Monday, 16 October 2017


(by Victoria Grossack)

 In Jane Austen’s works, the bad guys lie.  A lot.

In fact, dishonesty in both word and deed frequently propels the plot.  Let’s take a tour through the deceptions in Jane Austen’s six novels and then discuss her depictions of lies, liars, and those who believe them.

Northanger Abbey.  One of the things I like about this novel is that much of the plot turns on the lies that characters tell about each other.  Most are delivered by John Thorpe, who tells many lies to General Tilney about Catherine Morland, the novel’s protagonist.  Northanger Abbey is, as many people know, Austen’s riposte to the over-the-top melodrama of the gothic novels that were so popular in the late 1700s.  And although Austen incorporated some gothic imaginings, she was able to devise a lovely little novel with prosaic lies.

Sense & Sensibility.  This novel contains several dishonest characters.  We know that John Willoughby is dishonest, in deeds if not in actual words, for not only has he trifled with Marianne Dashwood’s heart, we can be certain he told a passel of lies to Colonel Brandon’s young ward, who he impregnated and then left high and dry.  Lucy Steele feels no need to keep her word to stay true to Edward Ferrars, and elopes with his brother Robert.  Marianne, on the other hand, is so honest – not just in fact but in feeling – that all the polite lies fall to her sister Elinor, who sometimes tells civil falsehoods. Elinor also hides her heart, so much so that Marianne accuses her of hypocrisy.

Pride & Prejudice.  George Wickham is the most serious liar here, telling all sorts of fibs about the Darcy family.  Learning, as we do, that Mr. Darcy is good (despite being a rich man) and that Lieutenant Wickham is bad (despite being a poor man) is the basis for much of the plot.  Wickham is dishonest in other ways as well.  Certainly he lied to Miss Darcy and he misleads Lydia Bennet.

But the others sometimes lie as well.  As we spend the most time with Elizabeth Bennet, we encounter her fibs most frequently.  In fact, Mr. Darcy is actually charmed by them: “I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you occasionally find great enjoyment in professing opinions which are in fact not your own” (chapter 31).

Elizabeth’s less-than-perfectly-honest speeches are mostly due to politeness or embarrassment.  After her visit to Mr. Collins, she “tried to unite truth and civility in a few short sentences” (chapter 38).  Elizabeth is so mortified after her tête-à-tête with Lady Catherine, that she cannot let either her mother or her father know the reason for the noblewoman’s visit, and engages in “a little falsehood” (chapter 56) – even though Mr. Bennet laughingly guesses the truth, and his guess is the only reason that makes much sense.

Mansfield Park.  This book’s liars and their lies are not that as prominent as those in the other books. Maria lies to her father about her feelings for Mr. Rushworth, a lie that gets her into serious trouble as she will hate being married to him.  We can assume that Mr. Crawford at the very least misled Mrs. Rushworth when he eloped with her.  Mary Crawford, who is perhaps loosest with the truth – although not designed to injure people - believes that many are “taken in” with respect to marriage.

Emma.  Jane Austen’s Emma has a protagonist who seems to be the exact opposite of Fanny Price – Emma Woodhouse is confident and rich and not at all retiring.  In this novel Austen shows how vast her skills are, like a debater who has just presented one argument with conviction, and now crosses the stage and just as convincingly defends the other side.  Frank Churchill lies throughout the novel, and does it so charmingly, and for such an understandable reason, that we are willing to forgive him.  Jane Fairfax has also been deceiving everyone, but as Emma says: “If a woman can ever be excused for thinking only of herself, it is in a situation like Jane Fairfax’s” (chapter 46).

Persuasion.  Lies are not at the core of Persuasion.  This book is based on a decision that turned out to be an error – but it was an error, not an act of deception, because everything depended on how the future would turn out.  The term outcome-based morality comes to mind.

Still, lies play a lesser but nevertheless significant role in this lovely book.  Captain Wentworth lies – not in facts and words, but in his behavior.  People assume that he is courting Louisa Musgrove.  But he is not in love with her and his actions are dishonest.  Still, we are ready to forgive him because he realizes what he has been doing.  Mr. Eliot, on the other hand, is more thoroughly dishonest, as is Mrs. Clay – but these characters are not at the novel’s core.

Willingness to believe lies

One of the interesting things we see in Jane Austen’s works is how ready characters are to accept lies as truth.  Often this is because they are hearing what they wish to hear, because they are being flattered – or because the truth is simply too inconvenient – or because they are suffering from confirmation bias, a term that Jane Austen could not have known but which she surely understood.  Confirmation bias happens when we accept only those facts which confirm what we already believe, and mostly ignore any information that disputes it.

Perhaps the best example is how Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice swallows Lieutenant Wickham’s lies about Mr. Darcy.  Not all of her family is so susceptible – Jane, influenced by her own sentiments, does not think Mr. Bingley could be so deceived in his friend.

People who are being flattered are particularly susceptible.  Lady Catherine believes every word of praise that Mr. Collins bestows (well, he seems to believe his words as well, so this may stray into the region of not quite lies).  Sir Walter Elliot eagerly absorbs every sycophantic utterance from Mrs. Clay.  Emma is taken in by Frank Churchill and believes he is in love with her.  Emma convinces Harriet that Mr. Elton loves her.  Austen’s novels show many people suffering from confirmation bias.

Ability to see through lies

Those who are not being flattered are less susceptible, as are those who are more experienced.  Mr. Knightley in one of his original arguments with Emma, points out he is sixteen years her senior and so more likely to judge correctly (and although I wish to defend Emma based on our shared gender, he has a point).   Heck, even Miss Bates picks up on some stuff – such as Mr. Elton’s interest in Emma – more readily than Emma. 

