“I Will Tell You Truths While I Can”: Jane Austen for the Unromantic

Most people think of Jane Austen as the quintessential romantic author. But this summer, as the Novels of Jane Austen class conversed our way through Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Emma over tea and Scottish shortbread, the students repeatedly remarked that there was much more to Austen than love, courtship, and marriage.

Certainly the romantic storylines of the novels are their centerpieces—made particularly familiar by various film adaptations of them. But less-frequently noticed are Austen’s less-romantic themes such as the importance of friendship, the importance of listening to and accepting wise counsel, the danger of judging by appearances, the danger of going through life without examining your heart and conscience, and the necessity of being resolute in your convictions.

The theme that particularly struck me as the tutor was Austen’s emphasis on the importance of precise language. Since I frequently challenge my students to write with greater exactness, I was delighted that Austen gave so many examples of the danger of inexact language and the necessity of clarity.

Since the core of understanding language is defining terms, I will begin by defining what I mean by “precise language”. “Precise language” is speaking or writing with words that communicate exactly what the speaker or writer intends to say. To do this, the speaker or writer must pay close attention to the various connotations and shades of meaning that words have. This is difficult because words are often used so casually that we have not really taken the time to think about precisely what they mean and how our audience may receive them. Words often have one meaning according to the dictionary or according to older texts and a very different meaning in popular, modern use. For example, “freedom” according to the American Founding Fathers meant specifically “the ability to live your life how you want as long as you do not violate the God-given rights of other people”. But when most people today talk about freedom, they mean “the ability to live your life how you want without any restrictions at all”.

Throughout the three novels we studied, Jane Austen’s characters—almost always led by the story’s hero—emphasize the importance of precise language.

In Pride and Prejudice, probably the most important dialogue on the topic occurs when Elizabeth and Jane Bennet are visiting Netherfield Park, and Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth, the novel’s heroine, and Mr. Darcy, the novel’s hero, debate the significance of Mr. Bingley’s writing speed. Mr. Bingley says he thinks so quickly that he has to write so quickly that his writing is careless; as a result, the people who receive his letters cannot understand what he meant to say. Mr. Darcy replies that Mr. Bingley is only appearing to be humble in confessing this so-called “fault” of hasty writing; in reality, Mr. Darcy says, Mr. Bingley wants to be complimented on his writing speed. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Darcy says that Mr. Bingley is too-easily persuaded by his friends to change his plans. Elizabeth interjects that this is a good thing because it is important to yield to your friends’ wishes. But Mr. Darcy counters that it is vital to establish exactly the circumstances in which it would be good to yield to your friends’ wishes. Any reader could think of many examples—including Mr. Darcy’s own subsequent efforts to persuade Mr. Bingley that Jane does not love Mr. Bingley—where yielding to friends would indeed be disastrous. This conversation about Mr. Bingley’s writing speed comes early in the novel and prepares the reader to evaluate the characters’ later decisions to pursue or reject truth and to yield, or not yield, to the persuasions of their friends.

In Northanger Abbey, precise language plays a much greater role than in Pride and Prejudice. The novel’s hero, Mr. Tilney, makes at least four speeches about it. The first speech occurs at the ball where the novel’s heroine, Catherine Morland, talks to her deceitful acquaintance John Thorpe while she is supposed to be dancing with Mr. Tilney. When Mr. Tilney teasingly chides her, Catherine states that marriage and dancing are too different to be compared. But Mr. Tilney argues that dancing is similar to marriage because both dancing partners commit to be gracious toward each other for the entire dance, so that one dancing partner cannot leave the dance to converse with another dancer without grieving her own partner. To be a good dancing partner requires that both dancing partners choose to put one another first over other possible dancing partners.

Mr. Tilney’s second speech on precise language occurs a few days later when he, his sister, and Catherine are taking a walk to a nearby hill. Catherine says she thought that “young men despised novels amazingly”—by which she means she thought all young men despise novels intensely. But Mr. Tilney comments that young men prove they do not despise novels because they read so many novels; he points out that it would be an “amazing” thing if young men did despise novels, since they read so many of them. Catherine then calls one novel “nice”, by which she means that it is interesting and fun to read. But Mr. Tilney corrects her expression by saying that “nice” truly indicates “propriety, delicacy, or refinement”, and that “nice” is now used to describe everything including days and walks. When the topic changes to studying history—a subject which both Mr. and Miss. Tilney love—Catherine says that historians write history books “only for the torment of little boys and girls”. But Mr. Tilney comments that Catherine has misused “torment” to mean “instruct” and that historians are no more responsible for the difficulties of learning to read history books than novelists are responsible for the difficulties of learning to read novels.

