Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                            Page 77-84

Assertion and Aggression in the Novels of Jane Austen 

Department of English, West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania 19832

In Northanger Abbey John Thorpe tells Catherine Morland that she can forget her scheduled walk with the Tilneys because he saw them leaving town a half-hour ago; he then gets Catherine into his gig, only to pass the Tilneys walking on the sidewalk coming to meet her.  She calls to him to stop, but he refuses.  In spite of her repeated pleas for him to stop the carriage and let her out, he merely whips the horse into a faster pace, laughing as he goes.  

This scene perfectly illustrates a familiar scenario in Jane Austen: that of someone riding roughshod over someone else’s rights.  If the obvious, surface plot of her novels is courtship, there is, I suggest, a less obvious but equally intense plot at work in the Austen novels, a plot that provides a sort of metaphorical context within which the courtship story unfolds.  This backgrounded plot is the struggle between aggressors and their victims.  

To explain what I mean, I will borrow a distinction made by the popular books on “assertiveness training” that have appeared in the last few years, teaching shy folk that they should stop letting people walk all over them, should learn to say “no” when they have taken on all that they can handle, should express their preferences more readily, and so on.  These books (of which Your Perfect Right, by Alberti and Emmons, is perhaps the most intellectually respectable, being written by two bona fide academic researchers) usually make a distinction between “assertive” and “aggressive” behaviour, a distinction that will be useful in discussing Jane Austen:  

“Assertive” behaviour is any behaviour toward another person that directly, firmly and honestly expresses one’s feelings, wishes, needs, or legitimate rights – but which at the same time respects the feelings, needs and rights of the other person.  

“Aggressive” behaviour, by contrast, is any behaviour that blatantly disregards the needs or rights of other people in the blind, juggernaut pursuit of the aggressor’s own goals.  

A third type of interpersonal behaviour implicit in this analysis is non-assertive or passive behaviour – the total failure to take any definite action on one’s own behalf at all.  The want of resolution thus exemplified leaves the person highly vulnerable to the machinations of bolder, more aggressive types.  

Turning to Jane Austen, I contend that in an Austen novel the courtship plot is only the surface plot.  The real plot is the incessant struggle of decent, well-behaved, considerate people to hold their own against self-seeking, aggressive types who disregard the restraints of etiquette or ethics and ruin the plans of any who stand in their way.  This other plot is not exactly a sub-plot, in the sense that in Pride and Prejudice the courtship of Jane and Bingley is a sub-plot to the main plot of Elizabeth and Darcy.  Rather it is a “constant” in the social scheme, operating somewhat as static on a radio does: the action of the courting couple always proceeds in spite of it, and they are always at least half-aware that it may break forth in their own relationship.  Before looking at this phenomenon in Pride and Prejudice, let me offer brief examples from the other novels:  

Northanger Abbey: Isabella Thorpe consistently lavishes the most insincere nonsense upon Catherine Morland, proclaiming deep and lasting friendship, only to further her designs upon Catherine’s brother, James.  Naïve Catherine has developed no defences against aggression and takes a long while to become wise to it.  John Thorpe shows his own brand of aggressive behaviour toward her, as we have already seen.  For some time the naïve and well-bred Catherine meekly and non-assertively goes along with Thorpe’s behaviour.  However, the day finally comes when she does assert herself: when he runs to the Tilneys and makes her excuses for her, Catherine at last rebels.  She races to the Tilneys (not only against his protest, but against that of Isabella and James as well) and rights the wrong.  She is learning her first lesson in getting tough with aggressors.  

Sense and Sensibility: the name Fanny Dashwood will call to mind a stupifyingly insensitive action: “No sooner was [Henry Dashwood’s] funeral over than Mrs. John Dashwood, without sending any notice of her intention to her mother-in-law, arrived with her child and their attendants.”  She comes to occupy Norland, with her mother-in-law barely home from the funeral! – a perfect example of the territorial aggression mentioned earlier.  The next chapter contains the famous scene in which Fanny persuades her husband to give no money to Mrs. Dashwood at all, in spite of Henry Dashwood’s specific instructions to his son.  Here is double aggression, for not only are the Dashwood women being cheated of their inheritance, but John Dashwood himself is being manipulated to a fare-thee-well.  

