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The Triumph of the Insufficiently Accomplished Woman: Austen’s Examination of how the Arts Reflect Women’s Agency

To modern readers, Elizabeth Bennet seems obvious as the perfect choice for Darcy: not only is she generally regarded as beautiful, but also principled, kind-hearted, courageous, and intelligent. Above all, like Austen herself, Eliza appears well-schooled in the arts. She plays and sings tolerably well on the piano, and is largely homeschooled through reading volumes from her gentleman father’s library at home. What more refinement can one ask for in a wife? Little wonder that the match would seem unobjectionable, and any naysayers, petty. Certainly that is the conclusion reached by the end, by onlookers both in the world of the book and without.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh, however, grounds us firmly in the ways of the older English aristocracy with her sneering dismissal of the second Miss Bennet as having little in the way of so-called artistic accomplishments to show for herself on the marriage market. Upon demanding of Elizabeth if she sings and plays on the piano, and receiving the curt reply that she only does “A little” (Austen 164), followed by the equally appalling admission that among her four sisters only “One of them does,” (164), Lady Catherine exclaims, “Why did you not all learn? You ought all to have learned” (164). Even more unforgivably, this inquisition reveals that none of them draws, they never received formal instruction from a governess, and it follows that Elizabeth’s cultural education has been entirely self-directed. This last part, her Ladyship cannot stand. The nonchalance with which Elizabeth defies traditional conventions on how women should interact with art and culture, flies in the face of generations of social codes demanding conformity from women to established structures of behavior—in a way similar to how Lizzy’s petticoat that went six inches deep into mud earlier was a rebuke to the shallow mannerisms of the Bingley sisters. It fits into a growing unease she has about Elizabeth, which she vaguely feels as a threat to her way of life and will later view as a full-on assault when she hears of Darcy’s desire to propose, even as she appears to reassure herself that the young lady presently before her is suitably confined to a far lower station in life. Little could she guess that Darcy would be even more attracted to such a woman, precisely for those qualities of being refreshingly independent.

The distinction holds, though, that Elizabeth manages to hold her own in the performance of the arts just sufficiently to satisfy general expectations. She dances as well as Darcy, and when she does perform on the piano, listeners come away enjoying the pleasure she has afforded them through her spontaneity and affection more than the skill she employed. So for respectable society, she is still compliant enough.

Echoing our famous heroine, to whom it appears she gave many of her own traits, Jane Austen was no revolutionary figure in her lifetime—in an era that saw monarchies toppled across the world, empires at war, and crowned heads roll, Austen lived and died peacefully in relative rural obscurity. But that Elizabeth Bennet’s unrestricted private interaction with the arts and consequently her formation as a highly intelligent individual is relatively self-made for the time, reflects what one might call Austen’s silent revolt on behalf of women against the strictures of a stubbornly old-fashioned patriarchal society. It also fits in with the larger movement of Romanticism in poetry and arts, as well as the Neoclassical reaction to the excess, French-influenced grandeur of 17th century Baroque and Rococo fineries in the arts.

Art is often portrayed as an extension of femininity itself in Austen’s novels, and its attachment to women frequently comes in a financial context, echoing the reality that women of the Regency period in England still had no legal rights to property of their own. They are the property, rather, of men, and as such, are expected to advertise what a wonderful property that is. How well a young lady has been tutored in the execution of certain decorative activities, signals her capacities to manage a domestic household, as well as her class status which will show her off to advantage and thereby win prestigious favors for her husband and future offspring.

Earlier in Pride and Prejudice, as their group retires from taking care of a bedridden Jane at Bingley’s quarters, Bingley has occasion to educate readers on this point, as he naively wonders that “It is amazing to me . . . how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are… They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses . . . I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished” (40). As Darcy retorts with irony, the term is overused so as to be meaningless, and he points out how in fact unaccomplished such women usually are: “The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen . . . I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen . . . that are really accomplished” (40). Women are trained to create trivial objects that reinforce their own status as objects for men. Darcy rightfully muses that “there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable” (41) — referring in that moment to Caroline Bingley, who quite transparently has been trying to display her own refinement and superior artistic abilities and tastes, while shamelessly putting down those of Elizabeth Bennet, in a bid for his affection. It is her very overly-polished, artful presentation that sickens him. Yet standard wisdom would have sided with Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, that women in their milieu become greater prizes to wed when they have bred these expensive habits.

Women in Austen’s time are thus shown to be, like the fine artworks they surround themselves with, seen as ornaments to please men and uphold traditional family values, especially seen as necessary in the then-revolutionary era of Europe where centuries of class structures had just been overthrown. Austen appears suspicious of women who employ the arts, as largely exercising mindless submission to these outdated norms. She views too much “accomplishment” with concern, endowing it in many female antagonists across her novels as a proof of their artifice, frivolous natures, aggressive class pretensions, or immaturity. We have jealous, scheming Caroline Bingley with her fine handwriting; manipulative Isabella Thorpe from Northanger Abbey with her eloquent letters; pretentious, arrogant Lady Catherine; plain Mary Bennet who puts on foolish airs to all about her scholarly readings and piano skills.

