One of the many famous sayings we find in Jane Austen’s writing is the following one-liner she coined in one of her last surviving letters, to her heiress, eldest niece, Fanny Austen Knight:
“Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.”
Many of you have seen this witty and popular bon mot before (it’s been Tweeted hundreds of times by hundreds of Tweeps), but perhaps you don’t know what Jane Austen was talking about. Today I’ll tell you, and, despite what her brother Henry (quoted in my Subject Line) and many modern Austen scholars have asserted, also show you that JA was subversively signaling how inspiring a source Henry Fielding’s “scandalous” masterpiece, Tom Jones (John Thorpe’s favorite novel) really was for her!
To begin, here is Austen’s famous quip in full context: “I am very much obliged to you, my dearest Fanny, for sending me Mr. W[ildman]'s conversation; I had great amusement in reading it, and I hope I am not affronted, and do not think the worse of him for having a brain so very different from mine; but my strongest sensation of all is astonishment at your being able to press him on the subject so perseveringly; and I agree with your papa, that it was not fair. When he knows the truth [i.e., that Emma was written by Fanny’s own aunt] he will be uncomfortable. You are the oddest creature! Nervous enough in some respects, but in others perfectly without nerves! Quite unrepulsable, hardened, and impudent. Do not oblige him to read any more. Have mercy on him, tell him the truth, and make him an apology. He and I should not in the least agree, of course, in our ideas of novels and heroines. Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked, but there is some very good sense in what he says, and I particularly respect him for wishing to think well of all young ladies; it shows an amiable and a delicate mind. And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my works.” END QUOTE
So, it’s appears that Mr. Wildman, the serious young man who is courting Fanny, expressed stern disapproval of the way Jane Austen (whom he doesn’t know is Fanny’s aunt) presented her heroine Emma Woodhouse--- Emma is very far from the perfectly good, morally irreproachable heroine that he seems to have believed every such novel ought to have; and JA seems to be very diplomatically sticking to her authorial guns in having created a heroine who is, as all Janeites know, all too flawed.
Over the years, several Austen scholars have noticed that Jane Austen was in no small part rebutting some famously strong opinions about literary storytelling voiced by the authoritative Samuel Johnson. In Rambler No. 4 (03/31/1750), Johnson opined thusly: “…these familiar histories may perhaps be made of greater use than the solemnities of professed morality, and convey the knowledge of vice and virtue with more efficacy than axioms and definitions. But if the power of example is so great…care ought to be taken, that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly, should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects…It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character, that it is drawn as it appears; for many characters ought never to be drawn: nor of a narrative, that the train of events is agreeable to observation and experience; for that observation which is called knowledge of the world, will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good.”
As to authors who create “mixed characters” who embody both good and bad qualities, Johnson warned of the danger that the reader will "lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit"; and Johnson further pronounced that in "narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability . . . but the highest and purest that humanity can reach”.
It has also been long recognized that Johnson was not just decrying writers of mixed characters in general. Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) is only part of the varied evidence that has emerged over the years, revealing that one particular author was in Johnson’s moral crosshairs—the writer who most famously created the very kind of mixed character whom Johnson deplored: Henry Fielding, with his lovable, but seriously flawed, transgressive hero Tom Jones, who gets his happy ending despite everything:
“Fielding being mentioned, Johnson exclaimed, "he was a blockhead." . . . "What I mean by his being a blockhead is that he was a barren rascal." BOSWELL. "Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?" JOHNSON. "Why, Sir, it is of very low life. Richardson used to say, that had he not known who Fielding was, he should have believed he was an ostler. Sir, there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson's, than in all Tom Jones. I, indeed, never read Joseph Andrews." “
So, from all of the above it is clear that Mr. Wildman has either read Samuel Johnson himself, or is repeating the Johnson-inspired adverse verdict rendered on Emma by some friend of his who has. And of course the world of Janeites must be universally and perpetually grateful that our beloved author ignored these patriarchal dicta of the English moralist she is supposed to have admired most, and insisted on her moral duty to create her universe of mixed characters whom we all know and love so well, most of all because we see our own mixed selves, as we really are, in them.
