Persuasions #13, 1991                                                                                                                            Pages 16-20



“Group Voices” in Jane Austen’s Narration



Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln NE 68588-0333


In Discourse in the Novel M. M. Bakhtin discusses a technique in which the narrative voice of a novel is mingled with that of what the author presents as “general opinion” or “the public.”  Bakhtin illustrates this strategy with references to Dickens’ Little Dorrit, including the following, where Mr. Merdle is spoken of in a passage in which the narrator’s voice is penetrated by another one coming from an “every body” representative of upper-class British materialism.  (The italics are Bakhtin’s.)


The conference was held at four or five o’clock in the afternoon, when all the region of Harley Street, Cavendish Square, was resonant of carriage-wheels and double-knocks.  It had reached this point when Mr. Merdle came home from his daily occupation of causing the British name to be more and more respected in all parts of the civilized globe capable of the appreciation of wholewide (sic) commercial enterprise and gigantic combinations of skill and capital.  For, though nobody knew with the least precision what Mr. Merdle’s business was, except that it was to coin money, these were the terms in which every body defined it on all ceremonious occasions, and which it was the last new polite reading of the parable of the camel and the needle’s eye to accept without inquiry.1


Using Bakhtinian models in an interesting recent article on narration in Dickens and Eliot, Wendell V. Harriss provides a lower keyed example of a similar strategy from Middlemarch.  Here Dorothea Brooke’s matrimonial prospects are discussed by a narrative voice which begins, after the first two sentences, to present society’s thoughts on feminine decorum and Dorothea’s departures from it, in society’s own language:


And how should Dorothea not marry! – a girl so handsome and with such prospects?  Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers.  A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of sick labourer, and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles – who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books!  Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship.  Women were expected to have weak opinions, but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on.  Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.2


The technique can be used not only to evoke but also to comment indirectly on “general opinion.”  In both instances quoted above it is employed ironically: humorously negative judgement is being passed on society as its voice is echoed.

I am concerned here with Jane Austen’s employment of a variant of this narrative technique that I shall refer to as the use of “group voices.”  It is one of the things that help to give the Austen novel, in spite of its comparative lack of physical description or direct authorial commentary, the impression of presenting a fully fleshed-out world – that help to make us feel the ambience of Highbury, for instance, so thoroughly and satisfyingly.  It is also, as one might suspect, a device through which Jane Austen’s characteristic irony and her sharp moral and social perceptions can have considerable play.

In chapter three of Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen compares the effects that the gregarious Bingley and the reserved Darcy have upon the company at the Meryton assembly.  (I have numbered the sentences in my quotations from the novels throughout for convenience, and all italics are mine.)


(1) Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners.  (2) His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion.  (3) His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mein; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.  (4) The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend ….  (5) Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party.  (6) His character was decided.  (7) He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and every body hoped that he would never come there again.3


Sentence four invites us to put mental quotation marks around the phrases I have italicized.  We can “hear” the voices of the gentlemen as they describe Darcy in the commonplace phrase “a fine figger of a man,” and imagine those of the ladies referring to him as “much handsomer” than Mr. Bingley.  Similarly, the phrases, “above his company,” “above being pleased,” and “unworthy to be compared with his friend,” with their colloquial tone, seem to echo the actual expressions of the snubbed Merytonians.  And sentence seven, “He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and every body hoped he would never come there again,” is clearly designed to do so.  Thus we are given the verbal “feel” of the Meryton assembly.  We are also invited, by the sudden reversal from hyperbolic praise to equally hyperbolic condemnation, as the company first learns of Darcy’s wealth and then realizes that it is not likely to do their unmarried daughters any good, to form an opinion regarding the values of this group.

A passage describing the reaction to the news of Lydia Bennet’s patched-up engagement to Mr. Wickham provides another instance of “Meryton-voicing.”


(1) The good news quickly spread through the house (Longbourne); and with proportionate speed through the neighbourhood.  (2) It was borne in the latter with decent philosophy.  (3) To be sure it would have been more for the advantage of conversation, had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town; or, as the happiest alternative, been secluded from the world, in some distant farm house.  (4) But there was much to be talked of, in marrying her; and the good-natured wishes for her well-doing, which had proceeded before, from all the spiteful old ladies in Meryton, lost but little of their spirit in this change of circumstances, because with such a husband, her misery was considered certain.  (p. 309)


Here the familiar tone created by the phrases “to be sure,” “had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town” and “in marrying her” give a sense of being close to the actual words of Meryton’s spiteful old ladies, and we reflect ironically upon the communal mean-mindedness.

