This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on 31 May 2020. Enjoy!
Let’s talk about talking. Not just any kind of talking but talking in Jane Austen’s novels to be precise. There are numerous ways authors use dialogue. The most obvious way is to drive the plot forward. Darcy’s overheard insult to Elizabeth at the Assembly Ball in Pride and Prejudice is an easy example of this. Dialogue can also be used to establish the tone of a particular scene; revealing the mood of the speakers, and their current mindset. In the same novel, the restlessness and despondency of Kitty and Lydia after the militia has left Meryton is reflected in their words.
“Good Heaven! What is to become of us? What are we to do?”
We also recognize in these exclamations the immaturity and shallow nature of the characters. When their sentiments are echoed by Mrs. Bennet we recognize that their behavior is learned from and reinforced by their mother. Austen’s dialogue very neatly exposes the personalities, traits, and backstory of her characters in both overt and subliminal ways.
Another great example of this is from Chapter twenty of Emma. The following exchange between Emma and Jane Fairfax is one of my favorites:
“Was he handsome?” — “She believed he was reckoned a very fine young man.” “Was he agreeable?” — “He was generally thought so.” “Did he appear a sensible young man; a young man of information?” — “At a watering-place, or in a common London acquaintance, it was difficult to decide on such points. Manners were all that could be safely judged of, under a much longer knowledge than they had yet had of Mr. Churchill. She believed every body found his manners pleasing.”
On the surface we see Emma’s curiosity being blocked at every turn by Jane Fairfax’s non-answers. Up to this point in the book, Jane’s reserve seems to be just that, but this bit of evasive dialogue hints that something more is going on, that perhaps Jane is harboring a secret or two. Even Emma is suspicious. It is also so illustrative of the personalities and dynamic between Emma and Jane that it is repeatedly included in the screenplays of Emma adaptations. https://youtu.be/x67oM3JRhAca
In Persuasion, the eldest daughter, Elizabeth, exposes herself as exceedingly judgemental, self-centered, selfish, and convinced that her perspective is infallible. A perceptive reader may even pick up the disastrous blind spot Austen reveals in Elizabeth Elliot’s character.
“Mrs. Clay,” said she warmly, “never forgets who she is; and as I am rather better acquainted with her sentiments than you can be, I can assure you, that upon the subject of marriage they are particularly nice; and that she reprobates all inequality of condition and rank more strongly than most people. And as to my father, I really should not have thought that he, who has kept himself single so long for our sakes, need be suspected now. If Mrs. Clay were a very beautiful woman, I grant you, it might be wrong to have her so much with me; not that any thing in the world, I am sure, would induce my father to make a degrading match; but he might be rendered unhappy. But poor Mrs. Clay, who, with all her merits, can never have been reckoned tolerably pretty! I really think poor Mrs. Clay may be staying here in perfect safety. One would imagine you had never heard my father speak of her personal misfortunes, though I know you must fifty times. That tooth of her’s! and those freckles! Freckles do not disgust me so very much as they do him: I have known a face not materially disfigured by a few, but he abominates them. You must have heard him notice Mrs. Clay’s freckles.”
“There is hardly any personal defect,” replied Anne, “which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to.”
“I think very differently,” answered Elizabeth, shortly; “an agreeable manner may set off handsome features, but can never alter plain ones. However, at any rate, as I have a great deal more at stake on this point than any body else can have, I think it rather unnecessary in you to be advising me.”
The true genius of Austen’s dialogue can be seen in those rare instances of a back-and-forth conversation between characters. This passage from chapter eight of Sense and Sensibility, where Marianne Dashwood objects to Colonel Brandon’s marriageability on account of his age provides substantial insight into the turn of her mind. The contrast of Elinor’s practical rebuttals to Marianne’s youthful (and rather extreme) notions is pure gold.
“Mama, you are not doing me justice. I know very well that Colonel Brandon is not old enough to make his friends yet apprehensive of losing him in the course of nature. He may live twenty years longer. But thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony.”
“Perhaps,” said Elinor, “thirty-five and seventeen had better not have anything to do with matrimony together. But if there should by any chance happen to be a woman who is single at seven-and-twenty, I should not think Colonel Brandon’s being thirty-five any objection to his marrying her .”
“A woman of seven-and-twenty,” said Marianne, after pausing a moment, “can never hope to feel or inspire affection again; and if her home be uncomfortable, or her fortune small, I can suppose that she might bring herself to submit to the offices of a nurse, for the sake of the provision and security of a wife. In his marrying such a woman, therefore, there would be nothing unsuitable. It would be a compact of convenience, and the world would be satisfied. In my eyes it would be no marriage at all, but that would be nothing. To me it would seem only a commercial exchange, in which each wished to be benefited at the expense of the other.”
“It would be impossible, I know,” replied Elinor, “to convince you that a woman of seven-and-twenty could feel for a man of thirty-five anything near enough to love to make him a desirable companion to her. But I must object to your dooming Colonel Brandon and his wife to the constant confinement of a sick chamber, merely because he chanced to complain yesterday (a very cold damp day) of a slight rheumatic feel in one of his shoulders.”
“But he talked of flannel waistcoats,” said Marianne; “and with me a flannel waistcoat is invariably connected with the aches, cramps, rheumatisms, and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and the feeble.”
There are certainly many examples of how beautifully Austen taught us about her characters in dialogue, these are just a few. What examples of Jane’s dialogue come to your mind as revelatory of her characters? Your input is welcome!