The strange history of the word candour
It has become the received wisdom of our contemporary culture that a discerning mind will endeavour to eliminate distorting, sentimental, generous, optimism from its outlook, and adopt more realistic attitudes that properly discern the selfishness that motivates actions (psychological egoism) and some have seen Austen’s programme as one of casting aside such sentimental blinkers. So it is worth considering whether Austen stands charged, as Elinor was in Mrs Dashwood’s eyes in Sense and Sensibility, of preferring to ‘take evil upon credit than good’ (Vol. 1, Ch. XV [15.28]).
The evolution in the meaning of the word candour is relevant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is derived from the Latin candor—dazzling whiteness, brilliancy, innocency, purity, sincerity (candle being derived from the same root: see the full OED entry for Candour), and this is how the word is used from the 15th century until the 17th century when it gets split into three related meanings: a character of purity, integrity and innocence, and a disposition that is free from mental bias (impartiality, openness and justice) and a disposition that is kindly and not malicious. In the late eighteenth century we see the modern meaning of openness, frankness, ingenuousness and outspokenness (according to the OED the meaning of fairness and impartiality remains, but according to the Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, candour means only ‘the quality of being open and honest’).
It is striking that the original meaning of virtuous should be split into a judgemental part, the ability see things clearly, and a kindly, benevolent sense but that the modern understanding of candour stops at aiming for transparency, ignoring as it does the problems that can arise from misinterpreting evidence—to the modern sensibility with its view from nowhere it is enough to communicate the objective facts into the public sphere.
This is an important theme in Austen’s novels, being debated between Elinor and her mother in assessing Willoughby’s erratic behaviour on his abrupt departure and it plays a crucial role in the plot of Pride and Prejudice with Jane and Elizabeth Bennet’s contrasting attitude towards the Bingleys and Darcy. Here, for example, is Elizabeth is wondering at Jane’s candour.
“Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes. I never heard you speak ill of a human being in your life.”
“I would not wish to be hasty in censuring anyone; but I always speak what I think.”
“I know you do; and it is that which makes the wonder. With your good sense, to be so honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation of candour is common enough—one meets with it everywhere. But to be candid without ostentation or design—to take the good of everybody’s character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad—belongs to you alone. […]”
Pride and Prejudice, Vol. I, Ch. IV (4.7-9)
Note that Jane’s policy is to think well of people but to speak her mind. Of course Jane ends up the dupe of Caroline Bingley, being too careless of the signs that Caroline wasn’t a true friend, while Elizabeth is careless with Wickham and, of course, seriously misunderstands Darcy’s character after her pride is injured at their first meeting (4), or rather her vanity, as Mary had reminds us in the next chapter: ‘Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.’ (5.20)
“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
Pride and Prejudice, Vol. II, Ch. XII (36.8)
We are given every reason to think that Jane’s character, though less intricate than Elizabeth’s, is no less inestimable, (9.13) as Elizabeth says herself of Jane:
“If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness. […]”
Pride and Prejudice, Vol. III, Ch. XIII (55.52)
While there may be aspects of Jane Bennet’s disposition that contribute to her suffering, her candour, her determination to continue giving Caroline Bingley the benefit of the doubt, contributes little to it. Had Jane been more suspicious there is little she could have done to prevent Caroline working on her brother, but she would have had the superadded problem of trying to ward off bitterness towards her hypocritical friend. Jane, lacking Elizabeth’s brilliant, mercurial temperament is more inclined to brood and therefore more vulnerable to depression.
However there is a temptation for a modern reader to dismiss Elizabeth’s later, better appreciation of her sister’s qualities in psychological terms and see Jane as a ridiculous Panglossian optimist, as when Elizabeth teases Jane early of for trying to reconcile the very different accounts she is hearing of Wickham’s history with the Binghams’ testament of Darcy’s good character.
Elizabeth related to Jane the next day, what had passed between Mr. Wickham and herself. Jane listened with astonishment and concern; – she knew not how to believe that Mr. Darcy could be so unworthy of Mr. Bingley’s regard; and yet, it was not in her nature to question the veracity of a young man of such amiable appearance as Wickham. – The possibility of his having really endured such unkindness, was enough to interest all her tender feelings; and nothing therefore remained to be done, but to think well of them both, to defend the conduct of each, and throw into the account of accident or mistake, whatever could not be otherwise explained.
“They have both,” said she, “been deceived, I dare say, in some way or other, of which we can form no idea. Interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other. It is, in short, impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side.”
