2012 Jane Austen Society of North America
Topic: Sex, Money and Power in Jane Austen’s Fiction
How do sex, money, and power enable characters in Austen’s novels to manipulate each other, and what forms of resistance are there to that manipulation? Consider no more than two of Austen’s novels or other major works and analyze the modes of manipulation, whether successful or unsuccessful.
Manipulation in Austen’s Day: Class and Character
By Sarah A. Stites
A facet of Pride and Prejudice which lends verisimilitude to Austen’s work is the breadth of class rank in her characterization. From wealthy and esteemed Lady Catherine to Mr. Wickham, the mercenary “wickedest young man in the world,” (Austen 301) Austen shows the reader the breathtaking panorama of life in the English countryside, highlighting many manipulative characters both high and low in status. A detail that illuminates much about Austen’s characters is that the aristocrats tend not to see their actions as manipulative, but rather as simply emerging naturally from their superiority in power and wealth. Furthermore, they are accustomed to the lower classes conforming to their wills. Conversely, characters lower on the social scale are, for the most part, portrayed as being very aware of and intentional in their machinations as well as being easily manipulated. These class discrepancies serve to elucidate the relationship between class and character in Austen’s day.
“Austen’s novels show us a world in which desirable personal attributes are randomly distributed throughout the social hierarchy,” Austen scholars Handler and Segal note (701). Because of this dispersal, Austen highlights the fact that wealthy widows and mercenary militiamen alike can possess equally distasteful qualities (701), but the aristocrats alone are able to justify their behavior while the lower classes are left with little excuse. In fact, as Elizabeth tartly rejoins to the upper class Caroline Bingley, “[Wickham’s] guilt and his descent appear by your account to be the same” (Austen 98). In the same way, aristocrats such as Lady Catherine assume a sort of privilege to order the lives of those beneath them and expect their inferiors to abide by their commands.
Elizabeth’s world is one in which the upper classes can regulate the lives of the socially inferior without being viewed as manipulative. It is those persons such as Lady Catherine who show the greatest level of superciliousness and manipulation under the guise of omniscience and best intentions. Lady Catherine “deliver[s] her opinion on every subject in so decisive a manner” as to prove “that she [is] not used to hav[ing] her judgement controverted” (169). At first glance, the reader may take Lady Catherine to be simply officious, but further reflection leads to the understanding that she revels in the power she holds and is quite used to the groveling of her inferiors. It is not chance that Mr. Collins was “so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honorable Lady Catherine de Bourgh” (63). Collins and Lady Catherine both benefit from the situation as Lady Catherine exercises her will and Collins, by not resisting any manipulation, enjoys all the pleasures of “bounty and beneficence” (63). Indeed, according to Handler and Segal, “to be independent of others is […] to have the greatest power to order society hierarchically,” and Lady Catherine clearly basks in maintaining the integrity of that hierarchy (693).
Lady Catherine’s position gives her “the ability to exercise patronage, to offer charity, and generally to aid others—in brief, to encompass them as dependents”—facets which Handler and Segal consider “key mark[s] of social superiority” (700). Lady Catherine does exhibit these traits of the beneficent patroness; however, she furthers the continuum into meddling and manipulation. She feels the need to involve herself in the everyday lives of her ‘charges’ and does not view her interferences as attempted manipulation, but rather as proper advice that should be welcomed and esteemed. In fact, Lady Catherine goes so far as to
inquir[e] into Charlotte’s domestic concerns familiarly and minutely, g[i]ve her a great deal of advice as to the management of them all; t[ell] her how everything ought to be regulated in so small a family as hers, and instruct her as to the care of her cows and her poultry. (Austen 169)
Although Elizabeth is the only one perspicacious enough to understand that these “suggestions” do not stem from “elegant breeding,” the others around her conform to Lady Catherine’s wishes and do not recognize her presumptuous arrogance (165).
