What do we mean when we speak of caricature in Jane Austen’s novels? The long-standing critical consensus on Austen has been that her characters’ peculiarities are plausible and that they are subtly politicized rather than being tendentiously exaggerated versions of people and ideas. Most critics are careful to avoid “caricature” in favor of the more value-neutral term “satire,” which does not risk suggesting that Austen’s character writing is crude, lazy, simplistic, bigoted, or any one of the many pejoratives usually implied (for the twenty-first-century reader) by caricature. In the last few decades caricature has become roughly synonymous with “stereotype,” where both words typically define a simplistic conception or representation that is conspicuously negatively prejudiced, as in the phrases “anti-Semitic caricature” and “caricature of Islam.”
But in Austen’s lifetime, “caricature” did not suggest offensive illiberalism. Nor did the word necessarily imply a lack of artistic skill or effort when used to describe works of literature.1 Instead, “caricature” most often meant a satirical rendering that perceptively, if offensively, seized on characteristics peculiar to a real person. Since Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975), scholars have emphasized the topicality of Austen’s writing and have sought to show how she refers to political, historical, and global matters previously assumed to lie outside the purview of her novels. This ongoing topical turn in Austen criticism should include a historicized view of what caricature meant in early nineteenth-century Britain. Various meanings of “caricature” were available, a fact with implications for our understanding of Austen’s orientation to a contemporary reading public.
The question of whether “caricatures” exist in Austen’s novels particularly concerns her last manuscript draft, the unfinished work that has come to be called Sanditon. Recent scholarship has explored how the manuscript’s concentration of ludicrous characters unsettles the idea that Austen’s characterizations are subtle and plausible: more than any of her published novels, Sanditon lies open to the charge of caricature. Kathryn Sutherland observes that the eccentricity of characters such as Diana and Arthur Parker “threatened to upstage the workaday elements of plot and probable characterisation” (Jane Austen’s Textual Lives 184). Large swathes of the manuscript deal almost exclusively with ridiculous figures; there is a distinct lack of concision in the character analyses of the Parkers, their acquaintances, and their collaborators; and their self-exhibiting speeches are longer than in any of the published novels, suggesting either lack of decision or lack of editing.
Sanditon has been quarantined away from Austen’s published writing, on the grounds that it represents a disintegration of her style. Some critics have supposed that the seeming oddities of the manuscript are at least in part symptomatic of the illness that cut short its writing and ended Austen’s life. Others have pointed to passages in Sanditon that might indicate departure into a new “late style.”
While neither possibility can be ruled out, the fact remains that Sanditon is an equivocal document of writing in progress, unfinished and unauthorized for publication. The manuscript’s disproportionate focus on ludicrous eccentrics who would ordinarily be minor characters, as well as the lack of plot for a protagonist, holds out a third possibility: that the emphasis on human peculiarities in Sanditon represents an important initial stage in the groundwork of Austen’s writing in general. Michelle Levy suggests that Austen’s composition process may have typically begun with “satirical renderings of eccentric minor figures” (1026), which she developed for her immediate social circle in confidential manuscript form. To arrive at a publishable version, Levy argues, Austen would “soften and remove” the satirical aspects of her writing and shift emphasis away from the eccentrics.
A rare glimpse of a stage in Austen’s process when satirical characterization was prioritized, Sanditon invites us to explore Austen’s configuration of caricature as a literary form; and to recognize that form’s relation to the different ways caricature was conceived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as a genteel private entertainment and as an offensive element in published texts and images.
Public and private: Forms of caricature in the early nineteenth century
There were various meanings of caricature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in part because caricatures could be encountered in a variety of different material forms; and the medium made a difference in how something was construed as caricature especially when the medium was distinctly public or private. The techniques of graphic caricature portraiture were present not only in the single-sheet political prints, which had become a familiar sight in the 1790s and during the Napoleonic Wars, but also persisted in privately circulated portraits, an artistic tradition that long predated the appearance of caricature in published political satire.
