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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single young woman in possession of an imagination must imagine herself the heroine in an Austen novel.

It is a truth much less acknowledged that a middle-aged woman reading Jane Austen hears herself in the minor characters, the ones the narrator likes to mock.

Oh my dear Reader, what a shock to my nerves when I found myself identifying with Mrs. Bennet!

Or silly Mrs. Jennings! Always inquiring too closely into other people’s business, sure that she knows what’s what, loathe to allow other people their emotional space, lacking delicacy and tact where it is most needed.

And what horrors to find a Miss Bates in myself–talking mindlessly, incessantly, blithely missing social cues to shut-up-already.

I tell my students this–that I no longer identify with Emma but instead with Miss Bates–and they look at me with the brutal pity of the young regarding the old.

Austen’s confident narrative voice is keen to point out the ridiculousness of middle-aged women–and this tendency may be something to critique, a too-ready internalization of patriarchal norms, an attitude of “I may be a woman, but I’m not THAT sort of woman.” I encourage my students to question the ways women have been demeaned as “silly,” “ridiculous,” and “hysterical,” to remember Mary Wollestonecraft’s argument that the women of her day may indeed be silly and vain, precisely because they had been taught and encouraged to be so–but it is very difficult to not feel critiqued by Austen’s narrative voice, confident moral arbiter that she is, and to keenly feel my own inadequacies.

The supposed ridiculousness of women aside, Austen’s judgment cuts most when I find myself identifying with the actual villains. There’s Willoughby, who does not know himself well enough and who thus ends up harming others. Or the charming George Wickham, whose vanity and overwhelming concern for what others think of him prevents him from seeing himself clearly. (Self-knowledge is key in Austen’s novels–it is the prerequisite of moral growth.)

Austen’s narrator is even-handed in her approach, even toward the villains. She never indulges in punishing them for their sins, beyond the punishments they bring upon themselves. But there is a deep sense in Austen’s work that if you miss profiting from critical periods of moral formation–education in childhood and the early growing pains of young adulthood–then your character is fixed forever, for the worse.

There are a few exceptions I can think of here–Mr. Bennet learns belatedly that he should have guided his daughters more prudently, that he should have been less cavalier about the family finances–but late-learning is never radically transformative in Austen’s world.

Crisis and heartbreak–where we are broken open and where we find the opportunity to realize our moral and spiritual potential–these moments occur in Austen’s novels no later than in one’s late twenties. Anne Elliott is 27 or 28–a spinster!–when she faces her crisis.

I am 42 now, just barely older than Austen was when she died. And I wonder: if she had lived another twenty years, what would her novels have sounded like? Would that confident, judging narrative voice soften? Would even middle-aged folks be offered the opportunity to suffer, to change, to grow, and thus, to live? Change is life, and to exist without changing (were it possible) would be to exist suspended in time, preserved in amber. It would be to exist as a caricature of one’s self, not as a Self.

It feels strange to read Austen now with a little disappointment. To see the limitations of these novels I once lived in so effortlessly. But it also feel liberating.

Real life, after all, is so much richer and more profound and more soul-nourishing than any novel.

Even ones by my beloved Aunt Jane.

Sarina Gruver Moore

Sarina Gruver Moore is a writer in western Pennsylvania.


  • Annette LaPlaca says:

    Loved this, Serena!
    And thanks for picking a photo of Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley (as in, Who on earth wouldn’t be in love with him?!?!?!). My younger daughter, Lucy, just wrote a longish paper comparing (across the many decades) Jane A and Stella Gibbons and the respective (meddling, with divergent results) heroines, Emma and Flora Poste (Cold Comfort Farm). It was great! Hope all is well in PA.

  • Helen says:

    I identify with Miss Bates, too, but with affection. I think of her when I’m most adoring my nieces. And I hope that when overly confident young people grow critical of me, there are those around to come to my defense: “Badly done, Emma! Badly done, indeed!” I agree with you that Persuasion is a good hint that Austen might’ve written more compellingly of middle aged women, had she lived longer.

  • Therese says:

    it is my opinion that Jane is always writing about her mother when she does middle-aged. Mrs.George Austen wore her riding suit all day everyday so she must have taken great pleasure in the care of her husband’s student’s horses as well as her children, i picture her as a Mrs. Tarleton, and Jane of course would have started out being mortified just as Mrs.Tarleton’s girLs. As Jane grew older and recognized the Leigh connection as being not only unquestionably good but unexceptionable well then of course she appreciated her mother’s eccentricitys as rooted in her social class. Mrs. Austen, like one who had married “beneath her,” can be read like a Mrs.Cadwallader, busy busy busy and also Jane’s own Mrs.Norris busy busy busy. Certainly Jane took great pleasure in exaggerating for effect, as Edward Forster says in his timeless lecture series: Aspects of The Novel. Jane can make flat characters breathe, like Mrs. Norris sister Lady Bertram, who “married up.” When called upon to do so, Lady Bertram walks into the round, speaks her 3D lines (or writes them in a letter) and then goes right back into her flat role as comic relief. So Jane, who knew herself and said so herself she only does cameos.

    By the way, i wish my identifying moment had been Mrs. Bates, i was Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and i should have been a great proficient if i had ever studied the piano.

  • RLG says:

    I guess you have to be an insider. I don’t get it, any of it.

  • Sarina says:

    RLG, yes this post is one for those who are already well-acquainted with Austen’s novels, sorry. If you’re interested, I made reference to four of her six completed novels—Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion. I hope you read them!

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