But these are early scenes, and we can tick off many other instances of aggression in the novel: Lucy Steele pre-empts Edward from Elinor; Willoughby uses Marianne for his summer pleasure; Mrs. Ferrars treats Edward like a welcome mat; Fanny chooses to have the Steele sisters come to stay at their London house instead of Elinor and Marianne; Robert Ferrars filches Lucy from Edward (not that Edward minds); and so on.  People are victimized by aggression from start to finish.  

Mansfield Park: the entire novel chronicles the career of aggression versus non-assertion, as Fanny Price, the meek, non-assertive heroine, attempts to survive the blatant onslaughts of Mrs. Norris and the subtler but equally damaging harassments of Sir Thomas, Henry Crawford, Mary Crawford, Maria Bertram, and even Edmund Bertram, her sometime champion and confidant.  Space will not permit detailed examination, but perhaps one example in each case will suffice to indicate the extent of Fanny’s besiegement:  

Mrs. Norris, who first thought of having Fanny come live at Mansfield, tries to deny Fanny everything: a fire in her room, a horse, a trip to Sotherton, the use of a carriage to go to a dinner engagement, and so on.  Maria Bertram delights to remind Fanny daily of her place as a non-Bertram and a nobody.  Sir Thomas causes Fanny excruciating pain when he tries to force her to marry Henry Crawford and makes her feel ungrateful and selfish when she refuses.  Henry Crawford blatantly announces to his sister that he plans to make Fanny fall in love with him, as an amusement for himself on his non-hunting days.  Mary Crawford pretends to be a friend but abets Henry’s egotistic pursuit by manipulating Fanny into accepting the necklace.  Even Edmund exploits Fanny by using their confidential relationship for his own selfish end, that of harping forever on his infatuation with Mary Crawford and asking Fanny’s advice as to how he should proceed.  Fanny outlives this aggression; she never confronts it.  

Emma: Emma herself is a major aggressor: consider her manoeuvring of Harriet into rejecting Robert Martin’s proposal.  She believes she is doing it for Harriet’s good, but we see that it is an action of pure ego on Emma’s part: she believes she knows what is best for everybody, and she is in a position to force her infallibility on poor Harriet.  Harriet’s submission to Emma in this matter is non-assertion at its worst: she does not say, as a more assertive person might, “Miss Woodhouse, I love Robert Martin and want to marry him.  I am going to accept his proposal.  I’m sorry if I have to lose your friendship in the bargain, but that is a sacrifice I’ll have to make.”  She has a perfect right to say that, but she just doesn’t have the assertiveness to do it.  

Knightley’s reaction, on the other hand, is characteristically assertive: “You saw her answer!  You wrote her answer too.  Emma, this is your doing,” and so forth.  Knightley’s schooling of Emma is nearly always a matter of assertiveness confronting aggression.  

Other aggressors show their colours in Emma: Mrs. Elton’s mode of behaviour from the very first moment of her arrival in Highbury is aggressive; she sets up as the superior woman in the society, advertising herself with slogans and logos, à la Madison Avenue (Maple Grove, Selina, my caro sposo, etc.).  She is a junior-grade Lady Catherine, without the money or the style.  Frank Churchill is another aggressor: his behaviour toward Jane Fairfax, the repeated occasions of flirting with Emma in his fiancée’s presence, is inexcusable; we cannot pardon him any more than we can pardon Maria Bertram’s flagrant behaviour with Henry Crawford in front of Mr. Rushworth.  

As in the other novels, the surface plot of Emma is courtship: but the subtler and more pervasive plot is the damage, potential and actual, inflicted by these three primary aggressors upon other characters who are either too unassertive to defend themselves (Harriet, Miss Bates) or are simply not in a position to do so (Jane Fairfax).  Mr. Knightley provides the assertive norm: he does not hesitate to upbraid Emma for her mistreatment of people; he sees through Frank Churchill’s shallowness and refuses to join in Highbury’s general adulation of him; he thwarts Mrs. Elton’s designs several times (he dances with Harriet when Elton refuses her and joins his wife in smirking; he insists on making out his own guest-list for the strawberry party, when Augusta proclaims she will do it for him).  

