2013 JASNA Essay Contest Third Place Winner Graduate Division
Ashlie Flanigan
University of South Florida
St. Petersburg, FL

The Empirical Austen: Finding Nature and Nurture in Pride and Prejudice

Readers of Jane Austen might be surprised to learn that she was a scientist. Her connection with science is usually made through Darwin’s famous affinity for her works, but I believe there is more. Speculation over exactly what drew Darwin to Austen’s works is a scholar’s darling at the moment; when we wonder what in her works called to the Victorian scientist, we really wonder what draws readers today as well. The same timeless nature that called to Darwin only sixty years after her publications still captivates us two hundred years later. In hindsight, Austen can be noted as the empiricist she is in her own right. As Darwin surely was, we are drawn to the social experiments conducted within her pages, delightfully dressed in romance, humor, and wit. The specific facet of Austen’s timelessness I want to discuss is her own exploration of Nature and its counterpart, Nurture. Pride and Prejudice, in particular, explores this dichotomy, using Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy to highlight Austen’s interest in internal and external forces on the human psyche.

Darwin never actually put the terms “nature” and “nurture” together, but his work on evolution led the way for his cousin Francis Galton to coin the phrase in his 1874 article, “On Men of Science, Their Nature and Their Nurture.” Before either gentleman put pen to paper, however, Austen was considering the concept of innate and learned behavior using her trademark protean language. We find “nature” and “nurture” in Pride and Prejudice by looking for the words Austen chooses to denote these concepts. She refers to innate conditions as “essentials,” “temper,” and even “nature,” but the learned characteristics she grapples with, she denominates “education,” “manners,” or “address,” among other terms. In this way, Austen gives the reader clues to how her characters are formed or directed by the forces we know as Nature and Nurture.

We meet our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, much in this way. We come to know her through her family and community first. Mr. Bennet, as any Pride and Prejudice fan knows, is an “odd mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice,” traits we later find he has passed on to our heroine, Elizabeth. Whether sarcasm and caprice is passed by nature or nurture, we simply cannot tell. The origin of Mrs. Bennett’s shortcomings, however, are easier to place; “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (Austen 4). Mrs. Bennet has the unfortunate role in the novel of someone who is deprived by nature—“mean understanding” and “uncertain temper”—as well as nurture—“little information.” Mrs. Bennet is put into relief by contrast not only her with daughters, but also her own sibling. When we meet her brother, Mr. Gardiner, we learn that he is “a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister as well by nature as education” (emphasis added 93). Throughout the novel, Austen uses the terms “nature” and “education” heavily to delineate amongst traits characters are born with and those they gain, or fail to gain, by nurture.

We learn early on that “Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters,” and it can be surmised that this “quickness” is inherited from Mr. Bennet considering the description of the mother. However, Eliza is also often pictured with book in hand, leading the reader to guess that education has something to do with her intelligence as well. In the few outright descriptions of Elizabeth that Austen offers, the narrator tells us that she is “not formed for ill-humour,” and that is was her “temper to be happy,” but the nature of Elizabeth is left hazy (emphasis added 61, 157). Is her character “formed” by nature, or “formed” by the circumstances of her home and community? William Derestewicz sees Pride and Prejudice as a “story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence…that produces [Elizabeth],” but that really goes against her actions that bring about the story’s happy ending as well as the fate of her younger sisters who experienced the same environment (504). Eliza resists the “impropriety” of her father and “neglect” of her mother that proves disastrous to the much weaker minded Lydia (Austen 155,110). Elizabeth was not merely a creation of her environment; her nature was much too strong. In the end, she is more defiant to what is expected of her than compliant. It seems that the more complex the character, the blurrier the line between nature and nurture.

Austen’s study of nature and nurture can be seen throughout the town of Longbourn, Meryton, and Pemberley. In this discussion, I want to focus on Austen’s treatment of her hero and heroine because of their special and somewhat paralleled relationship to nature and nurture. While Elizabeth is introduced in relief to her family—her nature—Darcy is introduced by a comparison with George Wickham, a brother by nurture. When Elizabeth meets Wickham, he tells her just how similar he and Darcy’s backgrounds are, “’We were born in the same parish, within the same park, the greatest part of our youth was passed together; inmates of the same house, sharing the same amusements, objects of the same parental care’”(Austen 55). Austen takes particular care to make certain the reader understands just how similar the worlds are from whence the gentlemen sprung. Regardless, as Wickham truthfully asserts, “…we are very different sort of men…” (55). We are to understand that despite their similar upbringings, something is “very different” at the core of Darcy and Wickham. That something is their nature.

In her manner of introducing Darcy, Austen plays on the readers’ and town folks’ misunderstanding of his nature. Our first impression is of what he has been nurtured to be, which is very different than his innate self. When Darcy and his party first enter the Meryton assembly, he attracts every eye until he is found to be “proud… above his company, and above being pleased,” all superficially nurtured traits of character (8). He seals his fate in the minds of Meryton by his bad behavior. Darcy seems aware of his reputation, almost proud of it in fact. While he “dare not vouch” for his temper, he suffers no doubts about his “understanding,” that important innate sense that Austen’s heroes are born with. Darcy admits to his unyielding temper, another innate characteristic, but does not seem ashamed of it, nor of his “feeling’s” resistance to being “puffed about with every attempt to move them” (40). He sees these traits as part of his nature; he has the sound of a Darwinist himself when he asserts to Elizabeth that, “’There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome” (Emphasis mine 40). With Darcy’s justification, Austen argues one side of the argument on the power of nature versus the altering influences of nurture.