“Very true, indeed; – and now, my dear Jane, what have you got to say in behalf of the interested people who have probably been concerned in the business? – Do clear them too, or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody.”
Pride and Prejudice, Vol. I, Ch. XVII (17.1-3)
Indeed, there are two issues here: peace of mind and seeing clearly. Seeing clearly means being able to make successful predictions. (For a discussion of the relationship between a causal view of reality and an instrumental philosophy of science—the central role of being able to make accurate predictions, eloquently advanced by Richard Feynman, see Consciousness Really Explained?) In a sense Jane Bennet failed to predict that Caroline Bingley would dump her as soon as she had no further use for Jane’s friendship, just as Elizabeth failed to predict Wickham’s unsavoury history in destroying women’s characters and his continuation of this career, and as she failed to predict Darcy’s merits. While Elizabeth may have read Caroline correctly, Jane correctly reads both Darcy and Wickham (‘I am sorry to say […] Mr. Wickham is by no means a respectable young man’ [18.46]); while the misreading of Caroline Bingley’s character is of fairly minor consequence, Elizabeth’s mixing up of Darcy and Wickham’s characters very nearly ruins her and her family’s prospects.
Jane’s efforts to think well of everyone until objective evidence suggests otherwise is wiser than it appears as it helps prevent Elizabeth’s snap, prejudiced judgement, and it promotes peace of mind—a vital quality for Austen and her favourite poet.
He that attends to his interior self,
That has a heart and keeps it; has a mind
That hungers and supplies it; and who seeks
A social, not a dissipated life,
Has business; feels himself engaged to achieve
No unimportant, though a silent task.
A life all turbulence and noise may seem,
To him that leads it, wise and to be praised;
But wisdom is a pearl with most success
Sought in still water, and beneath clear skies.
William Cowper, The Task, Book III: The Garden
Both Jane and Elizabeth’s favourite Aunt warn Elizabeth that she runs the risk of not only taking after her mother in making hasty judgements but also her father in turning her sharp faculties into a cynical and impotent philosophy of life.
“Nay,” said Elizabeth, “this is not fair. You [Jane] wish to think all the world respectable, and are hurt if I speak ill of any body. I only want to think you perfect, and you set yourself against it. Do not be afraid of my running into any excess, of my encroaching on your privilege of universal good will. You need not. There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense. I have met with two instances lately; one I will not mention; the other is Charlotte’s marriage. It is unaccountable! in every view it is unaccountable!”
“My dear Lizzy, do not give way to such feelings as these. They will ruin your happiness. You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper. Consider Mr. Collins’s respectability, and Charlotte’s prudent, steady character. Remember that she is one of a large family; that as to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for every body’s sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin.”
Pride and Prejudice, Vol. II, Ch. I (24.11-2)
“Oh! if that is all, I have a very poor opinion of young men who live in Derbyshire; and their intimate friends who live in Hertfordshire are not much better. I am sick of them all. Thank Heaven! I am going to-morrow where I shall find a man who has not one agreeable quality, who has neither manner nor sense to recommend him. Stupid men are the only ones worth knowing, after all.”
[Mrs. Gardiner] “Take care, Lizzy; that speech savours strongly of disappointment.”
Pride and Prejudice, Vol. II, Ch. IV (27.19-20)
Darcy also finally regrets writing his letter to Elizabeth ‘in a dreadful bitterness of spirit’ (58.22), irrespective of the justice of its content.
In Austen’s ethical world, bitterness, or hatred—regulated or not—has little place, but should be minimised at all costs. As we will see Elinor Dashwood insists that the endeavour to treat people properly has nothing to do with the merit of their opinions and philosophies; there is no reason why a kindly, respectful attitude can’t be (subjectively) cultivated while at the same time (objectively) seeking to better understand the context and minimise surprises. As discussed in Doubts About Elinor’s Judgement the issue becomes sharp where responsibilities are present, such as the care of a vulnerable teenage daughter, where one must consider that an unsavoury history could be being concealed. While it may be just to give someone the benefit of the doubt, to be open to the possibility that their intentions are pure, this doesn’t mean that the assumption should be made in an act of blind faith; it is possible to be clear-headed without being hateful. On the contrary a hateful mind is difficult to regulate, doesn’t sleep easily, inhabits a body awash with toxic stimulants, is often bitter, paranoid and depressed, not to say aggressive—the hateful mind rarely thinks clearly. (See previous section, Cynical or Critical, for extract from Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen.)