2012 JASNA Essay Contest Third Place Winner High School Division
Truths Universally Acknowledged: Jane Austen and Manipulation
The cover of my edition of Pride and Prejudice shows two women on a balcony with a well-dressed man lurking in the shadows behind them, watching, waiting. The sinister man seems as though he knows all about the two women, their deepest secrets, everything, and will use whatever he needs from them to accomplish his own dastardly ends. The women stare out into the distance, not knowing, not caring.
Of course, this is not quite what Pride and Prejudice is about. However, that sort of sinister, manipulative man is well represented in Jane Austen’s work. Characters manipulate each other in all sorts of ways, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. Often, the resistance to this manipulation is seen in the main characters, the ones we ought to admire, and the tendency to succumb seen in those who Austen has given us leave to ridicule. The main forms of manipulation in her novels are money and sex, and power, which relates to and draws from the other two.
This manipulation is most obviously implemented through money, or the promise of money. In Austen’s time, money, for most women (though not Austen’s heroines) was the deciding factor in choosing a husband. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet cites this as the sole reason that any of her daughters ought to get married. Elizabeth Bennet’s “sensible” friend Charlotte Lucas is considered “sensible” precisely because she is willing to marry a man purely for money; she does not need to feel romantically attached to him. Elizabeth Bennet, however, appears immune to this form of manipulation, as she marries Darcy out of love—although he has ten thousand a year—and her sister Jane makes a similar marriage to Mr. Bingley, who, although not as rich as his friend Darcy, brings in a chunk of money large enough to have interested the whole county when he moved into Netherfield. So, interestingly, none of the characters who marry for love end up married to poor men. Even Lydia’s husband, the disgraced Wickham, ends up in a respectable situation after Darcy helps him out. Perhaps something tugs at the ladies’ inner selves, the desire for a comfortable life after their father’s death? Or perhaps money is one of the objects of their love—again, not outwardly displayed, especially in Elizabeth’s case.
In Emma, Emma Woodhouse’s large fortune makes her the object of desire of many, many suitors, such as Mr. Elton, who “pretends love” and pays her attention only because he wants to “aggrandize and enrich himself” (Emma 104). However, Mr. Knightley, who ends up winning Emma’s love and her hand in the end, succeeds because he is not motivated by material wealth, but rather by true love; his deep affection for Emma shows even when he speaks to her, in tones of “sincere, intelligible, decided tenderness” (Emma 325). Emma, too, remains immune to the influence of the wealth of her suitors—partly because, as a heiress to thirty thousand pounds, she is worth more than most of them, and partly because of her headstrong nature (Emma 102). Miss Bates, on the other hand, is a poor woman, and unmarried; therefore, Emma has no problem talking down to her whenever she feels like it. Her orphaned granddaughter Jane Fairfax, despite her rare beauty and musical ability, only inherited “a very few hundred pounds” and was expected to have to work as a governess because of her relative poverty when compared to women like Emma (Emma 123). Money, then, has a much stronger hold over Miss Bates and Miss Fairfax than over Emma and Mr. Knightley, not necessarily because of greed (like Mr. Elton, who has a sizeable sum already when he seeks Emma’s hand) but out of necessity.
Sex is present here too; not the physical act in most cases, but sexual power. Women in these two novels have some power, some pull over the men; sometimes because of beauty, sometimes because of a sharp wit, but all of these lead back to the old notion of a “feminine mystique” in which men tend to lose themselves. Darcy initially becomes bewitched with Elizabeth because of the shape and expression of her “fine eyes” (Pride and Prejudice 37) and Bingley obsessed with Jane because of her beauty. The two friends’ attraction to each of the sisters enables the sisters to have some amount of control over them, though none of the parties appear to realize it. Bingley’s excessive kindness to Elizabeth when she visits stems not only from his good nature, but also from his admiration of Jane, which Mrs. Bennet uses to her advantage, therefore manipulating Bingley further (Pride and Prejudice 39). Darcy’s devotion to Elizabeth is quite subtle throughout much of the book, but it rears its head in a magnificent manner when he spends an enormous sum of money to help get Lydia out of her situation with Wickham (Pride and Prejudice 330).
