I wrote this short comparison between the characters of Jane Austen in order to prepare for an exam that I was going to take for my “Jane Austen: Later Works” class. I believe the question was about social isolation in the protagonists of the novels Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion with a claim that Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion was the loneliest of them all.
In order to come to the conclusion that Anne Elliot is the most emotionally and socially lonely character of Jane Austen, we must first look at the different ways isolation presents itself among different circumstances and characters. In each novel (Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion for the sake of our discussion), the feeling of isolation is born out of a variety of reasons. It always manages, however, to provide a basis for the actions of characters such as Anne Elliot, Fanny Price or even Emma Woodhouse.
The investigation of the intricate details of human relationship and endeavor in all of these works is built upon the ultimate corner-stone of Jane Austen’s literature: family. The development of each character is irrevocably entwined with their familial structures which they always manage to change or renew in some manner at the end of their stories. Looking through the lens of family also provides an insight to where the initial feeling of isolation comes for Anne and Fanny.
Out of place, unwanted and unaccepted by their families, both of these characters develop a sense of detachment. However, the severity and bleakness of their situations differ. Throughout Mansfield Park, Fanny neither belongs to her birth family nor to the Bertram’s; she is actively abused by Mrs. Norris and to a certain extent by the indifference of Lady Bertram, both of whom are her aunts. Her cousins, except Edmund, seem indifferent and Sir Bertram only starts to pay attention to her when his estate starts to morally crumble into pieces. The same air of indifference and avoidance is also present in the Elliot residence, Kellynch Hall (and later on in Bath), where Anne is considered to be a “nobody.” It must be noted, however, that Fanny’s situation may considered to be more difficult as she also has to deal with a lot of class anxiety and forever endure the scars of an abusive childhood. Being outsiders or nobodies to their own families coats both Fanny and Anne with a layer of loneliness and isolation, the former perhaps having a thicker one than the latter.
The issue of economic stability is perhaps also worth elaborating in the cases of Fanny and Anne as the social implications of economic structures are present both in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Although the Bertrams’ economic position is not as very severely threatened as the Elliots’, the economic powers that create the class systems manage to injure Fanny more. Her birth family’s poorness just creates another aspect in which Fanny can never fully belong to the Bertrams and the worries and preoccupations of a less fortunate life prevents her from fully belonging to her mother and father as well. Anne’s feelings of isolation, however, has less to do with the economic circumstances of her family and more about the way they always choose to value what externally seems to be the most beautiful or grandiose thing, whether it be a house or Sir Elliot’s own children.
The characteristics that I have discussed so far seems to spell out that Fanny is even lonelier than Anne, albeit in different ways. As we open up another channel of discussion and talk about intellectual loneliness, however, we might come to see that the roles are reversed. Much like the theme of family, the question of whether or not one is able to intellectually entertain themselves in the tight communities they travel in is another preoccupation of most Austen novels. This topic also bring us closer to Emma, and helps us see how her story might be intertwined with the other heroines’.
Among Fanny and Anne, Emma’s story seems like it is full of happiness and positivity. Upon closer reading, however, it also reveals secrets about the effects of a somewhat fractured family structure upon the inhabitants of Highbury. Unlike the Bertrams or the Elliots, the Woodhouse family is blessed with financial means and class superiority which admittedly abolishes the anxieties that come with the lack of those circumstances. Nevertheless Emma, a child who has suffered the loss of her mother at a very young age (a characteristic she shares with Anne), is revealed to be utterly intellectually alone. It is true that, unlike Anne or Fanny, she is surrounded by a community that adores and cherishes her. Nevertheless, there is not a single person there (except maybe aside from Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston) to whom she can truly confide in and enjoy the company of.
Emma is alone imaginatively and in that sense, it is interesting to juxtapose her position with Fanny’s. Although Fanny is the character whom we are prepared to see in the worst situations, she also has a resilience and firm beliefs both about herself and the community that surrounds her. Fanny does not crave intellectual or imaginative stimulation as Emma does; one almost gets the sense that she would be perfectly happy among the sacred objects in her room, her infinite introspections about nature, Edmund’s company and a belief that Mansfield Park will not lose its moral core.
Therefore, we are confronted not with a definite sense of who is the loneliest character, the lines are often blurred and complicated by factors other than superficial loneliness. We cannot certainly say that one heroine has it better than the other, because each are tormented by different shades of loneliness that occupy their lives.
Written for the exam of Jane Austen: Later Works – Jun 7, 2016.