The Candour of Jane Bennet

A recent posting to the Austen-L mailing list, titled the ‘desperation of candour’, illustrates the thoroughly bad press that old-style candour generally receives. In it we were told that Austen began as a satirist, and retained her critical stance throughout (I couldn’t agree more—it is difficult to disagree with this), that while endeavouring to read and understand the novel with the candour of Jane Bennet would do justice to one’s heart, Jane Bennet sees the world the way she does because it would be too painful to see it as Elizabeth sees it, and Jane finally agrees to Elizabeth’s observations of the hypocrisy and duplicity of the Bingley sisters. Jane’s candour comes out of desperation, desiring peace, not through any conviction about the truth but driven by a psychological vulnerability. Austen was too much of a realist we are told: Jane Bennet was only one voice, and certainly not the definitive perspective from which to make sense of Pride and Prejudice.

Indeed it is difficult to disagree! Austen was certainly a realist, that Jane Bennet is too trusting of Caroline Bingley and doesn’t pay enough attention to Elizabeth’s warnings, that Jane Bennet does value peace of mind, that Elizabeth has some very attractive character traits that Jane lacks and would do well to cultivate; a satisfactory understanding of the novel is hardly to be had by entirely viewing it from Jane Bennet’s perspective. While all of this is true, it remains the case that in the pivotal passage in the novel, Elizabeth admits that, although she has prided herself in her discernment, she has been playing the fool in disdaining the “generous candour” of her sister, gratifying her “vanity in useless or blameable mistrust”, that a lover “could not have been more wretchedly blind”.

If we are to believe that the author has any coherent ideas in this novel (apart from Nietzschean ammoralistic nihilism) then we can hardly rest with the conclusion that Jane Bennet’s candour springs from desperation, a psychological vulnerability that will ignore all evidence in order to live in a pleasing Panglossian fantasy world. Such a key passage, the one that heralds the heroine’s awakening, is clearly suggesting that her cynicism (‘useless or blameable mistrust’) has led her to the cultivation of “prepossession and ignorance” and suggests that the fault has lain in the disdaining of her sister’s candour. The passage is saying, in letters six feet tall (and it had to), that cynicism has led to an impairment of Elizabeth Bennet’s cognitive functioning that is as comprehensive as if she had fallen in love. The implication is clear, that candour, properly understood, is critical to avoiding delusion and seeing things clearly, the opposite of the modern, cynical philosophy. And the OED entry for candour reinforces this conclusion, the historical definition of candour combining sweetness and purity of character, a freedom from malice and bias, an openness of mind, fairness, impartiality and justice. In other short, true candour (in its original meaning) unites a lack of malice, openness and an ability to see things clearly. There is no suggestion whatsoever of yielding to an escapist impulse to shut oneself up in a delusional fantasy world.

Maybe all those people recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary using the word in these various meanings were hopelessly confused and delusional in this quaint idea that to take up a benevolent, loving disposition—indeed a virtuous disposition—towards the world in general is an essential prerequisite to seeing it justly and wisely, and without distortion. Maybe.

But before we do that let us have a closer look at Pride and Prejudice. It may yield some insight.

The dialectic between Jane and Elizabeth starts in Chapter 4 with the following key passage.

“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. And so you like this man’s sisters, too, do you? Their manners are not equal to his.”

“Certainly not—at first. But they are very pleasing women when you converse with them. Miss Bingley is to live with her brother, and keep his house; and I am much mistaken if we shall not find a very charming neighbour in her.”

Elizabeth listened in silence, but was not convinced; their behaviour at the assembly had not been calculated to please in general; and with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister, and with a judgement too unassailed by any attention to herself, she was very little disposed to approve them. They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of making themselves agreeable when they chose it, but proud and conceited. (4.7-11)

As Jane says, she is reluctant to censure but the speaks what she thinks. This actually makes much sense if you believe (as is the stance of Christianity and Buddhism: see the postscript article) that people have a natural tendency to selfishness that must be actively opposed if it is not to insidiously predominate. So, for example when we encounter people that wound our pride or obstruct our desires we will naturally tend to think of them as inherently bad or selfish, whereas the salient feature of the situation may not be their behaviour (objective observers may observe them to be of high-integrity, fair and generous) but our reaction to their behaviour. For these reasons care must be taken before drawing conclusions about their character, and certainly negative conclusions. There is a good logical argument for cultivating candour—as an antidote to the natural desire of our ego to cut corners, to see people that obstruct or desires as bad and those that further them as good. Left unchecked this tendency will leave us vulnerable to dismissing people of sterling character for incidental reasons and becoming the dupes of flatterers, as happens to Elizabeth Bennet.