The third speech Mr. Tilney makes about precise language occurs after an evening when Catherine observes that Isabella Thorpe, another of her deceitful acquaintances who is engaged to Catherine’s brother, James, has broken her promise not to dance at the ball in order to dance with Mr. Tilney’s handsome brother, Captain Tilney. Catherine tells Mr. Tilney that Captain Tilney is “causing” James great pain because Isabella now seems to care more for Captain Tilney than for James. But Mr. Tilney responds that it is not Captain Tilney who is “causing” James pain: it is Isabella’s own lack of commitment to James that is causing James pain.

Mr. Tilney makes his fourth observation on Catherine’s imprecise language when Catherine attempts to change the subject after he finds her disobeying General Tilney’s order not to go into the closed wing of Northanger Abbey. Catherine says she is surprised that Isabella has not kept her word to write to Catherine even though she “promised so faithfully to write”. Mr. Tilney observes that he is puzzled by Catherine’s concept of a “faithful promise”—since if Isabella has promised something faithfully, it merely means that she said that promise consistently, not that she actually keeps her word.

In debating these definitions of “marriage”, “amazing”, “nice”, “cause”, and “promise”,  Mr. Tilney may seem to be the pedantic grammarian type whom Catherine inexplicably cannot help loving. Miss. Tilney laughingly acknowledges her beloved brother’s tendency to imitate “Dr. Johnson’s” dictionary writing, and certainly Mr. Tilney cares about Catherine herself far more than he cares about her use of language. But Mr. Tilney, and Jane Austen, do make an important point: the correct use of language is fundamental to human life, and it is vital that people who love one another are able to communicate precisely.

Yet precise language is ultimately important not merely because it prevents misunderstandings but because it is part of the pursuit of truth that must underlie the deepest relationships. Austen makes this point most beautifully in her greatest novel—Emma.

Emma Woodhouse is a spoiled brat who thinks she knows best how to marry off everyone in her small town of Highbury. The only person who takes the trouble to point out the serious faults in her character is her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley—probably the most aptly-named character in literature. After Emma’s governess, Miss. Taylor, marries Mr. Weston, Emma congratulates herself that the idea they should marry was her invention. Her high opinion of her own judgment then leads her to match the impoverished-but-pretty Harriet Smith with the dandified-and-petty Mr. Elton—instead of allowing Harriet to marry her kind farmer friend, Mr. Martin. Although Mr. Knightley warns Emma not to toy with others’ lives, Emma is shocked when Mr. Elton tells her that he loves her instead of Harriet. Emma wisely resolves not to make any more matches, but she is drawn in to Mrs. Weston’s fancy that Mr. Knightley is in love with the accomplished newcomer, Jane Fairfax. Into this milieux gallops Frank Churchill, with whom Emma briefly imagines that she might be in love; but after deciding she is mistaken, she encourages Harriet to try for him. Harriet, though, having been well-trained by Emma to dream of marrying men who are much richer and more sensible than herself, begins to imagine that Mr. Knightley is in love with her. Only by acknowledging the truth about her own foolishness can Emma conclude that she herself is the one whom Mr. Knightley should marry. However, Mr. Knightley has been under the impression that Emma was in love with Frank Churchill, and Frank has deceived everyone because he has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax the entire time.

With a plot involving so much manipulation and deceit, Austen makes love of truth the paramount virtue; and much of the emphasis on truth is developed through Emma’s debates with Mr. Knightley about the meanings of words. Their first debate comes only a few pages into the novel when Emma is enjoying her “success” in bringing Miss. Taylor and Mr. Weston together. She defines “success”, of course, as achieving the outcome she imagined would be good, while Mr. Knightley reminds her that “success supposes endeavour… You made a lucky guess; and that is all that can be said.”

After Emma persuades Harriet to reject Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal and try for Mr. Elton, Mr. Knightley—alarmed at having encouraged Mr. Martin to propose to a young lady who has turned out to be so inconstant—tells Emma that her interference has seriously hurt two people. Emma retorts that Mr. Martin is not Harriet’s “equal”, intending to argue that Harriet deserves a lover of higher social status. But Mr. Knightley returns the phrase with a new meaning: sensible, humble Mr. Martin is a faithful friend, and thoughtless, increasingly-proud Harriet is inconstant, so she certainly is not his “equal”.

It is several weeks before unrepentant Emma attempts to befriend Mr. Knightley again. They talk while they observe Emma’s little nephews and nieces, and Mr. Knightley observes that he was sixteen when Emma was born. Emma posits that the twenty-one years that have passed have given her an “understanding” much closer to Mr. Knightley’s; but he responds that their different circumstances have required him to develop a much more mature “understanding”: “I have still the advantage of you by sixteen-years’ experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoilt child.”