In the eighteenth century, artists working with visual media became suspicious of caricatura because deliberate distortion of the human form violated the neoclassical canon of beauty, while satirists held that published textual caricatures were ethically suspect: too particular and personal to make a moral satire capable of edifying the public. Published caricatures were also libellous. In the chapter prefatory to Book III of Joseph Andrews (1742), Henry Fielding explains that the true satirist is “like a Parent” who educates readers “in their closets, that they may contemplate their deformity, and endeavour to reduce it, and thus, by suffering private mortification, may avoid public shame.” The caricaturist is a libeller, “like an Executioner” (165).
Subsequent generations of writers and critics inherited the Augustan edict that caricature was a corrupt form of satire that removed dignity from the author even as it humiliated its target. By the nineteenth century, however, the anxieties over the moral edification of the public and the general degradation of humanity were displaced by the anxiety over the damage that caricatures and “personalities” seemed to inflict on individuals and institutions in the public eye. Professional writers and artists seen to be guilty of committing personal satire were regarded with hostility and were frequently threatened with physical violence. In 1831 The Athenaeum brought out a retrospective essay on James Gillray’s work that describes him as “a caterpillar on the green-leaf of reputation” and “a sort of private and public spy” (633). There are recorded instances of people seeking out the individuals they held responsible for caricatures. In his print A Scene in the Caricature Ware Room (1796), John Kay depicts himself defying an outraged man who threatens to give the “damn’d Caricature painter . . . a damn’d threshing” in Kay’s shop in Parliament Close, Edinburgh. As centers of publishing, London and Edinburgh were both hotspots for print-related violence.
Printed textual as well as printed graphic caricatures could provoke a beating or whipping, which denied the victim the honour of participation in a duel with swords or pistols (Cronin 122–53). In Thomas Love Peacock’s novel Crotchet Castle (1831), the caricaturing journalist Mr. Eavesdrop is threatened with a beating and ejected from the society of Crotchet Castle on the grounds that he is a “violator of the confidences of private life” (132). Mary Wilson, sister of John Wilson—“Christopher North” in Blackwood’s Magazine—wrote about an incident that took place in the spring of 1818, when John Douglas of the Glasgow Chronicle assaulted William Blackwood in Princes Street:
[O]ne day as the worthy bookseller was entering his shop, Mr. D. followed him, and laid his whip across his shoulder; and before Mr. B. had time to recover from his surprise, Mr. D. walked off without leaving his address. Mr. B. immediately went out and bought a stick; and, accompanied by Mr. Hogg, went in search of Mr. D., whom at last they detected just about to step into a coach on his return to Glasgow. Mr. B. immediately attacked him, and beat him as hard as he could. . . . (Gordon 200–01)
Physical assaults were a real counterpart to the idea, inherited from the Augustan conception of satire, that caricature was a violent misdirection of satirical animus. Unlike duels, beatings took place publicly, as if to create a real version of the public humiliations imagined in the Augustan denunciation of personal satire. Whereas a duel was supposed to terminate the conflict, beatings and whippings could initiate a theoretically unending sequence of assaults, with the victim and assailant switching roles each time. Lives were likely never at stake, though the injuries exchanged could be psychologically and physically painful.
The violations of published caricatures were a relatively new development. At caricature’s inception in late-sixteenth-century Italy and for two centuries afterward, caricatures of individuals were neither printed nor publicly available for viewing and purchasing; rather, they were either commissioned or amateur artworks that circulated privately. Not until the 1780s did the graphic caricature portrait expand and change from a private (and largely aristocratic) amusement into a prominent feature of British print culture. Amelia Rauser’s account of how tourists and art connoisseurs introduced caricatura to Britain tells how the earliest caricatures were intensely social objects that called for insider knowledge:
Caricatures . . . by their very codes of meaning were material traces of the tight circles of patronage and artistic exchange that typified seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Rome, where they first emerged as private artifacts. They made visible the lack of distance between the subject caricatured, the artist caricaturing, and the viewer admiring the caricature. (17)
The socialites of Rome amused each other with exaggerated portraits of themselves and their friends, attempting to catch what the first theorist and practitioner of modern caricature, Annibale Carracci, had called “the perfect deformity,” the distinctive feature that was supposed to be the essence of a person’s likeness (Summerscale 123).
