The Jane Austen Summer Project: Part One

What does an editing major do over the summer, you may wonder, besides work and write? When a pandemic ensues, and there’s more time to read books and watch movies than ever before, what will she choose to spend it on?

Why, the master herself: Jane Austen.

In May I found my mom’s worn paperback copies of five of the six Austen novels (the missing one, Sense and Sensibility, I easily found as an e-book from the BYU library) and dove into early nineteenth-century England: the world of propriety, pomp, and pudding. I hated Austen when I was younger. When my mom watched a movie or a miniseries with tall, dark men in breeches hopping around a ballroom with women paler than clouds, I’d make fun of her relentlessly. Now we watch them together, and I revel in every minute.

I read each copy pretty slowly – I am a firm believer in savoring the classics, not rushing through them – and then used Voyant Tools’s Austen Corpus to more about the authoress’s style. To look at the texts individually, I found them on Project Gutenberg and copied and pasted them into Voyant.

Ready for my thoughts and findings from the first three Austen novels?

Sense and Sensibility

This tale of two sisters, different in mind but not so much in heart, is a highly intelligent, impactful narrative. It’s Austen’s only novel with two equally featured heroines: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sisters, the elder the realist and the younger the romantic. Their qualities are woven through the story so artfully that the work is perfectly balanced; it advertises both sense and sensibility, hence the title. Both sisters have to learn from one another: Marianne in the adoption of more sense, and Elinor in the development of more sensibility. Either one can be your favorite, and both make mistakes; Elinor’s path to her happy ending is no less dramatic than Marianne’s.

While I could talk about the Dashwoods for hours, I wanted to use Voyant to look at Austen’s male characters in this novel, particularly Edward, Colonel Brandon, and Willoughby.

First I looked at the trends across the novel for the usage of the words “colonel” and “willoughby.” The pattern of the first was steady, almost boring, until the end of the novel – reflecting Marianne’s perception of the character and how drastically it changes. Willoughby’s trend is pretty much the opposite: dramatically surging and falling, coming and going, unpredictable and exciting. Until, that is, he’s gone (see sections 4 and 7). Austen can only use Willoughby’s name when he’s around, or when Marianne is thinking about him – which seems to be constantly, and then not at all.

Chart of Austen’s usage of the words “colonel” and “willoughby” in Sense and Sensibility, generated by Voyant Tools

Next I looked at Edward. Oh, Edward. He’s probably the least desirable Austen hero; he’s described as not quite being handsome, and is turned loose by his rich mother, so there goes the two most important things to an Regency girl. Neither matters to Elinor, though. She and Edward get along so well. They both like reading, they both possess more than average intelligence. They simply enjoy each other’s company. Marianne judges their relationship early on for not being romantic enough; I wish she could see what courtship today looks like.

Here’s Edward’s usage chart:

Chart of Austen’s usage of the word “edward” in Sense and Sensibility, generated by Voyant Tools

It looks dramatic, kind of like Willoughby’s chart in reverse; but the appearance of Edward’s name in the novel pretty much coincides with his appearances. Section 1, he meets Elinor at Norland. Section 2, the Dashwoods leave Norland. Following that, he visits them at their new cottage in Barton (3 and 4). Then he leaves again (5 and 6). Then he meets them in London (7 and 8), then supposedly disappears with Lucy Steele in tow (9). But then he shows up again, all hope is not lost, in fact there’s so much of it – big swell at section 10. Whenever Edward leaves, it is to attend to his duties; Willoughby’s absences, in contrast, are to escape his. Austen argues steadfastly for the romanticism of the honorable, dependable man while the whimsical, captivating one is relegated to the role of antagonist. This isn’t a common trope, as far as I know, in romance novels – and that’s what makes it so romantic. It’s new. It’s unexpected. You could not have predicted this. You were wrong.

With that, we arrive at what is undoubtedly Austen’s most famous novel.

Pride and Prejudice

Why is Pride and Prejudice so widely beloved? I ask that not from a point of disagreement, because I love it too; but what makes us love it so much? Is it a carefully constructed plot? Charming characters starkly contrasting detestable ones? Themes that have stood the test of time? It was the first novel Austen wrote, the second one published; for her to achieve all of this on number two, though seemingly impossible, would make her one of the most masterful users of the English language of all time – yet that is what she did, and that is what she is.

For this novel, the heart of my investigation involved finding the words most often associated with Austen’s array of characters in an attempt to pinpoint just how diverse and developed their personalities are. We all know Elizabeth is smart, athletic (at least for her time), witty, and loving. Darcy turns from prideful and snobbish to warm and welcoming – but what about Austen’s expansive cast of secondary characters? There’s Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bingley, Jane, Caroline Bingley, and Mr. Collins to consider. So I looked for the words that most appear around their names using Voyant’s “Links” tool.

