Writing notes: Jane Austen inside Lizzy’s head

A lot of novelists go inside the main character’s head. I was curious how far back in the tradition this went, and I had a vague memory that Jane Austen did it with Lizzy when Darcy proposed to her. (Thank you, 11th-grade English.) The issue I was curious about was whether Austen showed Lizzy’s character and feelings by inference and from the outside, by her actions, or by a direct description, as they unfolded from within.

The chapter in which the proposal occurs, which is almost exactly halfway through the novel, is among the longer ones: Chapter 34 if you’ve got a (free) Kindle or iBooks edition handy, or maybe a paper copy. Follow along with me.

It starts with Elizabeth alone at friend Charlotte’s house (in Kent) perusing her sister Jane’s letters, looking for signs of sadness and discontent. This is a kind of “action” but it’s mediated fully through Elizabeth’s disdain for Darcy and her care for Jane. (Jane’s broken heart can be blamed on Darcy.) The choice is brilliant, because it sets Lizzy’s frame of mind firmly against Darcy before his startling revelation of a secret, unquenchable love for her. We get a brief sketch of Lizzy’s anxieties, and then the knock at the door.

My first surprise in rereading the proposal itself was that it was given almost entirely as a report of the gist of Darcy’s words. Austen does this more than I tend to do, or other writers I tend to read do. But here, surely, I would have expected a quotation of Darcy’s speech: his excuses, the struggles he fought, etc. But we’re given all this in a fairly short descriptive paragraph, all laced through with Lizzy’s reactions to it. We know her feelings for him and his proposal from the beginning (Austen is not going for a surprise here).

Then the fireworks start: Lizzy refuses and an argument ensues. Both sets of spoken lines are now given. Darcy’s facial expressions, his tone, his flushed face, are there for us to read as Lizzy reads them. And I started to see the value of Austen’s choice in reporting (rather than quoting) the proposal. She wanted to focus on the argument, not Darcy’s embarrassing, heartfelt revelations. We readers are not meant to sympathize with Darcy at this moment. We are firmly in Lizzy’s (unreliable, unsympathetic) point of view.

We hardly go inside Elizabeth’s head during this part (only enough to keep her viewpoint), until the end of the chapter. There, we get less than a full page of her feelings about what just happened: just enough to get a sense of conflict within her about the proposal and Darcy’s behavior.

My second surprise was that I had misremembered where Austen lingered in Lizzy’s head. The next chapter (35) opens with a few lines of Lizzy’s feelings, before she receives Darcy’s letter, which defends his behavior; but it’s Chapter 36 that gives us her reactions to his letter.

This was the chapter I had stowed in my memory. Almost the entire chapter (3-4 pages) is Lizzy thinking about the letter. It gives the reader her reactions, shows her deliberations. And it leads to a change in her perspective: an outburst that reveals a fundamental shift (“How despicably I have acted! … Till this moment I never knew myself!”) comes about halfway through. It would be fair to say that Elizabeth enacts a transformation, even though she does it by thinking rather than some other action. (This action does, also, reveal her character.)

It’s a deft touch, and it answers my question admirably: the writerly trick of dipping into a character’s head is venerable. But in an emotionally fraught scene, Austen mostly relies on actions, words, and the sparing indication of emotional turbulence (heightened color, or a face draining of color), to disclose feeling and reveal character. In the aftermath, since Elizabeth’s change of heart is actually so essential to the plot, we do get a front-row seat on her deliberations. But, amazingly, as much “happens” in her head in that scene as any other in the novel.

I can’t resist pointing out another observation: Not one gesture in the proposal scene. Nobody’s hands get mentioned. Nobody–and I mean nobody–jabs at anything with his finger while he talks. Nobody rubs at her head, shuffles his feet. Well, I think Darcy maybe crosses his arms; at least he certainly leans on the mantel (one of the only hints of where the bodies are during that important interchange). And Austen gives no indication how long or short the interchange lasts; only once do we get a pregnant pause, while Darcy collects himself before speaking. Yet somehow or other I see the whole scene in my head.

With such sparing details are great novels made. And to think, after 14 days reading a modern novel, I have as many pages left as the whole of Pride and Prejudice. *Sigh.*

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