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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  • Michelle Williams

    I think the reason that Fanny Price doesn’t have a dark double is because the entire novel centers around the fact that she’s singled out. She’s poor and socially inferior to everyone else so having a double would undermine that position that Jane created for her. This position allows Mrs. Norris and the Miss Bertrams to look down upon her and we wouldn’t have as much sympathy for Fanny if someone else was in a similar situation as her.

  • Robin

    It’s wonderful to hear from a Fanny Price fan, Michelle. As I understand doubles, they work as metaphors for an interior conflict, and Fanny seems to be the one Jane Austen heroine who is not conflicted. She is not like Elizabeth Bennet who must learn to be less prejudiced or Elinor who must become more feeling or Marianne who must become more sensible or Emma who must learn to stop trying to control others. Fanny’s pressures seem to all come from the outside, and although standing up to them goes against her grain, she does so.

    But come to think of it, maybe Mary is a kind of double in that she is always so confident that she is right whereas Fanny lacks such a belief. In the end, however, Mary’s easy self-assurance condemns her to a shallow existence, even though she (like Henry) once had a glimpse of something more. Had Fanny succumbed to prevailing social prejudices as Mary does, she would have married Henry rather than holding on to deep principles, which in the lead to her uniting with her true soul mate. (Austen hints that Henry could have become that soul mate had he really reformed.) In this regard, Henry could also be seen as Edmund’s double, a shallow path Edmund could have taken. At stake in both instances is a shallow union vs. a soulful one. Fanny and Edmund end up taking the road less traveled in Regency England.

  • Jean Sonntag

    Emma has always been my favorite Austen novel for the very reasons you cite. Add to it the narrative complexity of an almost Jamesian unreliable narrator and you have a real treat. I once had an adult friend who literally lost sleep because she saw herself going down the same path as the one Emma finally avoids. I was also lucky enough to study under Alistair Duckworth when he was at UVa years ago, a truly inspiring teacher. I’m about to teach Pride and Prejudice at Howard Community College, so was glad to see your post.

  • Robin

    How wonderful that you got to study with Duckworth, whose book on Austen I’ve always admired, Jean. It’s interesting that you mention the unreliability of the narrator because, after all the years, I’ve just started paying attention to it. I’ve been having my class read scenes aloud and in the midst of one of the scenes, I realized just how much the narrator is messing with us. Rather dazzling.

    I love the way that Austen sets us up to feel superior to Emma and then captures us in our smugness. The best readers, perhaps like your friend, realize that they aren’t exempt from her withering wit. (They achieve the wisdom of Elizabeth Bennet, who realizes that sometimes we become self blind in our determination to be witty.) While Austen is not as overtly savage as Jonathan Swift, who would start spewing satiric ink the instant he encountered examples of human pride, she can be just as devastating.

  • Jean Sonntag

    Robin, the irony was that duckworth did not get tenure at UVa in the early 70’s when i was there. Was just lucky to catch him in a grad course on 19th century novel before he left. What a loss for them. I agree with you on austen’s wit and satire. Students seem to often miss this in her. They can’t miss it in swift, although i did have a student who actually got physically ill once after reading Modest Proposal and taking it seriously! I enjoy reading your blog. Came to it through betsy and darien; we’ve been friends with the Spies for over 30 years. After a break in my college teaching career for gov. service, i’ve enjoyed returning to it at hcc since i retired in 1998.

  • Robin

    I’d heard that Duckworth didn’t get tenure at UVa, despite having written a book (and now, I learn, being inspirational). Was this when Fredson Bowers was purging the department (or so the rumor was) in an attempt to become #1? My colleague Bruce Wilson might have been at UVa when you were there.

  • Jean Sonntag

    I was there in 71-72, received permission to proceed for the doctorate after the masters, but didn’t have the money or the stamina at that point to go on, so began teaching at millersville university until the government called. Bowers was already an institution when i was there, so don’t know if the move on duckworth was part of his grab for power. Was lucky enough to have some amazing teachers at that point, including Martin Battestin for 18th century, Robert Kellogg for a medieval renaissance course, and Houston Baker for african american novels during his brief tenure there. I actually avoided bowers because, much as i would have liked a Shakespeare course, his textual criticism bent meant he spent one whole semester on Hamlet! I believe duckworth left to go to Florida in 72/73. I know the graduate students were really upset by the lack of tenure.

  • heteroclitejumble

    Author – Emma ? 🙂

    To ply a question like that threatens a violation of my aesthetic principles but still it is a charming quiet thought I’ve got. Errant perceptiveness … One that damages, in lacking – (a) love, altruistic (b) omniscience


  • heteroclitejumble

    Nabokov is pretty delighted in doubles. Clare Quilty but there’s also the whole novel Despair, a section I will paste here for yalls interest, when I get to my study


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