Compared to Collins’ “earnest endeavor to demean [him]self with grateful respect towards her ladyship” (63), it is Elizabeth’s clear-sighted resistance to Lady Catherine’s supremacy that the arrogant woman finds so stupefying. Lady Catherine is aware of the fact that many inferiors such as Sir William are so captivated by her power and grandeur that they automatically grant her every benevolent quality—even when her behavior suggests otherwise. Because Lady Catherine is used to the conformity of every other member of Elizabeth’s social class, the fact that Elizabeth can witness the “mere stateliness of money or rank […] without trepidation” (167) or wonderment is simply “not to be borne” (364). Not only does Lady Catherine anticipate “excessive admiration,” she also assumes that her inferiors are aware it is expected of them (168). In respect to his nauseating obsequiousness, Collins represents Lady Catherine’s archetype of the perfect member of the lower class and Sir William is also quickly drawn into Lady Catherine’s trap: “[Collins] carved, and ate, and praised with delighted alacrity; and every dish was commended, first by him and then by Sir William, who was now enough recovered [from his awe] to echo whatever his son-in-law said” (168).
Collins and Lucas, who both “think with pleasure of their own importance,” are two members of the low aristocracy who have been vaunted to higher positions of authority in the social hierarchy (16). Craving the power that comes with rank, both are ready and willing to accept Lady Catherine’s manipulations in order to receive her good favor and the benefits that come along with it. Mr. Collins goes so far as to deny his own merits and accomplishments when by nature he is overly conceited; however, the reason for this discrepancy is that his conceit is based upon Lady Catherine’s favor which he must maintain through debasing himself. “Mr. Collins was employed in agreeing to everything her ladyship said, thanking her for every fish he won, and apologizing if he thought he won too many. Sir William did not say much. He was storing his memory with anecdotes and noble names” (172). Likewise, Sir William recognizes the power he is gaining in the social sphere by forming connections with the upper aristocracy. In this way, the “speeches of thankfulness on Mr. Collins’ side and as many bows on Sir William’s” (172) at their departure from Rosings signify the calculated “mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility” (71) that characterizes both men. They gain pride and self-importance in their own social sphere by boasting about Lady Catherine’s favor toward them, naturally gained through obsequiousness and humility.
It is Lady Catherine’s role as “noble patroness,” Elizabeth finds, that causes nothing to be “beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others” (169). However, she also notes her own cousin’s “very pompous” (65) and meddlesome nature which bears great likeness to his patroness’ conceited, dictatorial style. In reality, although Collins possesses many of the same character traits as Lady Catherine, he lacks the proper descent to lend them force; therefore, he must live vicariously through the power bequeathed upon him by Lady Catherine and can only do so by remaining within her favor.
In Elizabeth, the reader discovers the scintillating antithesis to all of Austen’s compliant lower class characters. She is not afraid to speak her mind and is “chiefly struck by [Collins’] extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine” (65) of whom Elizabeth “had heard nothing […] that spoke her awful from any extraordinary talents or miraculous virtue” (167). Repeatedly rebuffing Lady Catherine’s attempted interference in her relationship with Mr. Darcy and refusing to submit to such a powerful social superior, Elizabeth points out that there really is no definite advantage of intellect between levels of the social hierarchy. Debunking Darcy’s words, “where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation,” she uncovers the fact that some aristocrats do not always have “real superiority of mind” over their class inferiors. Therefore, their arrogance, and by extension, their right to manipulate others’ affairs, is often unfounded (58).
Despite their own interference in the lives of the lower class, people of higher ranks tended to look upon the lower ranks as manipulating the social hierarchy if they happened to gain the affection of or show feelings for a member of a higher class. The view maintained by those who dominated the upper tiers of the hierarchy was that the lower classes must be confined within their spheres to prevent “pollution” of the chain of command (368). Lady Catherine is most incensed when the hierarchy is manipulated into a ladder climbed by ambitious, “unfeeling, selfish” girls such as Elizabeth (368). Her view is clearly demonstrated when she charges into the Bennet house and wrongly assumes that the Bennets have “industriously circulated” the report of their daughter’s being engaged to Mr. Darcy (364). Her diction here gives vivid imagery of squalid low class folk knocking on every door in the vicinity, broadcasting their rise over the condition of their neighbors, triumphing that Elizabeth has finally attained the prize trophy for clawing her way to the top of the pyramid.