While some amateur artists did have their drawings engraved and printed to give them the gloss of a professional finish, nevertheless these caricatures effectively remained part of a manuscript culture. They were not for sale or for general distribution, and they passed from hand to hand within a group of people who already had intimate knowledge of the individual depicted. Ritratti carichi (“loaded portraits”) by professional artists became popular among English social elites when trendsetters arrived back from their Grand Tours with caricature group portraits of themselves and their travelling companions. These commissions were desirable souvenirs, especially when drawn by an acclaimed artist such as Pier Leone Ghezzi, or the Englishman Thomas Patch, an Italian-trained painter of portraits. Until the last decades of the eighteenth century, caricature in Britain largely remained a private phenomenon, and so the people caricatured generally did not consider themselves to be injured and offended “victims” of the artist.
Private amateur caricaturing was encouraged by lessons and books promising to teach the art of drawing caricature, such as Mary Darly’s A Book of Caricaturas (1762) and Francis Grose’s Rules for Drawing Caricaturas (1788), and its popularity continued into the first decades of the nineteenth century. In Walter Scott’s circle, John Gibson Lockhart and Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe were both noted for drawing exaggerated portraits of their private acquaintance.
In Emma (1815) Austen raises the issue of drawing’s suitability for young ladies by presenting portraiture as a means of complimenting social acquaintances: the portrait of John Knightley is “‘only too handsome—too flattering—but that was a fault on the right side’” (47). It is tempting to suppose that Cassandra Austen took likenesses of her family and friends, and that these portraits—like the famous pencil and watercolor portrait of her sister (c. 1810)—were executed more incisively than Emma’s, foregrounding conventionally unbeautiful but characteristic features not incompatible with the artist’s affection for the sitter. That Cassandra was capable of grotesque style is clear from the medallion portraits of Elizabeth I and Edward IV that she drew for Jane’s parodic The History of England (1791).
The concept of caricature in Austen’s published novels
Austen herself used the word “caricature” twice in her published oeuvre: to describe John Dashwood’s new wife in the opening chapter of Sense and Sensibility (1811) and in Northanger Abbey (1818) to describe Catherine Morland’s behavior on her return home. In both cases, the word is applied analogically to denote comparatively extreme behavior, and particularly the indulgence of one’s own weaknesses of character. In giving free rein to her own selfishness, Mrs. John Dashwood encourages her husband’s constitutional self-interest into an exaggerated form:
He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was:—he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife. But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself;—more narrow-minded and selfish. (5–6)
The “caricature” here consists in the exponential relation between the husband’s relatively ordinary selfishness and the wife’s extraordinary selfishness. It is implied that John Dashwood, influenced by his wife and feeling himself justified by the idea of duty to his spouse and children, might also become “a strong caricature of himself.” The self-interest of Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood is of course the inciting action to the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which forces the disinherited branch of the Dashwood family to seek financial security and a responsible patriarch elsewhere.
When the word “caricature” is applied to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, the associations are once again with self-indulgence, unmoderated gratification of individual inclinations, and neglect of duty to other members of the family. Mrs. Morland analyzes her daughter’s behavior on her return from Northanger and finds it both strange and familiar:
Catherine’s disposition was not naturally sedentary, nor had her habits been ever very industrious; but whatever might hitherto have been her defects of that sort, her mother could not but perceive them now to be greatly increased. She could neither sit still nor employ herself for ten minutes together, walking round the garden and orchard again and again, as if nothing but motion was voluntary; and it seemed as if she could even walk about the house rather than remain fixed for any time in the parlour. Her loss of spirits was a yet greater alteration. In her rambling and her idleness she might only be a caricature of herself; but in her silence and sadness she was the very reverse of all that she had been before. (249)
Catherine’s despondency might be the “greater alteration,” but exaggerated idleness is the problem Mrs. Morland feels able to address directly. She reminds Catherine that “‘there is . . . a time for work’” and that “‘now you must try to be useful.’”
