JASNA-Winning Essay

Aug. 19, 2013

Mindy Sansoucie graduated with a BA in Creative Writing in May 2013. The essay below was created as a part of a class assignment for Seminar in a Single Author and was also submitted tothe Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) for their annual essay contest where it received an Honorable Mention.

Love Comes Second:
The Gender-Lens on Time in Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen focuses a gender-oriented lens on time in her novel Pride and Prejudice, where time is not a universal commodity, but an experience particular to female identities. The men of Pride and Prejudice carry a heavy responsibility, as their arrivals and departures excite emotional, physical and economical repercussions in their female counterparts. Yet, for all the importance resting on the shoulders of men, the novel acknowledges their comings and goings in passing only. Austen reveals intimate details of the movements of women, especially that of her Elizabeth. Chase rides to a neighborhood ball or a muddy walk through a field become an adventure. By allowing readers this gender-lens, moments of mobility for women become the frisson of her novel. Men may move women along a spectrum of time that spans from father to husband, twirling them about a dance or down the processions of matrimony, but it is the desire for stability, realized by either the threat or experience of displacement, that element women to the movements of men. Love, Austen suggests, is but a bonus.

Judith Lowder Newton asserts that women “are controlled, who are fixed by their economic situation” in her essay on power and subversion in Pride and Prejudice. She continues by dissecting the iconic first sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “Single men, in contrast, appear at liberty – at liberty to enter a neighborhood, for example, and presumably to leave it. Single men have a distinct mobility and a personal power that daughters do not” (28). Indeed, the arrival of the eligible Mr. Bingley opens the novel and immediately excites Mrs. Bennet into action. She is, as we are told, “a woman of mean understanding,” (Austen 4) and so perhaps senses a dull tugging, something like an opportunity approaching. She is aware of the time clock ticking above each daughter's head, and even her own. Yet, her husband must move first – this is a societal rule of which even Mrs. Bennet is privy. Once Mr. Bennet makes introductions, she and their daughters may proceed upon developing the acquaintance further, but not before. For the third time, Mrs. Bennet pleads with her husband, “Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us [emphasis in original] to visit him, if you do not” (Austen 4). It would seem as if their lives cannot be lived or at least, they cannot move, without a male counterpart. Women, and therefore the novel, must element themselves to male guardians during all stages of life. We, as readers, must watch and wait with the women.

Once Mr. Bennet comes clean that he did, in fact, call upon Mr. Bingley “the rest of the evening was spent in conjecturing how soon [Mr. Bingley] would return Mr. Bennet's visit” (Austen 6). Once the husband and father make the acquaintance, the women must again wait for the opportunity to wait upon Mr. Bingley's convenience. Christopher Miller, in his essay on surprise in Austenian novels, suggests that characters share “a common desire to fill the tedious space of waiting” (269). Yet, Miller's blanket term dismisses a vital point, that the male character has autonomy while the female character does not. The Male may fill his tedious time as he chooses, whereas the female character cannot do more than wait upon him to move. The women, and therefore the reader, feel time in an “anxious and uneasy” state (Austen 221). The women in Austen's novels remain in place while exhibiting a never-fading focus on time. Making an acquaintance is but the first of many steps men must make before a woman can have a measure of mobility, and even then, female movements are rarely autonomous.

In fact, Austen directs our eye to individual moments of female autonomy to illuminate the fact that these acts of self-governance incite suspicion. When a man makes his fortune, he then becomes eligible. However, if a woman should make the slightest autonomous movement in bettering herself, the world seems off balance. Sir William, a man who “had made a tolerable fortune and risen to the honour of knighthood” (12), was now at leisure to do as he pleased. In a brief moment of conversation with Darcy, Sir William sees “Elizabeth at that instant moving towards them,” and he is “struck with the notion of doing a very gallant thing” (18). He asks Elizabeth why she is not dancing and endeavors to right the equilibrium by securing her a partner in Darcy. Elizabeth must then defend her willful movements, “I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner” (18). Yet, both Sir William and Darcy suspected just that. Austen highlights this moment of female autonomy by calling an “instant” attention to Elizabeth's movements. Sir William and Darcy cannot accept a woman's movement to be without motivation. Indeed, this is because they too realize that women must live deliberately. They do not have the luxury of leisure in their ever-measured wombs of time.

However, Austen directs our attention to men like Mr. Bennet who may enjoy leisurely activities and be “with a book” and “regardless of time” (Austen 9). Mr. Bennet may have the luxury of leisure, but due to the entail on his estate, his wife and daughters will be destitute upon his death. Beth Lau points out the reoccurrence of this theme in Austen novels: “Many Austen heroines yearn for a stable home, but they do so because they have experienced actual or threatened displacement” (92). A sharp female eye is aware of the instability lurking behind mannered tea times and muslin dresses. Sir William and Darcy assumed Elizabeth to be husband hunting because that is what women must do. It is not, then, the man who “must be in want of a wife” (3), but the woman who must have a husband. Self-preservation moves women instinctually along a spectrum of time.