By contrast Austen’s heroines are acquainted with the arts, to be sure, but in a way that reflects moderation and practicality. They tend to be just the right amount of cultured, and their display of it must be wholesome and organic in nature like an English garden, not overly contrived. Austen will not have her leading ladies strut like Napoleonic peacocks, but neither will she have them running around as ungainly ostriches or pudgy sparrows. Rather, these heroines come off as more like the simple yet elegant robin, nightingale, or mourning dove.

Austen also prefers that a woman uses her skill at art in earnest, and not for social advancement. As an example of this, in Persuasion her protagonist Anne Elliot is a skilled pianist, though not in a showy way. She instead uses her modest talent as a way to conceal her own pain over losing Wentworth from prying eyes, while dutifully entertaining others: “Anne offered her services as usual, and though her eyes would sometimes fill with tears as she sat at the instrument, she was extremely glad to be employed, and desired nothing in return but to be unobserved” (Austen 62). Anne subverts the social use of her feminine training to keep guard over her interiority, which she guards with unknown ferocity. In time, the sense of this maturity wins her the renewed love of Wentworth.

The common expectation for women, which Austen ridicules in her books, is that they cannot offer anything more than companionship and being the tools of men. The chief representative of this societal notion in Pride and Prejudice, therefore, is the bumbling hypocrite Mr. Collins, who can barely disguise his mixture of upstart greed, poor taste, and insecurity when he comes to inspect his soon-to-be estate at Longbourn. Mr. Collins has the nerve to insincerely praise the Bennets for how well they have kept it, as though they had done so just for him: “The hall, the dining-room, and all its furniture, were examined and praised; and his commendation of every thing would have touched Mrs. Bennet’s heart, but for the mortifying supposition of his viewing it all as his own future property” (Austen 66). In this same way, he treats Elizabeth as just another piece of artistic property, her acceptance of his suit a foregone conclusion. He is shocked and outraged when she reminds him that she in fact has a will of her own.

The real twist of the knife that Austen adds is how handsome Fitzwilliam Darcy, with all his fortune and wits, commits the same mistake in his own proposal to Lizzy: “she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security” (188). The self-assurance of both men is reprehensible to Lizzy, who in such moments chooses to risk spinsterhood over marrying herself off to someone who she senses would be at liberty to oppress and confine her free spirit. And this is echoed in the preferences each signals he has for the arts. She sees in the undiscriminating, slavishly opulence-loving taste of Mr. Collins absolute conformity to social norms and hierarchies; in Darcy’s haughty pronouncements on the paucity of truly accomplished lady-artists, she perceives an equally conventional man who cannot appreciate the company of those who come from lesser means, yet perhaps have elevated themselves through instruction and honest labor.

Artistic taste, as well as artistic skill, is also employed heavily to show plot movement and character development. It is not until Elizabeth visits Pemberley, and learns from the easygoing elegance of the place to discern a compatible personality in its owner, that she begins to have second thoughts about Darcy and find herself more aligned with him in nature: “Elizabeth was delighted. 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 . . . and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (239).

She notices that likewise, Darcy’s furniture is equally unpretentious: “it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine” (240), recommending him more to her taste. This echoes another point Austen repeatedly makes, that it is in fact men who become the property of women. Thus, though in her famous opening lines it appears that the truth universally acknowledged is that a single man with a fortune “must be in want of a wife” (5), in fact such a truth is far from acknowledged by even such a man himself, yet is supposed by the community he enters: “this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters” (5). Mr. Collins is similarly managed by his new wife, Charlotte Lucas, who prevails on him to do what she needs him to accomplish in the same way that she manoeuvered to secure his proposal.

As a writer herself, Austen understood the power of art-making and cultural production as womens' only respectable means of influence and social mobility in 18th century England. She portrays art and cultural education as a double-edged sword for women, one which enshrines their lack of legal and economic agency even as it offers their way out of that situation. Those like Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet, who manage to use it in moderation and for reasons of personal more than societal importance, are viewed to be doing it right. Art-making and the performance of art in commercializing England, as well as the performance of being perceived as an adornment for others, has been key in Austenworld to elevating women to a social station to where they can achieve security—and perhaps like Charlotte Lucas, who ends up creating a private space for herself in Hunsford (167), even obtain in this married pre-modern state a room of their own.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Introduction and notes by Carol Howard. Barnes and Noble Books. New York. 2003.
  • _____. Persuasion. Edited by James Kinsley, introduction and notes by Deidre Shauna Lynch. Oxford University Press, Inc. New York, 2004.
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