Furthermore, the officious woman, claiming that Elizabeth’s “own heart, own conscience” (363) must be stricken, is vitriolic in her criticism of Elizabeth’s supposed “presumption to aspire” (365) to the role of mistress of Pemberley. Not once does Lady Catherine assume the possibility of love on either side, citing Elizabeth’s manipulative “arts and allurements” as being the cause for Darcy’s “moment of infatuation” and assuming that lust for aggrandizement and monetary gain drive Elizabeth’s actions (364). However, in the process of her accusations, Lady Catherine is clearly blind to her own more obvious manipulation of Elizabeth, thinking it her duty and her right to determine her nephew’s marriage partner. However, Elizabeth rebuffs the supposed right Lady Catherine has to manipulate her, declaring “you are not entitled to know [my affairs]” (365) and “you have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these” (368).
On the other hand, Lady Catherine welcomes Charlotte as the mistress of Hunsford, knowing that she is the proper class for Mr. Collins and assuming that she is just as easily manipulated as her husband. Although Charlotte does accept Lady Catherine’s abundant advice and commands, the “noble patroness” never understands the extent of Charlotte’s own manipulations, which Austen presents very bluntly. In Charlotte, the reader observes a deviation from Austen’s famous protagonists: the cash-strapped but idealistically beautiful Jane, Elizabeth, Marianne, Elinor and others. The author purposefully highlights the case of Miss Lucas to show the difficulties in attaining independence that surround a “very plain” woman (44). Although Charlotte’s case might seem pitiable, she is very calm and calculated in her manipulations of Mr. Collins to secure independence for herself. Furthermore, by staying within her social sphere, she is also able to gratify Lady Catherine who “likes to have the distinction of rank preserved” (166).
Charlotte’s words to Elizabeth at an early ball serve to illuminate much of her later action: “If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him […] in nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels” (20). When Charlotte visits the Bennets right after Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth, Charlotte realizes her chance at “securing” Mr. Collins’ attention, although she does not care for him at all. Indeed, in the chapter following the proposal, Charlotte’s subtle manipulation of Mr. Collins, which appears as the veneer of genteel hospitality, is revealed: “[…] the assiduous attentions which [Collins] had been so sensible of himself were transferred for the rest of the day to Miss Lucas, whose civility in listening to him was a seasonable relief to them all, and especially to [Elizabeth]” (120). When Elizabeth is more “obliged to [Charlotte] than [she] can express” for entertaining Mr. Collins, Charlotte is revealed as having kindness “extending farther than Elizabeth had any conception of.” (126) “Without thinking highly of men or of matrimony,” (128) Charlotte manipulates Mr. Collins into a quick turnaround of affection, gaining her “an establishment” (127) in marriage—“such was Miss Lucas’s scheme” (126) Austen states. Charlotte is very aware of the fact that “to be independent of others is to achieve the apex of civil society” (Handler and Segal 693).
It is this drive for the attainment of independence that spurs the scheming Mr. Wickham to search for a single woman in possession of large fortune, who, of course, must be in want of a husband. His “beauty, fine countenance, good figure and pleasing address” as well as “happy readiness of conversation” (Austen 74) enable Wickham to hoodwink the men and women of Meryton into believing that he is an “angel of light” (301) as well as an eligible match for some of their daughters. Meanwhile, although the town residents are deluded, almost the entire upper tier is portrayed as being cognizant of his spurious character. Caroline Bingley, although being unknowledgeable of the “particulars,” states that she knows Wickham to have behaved in an “infamous manner” (98). In the same way, Bingley agrees that “[Wickham] is by no means a respectable, young man” (99).
On the other hand, the lower class Bennet family is completely taken in by Mr. Wickham’s charms, and Caroline Bingley’s obvious disdain for Elizabeth’s trust in Wickham makes it clear that she sees her as being easily taken in when Caroline states with a “sneer, ‘Excuse my interference, it was kindly meant’” (99). Elizabeth, deceived into believing Wickham to be sincere, questions the fine line between a “mercenary and prudent motive” when he becomes engaged to the previously undesirable Mary King upon her sudden acquisition of ten thousand pounds (159).