Indeed, Austen's gender-lens on time does not discriminate between economic standings; all women feel time in relation to their male counterparts. Mr. Bingley gathers his sisters from London for a trip to Netherfield, an estate they hope will become his permanent residence. Mr. Bingley has inherited all of their father's fortune and “his sisters were very anxious for his having an estate of his own” (Austen 11), which would offer them a measure of stability as well. Indeed, Bingley's married sister, Mrs. Hurst, is not “disposed to consider [Bingley's] house as her home when [the time] suited her” (11). If Mr. Bingley purchased Netherfield, his property would secure a temporal future for his sisters, should the women become reliant upon only themselves. Here we see of an example of what appears to be man magnetism - Mr. Bingley controlling the movements of his sisters. However, the force driving the women is again self-preservation. Their trip to Netherfield is about more than an idle vacation, as even these women of fortune do not have the luxury of leisure time. Indeed, they recognize the precariousness of their future. If Bingley would but settle in one place, Austen suggests, his sisters would have an added measure of stability. Everyone, it seems, is “anxious” for Bingley to settle.

Austen juxtaposes the women's wish for a secure future with Bingley's flippant idea of time. To further contrast and highlight the perceptible gender-lens on time, Austen has Bingley deliver this speech to the desperate Mrs. Bennet: “whatever I do is done in a hurry,' replied he; ‘and therefore if I should resolve to quite Netherfield, I should probably be off in five minutes. At present, however, I consider myself as quite fixed here'” (Austen 29). While Bingley may consider himself “fixed” anywhere he pleases for however long he chooses, Mrs. Bennet is keenly aware of the extent to which her daughters' future (and her own) may rely upon this young man's irresponsible notion of time. To be “off in five minutes” with little (if any) considerations outside of oneself is as much a luxury of leisure for Bingley as Mr. Bennet's time lost in books. During male leisure time, women must remain anxiously attuned to the ever-quickening passage of time.

Charlotte Lucas is acutely aware of passing of time. At twenty-seven, she balances on a precipice between bachelorette and spinsterhood. She cautions Elizabeth against Jane's seemingly coolness toward Bingley: “If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him” (Austen 15). Charlotte's instinctual pull for self-preservation reaches a height of desperation. She proves that it is not a man that magnetizes women, but the need for stability. Charlotte is as concerned with fixing a man, and therefore time, as is Mrs. Bennet, for they both realize they cannot slow the passage of time working against them. With Charlotte, Austen allows us a glance at the shutter closing on Charlotte's gender-lens – her time is almost up and she must find a husband.

On the opposite end of the courtship time spectrum, (the beginning), are the two younger Bennet sisters. Lydia and Catherine exemplify one representation of a woman's entrance into the world. At first, they move like moths to the red coats of officers. They flutter from house to house and their conversations revolve around nothing else: “Mama,” cried Lydia, “'my aunt says that Colonel Forster and Captain Carter do not go so often to Miss Watson's as they did when they first came; she sees them now very often standing in Clarke's library'” (Austen 21). Austen uses the naiveté of the two younger sisters to contrast the free movement of the officers, as the young women must trail after the young men. The young women can only watch and hope to occasionally come in the way of the officers, and, due to the gender-lens, so too can the plot.

The arrival of so many young men opens the gender-lens wide with opportunity and excites everyone into movement that propels the plot at a much greater speed. Miss Bingley writes to Jane Bennet, explaining that Darcy and Bingley have both left to dine with the officers and, therefore, Jane must come to visit them. The arrival of officers and the subsequent exit of Darcy and Bingley compel the women to move, even the self-proclaimed independent Elizabeth. Mrs. Bennet's scheme of sending Jane to Netherfield by horseback works quite well. The rains come, Jane becomes sick and now she must stay for a longer period of time. It also happens that the men have returned home. With Jane sick, Bingley feels an obligation to remain at Netherfield and Mrs. Bennet has essentially “fixed” him, for a time, at home.

These days at Netherfield allow us a peek into the motivations of Elizabeth as she rushes to see her ill sister: “Elizabeth continued her walk alone, springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” (Austen 23). Just as Darcy appreciated Elizabeth's ambition lacking movements at the ball, where she entreats him and Sir William to believe that she did not move their way in search of a partner, so too are his attentions directed at Elizabeth in this instance of extreme movement, indeed, exercise. That Austen directs our attention in such vivid detail to Elizabeth's walk “alone” and Darcy subsequent surprised attraction to her afterward, suggests that this autonomous movement was unusual.