The opening sentences of Mansfield Park provide one of Austen’s most subtle uses of a “group voice.”


(1) About thirty years ago. Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.  (2) All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it.  (3) She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage.  (p. 1)


Within two sentences the social climate in which Maria Ward has been nurtured is made vivid to us.  In the familiar tone created by the omission of the surname “Ward” for Frances and Maria in sentence three we seem to hear the ladies of her circle in Huntingdon declaring her elder and younger sisters to be “quite as handsome as Miss Maria.”  We also learn, by the use of a single word, in sentence two, that this is a circle in which a lawyer is regarded as a prominent person: “her uncle, the lawyer, himself.”  (To the truly genteel, of course, having an uncle who is a lawyer is about as much of a social asset as having one in trade in Cheapside, as we know from Pride and Prejudice.)  Sentence two also provides us with an interesting addition to the technique.  A third layer of voicing appears as Austen singles out from the group voice that of a particular character who operates as a sort of quintessential representative of the group: the “equitable claim” clearly comes from the mouth of the prestigious lawyer-uncle.  Thus the voice of the passage is sharpened, the ambience of the Ward sisters’ world even more strongly felt.

In Emma Austen creates a sort of “voice of Highbury” in narrative passages.  One instance is the description of the reaction to Frank Churchill’s letter to his new stepmother, Mrs. Weston.


(1) Mr. Frank Churchill was one of the boasts of Highbury, and a lively curiosity to see him prevailed, though the compliment was so little returned that he had never been there in his life.  (2) His coming to visit his father had been often talked of but never achieved.

(3) Now, upon his father’s marriage, it was very generally proposed, as a most proper attention, that the visit should take place.  (4) There was not a dissentient voice on the subject, either when Mrs. Perry drank tea with Mrs. and Miss Bates, or when Mrs. and Miss Bates returned the visit.  (5) Now was the time for Mr. Frank Churchill to come among them; and the hope strengthened when it was understood that he had written to his new mother on the occasion.  (6) For a few days every morning visit in Highbury included some mention of the handsome letter Mrs. Weston had received.  (7) “I suppose you have heard of the handsome letter Mr. Frank Churchill had written to Mrs. Weston?  (8) I understand it was a very handsome letter, indeed.  (9) Mr. Woodhouse told me of it.  (10) Mr. Woodhouse saw the letter, and he says he never saw such a handsome letter in his life.” (pp. 17-18)


Here we move from the “straight” narration of sentences one and two into a voice which seems more and more to be echoing from the parlors and shops of the town.  The repetition of words in simple, short sentences or sentences composed of brief coordinate clauses suggests both the repetitive slow bustle of Highbury life and the linguistic, and therefore intellectual, limitations of its inhabitants.  (Paucity of vocabulary, as reflected in frequent repetition, is always for Austen an outward and audible sign of poverty of intellect or education or both.  Consider Isabella Thorpe, Anne Steele, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs. Elton.)  Mrs. Perry visits Mrs. and Miss Bates, Mrs. and Miss Bates in their turn visit Mrs. Perry.  Mrs. Weston’s, Mr. Frank Churchill’s and Mr. Woodhouse’s names are all repeated in close succession.  And the words “handsome letter” are repeated consecutively in sentences six, seven, eight and ten.  Here again, as in the passage from Mansfield Park, a particularly appropriate individual is singled out from the group.  For me, at, least, the last sentences of the passage modulate into the voice of Mr. Woodhouse, whose redundancy of phrasing is notable throughout the novel.  (“young ladies should take care of themselves.  Young ladies are delicate plants.  They should take care of their health and their complexion.  My dear, did you change your stockings?”)  Mr. Woodhouse’s voice takes over the passage, and he becomes a sort of Spirit of Highbury personified.  “I saw the letter Mr. Frank Churchill wrote to Mrs. Weston (poor Miss Taylor that was).  It was a very handsome letter indeed; it was the handsomest letter I ever saw in my life.”

Another, similar instance of “Highbury voicing” is found in the reporting of the response to Mrs. Churchill’s death.  Although no particular character’s voice is incorporated here, the Highbury style recurs in the repetitiveness and unsophisticated structures of sentences three through seven.


(1) Goldsmith tells us, that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but to die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame.  (2) Mrs. Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances ….