As the novel progresses it is clear that Elizabeth begins to get a clearer “sketch” of Darcy’s true character, and Austen has the reader starting to question what that character really is (64). The answer for Darcy is circular—to find the nature of the man, we need to look to the man’s nature—in this case, his natural property. Austen employs a grand metonymical device in her description of Pemberley to allow the reader to glimpse Darcy’s true nature.

Elizabeth’s impression of Pemberley is very important to her changing regard for Darcy. She jokes to Jane about her love for him beginning upon “first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” but the connection between Darcy, Pemberley, and Elizabeth is real and integral (244). Alistair Duckworth sees Pemberley as a representation for Darcy, and Elizabeth’s view of it as “a spatial recapitulation of her association with Darcy from her first prejudiced impressions of his external appearance, through a recognition of other (and seemingly contradictory) views, to a final arrival at the central core of his character” (312). I think that Elizabeth’s tour of Pemberley does indeed give Elizabeth, and the reader, a glimpse of Darcy’s “central core,” but for my purposes his core is synonymous with his nature. Duckworth advances my point with his claim, “at Darcy’s estate Elizabeth comes to an awareness of Darcy’s intrinsically worthy character” (310). Not only does she realize at Pemberley that characteristics can change based on point of view, she also sees the place as a symbol of Darcy’s innate goodness. Pemberley is described by Elizabeth as being “…without any artificial appearance…nor falsely adorned” (Austen 159). Through her view of Pemberley, Elizabeth is beginning to understand that Darcy’s nature is good and not overly nurtured by false manners such as Wickham’s. If we follow Duckworth’s reasoning that Pemberley is a symbol for Darcy himself, then Elizabeth’s thought that “she had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste,” signals that she is beginning to see Darcy’s natural worth. Her realization at Pemberley echoes her earlier comment to a confused Wickham, “In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was,” that is, his nature hasn’t changed (emphasis added 153).

The words Elizabeth speaks to Wickham together with the constant nature of Pemberley play on the notion of “essentials” or nature as being static, and manners like Wickham’s as flexible or easily influenced. Darcy’s “implacable temper” is meant to cast a “shade” on his character in one way, but in another proves his solid nature (40). His “bad” manners can be accounted for, after all. Darcy has a sympathetic listener in Elizabeth as he remembers his childhood and the lack of proper nurturing then, “as a child I was taught what was right, but not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit…my father…allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing…” (241). Darcy accounts for his better nature being nearly obscured by faulty education, a theme Austen returns to over and again in Pride and Prejudice.

Elizabeth receives another account of Darcy’s childhood through his housekeeper, an unlikely source of keen insight into the argument of nature versus nurture. Mrs. Reynolds’s wisdom that “they who are good-natured when children, are good-natured when they grow up; and he was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted, boy in the world,” shocks Elizabeth, and makes her Aunt doubtful, but asserts the importance and stasis of Nature in Pride and Prejudice (emphasis added 161).

There is a homogonous bent to the romantic pairings in the novel that suggests the preservation of good nature. Elizabeth and Darcy are the hero and heroine, so naturally they are “formed” for one another, but they belong together in another way as well. Both grow up in homes where mismanaged nurturing presents a threat, but they each have sturdy enough natures to withstand external influence and thrive. On the other hand, Lydia and Wickham are both shown to be made of shoddier stuff. Under the same respective mismanagement that Elizabeth and Darcy withstood, Lydia and Wickham both go very wrong.

Pride and Prejudice emphasizes the importance of both innate qualities and learned ones. In the Bennet family the five sisters who share their parentage are just as different from one another as the two surrogate brothers who share nothing but nurture. It is not my aim to determine whether Austen thought one was more integral than the other, but rather to discuss the possibility that she anticipated Darwin and Galton’s work in the area of evolution. At the heart of Austen’s work, I believe she is an empiricist, focused on the inner workings of people, and deeply interested in what makes them who they are. This is what drew Darwin to her timeless works, and what keeps them relevant to readers today.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane, and Donald J. Gray.  Pride and Prejudice.  New York: W.W. Norton &, 2000. Print.

Deresiewicz, William.  “Community And Cognition In Pride And Prejudice.” Elh 64.2 (1997): 503-535.  MLA International Bibliography. Web. 5 Apr. 2013.

Duckworth, Alistair.  “Pride and Prejudice: The Reconstitution of Society.”  Pride and Prejudice.  New York: W.W. Norton &, 2000. 306-15. Print.

Galton, Francis.  Proceedings.  “On Men of Science, Their Nature and Their Nurture.” Royal Institution of Great Britain. 1874. Web. April 2013.