Persuasion: Anne Elliot suffers daily slights and insults to her maturity and intelligence at the hands of her father and her sister Elizabeth.  A typical example is found in Elizabeth’s notion of a good way to save money for the sake of the family finances: it consists of not bringing Anne a present from London!  In fact she slights Anne on all occasions, out of an abiding need to be the first lady of the family.  Sir Walter acts almost as though Anne did not exist, for the very good reason that she does not flatter his ego as Elizabeth does.  Her sister Mary also uses Anne for her own selfish needs.  Thus is she exploited by the whole family.  

As in the case of Fanny Price and Harriet Smith, we see Anne taking no really assertive action in response to the aggression: we overhear her private thoughts as she regrets the tactless, snobbish behaviour of her father and sister, but she never speaks her mind to them.  We understand why, of course: she would be wasting her time remonstrating with fools.  Still, the author who created Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Knightley, if she had chosen to do so, could have found a way to let Anne put Sir Walter and Elizabeth in their place.  One would have enjoyed an exchange in which Anne might have caused them to see what ego-ridden fools they really are.  

These hasty suggestions of the workings of aggression in the other novels provide a context within which we may look at the presence of that phenomenon in Pride and Prejudice, and at the way that it is (for once in the six major novels) triumphantly thwarted.  As an early example is the scene in which the Bingley sisters slash at Elizabeth after she has left the room to attend to Jane: “I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud,” and so on.  Bingley’s response is mildly assertive: “Your picture may be very exact, Louisa, but this was all lost upon me.  I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning.  Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice.”  The growing hostility of Caroline Bingley toward Elizabeth, born of her all-too-obvious determination to have Darcy for herself, creates the prickly atmosphere that prevails throughout the Bennet sisters’ stay at Netherfield.  The dramatic high point of this part of the novel is reached when Caroline acidly comments on Elizabeth’s “paltry device” of recommending herself to the opposite sex by undervaluing her own.  Darcy, answering aggression with cool assertion, says: “Undoubtedly, there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation.  Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.”  The narrator slyly remarks, “Miss Bingley was not so entirely satisfied with this reply as to continue the subject.”  

In fact – though she holds her own very well – Elizabeth is plagued by a succession of aggressors.  Caroline Bingley’s jealous, catty aggression is followed very soon by Mr. Collins’s pompous, stupid, territorial aggression: smacking his lips in anticipation of taking over Longbourn itself, he comes to gobble up one of Longbourn’s daughters.  Next comes the sexually exploitative aggression of Mr. Wickham, an evil spirit who charms Eliza into believing the worst of Mr. Darcy and thus largely predetermines her vehement rejection of Darcy’s first proposal.  And finally, there comes Lady Catherine.  

Lady Catherine’s brand of aggression is tyrannical, self-opinionated; she belongs with Mrs. Norris among those rare humans blessed with infallibility yet condemned to share the earth with their inferiors.  At the end of the party, says the narrator, they “gathered round the fire to hear Lady Catherine determine what weather they were to have on the morrow,” suggesting that Mother Nature herself hesitates to be assertive with Lady Catherine.  (Ironically, Lady Catherine’s own daughter provides a perfect example of the scared, non-assertive personality.)  

However, Lady Catherine’s insufferable behaviour sets the stage for the one thoroughly satisfying example, in all of the Austen novels, of aggression being perfectly answered and defeated by a determined application of assertiveness.  I refer, of course, to the magnificent confrontation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet, when Lady Catherine comes to Longbourn.  The interesting thing for our purposes is that, although Lady Catherine makes one inexcusably aggressive assault after another, Elizabeth never once steps beyond the line of legitimate assertiveness in answering her.  She does not give way to abusive language, to name-calling, to insults – in fact, she hardly even becomes heated.  Instead, she counters every offensive remark from her assailant with cool, polite logic.  The scene is too familiar to require much quoting, but three exchanges will illustrate the point:   

1.        Lady Catherine: Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?   

Elizabeth: Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.   

2.       Lady C: You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by every one connected with him.  Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us.   

E:  These are heavy misfortunes.  But the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.   

3.       Lady C.: You are then resolved to have him?   

E:   I have said no such thing.  I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.   