Disliking someone seems to enable clearer vision.  Mr. Knightley, who is jealous of Frank Churchill, suspects him of admiring Jane Fairfax and not Emma (although later concedes he was not impartial).  In Mansfield Park, Fanny, who dislikes Henry Crawford, mistrusts his behavior even when he is courting her.  Many characters need to suffer rude awakenings before they can see through dishonesty in both word and deed. Julia Bertram, after her initial rejection by Crawford, takes pains to avoid him, whereas Maria Bertram Rushworth, to her great unhappiness, does not.  In Sense & Sensibility, only when Marianne has been rejected and nearly died can she see anything like the truth about Willoughby. 

Of course, disliking someone can cloud perceptions too, as happens to Elizabeth with respect to her first impression of Mr. Darcy.

Willingness to expose liars

Exposing liars as liars is not easy today, and in Jane Austen’s day was probably even more difficult.

In Persuasion, Anne’s friend Mrs. Smith knows the truth about the character of Mr. Eliot, but at first does not warn her friend.  Why not?  Because Mrs. Smith has at least three strikes against her: she is a woman alone; she is poor; she is in poor health.  Mrs. Smith also believes that Anne is partial toward her cousin and understands how impossible persuading people can be.  Only when Mrs. Smith discovers that Anne is in love with someone else does she tell Anne the truth about her cousin.

In Mansfield Park, Fanny does not alert her uncle, Sir Thomas, to the serious defects of Mr. Crawford.  Fanny is too shy and retiring to do this, and her uncle has been too intimidating (note that if you are an intimidating sort but want to learn actual truths from people, you may need to alter your manner).  To be just to Fanny, she does attempt to warn her cousin Edmund about Mr. Crawford, but Edmund does not believe her (Edmund’s general perceptiveness oscillates for the convenience of the plot).  As Fanny fails with Edmund, it is no wonder she makes no attempt with Sir Thomas.

Even those with position and power hesitate to use it.  In Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Darcy does not warn the denizens of Meryton about Mr. Wickham’s character.  Much of his hesitation is due to the fact that he does not want to expose his sister.  He also does not care much for the people of Meryton, and senses that they do not care for him, so why should he bother?  Elizabeth and Jane, when they learn the truth about Wickham, also decide not to blacken his character. They discuss it:

Miss Bennet paused a little, and then replied, “Surely there can be no occasion for exposing him so dreadfully.  What is your own opinion?”

“That it ought not to be attempted.  Mr. Darcy has not authorized me to make his communication public.  On the contrary, every particular relative to his sister was meant to be kept as much as possible to myself; and if I endeavor to undeceive people as to the rest of his [Wickham’s] conduct, who will believe me?  The general prejudice against Mr. Darcy is so violent, that it would be the death of half the good people in Meryton to attempt to place him in an amiable light.  I am not equal to it.  Wickham will soon be gone; and therefore it will not signify to anybody here what he really is” (chapter 40).

Does Jane Austen punish her liars?

Not really.  In fact, many, such as Lucy Steele and Frank Churchill, do very well. 

Still, although many readers relent towards Frank Churchill, we no longer esteem him the way we do Mr. Knightley.  When Emma learns what Frank has done (certainly the name frank seems a joke), she bursts out with: “Impropriety! Oh!  Mrs. Weston, it is too calm a censure.  Much, much beyond impropriety!  It has sunk him – I cannot say how it has sunk him in my opinion.  So unlike what a man should be!  None of that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life” (ch 61).  Yet Frank Churchill is the child of good fortune, and everyone is ready to forgive him.

Some characters do suffer for their deceit; in particular, Maria Bertram Rushworth is ruined.  Yet who did Maria lie to, besides her father?  She lied to herself, convincing herself that she did wish to marry Mr. Rushworth, even though it was clear she despised him.  Marianne Dashwood, on the other hand, is always earnestly honest, and even though she is young and foolish in most of Sense & Sensibility, she ends up married to Colonel Brandon and we are told she learns to love him.  Mary Crawford, who has no high regard for the truth in general, discovers she prefers men of integrity but cannot find one.  Instead of marrying, she ends up living with her sister Mrs. Grant after the death of Dr. Grant.  Although this is supposed to be a punishment, I wonder how severe a punishment this really was, as by all accounts Jane Austen lived rather contentedly with her sister.  Surely, if one is not destitute – and Mary Crawford, with a fortune of 20,000£, should have had 1,000£ per annum – no marriage is preferable to a bad one.


I was inspired to review the subject of deception in Jane Austen’s novels because I have been struck by the incessant lying of some of our politicians these days -- and how readily these lies are accepted by so many today, even when these falsehoods defy logic or mountains of evidence.  On the other hand, recently I was nearly conned out of some money myself, so I have sympathy for those who are fooled for falsehoods.

Jane Austen moralizes some, certainly upholding truth and goodness, and sympathizing with the characters with these traits – but her novels show that she clearly understands lies and liars and those of us who believe them.  Her skill in portraying these lies – her ability to use falsehood to propel plots instead of relying on more dramatic devices – is just more evidence that she was a keen observer of the people around her, as well as one of the most capable storytellers of all time.

1 comment:

Christina Boyd said...

Great piece! I think Austen cleverly used these characters to add color and build depth to her plots. None of us want to be in smooth waters all the time. At least not in our fiction.