(3) “Poor Mrs. Churchill!  (4) no doubt she had been suffering a great deal: more than any body had ever supposed – and continual pain would try the temper.  (5) It was a sad event – a great shock – with all her faults, what would Mr. Churchill do without her?  (6) Mr. Churchill’s loss would be dreadful indeed.  (7) Mr. Churchill would never get over it.”  (pp. 387-388)


For a final example I turn to the description of Louisa Musgrove’s accident on the Cobb at Lyme.  Wentworth is to carry Louisa away.  Henrietta, in a state of collapse, must also be seen to.


(1) By this time the report of the accident had spread among the workmen and boatmen about the Cobb, and many were collected near them, to be useful if wanted, at any rate, to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady, nay, two dead young ladies, for it proved twice as fine as the first report.  (2) To some of the best-looking of these good people Henrietta was consigned, for, though partially revived, she was quite helpless; and in this manner, Anne walking by her side, and Charles attending to his wife, they set forward.  (p.111)


In sentence one the seaside laborers’ crudeness and sensationalism are captured in their own language – “a dead young lady … two dead young ladies” – and in the expressions “enjoy” and “twice as fine.”  At the same time their good will and wish to be of help are given equal or more weight.  The first motivation attributed to them is “to be useful if wanted”; and the phrase “good people” in sentence two is not patronizing.  (We should bear in mind the fact that Austen usually uses the word “want” in the older sense which makes it close to our own “need.”  Jane Fairfax, wishing to leave the Donwell strawberrying party, says to Emma Woodhouse that she is sure she will be “wanted” by her aged grandmother Mrs. Bates at home.  The rather de haut en bas tone that “to be useful if wanted” may have for some modern readers is not intended in this passage.)  Here comment is made upon the group whose “voice” is captured, but this time it is fundamentally positive in nature.  The burden of the passage is that although the laborers’ feelings may not be refined, they are worthy of respect.4

Whatever one’s feelings about the philosophies and vocabularies of Bakhtin and other narratologists may be, there can be no doubt that many of the methods of analysis they promote are valuable.  Numbers of scholars have enriched our appreciation of Austen’s work by illuminating the skill with which she manipulates characters’ idiolects in narrative passages.5  In this essay I have attempted to demonstrate that study of Austen’s use of variations on Bakhtinian public voicing provides further examples of her supreme mastery of her medium.  A very few perfectly chosen and placed words within a narrative passage can do the work that another writer (Trollope and Meredith come to mind) might take paragraphs or even pages of exposition and commentary to accomplish.  Austen’s use of “group voices” in narration is yet another example of the subtlety and economy of her art.





1 M. M. Bakhtin, Discourse in the Novel, in The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans.  Carly Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austen: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), 303.  Bakhtin’s “wholewide” is “world-wide” in Dickens.  Little Dorrit (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), 394.  (Book I, ch. xxxiii.)


2 “Bakhtinian Double Voicing in Dickens and Eliot,” ELH 57 (1990): 451-452.  Harriss also refers to the example from Little Dorrit given at the beginning of my text.  Eliot, Middlemarch, Norton Critical Editions (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1977), 3.  (Book I, Ch. i.)


3 The Novels of Jane Austen (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1933), Vol. 3, 10-11.  All references to Austen’s works, hereafter included in the text, are to this edition.


4 Dorrit Cohn, “Narrated Monologue,” Comparative Literature 18 (1966): 97-107, distinguishes between what she terms “lyric” and “ironic” double voicing, the lyric mode being one in which the author is “fused” in sympathy with the supposed speaker.  This passage would seem to be an example of something between Cohn’s two categories.  Austen is not “fused” with the laborers whose language she borrows, but is sympathetic to them.  (Or, as it seems to me both sympathetic and ironic, in a fashion highly characteristic of her on all levels of her writing.)


5 I find especially illuminating practical criticism in the following works: Louise Flavin, “Mansfield Park: Free Indirect Discourse and the Psychological Novel,” SN 19 (1987): 137-159 and “Austen’s Persuasion,” Explicator 47 (1989): 20-23, Anne Neuman, “Characterization and Comment in Pride and Prejudice: Free Indirect Discourse and ‘Double-Voiced’ Verbs of Thinking and Feeling,” Style 20 (1986): 364-395, and Norman Page, “Categories of Speech in Persuasion,” MLR 64 (1969): 734-741.

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