Although Elizabeth is manipulated by Wickham, she recognizes that she was duped when she discovers the truth and realizes “how differently […] everything now appear[ed] in which [Wickham] was concerned” (214). However, all the inhabitants of Meryton refuse to accept their own susceptibility to manipulation and “beg[in] to find out that they had always distrusted the appearance of [Wickham’s] goodness” (301). Elizabeth, along with Jane, is set apart because of her realization of her own flaws when she condemns her “vanity” and her prejudiced preference for Mr. Wickham and declares, “I who have prided myself on my discernment!” (215)
Elizabeth and Darcy both learn important lessons through Mr. Wickham’s downfall. While staying at Pemberley, Elizabeth initially declares to Darcy: “To yield readily—easily—to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you,” and Darcy rejoinders: “To yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either” (50). The former realizes that she has been easily manipulated, and states “till this moment, I never knew myself” (215). In making a turnaround in her life, it is clear that she ceases to be vain about her levels of acuity into the characters of others and makes a new resolution to resist manipulation.
Darcy, who first views it as “beneath him” to make Wickham’s sordid deeds known, is the polar opposite of Lady Catherine in that he initially wishes to have nothing to do with the lower classes and sees it as below his station to interfere in their daily lives (206). Clearly, he possesses great distaste for his aunt’s “unjustifiable endeavors” (393) to regulate his life and “is a little ashamed of [her] ill breeding” (179). Elizabeth brings him to the realization that the upper classes have no right to order the lives of their social inferiors or, on the opposite hand, to detach themselves from the warmth of society through “improper pride” (388).
When Darcy meets the Gardiners whom he has characterized as Elizabeth’s “inferior connections” (199), he discovers their character and elegance which stand in sharp contrast to his own aunt’s “ill breeding.” In words which illuminate the nature of the high aristocracy, Darcy admits that he was “allowed, encouraged, almost taught […] to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own” (380).
By the closing of the novel, Austen has shown the reader examples of characters both high and low, manipulative and susceptible to manipulation. By clearly showing variations in these tendencies based on class, Pride and Prejudice was avant-garde for Austen’s time, because she presents the case that no one, not even a high aristocrat such as Lady Catherine, has the right to regulate the affairs of others. Austen brings forward Elizabeth and Darcy, from opposite ends of the aristocratic spectrum, and takes them to middle ground—Darcy rejects his cold aloofness and “mean” outlook on those beneath him, while Elizabeth gains greater perspicacity and understanding. In the end, Austen writes that even Lady Catherine’s “resentment” to Darcy’s marriage “gave way, either to her affection for him, or her curiosity to see how his wife conducted herself; and she condescended to wait on them at Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received” (400).
Manipulation: an Effective Vice in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion
By Navya S. Dasari
Throughout her novels, Jane Austen upholds the firm belief that manipulation does not reveal a weakness of its object’s feelings. However, it does serve to reveal a lack of confidence and independence in its object, and a certain immaturity and selfishness in its perpetrator, and thus, becomes an effective tool for showcasing character development. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen employs manipulation to throw into stark contrast the difference that separates Elizabeth and Darcy from the characters that surround them, thereby highlighting the couple’s similarities; in Persuasion, Anne’s evolving response to the manipulation that characterizes her society becomes the outline of her evolution as a character.
Pride and Prejudice itself begins with the manipulation of power; although Mrs. Bennet’s meddling is comical and rather counterproductive, its specific effect on the cast of the novel varies with the character. Mr. Bennet responds with a pride that echoes that of his daughter Elizabeth; unwilling to become partner to his wife’s machinations and yet motivated by an interest in his daughters’ future, he jointly teases his wife and acquiesces to her request. The two older sisters are skeptical, yet tolerant, of their mother’s behavior, the middle sister apathetic, and the two youngest eager accomplices. However, Mrs. Bennet’s ability to carry out her manipulation lies in her power over her family, and her attempts to secure privileged marriages for her daughters only embarrass Elizabeth and repel suitors; Mr. Darcy appeals to “the total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by [Mrs. Bennet] … and [Elizabeth’s] three younger sisters”(Austen 204) as secondary reasons for his disapproval of a possible engagement between Jane and Mr. Bingley.