The “caricatures” mentioned here are worlds away from the personalities in Blackwood’s Magazine and the satirical prints of James Gillray. Neither of Austen’s comparisons seems intended to evoke caricature in a specific material or generic form, such as a single-sheet satirical print or a textual caricature published in a newspaper. Austen’s usage elides caricature’s power to entertain, to hurt, and to humiliate, looking beyond its association with the antagonism of personal satire in the public sphere. She alludes instead to a critical and comparative method of discriminating character, where specific behaviors can be seen both to deviate from normal conduct and to write large a person’s latent inclinations. This caricature-vision sees keenly the changes and consistencies in a person whom the observer knows intimately.
The place of caricature in early responses to Austen’s novels
Austen’s analogies with caricature in her novels depart from the common usage of the word to mean an insulting personal satire that could violate an individual’s privacy and damage his or her reputation. This prevalent definition of “caricature” must have exerted pressure on what was said about Austen’s novels when they were first published—especially since it was always evident to readers that the characters in the novels represented the middling classes of English society to which Austen herself belonged.
It was vital to Austen and her family that she was viewed as a satirist of resemblances, not of identities, and that none of her characters was identified as a caricature of real person. Henry Austen’s 1833 memoir claims, “She drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals” (Sutherland, Memoir 150). James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir even more strenuously defends her satirical characterizations against the charge of personal satire, stressing his aunt’s civility and neighborliness, and even troubling to answer the suggestion in the Quarterly Review that Mr. Bennet could have been based on a real person:
She did not copy individuals, but she invested her own creations with individuality of character. A reviewer in the “Quarterly” speaks of an acquaintance who, ever since the publication of “Pride and Prejudice,” had been called by his friends Mr. Bennet, but the author did not know him. Her own relations never recognised any individual in her characters; and I can call to mind several of her acquaintance whose peculiarities were very tempting and easy to be caricatured of whom there are no traces in her pages. She herself, when questioned on the subject by a friend, expressed a dread of what she called such an ‘invasion of social proprieties.’ She said that she thought it fair to note peculiarities and weaknesses, but that it was her desire to create, not to reproduce; “besides,” she added, “I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they were only Mr. A. or Colonel B.” (Sutherland, Memoir 118)
These and other passages in the family memoirs disclaim the possibility of Austen’s novels containing caricature in the sense of a published satirical representation of a private individual. The offensiveness of published textual caricatures in the early nineteenth century should be kept in mind in considering the early responses to Austen’s work, which articulate enjoyment of her eccentric minor characters without using the risky word “caricature.”
When Austen collected and transcribed her friends’ and relatives’ opinions of Emma and Mansfield Park, their judgments included phrases such as “excellent delineation” and “drawn to the Life” (Later Manuscripts 232, 233), echoing praise for her characters in the British Critic and the Quarterly Review. Unlike most of the published reviews, however, the unpublished “Opinions” dwell on the pleasure Austen’s readers took in her satirically rendered characters. Friends and family seized on Mrs. Elton and Miss Bates as comic highlights in Emma. Anna Lefroy thought that the characters in Emma are “perhaps rather less strongly marked than some, but only the more natural for that reason.—Mr Knightley Mrs Elton & Miss Bates her favourites” (238). Austen’s mother noted that the latest novel is “not so interesting as P. & P.—No characters in it equal to Ly Catherine & Mr Collins” (236). The opinions on Mansfield Park refer repeatedly to Mrs. Norris, whom readers loved to hate.
We should bear in mind that the eight-page manuscript represents not only the opinions of Austen’s friends and relatives but also what Austen thought worth recording in those opinions. The opinions may not be free from irony and cannot be free from editorial decisions; some may be quotations copied directly from letters, while others, shorter and more colloquial in phrasing, are likely recollected or summarized from conversation. It is clear, however, that a significant number of Austen’s early readers, as well as the author herself, were invested in her eccentric minor characters as a source of pleasure.