The great beauty of Emma and her female counterparts in the novel also enables them to manipulate the opposite sex. Indeed, the only reason that Mr. Elton responds to Emma’s attempts at matching him with Harriet Smith is because he is infatuated with Emma herself, enchanted by her beauty—and her considerable inheritance. Emma, though a woman of her time period, a time in which women were generally lesser than men, considers Mr. Elton “her inferior in talent, and all the elegancies of mind” (Emma 105). Emma’s opinion of herself proves true, as she rejects Mr. Elton’s suit and continues to outwit him and all other men in her life. She is, however, thwarted by Frank Churchill, whom she attempts to fall in love with to please the rest of society—therefore manipulating herself. Another example of manipulation by sex appeal can be found in the case of Jane Fairfax, the seemingly perfect creature whose reputation preceded her by quite a while. This reputation of hers moves Emma to inordinate anger and jealousy over her skill at music. However, once Emma learns Miss Fairfax’s true nature, she is able to stop her own manipulation of her own emotions that plagued her upon learning of the other girl.
However, due to the unwritten code of high society, the men have power when actual sex is implied, as it is between Lydia and Wickham when the two elope. If not for Darcy’s quick actions, it could have carried disastrous consequences for Lydia and her sisters. The nature—even the very existence—of these consequences calls attention to gender roles and their relationship to power in Austen’s society. Clearly, the untrustworthy Wickham meant only to have his way with Lydia and then leave her to “come upon the town […] or be secluded from the world in some distant farmhouse” (Pride and Prejudice 175). Her sister Mary remarks that “loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable […] one false step involves her in endless ruin […] her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful” (Pride and Prejudice 280). Of course, the elopement affects only the reputation of the woman involved, and has no potential impact whatsoever on Wickham’s marriageability. The serious unfairness of this shows men’s power over women in these matters. It is no fault of the women themselves, but rather a gross double standard that still holds today, albeit in a much more relaxed form. In those days, even the slightest rumor of having lived with a man before marriage was enough to doom a girl’s entire family—but not the man’s. It affected him not at all. The man, then, uses the promise of sex as manipulation, and though they may indeed be less skilled at the art than women, men like Wickham will use it to whatever advantage they can get, whether their motive is to have power over the woman’s life or simply their own sport.
So, both money and sex lead back to power and are ways in which power manifests itself. Power here it has less to do with ranks and titles than it does with the other two forms of manipulation discussed—money and sex, with which it is inseparably associated. Money is power in these books, and good looks (and fine eyes) are too, although less so. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins is under the illusion of such power when he proposes to Elizabeth: he believes that his suit is “highly desirable” as his “situation in life [and his] connection to the family of de Bourgh” are “highly in [his] favor,” and he cites the Bennets’ unfavorable position in the entailment as something that will “undo the effects of [Elizabeth’s] loveliness and amiable qualifications” (Pride and Prejudice 108). The power that Mr. Collins holds over the Bennets—his entailment—certainly influences Mrs. Bennet to urge Elizabeth to accept his offer of marriage; however, Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth herself are singularly unmoved. In Mr. Bennet’s case, his aloof personality which enabled him to disregard the effect that his misplaced entailment would have upon his wife and daughters helps him also to disregard and look down upon the cousin who will claim it instead; indeed, Mr. Bennet appears to understand Mr. Collins’s airs much better than anyone else in the family. As for Elizabeth, her idealism when it comes to marriage and her self-confessed tendency to be easily amused prevent her from taking Mr. Collins and his offer seriously—she comes “near laughing” as he begins to propose (Pride and Prejudice 57, 105).
Emma, too, features power that comes as a result of money and various persons’ attempts to manipulate others with that power. Emma Woodhouse herself wields an enormous amount of power over her “friends,” those she takes under her wing of matchmaking - Harriet Smith in particular. She does this by making Harriet better, more fit for higher society; as Mr. Elton says, Emma turned the country girl “graceful and easy” (Emma 33). By this, Emma draws Harriet into her scheme, showing an exertion of power over the simple girl. Emma displays nothing but good intentions in her treatment of Harriet, but yet she essentially takes over the other girl’s mind, telling her what to think, how to act, who to love. Harriet, not in the least as scheming as Emma, happily plays along, offering no resistance to the control. Mr. Knightley, however, is able to resist this power of Emma’s, both because of his personality and because he has known her for such a long while.
These three forms of manipulation—money, sex, and power—are not exclusively applicable to the upper-class Regency society of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and the rest of Jane Austen’s novels. People manipulate each other in every place, in every time, even in today’s world. Such is the beauty of Jane Austen’s work, and the reason why her novels have become classics; they offer important, timeless insights into our society now, all those that have come before it, and all those still to come.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003.
---. Emma. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.