Indeed, while Darcy acknowledges the beauty inspired by her exercise, he does not approve of Elizabeth's self-governance: “[Mr. Darcy] was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasions' justifying her coming so far alone” (23). Elizabeth again needs to justify her actions, because she acted alone. Darcy allows her to be beautiful in her mobility as if he is admiring the gate of a healthy horse, yet he reprimands her movement as a frolicking abandon of the fence. Nevertheless, he makes an accurate observation. It is possible that Elizabeth does overreact in walking to Netherfield. However, in a social sphere that restricts the mobility of women to such a degree that they cannot move without the guidance of a man, any action taken outside of the fence of normalcy must be an overreaction. Darcy again suspects Elizabeth's autonomous movement, and maybe, rightly so, as Elizabeth is aging through the courtship stage and becoming more aware of the uncertainty that surrounds her sex.

While Elizabeth nurses Jane at Netherfield, she is summoned along with the other women to breakfast, teas, dinners and attends to most of these requests because they had “appeared to her rather right than pleasant” (Austen 25). However, when she enters the drawing room, takes up a book to avoid the card game and overhears a conversation of Darcy's estate, Pemberley, she becomes “so much caught by what passed, as to leave her very little attention for her book; and soon laying it wholly aside, she drew near the card-table” (27). While Mr. Bennet has leisurely time for his books, already his independent Elizabeth is “caught” by Pemberley and the security it affords. Indeed, she seems to show interest in the estate before that of the owner. It is as if Darcy's estate draws her by instinct, or the need for self-preservation. He has a grand ancestral home that must afford a measure of stability greater than the entailed Longbourne. It is the idea of a grand home that first draws Elizabeth closer to Darcy, not love.

On her visit to the Lake District, Elizabeth unwillingly arrives at Pemberley. She has grown during this trip, indeed, she has aged further along the courtship spectrum of time. The notion that women need men as a means for safety came as a reality check to our heroine Elizabeth's idealized concept of independence. She has turned down two offers of marriage and worries that one of them may never renew. She gets a taste of a more complex world on this trip. She sees the ancestral grandeur of Pemberley and “At that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (Austen 159). Austen again highlights a single moment in time, as there are few left tinkling in the half-empty courtship glass of our aging heroine. We see what Miller calls the “the thrill of anticipation, the frisson of danger, the consciousness of safety” (247) encompass Elizabeth as she comes to a realization: she needs a man.

With this new need in mind and while touring Darcy's estate, Elizabeth positions herself in just a way that she may try on the title of mistress of Pemberley. She notices a picture of Darcy and “she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before” (162). It would seem that our independent heroine is no longer free of ambition. Elizabeth fixes “his eyes upon herself” just as her mother fixed Bingley at Netherfield while Jane was ill. It seems our heroine has learned a thing or two from her silly mother after all. Indeed, after her travels have displaced her from home for a time, she feels an “alienation of the human spirit” (Bate 550) that strengthens her desire for stability. She is thankful, indeed, gratuitous for what Darcy can offer her - Pemberley. Her trip to Pemberley marks a shift in thought for our young heroine. She has placed Pemberley before Darcy and stability before love.

Just as Charlotte Lucas and the younger Lydia sisters illuminate opposite ends of the time spectrum of courtship, Longbourne and Pemberley represent the beginning and end of a journey too. In the end, Pemberley pulls Elizabeth. She successfully “fixes” Darcy's eye on her because the alternative is to return to an uncertain life at Longbourne. Austen's deepest concerns, indeed, plots, often revolve around the marriage market. This view rightly trains Austen's immediate focus to courtship, indeed, to women. Elizabeth, like all other women of her era, exists in a womb of time that begins with her father and begins again with her husband. Time, then, is biased in Austen. While society touts males, Austen watches time pass through a female gender-lens that illuminates an anti-love story: love comes second to security.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Ed. Donald Gray. Norton Critical Editions. New York: Norton (2001). Print.

Bate, Jonathan. “Culture and Environment: From Austen to Hardy.” New Literary History 30.3 (1999): 541-560. Article.

Lau, Beth. “Home, Exile and Wanderlust in Austen and the Romantic Poets.” Pacific Coast Philology 41 (2006): 91-107. Article.

Miller, Christopher. “Jane Austen's Aesthetics and Ethics of Surprise.” The Ohio State University Press 13.3 (2005): 238-260. Article.

Newton, Judith Lowder. “Pride and Prejudice: Power, Fantasy and Subversion in Jane Austen.” Feminist Studies, Inc. 4.1 (1978): 27-42. Article.