The first two reassert what we already know: Mr. Bennet much prefers his library and is often found in it, while Mrs. Bennet prefers conversation and her daughters – particularly Kitty, it would seem. Mr. Bingley and Jane are linked to each other, and to Elizabeth – the friend of the first and the sister of the second. Caroline Bingley, for some rhyme or reason, is connected to the word “officers.” Seeing cried pop up next to her made me chuckle; Austen has no pity for the defeated, rich, pretentious, and jealous husband seeker. Last, but certainly never least, we have Mr. Collins – connected to both the woman he tried to marry and the one he did – and also to the word “returned,” interestingly enough.

The linkage charts Voyant produced don’t quite reflect the characters’ individual characteristics as I’d hoped they would, but instead focus on their connections to each other and to Elizabeth. I find the absence of Darcy’s name interesting; apparently not even Mr. Bingley is connected enough to him in the text for it to be notable. Darcy’s only manifestation that I could find was not in Elizabeth’s linkage chart, but in Georgiana’s. Though, much unlike Sense and Sensibility’s Edward, Darcy is perhaps the most desirable of Austen’s male leads, the emphasis of Pride and Prejudice is clearly on the heroine, not the hero.

So, if we continue to assume that this is the author’s most beloved and most famous book, it must surely be because of Elizabeth. She refuses to wed Mr. Collins because she cannot bring herself, even in her society and time, to marry a man she does not love. She rejects Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, even though he is so wealthy and so far above her, because he constantly insults her. That is what makes us, like her hero, “ardently … admire and love [her].”

On a side note, that is, surprisingly, not my favorite quote from Pride and Prejudice. The best writing, and the best moment, in the novel occurs after Mr. Collins has proposed to Lizzy, and she refuses him, and Mrs. Bennet makes her husband talk to his daughter, hoping he will “insist upon her marrying him.” Instead, Mr. Bennet – undoubtedly the best father in all of Austen’s fiction – waltzes up to Lizzy and says:

“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do NOT marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you DO.”

-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Ch. 20

Mansfield Park

It’s no secret that Jane Austen loved Elizabeth Bennet. I have no doubt that she loved all her heroines – even Catherine Moreland, who she described as “often inattentive, and occasionally stupid.” Mentioning their faults creates characters instead of unchanging, mundane entities with unparalleled strength in the place of development (a problem modern cinema has faced – but that’s a discussion for another time). So it’s no surprise that Austen loved poor, timid Fanny Price.

To me, she first seemed a very weak protagonist – especially when compared to the Marianne Dashwoods, Elizabeth Bennets, and Emma Woodhouses of the world. The short blurb on the back of my mom’s paperback Mansfield Park did not portray Fanny as a very attractive or compelling heroine. She doesn’t command the attention of a room; she has to submit to her wealthier relations in all social situations. But Fanny wouldn’t be Fanny if she wasn’t plain looking and self-conscious. The crowning glory of her character is her goodness despite her less-than-ideal situation.

Unlike those of Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price’s judgments are correct. Shortly after she meets Henry and Mary Crawford, she decides that she’d rather not be around them. Edmund takes longer to come to that decision. She knows what’s worth her time and what’s not – and who’s worth her time and who’s not. Though not as romantic or visibly impressive as beauty or wit, that is a gift more valuable. As just a young woman, Austen knew this. That is why, though she undoubtedly loved all her heroines as she would her own children, I propose that Fanny Price is Jane Austen’s favorite. And my investigation on Voyant seems to back my claim.

Cirrus chart of the most common content words in Mansfield Park, generated by Voyant, in which Fanny emerges victorious

Fanny’s name is written 816 times in Mansfield. To give you some perspective, “Elizabeth” appears 597 times in Pride and Prejudice, and “Emma” 785 times in the novel with that as its title. Mansfield is longer than Emma, by some 4,000 words; but I find it interesting that Fanny Price is statistically mentioned more by the authoress than the more quintessentially famous Regency heroines of her other novels. If I am incorrect in supposing Fanny to be her favorite, then it can be at least ascertained that she wished to draw attention to the character’s admirable qualities and path to triumph. Mansfield isn’t the most alluring novel, just as Fanny isn’t the most alluring protagonist – but the book would betray its message if it was more whimsical or romantic in nature. In finding myself wishing for scenic seaside cliffs or more dramatic dialogue, I was proved to be in desperate need of a lesson from the intuitive, pragmatic Fanny Price. Though I craved dashing adventure and quick-witted conversation (both on the part of the characters and for myself) in the first few chapters, reaching the end of the novel inspired me to instead seek morality, security, and gratitude. Instead of yearning for a promotion in society or the heart of a rich young baron, Fanny makes the best of her situation. She earns the heart of her lifelong friend Edmund, and that is quite good enough for her. The excellence she displays is not only present in her judgments and choices, but in the actions that follow. She doesn’t push the Crawfords out, and she doesn’t try to pull Edmund in. She is patient, gentle, and constant. And in a world of rushed romance, she is a breath of fresh air for Edmund.

The first three novels in the Austen canon are indisputably masterpieces. Now world-renowned, they continue to captivate readers around the globe every year, such as myself. Soon I will publish Part Two of my thoughts and findings on Austen’s works. Stay tuned for her last three novels – and my unexpected favorite.

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