One of the most significant manipulations in the novel is that of Mr. Bingley by his two sisters and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley’s regard for their opinion above his own is apparent from the story’s beginning, when only after his sisters’ approval of Jane’s character does Mr. Bingly feel “authorized … to think of her as he chose” (Austen 15), despite his overwhelming delight in her company. Later, Colonel Fitzwilliam reveals that Mr. Darcy had convinced Mr. Bingley not to propose to Jane, believing him to have “saved a friend from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage” (Austen 191). Mr. Darcy later explains to Elizabeth that although his disapproval of the Bennets as a connection was part of his reason, his primary concern was for his friend’s feelings, as he believed “[Jane’s] heart was not likely to be easily touched” (Austen 204). It is important to note, however, that Mr. Darcy is the only character to raise such concerns—albeit perhaps because his views of marriage are quite different than those of the easily impressed and occasionally desperate Meryton—and most characters are quite certain of Jane’s affection for Mr. Bingley. Because of his humility and respect for Mr. Darcy, however, Mr. Bingley once again places a friend’s opinion higher than his, and Darcy and the sisters are able to use their power over Bingley to sway him from his own intentions. This case not only becomes pivotal to the novel’s plot, but also echoes of Austen’s frequent lesson—one must be strong in his own opinions, not easily swayed by others.
A more comic and sexual manipulation is seen in Miss Bingley’s frequent attempts to dissuade Mr. Darcy’s attention from Elizabeth and direct it towards herself. When Elizabeth visits Netherfield, a jealous Miss Bingley immediately seeks company in her ridicule of the second Bennet sister, insulting her manner and appearance, and appealing to Mr. Darcy for his opinion; instead, he repeats his admiration of Elizabeth’s eyes. Later, while Mr. Darcy is writing, she repeatedly compliments him and futilely attempts to engage him in conversation; she again attempts to tease Darcy into joining in her spite for Elizabeth by speaking sarcastically of a marriage between Darcy and Elizabeth. When most of the company is engaged, Miss Bingley grabs desperately for attention, feigning a love for reading and walking around the room in order to bring Darcy’s attention to her figure. When she asks Elizabeth to join her in walking, she finally “[succeeds] in the real object in her civility,” as Mr. Darcy looks up (Austen 56); but to her dismay, he then quite bluntly expresses that he can see through Miss Bingley’s manipulation. This scene makes two things clear: first, that Mr. Darcy rather proudly both recognizes and resists such wiles as Miss Bingley’s, and second, that when Elizabeth is concerned, his resistance is softened and his curiosity awakened. Finally, Mr. Darcy responds to one of Miss Bingley’s insults of Elizabeth by saying that she is “one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance,” and Miss Bingley’s manipulation gives “no one any pain but herself” (Austen 277). Mr. Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth seals his resistance to Miss Bingley’s charms, and although Miss Bingley is “very deeply mortified” by the event, she soon recovers from her jealousy and becomes a somewhat agreeable element in the life of the happy couple (Austen 398). On a surface level, Mr. Darcy’s continued resistance to Miss Bingley’s charms highlights both his lack of interest in women of her nature and a certain pride he takes in being able to see through the machinations of others. But when juxtaposed with his curiosity toward Elizabeth, it reveals the true depth and novelty of his affections; of all the women Darcy has met, Elizabeth Bennet can make him forget his pride.
When one considers that Mr. Darcy consistently rejects—or at least fails to respond to—the attentions of women, Elizabeth’s reaction to Wickham becomes even more interesting. She is easily charmed by his amiable manner and false pathos, and while her situation is not completely equatable to Darcy’s, a comparison suggests that Darcy is more inclined to pride, and Elizabeth to prejudice. Wickham succeeds in manipulating her opinion of himself, Mr. Darcy, and Georgiana, in part because of Elizabeth’s early bias, but also through his own charms. In fact, he succeeds in manipulating everyone around him, the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. When Elizabeth discovers the truth of his nature, however, she does not question it; immediately she begins to understand how obvious his true character should have been, criticizing herself for being easily duped—“blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (Austen 215). And when he elopes with Lydia, she further realizes the danger of letting Wickham keep the trust of the rest of Meryton. By the end of the novel, however, she has grown out of her prejudice, and through her growth Austen has warned the reader how easily the prejudiced fall prey to manipulation. Near the end of the novel, when Lydia entreats Elizabeth to acquire for Wickham a high-income position at court, a wiser Elizabeth immediately and firmly refuses; however, with the tempered love and responsibility of a sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Darcy do assist them economically.
