. 

And so we get to sit, ringside, as this smart, lively human figures it out – and we get to wonder whether or not it’ll happen. (Spoiler alert: it happens!) And so when Darcy and Elizabeth come together, it’s that wrongness being made into empowerment, improvement, and evolution of character through love, communication, and connection – all of which makes their coming-right so spectacularly wonderful. 

At the heart of this story is a young human finding not only love but finding herself. 

Swoon. Worthy. 

Link to the rest at The Austen Connection