Individualism and Authenticity in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”

“…the perturbation of Elizabeth’s feelings was every moment increasing.  She was quite amazed at her own discomposure.” [1]

Even if Elizabeth Bennet were not famous as the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, this little austen 3clip would still probably be recognized by Jane Austen fans everywhere.  It is just so…Austen.[2]  And it isn’t just the words, although we don’t see perturbation every day and we certainly don’t see discomposure.

I am going to want to reflect a little on individualism and authenticity and there is surely no better place to start than the world of Jane Austen, where these traits are mostly ignored, denied, or deprecated.  I am going to consider individualism as a process and an outcome. As a process, individualism sets a high value on the individual’s right to make unfettered choices on his or her own behalf.  As an outcome, individualism sets a high value on actions that benefit the individual, at whatever cost to “others.”  Here are three sample “others:” the situation, the setting, the “home team”—ordinarily, that is a family, but sometimes it takes social class into consideration.

Here is an occasion we can use as an example. Consider the expression “what the occasion required” in this passage.

“Mr. Bingley was unaffectedly civil in his answer, and forced his younger sister to be civil also, and to say what the occasion required.”[3]

austen 4This passage presumes that it is important that the requirements of “the occasion” be met.  The younger sister, in this scene is not feeling all that civil and left to her own choices, she would have been uncivil.  That is what she wants to do and if her desires are not to be disciplined by the needs of an external setting (the occasion, in this instance), she would be sarcastic and dismissive.  Mr. Bingley looked at it differently.  “What the occasion requires” is the most important thing.  He is the best judge of what that is.  He has the means to force his sister to comply with his judgment and does so.

The novel tells us why Mr. Bingley was being so civil, but for the purposes of this inquiry, it really doesn’t matter.  If Bingley reads the situation as requiring responses of a certain kind, he will produce them and will require others who are required to accept his guidance, to produce them also.   There is no individualism at all here.  Nor, with an exception here and there, is there “individualism” anywhere else in Austen.  There is not “anti-individualism” either.  The notion that a person has a right to make his or her own judgment, to put his or her preferred outcomes first, and the needs of others, however defines, last is very seldom considered as an option at all.  And when it is considered, it is considered in a negative light.

austen 5So how about “authenticity,” so beloved of modern Western cultures?  Authenticity is a measure of what is inside with what is outside.  We say “expressing my true feelings,” sometimes.  Nearly always, in our modern consideration of it, “authenticity” is a good thing and “inauthenticity” a bad thing.

But why might one control his inner feelings?  Here’s the quote with which we began.

“…the perturbation of Elizabeth’s feelings was every moment increasing.  She was quite amazed at her own discomposure.”

“Composure” is organizing yourself; it is being in control first of what you feel, then of how you express yourself.  Austen’s heroines know that they should be calm and composed.  It’s the right way to be.  In addition, losing that composure imposes costs on others that it is not fair to ask them to bear.

Her feelings are “perturbed;” they are volatile.  They make her efforts at composure, austen 2difficult.  Exerting the mastery of herself is the goal that is being frustrated here.  When she is composed, she will feel the way she should and will be able to display the behaviors she should.

So both authenticity, the outward display of true inner feelings, and individuality, the claim that the individual, not the family or the “occasion” should be honored in the choices that are made, are not honored all that much in Austen’s fiction.

I’d like to illustrate that by looking briefly at a character for whom Austen bears nothing but contempt.  It is Lydia, the youngest of the five sisters of whom Jane and Elizabeth are the oldest.  Here is a way to capture what Lydia was about.

Our importance, our respectability in the world must be affected by the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia’s character. Excuse me—for I must speak plainly. If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment.

austen 1That is Elizabeth Bennet complaining to her father about Lydia’s character.  Notice the “wild volatility.”  Notice the “disdain of all restraint.”  Notice the “exuberant spirits.”  Except for the language that is more characteristic of Austen’s time, these could be taken as the complaints of a 19th Century woman against a 21st Century woman.  In Lydia’s “exuberant spirits” and their unmitigated expression, there is no norm of composure, so there is no concern about discomposure.  In the “disdain of all restraint,” we see the self-claims of a teenager against the norm of “saying what the occasion required.”  These are not only bad, they are “self-evidently bad;” they are fundamentally wrong.  But that means that they violate the norms of Austen’s society.  If we begin, as our own time does, with the presuppositions of individualism and the demands for authenticity, Elizabeth would have no criticism to make.

What do we see here?  Lydia is fifteen years old.  She does not understand that “her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life.”  We would call her behavior “age appropriate” and pass on.  We might even work up some concern if she did not show the errors she is not showing.  Elizabeth might as well say that Lydia is star-struck by some contemporary rock group and wants nothing more than to go to their concerts and listen to their music at all hours.  Elizabeth might say the Lydia does not understand that being a rock band groupie is not really a career and her father’s job is to tell her the hard truth.

We would have no trouble, I am sure, with Lydia’s “exuberant spirits.”  Exuberant is good; “control” of the kind Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Austen would prefer is just repression and why, after all, would you want to restrain the honest exuberance of a high-spirited young girl?

The “disdain of all restraint” seems dreadful to Elizabeth, but we, in our modern time, can see it as a refreshing strength of character, preferring her own judgment to the prejudices of others.  How is she to develop her cherished authenticity if she accepts the judgments of others over her sense of her own preferences?

So what are we to conclude?  Lydia, the butt of all the family complaints, is just a modern woman.  She might not be the woman we would like best, but she is, very likely, the woman about whose attitudes and behavior we would feel we had no right to object.  So Lydia is not really the empty headed girl Austen complains about.  Lydia is really just a Valley Girl, placed in a novel several centuries too early.


[1] All quotations are from the 3rd edition of the Norton Critical Edition of Pride and Prejudice.  This one is on page 169 of that edition.”
[2] I am struggling to avoid saying that it is Austentaceous.  Please help me.
[3] Page 31.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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