Now Jane does misread the character of Caroline Bingley, for the reasons we are told, having fallen in love with the brother she becomes understandably vulnerable to the flattery of the sister. Consider this speech from the unromantic Charlotte on Jane Bennet’s tendency to hide her feelings.

“It may perhaps be pleasant,” replied Charlotte, “to be able to impose on the public in such a case; but it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten a women had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.” (6.2)

While Charlotte is ostensibly criticizing Jane for not moving more decisively to nail Bingley, she is actually fencing with Elizabeth at the time, Charlotte understanding that Elizabeth’s defence of Jane is motivated by vanity, a preoccupation with putting one over on the world in general. Charlotte’s point about the value of openness, of being less concerned about the opinion of others, is valid and relevant, as Jane does succeed in concealing her attachment to Bingley from Darcy, who has no difficulty in persuading Bingley that Jane’s sincere attachment to himself is the working of his own vanity. (This much we can conclude without saying anything about the wisdom of Charlotte’s worldly philosophy of portionless females closing the deal once eligible suitors presents themselves.) If Charlotte were right (and it is not clear that she is), that Jane’s cool facade was motivated by vanity, then we could say that one of the causes of the rupture with Bingley was a failure in candour on Jane’s part.

We should also bear in mind the other factors that contribute to Jane’s unhappiness, especially her tendency to mope, lacking as she does Elizabeth’s brilliant, mercurial temperament. This is highly attractive quality in Elizabeth and there is little doubt that Jane would do well to cultivate it, but the novel is not about Jane Bennet, but Elizabeth Bennet, how Elizabeth comes to know herself better and how she responds to what she finds.

And we shouldn’t forget that on the really critical matters—the characters of Bingley, Darcy and Wickham—Jane Bennet is dead right (‘Mr. Wickham is by no means a respectable young man’ [18.46]). That she gets the character of Caroline wrong is not of great consequence—Jane never much relies on her character, and Caroline’s mercenary and snobbish machinations with her brother could have proceeded regardless of Jane’s confidence in her. About all Jane could have gained from being more suspicious towards Caroline would have been superadded bitterness on her disappointment in Bingley’s abrupt departure for London. As is clear from the discussion between the sisters (21.25-6), Jane is going to marry Bingley whatever the character of Caroline and as Jane is set to be in the orbit of the in-laws it makes sense to give them the benefit of the doubt, and Caroline Bingley does end up inside Jane Bennet’s orbit, without the early intimacy; Caroline’s hypocrisy hurts Caroline in the long run but it hardly hurt Jane.

Does Jane’s candour makes sense? In terms of the novel, it makes complete sense. Jane Bennet manages to cultivate a disposition that sees the world as essentially good, which promotes happiness (“My dear Lizzy, do not give way to such feelings as these. They will ruin your happiness” [24.12]; cf. “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”), and therefore her health (health and happiness being strongly correlated). In addition to these subjective advantages—the crucial point—Jane Bennet also calls the critical judgements correctly. The dichotomy between a kindly disposition and a realistic attitude is an entirely false one, being indispensably united in candour.

Next: Barack Obama and The New Politics

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One response to “The Candour of Jane Bennet

  1. Hi Chris,

    My personality is more Jane Bennett than Lizzie I think, were I to compare. Growing up I have often been told that I am too naive, too trusting. I simply like to give people the benefit of the doubt and I strongly believe in second chances . I’d like to think however, that these days I’m more of a good blend of Jane and Elizabeth.

    “The dichotomy between a kindly disposition and a realistic attitude is an entirely false one, being indispensably united in candour.”
    – Well said sir. Well said.

    btw, whose your favourite male protaganist? I go back and forth between Darcy and Henry Tilney but I’ve got a soft spot for Edmund too.

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