The best summary that I’ve found, which puts all of the above in useful context, is in Margaret Kirkham’s brilliant and seminal Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction (1983). Kirkham, after discussing Samuel Johnson’s famous comments, insightfully writes about the feminist ripples that emanated over time from Fielding’s controversial masterpiece:
“The mid-18th century argument about ‘mixed characters’ was expressed in quite general terms, not apparently related to specific considerations about women, yet it touched on the feminist claim to moral and educational equality in important ways. The general argument, as propounded by Johnson, was that characters in whom good and bad qualities were confused should not, in familiar histories, be sympathetically represented, nor should they be allowed to be seen to prosper….What he specifically objects to is the representation of sexual misconduct in characters who otherwise show a variety of admirable qualities. ‘Vice’ is understood specifically as sexual misconduct, ‘Virtue’ as chastity. What he is really saying, therefore, is that, in the familiar history, the morals of readers must be safeguarded by a refusal, on the part of novelists, to show sexual conduct as it is—rather than as the moralist would like it to be.…[I]t became de rigueur for male biographers to show the purity of their subjects’ minds by assuring readers that the aunt or sister of whom they wrote had not much cared for Fielding. Henry Austen’s assertion that his sister preferred Richardson should be read with this in mind. What she and Cassandra might have said, in the privacy of their dressing room at around the age of twenty, is quite another matter.
Tom Jones did precisely what Johnson feared it would do; it encouraged respectable women to discuss fairly openly ‘what passed in the world’, to laugh at its absurdity and, when the laughter had subsided, to question ‘the solemnities of professed morality’ because it made plain that they were not well-founded in knowledge of human nature. Fielding did not show a virtuous heroine with that quality of experiential virtue which he revealed in the Foundling, but some women readers, Mrs. Carter among them, judged of Tom’s virtue as though it were the virtue of generic Man, not just the male sex…she is thinking of Tom’s moral composition as representative not of one sex, but of humankind. Once women readers had begun to think in that way, they were not to be content with villainous heroes and ‘picture-of-perfection’ heroines. …The novel, which was obliged to show human nature in both men and women, did as much as, or more than, any other form of writing to expose the necessity of reassessing what ‘virtue’ ought to mean in both sexes. Fielding, perhaps as unlikely a feminist as one could hope to find, contributed to the opening up of this new moral question, although he tried to dodge it….” END QUOTE
Hmmm…if Kirkham is correct that sexual misconduct was an unspoken, but important, subtext of Johnson’s critique of mixed characters—and, after reading several other scholarly takes on the battle between Johnson and Fielding for the hearts and minds of English readers, I believe Kirkham was spot-on --- then that casts some doubt on the assumption that it was Austen’s depiction of Emma Woodhouse alone which the Mr. Collins-like Mr. Wildman disapproved of. No, the female character in Emma who Mr. Wildman most assuredly did not wish to receive a happy ending was…. Jane Fairfax! Just recall what Jane F. herself says (as reported to Emma by Mrs. Weston) at the end of the novel:
“Poor girl!” said Emma. “She thinks herself wrong, then, for having consented to a private engagement?”
“Wrong! No one, I believe, can blame her more than she is disposed to blame herself. ‘The consequence,’ said she, ‘has been a state of perpetual suffering to me; and so it ought. But after all the punishment that misconduct can bring, it is still not less misconduct. Pain is no expiation. I never can be blameless. I have been acting contrary to all my sense of right; and the fortunate turn that every thing has taken, and the kindness I am now receiving, is what my conscience tells me ought not to be.’ ‘Do not imagine, madam,’ she continued, ‘that I was taught wrong. Do not let any reflection fall on the principles or the care of the friends who brought me up. The error has been all my own; and I do assure you that, with all the excuse that present circumstances may appear to give, I shall yet dread making the story known to Colonel Campbell.’”
By Samuel Johnson’s criteria, JA has failed as an author and moralist, because she allows some of her mixed characters such as Jane Fairfax to get a fresh start after doing wrong. So, now I see that JA’s sticking to her guns in her letter to Fanny is at least half about letting Jane Fairfax (or for that matter, Marianne Dashwood or, heaven help us, Lydia Bennet and Lucy Steele!) off the hook for their wrong doing. And, in case you’re not familiar with which “male biographer” Kirkham had in mind, the following is what JA’s brother Henry Austen wrote about his recently deceased sister in that regard in his Biographical Notice (1818)
“Her reading was very extensive in history and belles lettres; and her memory extremely tenacious. Her favourite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse. It is difficult to say at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language. Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in Sir Charles Grandison, gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative. She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high. Without the slightest affectation she recoiled from every thing gross. Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals. Her power of inventing characters seems to have been intuitive, and almost unlimited. She drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals….”
