Welcome to All Things Austen in April!
Jane Austen had a wonderful way with words, using them instead of pencils or paint to illustrate something. Today we’ll look at a few of her novels in which she uses words synonymous with drawing to convey a thought.
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We are all familiar with the following passage in “Pride and Prejudice” towards the end of Darcy and Elizabeth’s dance at the Netherfield Ball:
“May I ask to what these questions tend?”
“Merely to the illustration of your character,” said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. “I am trying to make it out.”
“And what is your success?”
She shook her head. “I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.”
“I can readily believe,” answered he gravely, “that report may vary greatly with respect to me; and I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either.”
“But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity.”
There are several references in this passage to drawing. Elizabeth begins by answering Darcy’s inquiring about her questions, and she answers that they are to help her in the illustration of his character.
Most of us, when we hear the word illustration, would think of some sort of picture. I have in mind a simple drawing, perhaps done with pencils or watercolors. I would consider that it does not have a lot of depth and detail, but it is one that gets the basics of the object being drawn.
But Elizabeth seems to have a problem. She has heard so many things about Mr. Darcy that she cannot get even the basics down; she does not know where to start. To begin a drawing, one would have to know a few things, such as the correct color, size, and shape, but if one gets contradicting messages about the object being drawn, it would be difficult to make an accurate likeness.
Darcy’s response indicates that he knows there have been varying reports about him and he is not being portrayed in the best light at that moment. He requests that she “not sketch his character at the present moment” for it will likely not be favourable.
I love this short conversation between the two and how Jane Austen used the artistic form of drawing to allude to Elizabeth’s mental assessment of Darcy. And she illustrates this with words – something she is quite proficient at.
There are a few other possibly lesser known instances in her other novels where she employs the same terms.
From Sense and Sensibility Mrs. Jennings laments to Colonel Brandon how tedious it will be when the Dashwood ladies depart the Palmers. After her lament, it goes on to say: “Perhaps Mrs. Jennings was in hopes, by this vigorous sketch of their future ennui, to provoke him to make that offer, which might give himself an escape from it.”
And near the end of the novel we hear Elinor’s thoughts of Edward Ferrars as she ponders his marriage to Miss Lucy Steele. “In Edward, she knew not what she saw, nor what she wished to see. Happy or unhappy, nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him.”
From Emma, she had anticipated the deprivations the winter would bring, but… “The picture which she had then drawn of the privations of the approaching winter, had proved erroneous; no friends had deserted them, no pleasures had been lost.
There are two more from Mansfield Park. Edward Bertram answers Miss Crawford in a discussion about family devotions. “Your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects. You have given us an amusing sketch, and human nature cannot say it was not so.”
And finally, when Sir Thomas Bertram strongly admonishes Fanny after she turned down Mr. Crawford’s proposal, here was Fanny’s response: “Yes,” said Fanny, in a faint voice, and looking down with fresh shame; and she did feel almost ashamed of herself, after such a picture as her uncle had drawn, for not liking Mr. Crawford.”
I can easily imagine a conversation between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra when they are younger after years of being instructed in the accomplishments of a fine lady. Imagine along with me:
“Jane, you simply must tend to your drawing. Mother will not be pleased.” Cassandra held out her drawing at arm’s length to scrutinize it.
“It is of no use, Cassandra. I cannot draw and I have no wish to improve my skills.” She walked over and looked at her sister’s drawing. “You have a great deal of talent, but you know I would much prefer to sketch something using words.”
Cassandra laughed. “You are being silly, Jane. That is not considered a proper lady’s accomplishment.”
Jane propped her hands on her hips. “While I can certainly appreciate a fine drawing, I cannot help but wonder how much more information one can gather by reading about it.” She leaned over and took Cassandra’s picture from her.
“Give that back to me!”
“I will in a moment.” Jane studied the portrait of a young lady that her sister had drawn. “Now from this picture, we can see that this young lady is pretty, has light coloured hair, wide eyes, and a nervous smile.”
Cassandra’s eyes grew big. “Nervous smile? Does she really?”
“I think she does. But why is she nervous?”
A frown coloured Cassandra’s face. “I do not know.”
“Exactly!” Jane exclaimed. “Now if I were to sketch her character with words, here is what I might say.” Jane paused to pick up some papers from her writing desk and began to read.
“Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage. Elinor saw, and pitied her for, the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable; but she saw, with less tenderness of feeling, the thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind, which her attentions, her assiduities, her flatteries at the Park betrayed; and she could have no lasting satisfaction in the company of a person who joined insincerity with ignorance; whose want of instruction prevented their meeting in conversation on terms of equality, and whose conduct toward others made every show of attention and deference towards herself perfectly valueless.”
Satisfied, Jane lowered the paper and looked at her sister. “Would you be able to sketch all these attributes in your drawing?”
Cassandra shrugged. “Certainly not all.” She tilted her head at Jane. “But who is this Lucy?”
Jane smiled. “She is someone in a book I am writing about two sisters.”
“And Elinor is her sister?” Cassandra asked.
“No. While Lucy does have a sister, they are not the main characters. The book is principally about Elinor and her sister Marianne.”
“Does Lucy have a reason to be nervous?”
Jane lifted her brows. “Oh, she most certainly does. She has a secret and that secret will be a critical part of the book!”
“Oh! I must know what her secret is!” Cassandra said, her eyes widening.
Jane shook her head. “You will find out when I have finished the book read it to you. For now, you shall have to wait!”
We have so much to be thankful for in Jane’s gift of writing. She could sketch a character, a scene, and an event (think of Darcy’s ill-fated proposal) that truly draws us in. She may not have used a lot of words describing their appearances (Darcy she describes merely as being tall, had handsome features, and a noble mien; Jane was five times prettier than any at the Assembly; Elizabeth had fine eyes; and Lydia was taller than her sisters – at least according to her, “… for though I am the youngest, I’m the tallest.”), but she provided us with enough information that we feel as though we know them quite well by the end of her books.
While Jane Austen may not have been proficient at drawing or painting, we can truly appreciate how she excelled at sketching something she wanted to convey by using words. It may not have been considered a proper lady’s accomplishment back then, but I am grateful her family was willing to allow her books to be published for our enjoyment over 200 years later!
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