Austen’s closest acquaintances were not the only ones with a taste for the “highly drawn” and “strongly marked” characters. An unsigned review of Emma, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in September 1816, also recognized that it “has not the highly-drawn characters” of Pride and Prejudice (248). In his diary for January 1819, Henry Crabb Robinson recorded his gleeful enjoyment in “Mrs. Bennet, the foolish mother . . . capitally drawn” and “a thick-headed servile parson, also a masterly sketch” (1: 227). Recommending Pride and Prejudice in a letter to a friend, Robinson singles out these two characters for special praise: “Mrs. Bennet is a very jewel,” and “Mr. Collins too, the sneaking and servile parson, is quite a masterpiece” (3: 851). There are also brief acknowledgements in published reviews of a mode of character writing stylistically apposed to caricature, as when Walter Scott’s review of Emma appraises Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins as “drawn with . . . force and precision” (194). Such language registers appreciation for the vigor, impact, and intensity of characterization—while circumnavigating “caricature” as a problematic term for the publicity of Austen’s novels. Austen’s first readers were obliged to describe writing that stylistically approximates caricature while denying the possibility of any caricatures corresponding to real individuals.
Graphic satire in Austen studies
Modern critics have sometimes compared Austen’s satirical characterizations with published graphic satire, especially the single-sheet satirical prints of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Such comparisons are no doubt influenced by the still-prevalent conception of this period as the “golden age” of graphic satire in Britain. But as we have seen, satirical etchings and engravings were not the only kind of caricature available in the period: amateur caricature portraits circulated confidentially, and textual caricatures were published in novels and periodicals. Austen’s satirical characterizations insist on their difference from published caricatures, such as single-sheet satirical prints, that invited a public of readers to identify real individuals.
Of the critics who have considered Austen’s work in relation to caricature, the most prominent is D. W. Harding. His influential 1939 lecture “Regulated Hatred,” a mainstay of Austen studies, repudiates the view of Austen as “a delicate satirist, revealing with inimitable lightness of touch the comic foibles and amiable weaknesses of the people whom she lived amongst and liked” (6). No, says Harding, these were people whom she lived among and detested, and she expressed her hatred through caricature. As Harding understands it, caricature is a “loud” but “innocuous form” of satire (169), “a means not of admonition but of self-preservation” (171). He seems not to have been aware that Austen’s contemporaries understood caricature to imply “an invasion of social proprieties,” claiming that Austen’s satirical characterizations relied on “one of the most useful peculiarities of her society, . . . its willingness to remain blind to the implications of caricature” (171). In fact, Austen’s society was highly sensitive to the risks of caricaturing and to the damages associated with being a victim of caricature, and many early-nineteenth-century readers were on the lookout for correspondences between fictional characters and real people.
Harding’s remarks on caricature in Austen’s novels are palpably influenced by the “caricatures” of his own era, political cartoons by David Low, Victor Weisz, Stephen Roth, and others. Wendy Lee, in her reappraisal of “Regulated Hatred,” reads Harding’s literary criticism alongside his life’s work on war psychology and statesmanship, arguing that Harding’s view of Austen was filtered through the political controversies that preoccupied him in the interwar years, including successive British governments’ foreign policy towards Germany and Italy between 1935 and 1939. Harding alludes to appeasement in his less well-known essay “Character and Caricature,” where he suggests that Austen’s satirical characterizations object to “the way the most outrageously deformed personalities are allowed an effective part in society” (101). The essay develops Harding’s ideas about Austen’s caricatures and reveals that he has the modern political cartoon in mind: “It may be the preliminary description [of a character], which assures us that some trait of personality is being as sharply and mockingly emphasized as the nose or eyebrows of a politician in a cartoon” (81).