One of the most dramatic parts in the novel is when Lady Catherine de Bourgh arrives at the Bennets’ house, intent on preventing a marriage between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine’s imperious manner intimidates everyone in the house, and they are more than happy to flatter her and comply with her demands—most of all Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth, although polite, makes no effort to ingratiate Lady Catherine, and when faced with the true nature of Lady Catherine’s visit, makes no effort to soothe her complaints; she asserts that her object is to complete her own happiness “without reference to … any person so wholly unconnected with [her]” (Austen 369). Elizabeth’s defiance of manipulation also makes her, by extension, defiant of social expectations as in deference to class hierarchy, and while it may seem that Elizabeth rebels against class and wealth themselves, she only rebels against the manipulation thereof. By resisting Lady Catherine’s demands, Elizabeth does not consciously rearrange the social order; she simply places her values as an individual above the whims and wealth of an authority figure. This realization, rather than making the rebellion seem any smaller, only gives it substance.
The most important manipulation in Persuasion occurs a full seven years before the events of the story, yet its occurrence shapes the entire plot and conflict of the novel. Anne has acquiesced to Lady Russell’s well-meaning advice, and as a result lost her chance to marry Captain Wentworth. Because of this, Captain Wentworth—and to a certain extent, the reader—sees Anne as weak-willed and rather flimsy in character. Throughout the novel, Anne grows in her displays of strength. While in the first weeks of her renewed acquaintance with Captain Wentworth, she seems weak and timid, Louisa’s accident highlights Anne’s true nature. While men and women alike panic over Louisa’s fall, Anne takes control of the situation and ensures that they quickly call a surgeon for Louisa. Captain Wentworth’s awe at the sense and steadiness Anne shows renews his love for her and the reader’s faith in their relationship. Anne’s independence grows through the novel until its final test, when Wentworth proposes to her again. Anne, having learned from her past mistake, resolves not to be deterred from marriage by Lady Russell, but approaches her with the knowledge that Lady Russell must learn to accept her decision. In the end, firmness of character does not hurt Anne’s relationship with her friend at all, and her growth as a person has only enabled her to trust her own perception, and regain the power that her friend and family had over her.
Near the beginning of the novel, before Anne experiences this growth as a character, she lets Mary manipulate her—using what small power she has—despite perfect knowledge that Mary is well. While it is wise for Anne to humor her sister, her constant attention in spite of everyone else’s impatience causes Mary to appoint Anne as her caretaker. Through her marriage to Captain Wentworth at the end of the story, however, Anne manages to gain some independence from Mary’s immature and needy behavior.
In both novels, Austen addresses the manipulation of wealth and sex. However, perhaps the most insightful criticism she offers is on the manipulation of power. The power that enables a character to embarrass her family, or coax a friend out of a happy marriage, or even seek attention has nothing to do with sex or money, and everything to do with the emotional power only friends and family have over an individual. But Austen’s criticism of this mode of manipulation is just as harsh as her criticism of the other two, perhaps because she realizes that emotional manipulation can be the most difficult to see. Therefore, Austen presents the best form of resistance to manipulation as not rebellion, but a steadiness and independence of character that is truly timeless.
Truths Universally Acknowledged: Jane Austen and Manipulation
By Shilpa Kamala Saravanan
The cover of my edition of Pride and Prejudice shows two women on a balcony with a well-dressed man lurking in the shadows behind them, watching, waiting. The sinister man seems as though he knows all about the two women, their deepest secrets, everything, and will use whatever he needs from them to accomplish his own dastardly ends. The women stare out into the distance, not knowing, not caring.