       The first of these rejoinders includes nothing that an unbiased observer could call offensive, but it stoutly refuses compliance with the demand.  The second speech politely undercuts the effect of Lady Catherine’s threat and leaves her high and dry.  The third could almost stand as the very definition of assertiveness, as Eliza deftly defines what is her inalienable human right: the right to pursue her own happiness without being inhibited by a self-centred aggressor.  

But now a question arises: why is it that such a triumphant rout of aggression by assertion occurs so seldom in the Austen novels?  It happens occasionally, to be sure.  We rejoice when Sir Thomas does eventually quash Mrs. Norris: it happens when he enters the room and says, “Fanny, at what time would you have the carriage come round?”  

“My dear Sir Thomas!” cried Mrs. Norris, red with anger, “Fanny can walk.”  

“Walk!” repeated Sir Thomas, in a tone of most unanswerable dignity, and coming farther into the room. – “My niece walk to a dinner engagement at this time of the year!  Fanny, will twenty minutes after four suit you?”  

Ah, we feel, this is more like it; this is what we’d like more often.  We feel the same way when Mr. Knightley squelches Mrs. Elton upon her announcing that she will make out the guest-list for his strawberry-party at Donwell Abbey.  

“I hope you will bring Elton,” said he, “but I will not trouble you to give any other invitations.”  

She presses him: “Leave it all to me.  I will invite your guests.”  

“No,” he calmly replied, “there is but one married woman in the world whom I can ever allow to invite what guests she pleases to Donwell, and that one is – ”  

“Mrs. Weston, I suppose,” interrupted Mrs. Elton, rather mortified.  

“No – Mrs. Knightley; and till she is in being, I will manage such matters myself.”  

Take that, Augusta!  These are delicious moments, but how few they are.  Most of the time the aggressor is allowed to get away with his/her bullying; other characters on most occasions suppress their true feelings or mutter them privately to a confidante, but do not speak up to the offender.  Why does Emma never say anything to Mrs. Elton, whose conduct deserves at least one reprimand per conversation?  Emma is neither shy nor weak.  Why does she not deliver Mrs. Elton some sort of rebuff?  Again, we would like to see Catherine Morland tell Isabella Thorpe that her everlasting insincerity is not only comical but downright harmful, and she ought to stop it.  We would like John and Fanny Dashwood to receive a thumping from somebody, preferably Elinor or Marianne, or perhaps Colonel Brandon.  Having shown how triumphantly she could do it with Elizabeth and Lady Catherine, why does Jane Austen not give us these scenes?  I would offer the following speculations:  

1.  Jane Austen’s women have been  nurtured on the food of “proper feminine conduct.”  As Claudia Johnson says, women of Jane Austen’s time were required “to be amiably weak, retiring, and docile so as to assure the authority, the chivalry, even the identity of men” (2).  Now, in fact, the premise that women and men are made from the same stuff, and that neither sex as a whole is inferior to the other as a whole (though certain individual men may be inferior to individual women, and vice verse) – this premise underlies the action of every Jane Austen novel.  The admirable women command the same respect as the admirable men; the unadmired characters of both sexes stand on an equal footing.  Nevertheless, Jane Austen could not be unfaithful to what she saw around her every day.  In real life an Elinor Dashwood, intelligent, mature, and well-spoken, would not say anything to anyone that could be regarded as “uppity” or “abrasive” (“bitchy” would be the modern term).  More accurately, she would probably not have the nerve to do so.  She would be letting herself in for shame and disgrace.  Some of Byron’s society-women could brazen it out (Lady Caroline Lamb, for example), but they accepted the notoriety that went with the careless behaviour.  Elinor could not and would not do that, nor would Fanny Price or Anne Elliot.  

Thus Jane Austen was probably indulging a fantasy in allowing Eliza Bennet to get away with as much frank expression as she uses; young women of her time would in all likelihood not have survived socially with that degree of outspokenness.  The author’s remark about Pride and Prejudice being altogether too “light and bright and sparkling” may reflect a feeling that she had fudged on reality a little in making Eliza freer than most women were actually able to be, just as she had done in allowing Eliza to be as idealistic about marriage as she was; Charlotte Lucas’s views come closer to the sad truth of female necessity in her time.  Hence, there would have been a reluctance on Jane Austen’s part to get quite that far from actuality again.  So, in her next novel she chose to depict a young woman repressed by everyone in her household.  Fanny’s literal repression by everyone at Mansfield, if taken figuratively, signals the general repression of women by the entire society.  