Austen’s preliminary descriptions of characters often do signal satirical intent, but Harding’s parallel with “caricature” in the sense of a published representation of a public individual’s peculiar features cannot translate Austen’s characters, which were intended to avoid the violations so often committed by published caricatures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Analogies between textual and pictorial caricature gain limited purchase on Austen’s novels when they fail to consider the difference publicity made to practices of caricature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Apposed to caricature
Austen was one of many writers who in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reconfigured the Italian import of caricatura into a form compatible with literary standards. As the drawing of caricature portraits became a pastime of genteel domestic life, novels populated with peculiar characters offered a literary version of caricature reconfigured for an anonymous bourgeois audience. Responding to specimens of this caricaturistic writing, readers and critics have often had to deny its equivalence with caricature, while finding words to describe its stylistic apposition to caricature, its gift for emphatic rendering of human peculiarity.
The balancing act of opposing and apposing Austen’s writing to caricature becomes trickier when it has to deal with Sanditon. The manuscript is maximally representative of the caricaturistic in Austen, overridden as it is with the tics and foibles of its eccentrics. In the published novels, as Alex Woloch argues, Austen develops a “narrative asymmetry” where satirically rendered characters are to some degree pushed aside to make room for the narrative and dialogue of the more thoughtful major characters. In the Sanditon manuscript, this “privileged and singular space of the protagonist” does not emerge (76), at least in terms of narrative importance.
We can, however, infer from analogous passages in the published novels how the characterizations of the Parker family might have been made more concise, as well as more rhetorically effective, in later drafts of the novel. The introduction of the incompatible Mr. and Mrs. Parker near the beginning of the manuscript makes a telling comparison with the early introduction in Pride and Prejudice of the incompatible Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The opening chapter of the published novel is remarkably compressed, relying on dialogue to display the contrary positions that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet adopt in their dealings with one another, while establishing the premise of the novel’s plot and introducing Elizabeth, who with “‘something more of quickness than her sisters’” (5) already appears to the reader as a likely protagonist.
In contrast, the Sanditon manuscript attempts a preliminary characterization of Mr. and Mrs. Parker not through revealing dialogue but through an explanation of how Tom Parker’s talk displays his character: “All that he understood of himself, he readily told, for he was very openhearted;—& where he might be himself in the dark, his conversation was still giving information, to such of the Heywoods as could observe” (Sutherland, Fiction Manuscripts b1: 17; LM 146). Then, rather than presenting dialogue to evidence his rapport with his wife, the manuscript simply tells us what should be evident:
Upon the whole, Mr. P. was evidently an amiable, family-man. . . . And Mrs. P. was as evidently a gentle, amiable, sweet tempered Woman, the properest wife in the World for a Man of strong Understanding, but not of capacity to supply the cooler reflection which her husband sometimes needed. . . . (b1: 20; LM 147–48)
“Conversation,” “information,” and the repeated word “evidently” stick out as placeholders, author’s memoranda that in a later draft the third-person characterization would be corroborated with dialogue. In this respect, our first view of Mr. and Mrs. Parker looks like a plan for a scene in which a mismatched couple display their characters through conversation. There is no need in Pride and Prejudice for the narrator to tell us that Mrs. Bennet “evidently” has a particular trait. The Sanditon manuscript refers to what is evident precisely because the evidence is not satisfactorily assembled.
The narrator’s remark that Mrs. Parker cannot “supply the cooler reflection which her husband sometimes needed” should remind us of the moments in Austen’s published novels when a character becomes a “strong caricature” of himself or herself. Like John Dashwood, Tom Parker has married a woman who accommodates, or even encourages, the essential trait that if left unchecked will exaggerate him into a figure of contempt.
Austen’s theme of seeing with caricature-vision, reprised in the description of Mr. and Mrs. Parker, supplies another way to see the upstaging of the protagonist in Sanditon. Charlotte Heywood may not receive her due as heroine—but in the draft space devoted to satirical characterization, Austen tries ways to establish the narrator’s presence as an insider who possesses the intimate knowledge and discriminating judgment of character to which the protagonist of the novel must aspire. A literary form of caricature takes shape in the simulacrum of intimacy between narrator and character.
1See Jane Stabler’s article “Jane Austen and Caricature” for a suggestive critique of “the defensive attitude toward caricature that prevails in literary criticism generally, and in Austen studies in particular” (2), and an argument that Austen drew elements of caricature from the science of physiognomy and from eighteenth-century theatrical entertainment.