Of course, this is not quite what Pride and Prejudice is about. However, that sort of sinister, manipulative man is well represented in Jane Austen’s work. Characters manipulate each other in all sorts of ways, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. Often, the resistance to this manipulation is seen in the main characters, the ones we ought to admire, and the tendency to succumb seen in those who Austen has given us leave to ridicule. The main forms of manipulation in her novels are money and sex, and power, which relates to and draws from the other two.
This manipulation is most obviously implemented through money, or the promise of money. In Austen’s time, money, for most women (though not Austen’s heroines) was the deciding factor in choosing a husband. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet cites this as the sole reason that any of her daughters ought to get married. Elizabeth Bennet’s “sensible” friend Charlotte Lucas is considered “sensible” precisely because she is willing to marry a man purely for money; she does not need to feel romantically attached to him. Elizabeth Bennet, however, appears immune to this form of manipulation, as she marries Darcy out of love—although he has ten thousand a year—and her sister Jane makes a similar marriage to Mr. Bingley, who, although not as rich as his friend Darcy, brings in a chunk of money large enough to have interested the whole county when he moved into Netherfield. So, interestingly, none of the characters who marry for love end up married to poor men. Even Lydia’s husband, the disgraced Wickham, ends up in a respectable situation after Darcy helps him out. Perhaps something tugs at the ladies’ inner selves, the desire for a comfortable life after their father’s death? Or perhaps money is one of the objects of their love—again, not outwardly displayed, especially in Elizabeth’s case.
In Emma, Emma Woodhouse’s large fortune makes her the object of desire of many, many suitors, such as Mr. Elton, who “pretends love” and pays her attention only because he wants to “aggrandize and enrich himself” (Emma 104). However, Mr. Knightley, who ends up winning Emma’s love and her hand in the end, succeeds because he is not motivated by material wealth, but rather by true love; his deep affection for Emma shows even when he speaks to her, in tones of “sincere, intelligible, decided tenderness” (Emma 325). Emma, too, remains immune to the influence of the wealth of her suitors—partly because, as a heiress to thirty thousand pounds, she is worth more than most of them, and partly because of her headstrong nature (Emma 102). Miss Bates, on the other hand, is a poor woman, and unmarried; therefore, Emma has no problem talking down to her whenever she feels like it. Her orphaned granddaughter Jane Fairfax, despite her rare beauty and musical ability, only inherited “a very few hundred pounds” and was expected to have to work as a governess because of her relative poverty when compared to women like Emma (Emma 123). Money, then, has a much stronger hold over Miss Bates and Miss Fairfax than over Emma and Mr. Knightley, not necessarily because of greed (like Mr. Elton, who has a sizeable sum already when he seeks Emma’s hand) but out of necessity.
Sex is present here too; not the physical act in most cases, but sexual power. Women in these two novels have some power, some pull over the men; sometimes because of beauty, sometimes because of a sharp wit, but all of these lead back to the old notion of a “feminine mystique” in which men tend to lose themselves. Darcy initially becomes bewitched with Elizabeth because of the shape and expression of her “fine eyes” (Pride and Prejudice 37) and Bingley obsessed with Jane because of her beauty. The two friends’ attraction to each of the sisters enables the sisters to have some amount of control over them, though none of the parties appear to realize it. Bingley’s excessive kindness to Elizabeth when she visits stems not only from his good nature, but also from his admiration of Jane, which Mrs. Bennet uses to her advantage, therefore manipulating Bingley further (Pride and Prejudice 39). Darcy’s devotion to Elizabeth is quite subtle throughout much of the book, but it rears its head in a magnificent manner when he spends an enormous sum of money to help get Lydia out of her situation with Wickham (Pride and Prejudice 330).
The great beauty of Emma and her female counterparts in the novel also enables them to manipulate the opposite sex. Indeed, the only reason that Mr. Elton responds to Emma’s attempts at matching him with Harriet Smith is because he is infatuated with Emma herself, enchanted by her beauty—and her considerable inheritance. Emma, though a woman of her time period, a time in which women were generally lesser than men, considers Mr. Elton “her inferior in talent, and all the elegancies of mind” (Emma 105). Emma’s opinion of herself proves true, as she rejects Mr. Elton’s suit and continues to outwit him and all other men in her life. She is, however, thwarted by Frank Churchill, whom she attempts to fall in love with to please the rest of society—therefore manipulating herself. Another example of manipulation by sex appeal can be found in the case of Jane Fairfax, the seemingly perfect creature whose reputation preceded her by quite a while. This reputation of hers moves Emma to inordinate anger and jealousy over her skill at music. However, once Emma learns Miss Fairfax’s true nature, she is able to stop her own manipulation of her own emotions that plagued her upon learning of the other girl.
