Dark Doubles in Jane Austen

Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton

Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton

My Jane Austen seminar has been thoroughly enjoying Emma. Yesterday, as we talked about how Mrs. Elton functions as Emma’s dark double, I came to understand why Emma has become my favorite Austen novel.

Before we launched into all the ways that the rector’s wife is Emma’s shadow side, I asked the class whether they could identify doubles in previous Austen novels. For a character to function as a double, I said that he or she must represent a dark direction that the character could go. We identified doubles for all the heroines except Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Here they are:

Catherine Morland – Isabella Thorpe
Elinor Dashwood – Lucy Steele
Marianne Dashwood – Eliza (Col. Brandon’s ward)
Elizabeth Bennet – Caroline Bingley
Emma Woodhouse –Mrs. Elton
Anne Elliot – Louisa Musgrove

Isabella is, as my students call her, the BFF (Best Friend Forever) who threatens to lead Catherine astray. Luckily a combination of sound moral principles and mature guidance (from Henry Tilney) saves Catherine from Isabella’s devious ways. The same principles save Marianne but only barely as her romanticism almost leads her to Eliza’s fate.

With Catherine, Elinor and Elizabeth, the question is how to win the hero without trying to. Trying is considered bad form and turns one into a “scheming little seductress.” To be sure, a major point of dressing up, playing the piano, singing, talking intelligently, etc. is to land a man. (Bingley notes delightedly that all the young ladies are accomplished, not realizing that men like himself are the target of these accomplishments.) But to absolve the three characters from the charge of seduction, there are doubles who are nakedly ambitious. Elinor could not be the heroine if she were as calculating as Lucy Steele. Whereas the latter consciously angles for Edward, Elinor just happens to “draw him in” (as Fanny Dashwood puts it). Likewise, whereas Caroline Bingley practically throws herself at Darcy, Elizabeth attracts him in spite of herself. It is only at Caroline’s suggestion that she parades about the room to be admired by Darcy and only by accident that she ends up at Pemberley at the same time that he is there, an encounter that is critical to their reconciliation. Despite Elizabeth’s early rejection of Darcy, she mostly escapes the charge of gold-digging by being so different from Caroline. When she tells Jane that her opinion of Darcy changed after she saw Pemberley, we assume she’s joking. (At least one Austen scholar, Alistair Duckworth in The Improvement of the Estate, suggests that Elizabeth is serious.)

Austen complicates the issue, however, by having one heroine put too little effort in landing a husband. I’m thinking of Jane here, whom the calculating Charlotte Lucas accurately predicts will lose her man if she doesn’t make more open displays of affection. It’s a thin line, then, that heroines must walk: they must somehow attract men without trying too hard to attract them.

I asked my women students whether they still feel a stigma attached to initiating relationships. Their answers were mixed but more said yes than no. Some traditions die hard.

The fact that Fanny Price doesn’t appear to have a double may be a sign that she is not as interesting a creation as some. I suppose Aunt Norris is one possible fate for her, an ill-tempered dependent, but doubles are usually the same age and in comparable situations as the heroines. The one doubling that my students found in Mansfield Park was Edmund-Henry. Mary is trying to lure Edmund down Henry’s path but he resists. As he is not the dramatic center of the book, however, the doubling doesn’t have as much of an impact.

Mrs. Elton represents a very different kind of double, this one bound up with class issues. Emma is a social snob and reacts badly to Mrs. Elton’s snobbery. Emma directs Harriet’s life and then is appalled at the way that Mrs. Elton wants to control Jane Fairfax. Her insult of Miss Bates at the picnic is not qualitatively different from the way Mrs. Elton sneers at Harriet. As one of my students noted, if Emma finds Mrs. Elton so distasteful, it is because she sees so much of herself in her.

The drama of the book is whether Emma can resist her dark side. In no other Austen novel do we see quite such an internal conflict, making Emma the most interesting character study of all the novels. In the end, fortunately, Emma shows she has more substance than Mrs. Elton by making a heroic sacrifice that the latter would not make: she surrenders Knightley to Harriet, accepting this as a consequence of her meddling in the lives of others. Her reward is to discover that Knightley loves only her. But Emma has had to dig deep to avoid becoming her double.

I suppose Anne Elliot’s double in Persuasion would be Louisa Musgrove. But the character dynamics here aren’t as interesting as they are in Emma.

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