Six Degrees of Association

Six Degrees of Association

Did Jane Austen pull it off? It’s a close enough call that those seemingly implausible coincidences that make the story work do trouble some readers of her novels. In some ways, it feels a bit like she cheated, waving her authorial wand to create the literary equivalent of divine intervention. These things typically fall into one of two broad categories: Convenient Connections and Perfect Timing.

Authors do, of course, have artistic license to play around with these things, but they do so at some peril. When it’s overdone, there is the potential for readers to resist — threatening the suspension of disbelief and casting suspicion on the entire story. The plots in Austen’s novels are tight, but they do rely on the reader accepting some rather unlikely events unfolding with breathtaking precision.

Consider these examples. In Pride and Prejudice, what are the odds that Mr. Bennet’s heir would just happen to be serving under the patronage of Mr. Darcy’s aunt?  What about Mrs. Gardiner’s youth having been spent in a village so near to Pemberley? How about Darcy’s nemesis, Mr. Wickham, just happening to join the militia regiment quartered in Meryton? Austen moves her players around like pawns on a chessboard. In what I consider the most spectacular and beloved moment of perfect timing in Austen’s novels, Mr. Darcy just happens to arrive at Pemberley unexpectedly, while Elizabeth just happens to be standing twenty yards away from where he enters on the road.

Meeting at Pemberley_Resized
Serendipity can be awkward at times

Persuasion starts off with the big bang of connection coincidences. Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot is forced to retrench and just happens to lease Kellynch Hall to Captain Wentworth’s sister’s husband without realizing that they are related to the very man Anne had been persuaded against years before. There is also an otherwise insignificant character of Mrs. Smith, whom Anne met at school. Mrs. Smith, through her husband, has also been closely acquainted with the heir apparent of Kellynch, one Mr. William Elliot. Thanks in large part to gossip reaching the ears of her landlady’s sister Nurse Rooke; Mrs. Smith is able to (somewhat belatedly and obscurely) inform Anne about the darker side of Mr. Elliot’s character.

Sense and Sensibility brings us Miss Lucy Steele. She is the linchpin of Elinor’s story, and her dual connections to the Dashwoods are strange and surprising. Not only is she secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars, but also happens to be related to Mrs. Jennings, which gets her invited to Barton Cottage where she proceeds to confide the secret that will torment Elinor through most of the story.

There are certainly more examples, but I do have a point to make, which is that these kinds of things do happen, and the coincidences aren’t all as far-fetched as they may seem. Some have referred to this as “The small-world phenomena.” A few examples from my own experience:

When I first met my husband, our interaction was brief, but I was smitten. So much so that I carried on at length about him to a friend who was quick to point out that we hadn’t even been on a date and that I knew very little about him. The next day, I visited my friend’s church, which was twelve miles away from where I lived. Once we took our seats in the chapel, who should walk in and park his handsome self next to me on the pew? It was Adam—the very man I had shamelessly enthused about the night before. I must have looked something like a sitcom character elbowing my friend on the left to get her to peek surreptitiously at the dude on my right whilst discreetly (I hoped) signaling her that that was HIM. It turns out that he was also visiting the same church out of hundreds in the city that day with a co-worker. That fated “coincidence” changed the course of my life, but if I wrote it as the “cute meet” in a romance novel, it would seem contrived.

My daughter was on a church mission, serving in Minsk, Belarus. They didn’t go to Moscow for meetings frequently, but on the rare occasions when they did, they would take advantage of the opportunity to sightsee. She was doing just that in Red Square when there was a moment of recognition and delight as she encountered an acquaintance who was in Russia to teach English. She was in a large tourist attraction in an enormous city over 5,000 miles from home and happened to run into someone she knew. Crazy, huh?

Janett Red Square Meeting_Resized
Chance meeting in Red Square, Moscow. My daughter is first on the left, with her friend beside her

When I think about it, those coincidences in Austen’s novels aren’t such a stretch after all. I think she pulled it off masterfully. What do you think? What is your favorite literary (or real-life) coincidence?

33 Responses to Six Degrees of Association

    • Funny – I was thinking about this post just today in a writing class. The presenter was pointing out the perils of coincidence as a plot device. Glad you enjoyed it, Vee.

  1. Such a happy and uplifting post, Diana, and so intriguing too. Loved the coincidences in Austen, happy or otherwise, and the story of how you met your husband is so sweet and incredible and so much more treasured for it, I bet. Thanks for sharing it with us 🙂

    • Thank you, Joana. The story I shared was an abbreviated telling, as there were so many coincidences in a series that I do believe that there had to be some sort of alignment of the planets going on. He used to tell me that he had bribed one of the fates to just make sure we met, and he’d take it from there.

  2. I think she did a bang on job. 3 such ‘coincidences’ happened to me in Germany. I live in the US. Here are 2. I made friends with 2 girls when visiting my grandparents. The father of one of the girls was a friend of my mother’s. Not so big but the send is pretty fun. Her father was also a friend of my mother’s. When my grandfather died I found out she was related to me because her grandfather was a cousin of hwe grandmother:s. At this point we had been friends for over a decade

    Another time I was walking with another cousin in another town where he lived. These kids were teasing him saying I was his girl friend. He told me to stay put and spoke to them. The next day we went to another family member’s house and that group of teens were there. They were ALL our cousins. The shocked look on their faces was priceless…mine must’ve looked the same.

    Please forgive any spelling/grammatical errors, my mobile device has a mind of its own.

