Three Literary Sisters, Part #1
Updated: Apr 24
Jane Austen: "Problem-Solving Thoughtfulness"
In Persuasion, Anne Elliot addresses the inequality between men and women when she declares to Captain Harville that “Men have had every advantage [over] us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything” (Austen, Persuasion 234). This sensible response from one of Jane Austen’s “quieter” characters like Anne Elliot has helped me understand myself better.
This glimpse into my own personality from one of my favorite writers has resulted in the departure point for my first blog called “My Three Literary Sisters” on the influence of Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and Elizabeth Bishop on my poetry. Although, I have been writing for years, and published in a variety of forms from poems to prose, this blog will serve a different function. I enjoy reading about other writers and how they developed, so here I will discuss how I found the courage to become more comfortable with my voice. As I wade into the blogosphere, my reflections will attempt to illustrate my writing journey. For me, the trek was a lonely one, but through reading and writing, I met these three literary sisters who welcomed and offered me solace.
These women, Austen, Dickinson, and Bishop, reflect different facets of my writing, creativity, background, and values, which I have learned to not only accept but also appreciate, and can even celebrate. I now see myself less as the odd one out because of discovering and getting to know these three. Ever since graduate school, I have kept lists of books I have read. This started with a goal of reading 50 books a year to immerse myself in literature. My lists help me remember my literary friends, too. My favorite sister is Jane Austen, whose novels I’ve read at least 41 times in the past twenty years (including 33 times since 2017). George Anderson refers to this as “comfort reading” in his article, “Of many things.” He says readers receive satisfaction from favorite books similar to “comfort food,” but for me, Austen’s novels feed my soul with nutrients, not empty junk food calories (Anderson). I also read Austen’s novels repeatedly in order to relax with my old friends, who live within her well-crafted dialogues and plots. Choosing other books to read is difficult because Austen’s character development, humor, and pacing fascinate me. Since 1998, each reading has offered fresh views about Austen’s characterization, geographical locations, writing techniques, and plot strategies.
So, what has intrigued me over the years? First of all, Austen offers characters whose personalities reflect thoughtful, kind behavior, or what I would consider my ideal friend. Story lines also include examples of social discourse, driven by good manners and intellect. These dialogues like Anne Elliot’s conversation with Captain Harville follow a moral compass that respects the spirit that inhabits each of us. Other characters besides Anne Elliot, like Jane Bennet, Fanny Price, and Elinor Dashwood, also embody this type of spirit. These are Austen’s quieter women, unlike those “livelier” protagonists: Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennet, and Marianne Dashwood. I’ve used “livelier” here to mean characters whose manner tends to amuse themselves and others. For modern women, we often prefer them to quieter characters because of their entertainment value or idea that outwardly strong willed, vocal women reflect our standard of feminism better, but this is deceiving. Quiet women can still accomplish the same purposes for equality without causing a scene.
We see this conflict arise early on in Mansfield Park when Edmund Bertram chats with Fanny Price about a dinner conversation they had with Mary Crawford. Edmund says having a lively mind is perfectly fine as long as it contains “nothing sharp, or loud, or course. [Mary Crawford] was perfectly feminine except in the instances we have been speaking of. There she cannot be justified” (Austen, Mansfield Park 64). Although Fanny doesn’t agree with Edmund’s analysis of Mary Crawford, Fanny admits he’s making allowances for Mary’s behavior because he admires her.
In a critique of the 1999 film, Mansfield Park, Alison Shea takes issue with the director Patricia Rozema’s misrepresentation of Fanny Price’s personality because Rozema’s characterization did not understand the strength of the original Fanny’s quieter demeanor. According to Shea’s article, Rozema says, she “couldn’t figure out why [Jane Austen] would write a character like Fanny Price that was so annoying because [Austen] was so capable of writing completely fascinating, articulate, and interesting protagonists” (Shea 52). But, Shea says Rozema’s comments and film version of Mansfield Park with its more vocal, outgoing Fanny played by Embeth Davidtz reflect our modern view that interesting people are more talkative and active while quiet people are basically boring (52).
For a more mellow person like me, who suffered through a chaotic childhood, I love being surrounded by the steady, problem-solving thoughtfulness of these quieter characters. For example, Jane Bennet methodically handles tense situations with an admirable level of candor and kindness. Jane's supporting role for her livelier sister Elizabeth guides Elizabeth through irritating situations in a nuanced manner. This technique can be seen during Jane’s discussion with Elizabeth about Charlotte Lucas’s engagement.
As Elizabeth vents because Charlotte accepted Mr. Collin’s proposal, Jane quickly puts situation into perspective and responds, “My dear Lizzie, do not give way to such feelings as these. They will ruin your happiness. You do not make allowances for differences in situation and temper. Consider Mr. Collin’s respectability, and Charlotte’s prudent, steady character. Remember that she is one of a large family; and to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for everybody’s sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice 135).
In her direct response, Jane placates Elizabeth with a soft, kind opening, “my dear Lizzie,” before shifting onto a more logical track. Next, Jane addresses Elizabeth’s anger, which Jane notices is basically a self-righteous response to Charlotte’s choice of a husband. Jane advises Elizabeth her exasperation will ruin her own peace of mind. Jane then calls Elizabeth to account by observing, “ You do not make allowances for differences in situation and temper” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice 135). Jane deftly analyzes Charlotte’s decision based on Charlotte’s personality and station life. She then spells out Charlotte’s rationale and urges Elizabeth to consider the possibility that Charlotte might even be fond of Mr. Collins.
These conversations that occur through out Austen’s novels are what make me feel so at home. Her books put me into a saner world. In her article, “A Feminist Connection: Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft,” Miriam Ascarelli says, “Austen comes across as a realist, someone who knows that life is tough, especially for women, [and her writing] focuses on the reasoning skills women need to survive." Ascarelli continues to say these characters’ critical thinking ability have resulted in Austen’s “greatest technical achievement: free indirect discourse” (Ascarelli). With characters who can “[maintain] the public appearance of propriety while privately evaluating the true nature of a situation. [This is] a clear mark of a thinking person” (Ascarelli).
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