The Jane Austen Summer Project: Part Two

I was very pleased to find the second trilogy of the Jane Austen canon just as charming and enthralling as the first. With a diverse set of characters and themes just as universally applicable as those of her earlier novels, the author was able to continue writing the social satires that best reflected her skillset while expanding her worldview to include new personalities and ideas. Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey each serve as evidence of her marvelous and prodigious talent.

Emma

The origins of this novel lie in Austen’s determination to write a protagonist that only she would like. Emma was one of my more difficult reads, because rich, snobby, manipulative Miss Woodhouse is more difficult to like. As the 1995 modern adaptation of the book so adeptly pointed out, Emma is completely clueless. She wrongfully interprets Mr. Elton’s actions, which leads her to unintentionally mislead Harriet. She does not realize her feelings for Mr. Knightley until the end of her story. It was this obliviousness, along with her relationship with Mr. Knightley and her concern for her hypochondriac father, that eventually enabled me to desire her happiness.

I previously hypothesized that Fanny Price of Mansfield Park was Austen’s favorite heroine. I now propose my theory of Mr. Knightley’s being her most beloved hero, and believe that this presumption will go unchallenged. In Emma, Elizabeth and Darcy switch places; it is the woman who must make the greater change, and the man who initiates it. Both Darcy and Emma are snobs; though different, both must learn not to turn up their noses immediately to those beneath them in society and instead be kind.

The most commonly used word in Emma is the title “Mr.” and, using Voyant Tools, I ascertained that it is most often connected to Knightley.

TermsBerry of the most common words in Emma, from Voyant Tools. In this screenshot, I am hovering over “mr,” which most often connects to “knightley.”

The terms are connected 299 times. The other men to which “Mr.” refers appear in the following order: Elton 194 times, Weston 149, Woodhouse 113, and Churchill only 69 times. The latter’s low number is best explained by the frequency of the words “Frank Churchill” used in the novel (151 times). Knightley, however, is almost always with a “Mr.” The only instances I can think of are when he is spoken of by Mrs. Elton. He is a known gentlemen, while Frank is just a boy. Their actions as well as their more abstract (though observable) qualities stand in contrast as stark as black and white. Though they are blended to gray a little in Emma’s mind until the end, her soul had separated them from page one. Mr. Knightley is so discernibly good, and constantly so, that he stands a head above Austen’s other heroes and miles above those of today. He apologizes for chastising Emma, even though it was indubitably requisite. He plays with his nieces and nephews. He dances with the embarrassed Harriet when she is in desperate need of a partner. The primarily difficult to love heroine is balanced by the perfectly easy to love hero.

Persuasion

The next Austen novel, published after the authoress’s death, features the pragmatic, intelligent “spinster” Anne Elliot, her unbearably snobby father and sister, and the dashing captain who hasn’t faltered in his love for Anne in eight years. Persuasion is, every inch, the perfectly crafted romance novel that showcases Austen’s natural talent. Our heroine begins in a similar situation as that of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park; though not naturally beneath her relations, she is overshadowed by their frivolity. Years ago, she allowed them to persuade her against marrying the man she loved. Years later, both Anne and Captain Wentworth find themselves in Uppercross, and then in Lyme, and then in Bath. Anne must shake off the unworthy persuasion that held her down for nearly a decade and instead follow her own wishes to her happy ending.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, to me, is the concept behind the title. I had assumed, before reading the book’s description, that the persuasion in question would be the heroine’s attempts to convince the captain to marry her. Instead, it is the heroine that is persuaded not to marry the captain.

Voyant’s Bubbleline chart of the usage of the word “persuasion” in Austen’s novel of the same name

At the age of 27, with only the task of corralling her family’s spending to keep her busy, Anne realizes within the first third of the novel her mistake in succumbing to their pressure. Thus, the word “persuasion” appears twice in the first half of the bubbleline chart above. But its usage more than doubles at the very end of it, when Anne finally has Captain Wentworth to voice this realization to. She has no one to truly trust, no one who truly understands her, until the very end. Voyant’s discovery echoed my hope that the usage of the word “persuasion” would coincide with Anne’s happiness. The beauty of the lesson learned, and the marital happiness it produces, are what make our heroine’s journey so satisfying – both for her and her audience. The more she is allowed to voice her discoveries and opinions to one who understands them, the more gratified she becomes.

Northanger Abbey

In the last paragraph of The Jane Austen Project: Part One, I promised you that my favorite of the author’s masterful works would be unexpected. It was certainly unexpected to me; I’ve scarcely heard anything about Northanger Abbey, and what I have heard hasn’t been a glowing compliment to its quality. I know now that the “commonly held opinion” – whoever it may be held by – is quite ignorant of the novel’s true genius. “It’s Gothic,” I’ve heard people say. To that, I would respond with gusto: “It’s Gothic satire!” None of Catherine Morland’s dark imaginings prove to be true; instead, she learns lessons about humanity through their being proven false.

Perhaps it’s my favorite because I’ve always had an active imagination similar to that of Catherine; but I am quite sure that what swept me into the story was the focus on novels and writing. Any movie about a journalist or author trying to achieve their goal is always my favorite. So when Henry verbally writes Catherine a Gothic short story during their trip to Northanger, I decided to adopt the novel as my obscure favorite. Henry is also an underrated hero. He does, after all, have knowledge of muslin.

Northanger Abbey is also a coming-of-age novel – Catherine begins as a fanciful, ignorant seventeen-year-old (not an uncommon occurrence at that age), but ends up a married, repentant, mature (though still learning) eighteen-year-old. It seems rather far-fetched to have such a change occur in just a year, but I think it honorable that Austen writes this way. Let a novel be a little far-fetched in the pursuit of inspiring change for the better.

Voyant helped me see, however, that Catherine’s change – though certainly existent – is not unbelievably crisp. Some coming-of-age novels end with a completely different protagonist than the girl or boy described on page one; Austen manages to avoid this by keeping Catherine’s personality intact.

Voyant’s Contexts chart of sentences that feature Catherine’s name in the first half of Northanger Abbey
Voyant’s Contexts chart of sentences with “Catherine” towards the end of Northanger Abbey

As you can see, the contexts of the word “Catherine,” when she is found in similar situations of uneasiness at the beginning and end of Northanger Abbey, don’t convey a night and day difference in how she reacts. In the first instance, she is “humbled and ashamed” and speaks “with some hesitation.” In the second, she is “breathless and speechless” and speaks “in a faltering voice” – then “with pain … [speaks] at all.” Catherine reacts like a normal human, even at the conclusion of her novel. Her change is best displayed in her apology to Henry Tilney when he arrives in Fullerton. It is here that she discards her old, over-imaginative self in favor of a new woman who balances romance with practicality. There is no need, Austen writes in essence, for her to change completely. The best improvements of individuals occur when they keep the best parts of themselves meanwhile.

It was a great summer. Reading Austen’s novels has not only made me a better writer, but has inspired me to find my own necessary points of change – my own pride, or prejudice, snobbishness, or idealism. A story can only be told if the main character is willing to begin it.

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