However, due to the unwritten code of high society, the men have power when actual sex is implied, as it is between Lydia and Wickham when the two elope. If not for Darcy’s quick actions, it could have carried disastrous consequences for Lydia and her sisters. The nature—even the very existence—of these consequences calls attention to gender roles and their relationship to power in Austen’s society. Clearly, the untrustworthy Wickham meant only to have his way with Lydia and then leave her to “come upon the town […] or be secluded from the world in some distant farmhouse” (Pride and Prejudice 175). Her sister Mary remarks that “loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable […] one false step involves her in endless ruin […] her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful” (Pride and Prejudice 280). Of course, the elopement affects only the reputation of the woman involved, and has no potential impact whatsoever on Wickham’s marriageability. The serious unfairness of this shows men’s power over women in these matters. It is no fault of the women themselves, but rather a gross double standard that still holds today, albeit in a much more relaxed form. In those days, even the slightest rumor of having lived with a man before marriage was enough to doom a girl’s entire family—but not the man’s. It affected him not at all. The man, then, uses the promise of sex as manipulation, and though they may indeed be less skilled at the art than women, men like Wickham will use it to whatever advantage they can get, whether their motive is to have power over the woman’s life or simply their own sport.
So, both money and sex lead back to power and are ways in which power manifests itself. Power here it has less to do with ranks and titles than it does with the other two forms of manipulation discussed—money and sex, with which it is inseparably associated. Money is power in these books, and good looks (and fine eyes) are too, although less so. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins is under the illusion of such power when he proposes to Elizabeth: he believes that his suit is “highly desirable” as his “situation in life [and his] connection to the family of de Bourgh” are “highly in [his] favor,” and he cites the Bennets’ unfavorable position in the entailment as something that will “undo the effects of [Elizabeth’s] loveliness and amiable qualifications” (Pride and Prejudice 108). The power that Mr. Collins holds over the Bennets—his entailment—certainly influences Mrs. Bennet to urge Elizabeth to accept his offer of marriage; however, Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth herself are singularly unmoved. In Mr. Bennet’s case, his aloof personality which enabled him to disregard the effect that his misplaced entailment would have upon his wife and daughters helps him also to disregard and look down upon the cousin who will claim it instead; indeed, Mr. Bennet appears to understand Mr. Collins’s airs much better than anyone else in the family. As for Elizabeth, her idealism when it comes to marriage and her self-confessed tendency to be easily amused prevent her from taking Mr. Collins and his offer seriously—she comes “near laughing” as he begins to propose (Pride and Prejudice 57, 105).
Emma, too, features power that comes as a result of money and various persons’ attempts to manipulate others with that power. Emma Woodhouse herself wields an enormous amount of power over her “friends,” those she takes under her wing of matchmaking - Harriet Smith in particular. She does this by making Harriet better, more fit for higher society; as Mr. Elton says, Emma turned the country girl “graceful and easy” (Emma 33). By this, Emma draws Harriet into her scheme, showing an exertion of power over the simple girl. Emma displays nothing but good intentions in her treatment of Harriet, but yet she essentially takes over the other girl’s mind, telling her what to think, how to act, who to love. Harriet, not in the least as scheming as Emma, happily plays along, offering no resistance to the control. Mr. Knightley, however, is able to resist this power of Emma’s, both because of his personality and because he has known her for such a long while.
These three forms of manipulation—money, sex, and power—are not exclusively applicable to the upper-class Regency society of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and the rest of Jane Austen’s novels. People manipulate each other in every place, in every time, even in today’s world. Such is the beauty of Jane Austen’s work, and the reason why her novels have become classics; they offer important, timeless insights into our society now, all those that have come before it, and all those still to come.