And that brings me to the second and crucial part of my Subject Line – the veiled, perfect tribute to Fielding that I claim Jane Austen left behind, despite Henry Austen’s protesting-too-much to the contrary. So far, what I’ve written above does not provide any clear evidence that JA, in writing of “pictures of perfection”, knew anything about the above-described controversy between Fielding and Johnson about morality in fiction-writing. Perhaps JA was only responding to Johnson and his many male followers; and in the vein of the famous Defence of the Novel in Northanger Abbey, was simply standing up for her right and duty to honestly depict the lives of women as she observed them in the real world – truth would be the best moral teacher, not unrealistic preaching-by-unrealistic-fiction.
But I’m writing this post because yesterday, I happened upon a passage in Book X of Fielding’s Tom Jones (published in 1749, one year before Johnson’s indictment of it in Rambler #4), in which we read one of Fielding’s many chatty authorial intrusions for which he is so famous. It’s right at the start of Chapter 1 of Book X and is entitled “Containing instructions very necessary to be perused by modern critics.” You should recognize immediately why it caught my eye, from the words in ALL CAPS:
“… we must admonish thee, my worthy friend (for, perhaps, thy heart may be better than thy head), not to condemn a character as a bad one, because it is not perfectly a good one. If thou dost delight in these MODELS OF PERFECTION, there are books enow written to gratify thy taste; but, as we have not, in the course of our conversation, ever happened to meet with any such person, we have not chosen to introduce any such here. To say the truth, I a little question whether mere man ever arrived at this consummate degree of excellence, as well as whether there hath ever existed a monster bad enough to verify that nulla virtute redemptum A vitiis [Whose vices are not allayed with a single virtue] in Juvenal; nor do I, indeed, conceive the good purposes served by inserting characters of such ANGELIC PERFECTION, or such diabolical depravity, in any work of invention; since, from contemplating either, the mind of man is more likely to be overwhelmed with sorrow and shame than to draw any good uses from such patterns; for in the former instance he may be both concerned and ashamed to see a pattern of excellence in his nature, which he may reasonably despair of ever arriving at; and in contemplating the latter he may be no less affected with those uneasy sensations, at seeing the nature of which he is a partaker degraded into so odious and detestable a creature.
In fact, if there be enough of goodness in a character to engage the admiration and affection of a well-disposed mind, though there should appear some of those little blemishes quas humana parum cavit natura, they will raise our compassion rather than our abhorrence. Indeed, nothing can be of more moral use than the IMPERFECTIONS which are seen in examples of this kind; since such form a kind of surprize, more apt to affect and dwell upon our minds than the faults of very vicious and WICKED persons. The foibles and VICES of men, in whom there is great mixture of good, become more glaring objects from the VIRTUES which contrast them and shew their deformity; and when we find such vices attended with their evil consequence to our favourite characters, we are not only taught to shun them for our own sake, but to hate them for the mischiefs they have already brought on those we love. And now, my friend, having given you these few admonitions, we will, if you please, once more set forward with our history.” END QUOTE FROM FIELDING
I think it should be pretty obvious to anyone who has read the first half of my above post, as to why I put the words “PERFECTION” and “WICKED” in ALL CAPS. These are the very words, I recognized, that JA plucked from Fielding’s verbose defense of mixed characters, and then memorably crystallized in her pithy, catchy witticism.
And I conclude with the observation that her one-liner becomes trebly meaningful when you connect the dots from it to another outside-the-box claim I’ve been making for many years, which is that, despite Henry Austen’s other claim (“Her power of inventing characters seems to have been intuitive, and almost unlimited. She drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals”), Emma Woodhouse is in key part a representation of clueless, snobbish, insensitive niece Fanny Knight; and, complementarily, Jane Fairfax is in key part a representation of vulnerable, sensitive, and creative niece Anna Austen Lefroy! I.e., one of Emma’s most serious moral “imperfections” is her long delay in showing charity and compassion toward Jane. And so, Jane Fairfax getting a happy ending (of sorts) is, in the largest moral sense, the only truly moral and just outcome JA could have given her.
So there, Samuel Johnson!
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