2.  Paradoxically, the very desire to subvert this entrenched notion of woman’s place may have led her to muzzle her heroines in order to make the injustice more keenly felt.  Feeling the daily and hourly frustration of the intelligent woman unable to speak her mind for fear of censure, how was she to drive home the wrongness of it except to make the reader feel the same frustration that she and every other intelligent woman of her time (Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Godwin Shelley, to name two) must have felt under the prevailing edicts of the conduct books, parental training, dull sermonizing, and general socialization that emphasized to young women the necessity of demureness, sweetness, modesty, and acceptance of inferiority?  As Mary Poovey has said, in writing of Persuasion  

For, given the liabilities of both individualism and paternalistic values, Austen’s ideal solution was to use one system of values to correct the abuses of the other.  But in doing so, Austen inadvertently exposed tensions inherent in both ideologies, and even in her symbolic resolution of these tensions, she laid bare the ideological configuration that was finally most damaging to women.  (155-56)   

Thus it is easy for us to say, for example, that Elinor Dashwood’s mother should have said to Fanny Dashwood, “Fanny, you may be legally entitled to occupy this house; but to move into it the moment my husband’s funeral was over is the most unfeeling and improper behaviour I have ever witnessed by any human being.”  It is, I say, easy for us to write such speeches and smugly announce that that is what we would have said if we had been Mrs. Dashwood.  But it was not at all that easy for a woman of that time to say such things in a public, social situation.  The rarity of assertive confrontations with aggressors in these novels is not incompatible with an authorial decision to let the terrifying frustration of women’s entrapment in social repression be felt to the point that the reader would cry out in exasperation for the heroine to tell somebody off.  Having driven the reader to the wall, the author can smile and say, “Aha, my friend!  I perceive that you begin to see how it feels.”  

But when all is said and done, there is a retribution for aggression in the novels.  We tend to overlook – because it never comes up in the novels – Jane Austen’s private devotion to Christianity.  Consider her prayer for humility:   

Incline us oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.  (Chapman 456) 

Transgressions of this humble approach to human relationships abound in her novels, and the non-assertive heroines alone seem to carry it out (Anne Elliot perhaps most serenely).  The prayer says a great deal about the impression a John Thorpe, a John or Fanny Dashwood, a Lady Catherine, a Mrs. Norris, or a Sir Walter Elliot (to name a few) must have made upon her when she encountered their human counterparts in a social situation.  On the surface the prayer may seem to underwrite the notion of accepting one’s inferior station, but it is not written for a woman any more than for a man; it counsels Christian humility, regardless of sex.  

       And Christian humility is precisely what the Fanny Dashwoods, Lady Catherines and Sir Walter Elliots do not evince.  The Lady Catherines of the world will not “be severe only in the examination of their own conduct”; they will not examine their conduct at all.  Instead they will assign a living to a toady like Collins so as never to face any unpleasant truths about themselves, except on those revolting occasions when they run afoul of an Elizabeth Bennet or a Mr. Knightley.  

       Thus, keeping her heroines from assertive rejoinders is not inconsistent with a decision to leave final judgements and punishments to Providence.  We sense the subtle workings of psychological revenge upon those without the intelligence and the Christian humility to change their perceptions and their behaviour.  Increasingly cut off from the warmth and love felt by the more open-hearted, generous, decent members of society, these self-seeking, hurtful aggressors will live in wretched isolation – wealthy, perhaps, but emotionally impoverished, the ironic victims of their own aggression.  Mrs. Norris and Maria Bertram will live out their days with none but each other for company.  So will Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot, and John and Fanny Dashwood, and all the other insensitive, self-focused, static personalities of the novels.  Incapable of emotional and intellectual growth, they will smolder all their days in a hell of their own devising. 


Chapman, R. W., ed.  The Works of Jane Austen, vol. VI [Minor Works.]  New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. 

Johnson, Claudia.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. 

Poovey, Mary. “Persuasion and the Promises of Love.”  In The Representation of Women in Fiction, ed. Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Margaret R. Higonnet.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

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