The next two debates over definitions between Emma and Mr. Knightley occur in their conversations about Frank Churchill. Frank has very rudely failed to attend his father’s marriage to Miss. Taylor and has further delayed visiting Highbury on the flimsy premise that his adopted family cannot spare him. Emma—knowingly going against her own better judgment—defends Frank, saying that it would be “unnatural” for him to ignore his own father so callously; but Mr. Knightley reminds her that every person has faults, and it would be truly “unnatural” for Frank to be faultless. Emma continues defending Frank by saying that he must certainly be very “amiable”, meaning, as the French do, that he must be very agreeable and friendly; but Mr. Knightley counters that, while Frank may be very amiable, he is not “amiable” in the English sense of showing respect for the concerns of other people.

Emma and Mr. Knightley conclude their series of definitions as they discuss Jane Fairfax. Emma is embarrassed that Jane is so much more accomplished than she is, so she has started their acquaintance by giving Jane the cold shoulder, despite their closeness in age and Jane’s relative poverty. Emma begins her conversation with Mr. Knightley by blandly noting that Jane is too “reserved”—meaning that Jane is so quiet and shy that she seems unfriendly; but Mr. Knightley encourages Emma to try to befriend Jane because shyness can be overcome. He then states that the “reserve” of discretion is nevertheless vital. However, as events develop, Mr. Knightley comes to observe—as all of the characters ultimately discover—that Jane’s extreme “reserve” is really a form of dishonesty. When Mrs. Weston and Emma test Mr. Knightley to see whether he is in love with Jane, he frankly admits that “anybody may know how highly I think of her”, since she is—for the most part—a young lady of high moral character. But in the greatest sense, Mr. Knightley cannot “think highly” of Jane because she “has not the open temper which a man would wish for in a wife”: he cannot tell whether she is entirely truthful.

Events culminate with the party at Box Hill when Emma snaps out an insult at Miss. Bates, a kindly old woman whose only fault is that she talks very much about very trivial matters. Miss. Bates is honestly mortified that she has hurt “dear Miss. Woodhouse”, and Mr. Knightley, grieved on Miss. Bates’ behalf, resolves to confront Emma, even though he believes she may be so offended that she will end their friendship and turn to the flattering and handsome Frank Churchill. “This is not pleasant to you, Emma,” Mr. Knightley closes his reprimand, “and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will—I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.” Emma later reflects on his words with humbled admiration: “How shocked had he been by her behavior to Miss Bates! How directly, how strongly had he expressed himself to her on the subject!—Not too strongly for the offense—but far, far too strongly to issue from any feeling softer than upright justice and clear-sighted good will.”

Soon afterward, news arrives that Frank Churchill has been engaged to Jane Fairfax since before either of them moved to Highbury. Emma, concerned for Harriet—whom she has assumed to be in love with Frank—then receives another surprise when Harriet tells her that she believes Mr. Knightley is in love with herself.

As the novel nears its close, Harriet has proven to be easily deceived, Frank has proven to be the opposite of frank, and Jane has proven to be quietly hypocritical. Among all Emma’s acquaintance, only Mr. Knightley has steadily upheld truth—even when it is likely to offend her and cost him her friendship. And his knightly defense of truth is not lost on Emma. She tells Mrs. Weston that Mr. Knightley is characterized by his openness and honesty. She tells herself that “warmth and tenderness of heart, with an affectionate, open manner, will beat all the clearness of head in the world, for attraction”. When Emma comes to a true understanding of her own failings, she is appalled at her own opposition to Mr. Knightley’s uprightness and recognizes that “she had often been negligent or perverse, slighting his advice, or even willfully opposing him, insensible of half his merits, and quarreling with him because he would not acknowledge her false and insolent estimate of her own”.

When at last Mr. Knightley begins his proposal to Emma, she is convinced that he is about to tell her that he loves Harriet. Nevertheless, Emma demonstrates her commitment to truth by telling him, “I will hear whatever you like. I will tell you exactly what I think.” Emma is so shocked when Mr. Knightley tells her he loves her that she cannot reply immediately. He reminds her, as his actions have said all along, “You will hear nothing but truth from me.”

Emma and Mr. Knightley both have their faults, but of all the residents of Highbury, they are the only ones deeply devoted to the pursuit of truth. And that makes their happy union possible—despite the lack of “finery and parade” at their wedding ceremony.

Together, Austen’s three novels demonstrate the importance of upholding truth, even when family, friends, and whole towns are deceived or deceiving. Austen makes this point in a way that can seem tedious or even unimportant: by having her characters debate the meanings of words. Granted that, as an author, words are Austen’s life, her works steadily insist that words play vital roles in all of our lives. Granted that, although the characters who debate the meanings of words are the characters who ultimately marry one another, Austen’s novels show that precise communication lays a solid foundation for every relationship. As Mr. Knightley tells Emma:

“Mystery; Finesse—how they pervert the understanding! My Emma, does not everything serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”

Image: Lake at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, UK