“They all paint tables, cover skreens, and net purses.
I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady
spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”
Pride and Prejudice
Early in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet is staying at Netherfield in order
to attend her sick sister Jane, she takes part in a discussion of “accomplished women.” Mr.
Darcy says he doesn’t know more than six who are “really accomplished,” and Miss Bingley
agrees that she doesn’t either:
“Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished
“Yes; I do comprehend a great deal in it.”
“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished,
who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with.
A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern
languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in
her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the
word will be but half deserved.”
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more
substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley seem to be getting their ideas of accomplished women not from real
life but from literature. The paragons they describe can be found in abundance in the
eighteenth-century novels Jane Austen read—and then satirized in so much of her early
fiction. In this scene Elizabeth Bennet voices her creator’s skepticism about the existence of such
women in life as well as in fiction: “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only
six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any. . . . I never saw
such a woman, I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as
you describe, united.” Once Austen goes from mocking the ideal of a heroine to creating realistic
ones, she no longer endows her heroines with superhuman talents.
As we’ve seen, Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse are only middling musical performers.
While the extraordinary talents of wonderfully gifted heroines like Laura from Love and
Freindship need no rational explanation—natural genius alone could account for the way
such heroines quickly and inevitably surpass their instructors in every subject—Austen’s
realistic portrayals contain such explanations. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth,
sitting at the piano, says, “”My fingers . . . do not move over this instrument in the masterly
manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not
produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because
I would not take the trouble of practising.” How prosaically unheroic, to require practice in
order to excel!
Emma Woodhouse also knows that while some amount of the difference between her playing and
singing and Jane Fairfax’s might be the result of Jane’s natural talent, most of her musical
inferiority can readily be explained by “the idleness of her childhood”—she did not practice.
And Emma fails to excel in another of Miss Bingley’s requirements, drawing, because, again,
“steadiness had always been wanting.” As Mr. Knightley said, “She will never submit to
any thing requiring industry and patience . . .,” and every item on the list of accomplishments
Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, whom Austen describes in
relentlessly “anti-heroic” terms, overshoots this middle ground of accomplishment and goes
all the way to the unaccomplished extreme. She could not bear taking piano lessons and gave
them up after one year, and “she had no notion of drawing.” She also shirked her French
lessons. It’s unfortunate that with such propensities, like almost all real women, and like
almost no literary heroines before her, she “never could learn or understand any thing before
she was taught; and sometimes not even then. . . .”
Jane Austen herself was what we would certainly consider accomplished, although she was too
modest about her singing and playing to consider herself so. Her brother Henry said she also
drew well. She knew French and at least some Italian. She certainly fulfilled Mr. Darcy’s
requirement that a woman improve her mind “by extensive reading.” And there seems to be one
accomplishment that Jane Austen’s heroines found the time to excel in, and in that they
mirror their creator—and that, of course, is dancing.
From 101 Things You Didn’t Know about Jane Austen by
Patrice Hannon, Ph.D., Copyright © 2007, F+W Media, Inc. Used by
permission of Adams Media, an F+W Media, Inc. Co. All rights reserved.
Dr. Hannon is also the author of Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love. She has recently completed a Jane Austen-inspired novel, thereby
completing her personal Triple Crown. She hopes to have news about its
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