  3. I run into this a lot while writing retellings. It’s very hard to recreate her books in modern times without running into the problem of improbable coincidences. Here’s another one in Persuasion: Sir William Elliot just happens to stay at the same Inn as Anne and her friends.

    • That’s a good one! We never did learn just exactly why he was there in Lyme, either. I’ve heard it speculated that he was stalking her, but I don’t think that’s right either. It reminds me a bit of the time I was in the gate at an out of state airport and ran into the girl who lived next door to me when I was a teenager. She was on the same flight as I was, but it was not going to her final destination. It wasn’t a holiday weekend, or anything that might explain it. It was pure coincidence. We were able to chat for awhile and catch up, but I’ve never seen her in person since, although we did find each other on FaceBook a while back.

  4. Thanks for a thought provoking and fun blog. I agree with Jennifer. We each experience some of both coincidence and divine intervention in our lives. In my opinion, then, Elizabeth and Darcy would be affected by both phenomenon. I don’t question the means by which JA brought her protagonists together. It works for me.

  5. I greatly enjoyed this thought-provoking blog. In fact, this is the third time I’ve tried to post a comment. The first time, I made a very perspicacious (in my opinion) comment about coincidence and divine intervention, agreeing with Jennifer’s comment. Strangely, whether due to coincidence or divine intervention, the comment did not post. Since I didn’t know which influence it was, I chose not to reiterate my first comments and said something fairly generic, agreeing with Jennifer. Unfortunately, that time, I forgot to put in my email address, so it did not post. Obviously, that failure was not due to coincidence or divine intervention, but to my own error.

    Will it be a coincidence if all three comments suddenly appear on this blog?

    Thank you for a fun and interesting article.

  6. I loved this thought provoking blog. In fact, I posted a comment earlier about coincidence and divine intervention, agreeing with Jennifer’s comment. For some reason (whether it be coincidence or divine intervention), my comments did not post. Since I’m not sure which, at this point, I choose not to reiterate my previous comments and will just say, thank you, Diana, for an interesting and entertaining blog, and thank you to all for your comments.

  7. I love how Austen brings all the ‘parts’ together, especially Collins being Lady Catherine’s vicar. 🙂 I can think of one coincidence. I had gone to work for an insurance agent and he was always talking about his neighbor “Susie” and how nice she was. His wife came to take me to the bank to show me the ropes and when we were walking back to the office, we ran into Susie. She has a very familiar ‘rough’ voice, for lack of a better explanation and I recognized right away that she was a cousin of my father. I never had much contact with his family and had only met her once as a small child. Small world. 🙂

  8. Diana,

    Apropos the staggering coincidences at the heart of P&P, the following is an excerpt from a post I wrote a couple of years ago in my blog here…
    ….after I made the suggestion that, in the shadow story of P&P, Eliza Bennet is actually the illegitimate daughter of the late Mr. Darcy, and my friend Diane Reynolds responded as follows:

    Diane wrote: “Arnie, I find it fascinating to think of Elizabeth as an illegitimate Darcy farmed out to the Bennets…”

    Yes, I find it fascinating too, but the best part of it, I think, is that, in one fell swoop, it provides a naturalistic, plausible, even probable explanation for why these three young men who are all connected to each other (Darcy, Wickham, and Mr. Collins) converge on Meryton—all three appearing, as it were, out of the mist like mythical creatures sprung to life at the whim of a god—who are, each in their own way, zeroed in on Elizabeth Bennet. And then we have a fourth person, Mrs. Gardiner, who is so strongly connected to both Darcy and Wickham from the past, who ends up playing a critical role in bringing Darcy and Lizzy together.

    It reminds me of the movie /Love Potion No. 9/…..
    …in which the central conceit is that imbibing even a drop of the gypsy’s potent love potion makes a person irresistible to members of the opposite sex, just by speaking.

    And in a climactic moment, the villainess of the story cluelessly swallows a whole mouthful of the stuff, as a result of which she winds up being pursued…

    [go to exactly 1:24:38 on this YouTube video of the entire film, and watch the next 5 minutes or so]
    …by about 200 men like lemmings racing after her!

    That’s an extreme exaggeration of what I see happening in P&P, utterly beyond Elizabeth’s awareness. From her point of view, she never once questions these coincidences, and so, neither do 99 readers of P&P out of 100.

    Now, either this colossal coincidence is the hackwork of an unimaginative novelist who could not find a better way of moving her story forward, or….it’s the genius-level inspiration of a master novelist who realized she could pull off not one but two amazing authorial stunts in the same breath:

    To so cleverly weave that quadruple coincidence into her story that not one reader in a hundred even notices the extent of that quadruple coincidence, and those that do notice don’t mind, because the plot hurtles forward in such a complex yet seamlessly coordinated fashion, like one of those flabbergasting domino arrangements people create nowadays….


    To so entrance her readers with the overt or apparent story, that they don’t realize that there’s an entire alternative story poking its head out of a few hundred wormholes scattered through the novel, and the heart of that alternative story is that it’s no coincidence at all, because each of those three suitors, as well as Mrs. Gardiner, are all aware of what Lizzy is clueless about, i.e., that she is an heiress about to inherit. In its own way, what JA has done is more flabbergasting than even the domino arrangement I linked to, above. It’s as if there was a second domino arrangement behind a curtain where those same 128,000 dominos are run through a different sequence at the same time!

    • Arnie, I enjoy reading your shadow story theories, and I can even see some of the references in the book that led to this particular construct, but I can’t agree with your conclusion. Incest is a serious taboo in every culture, and Austen, being a minister’s daughter would have been well-versed in the evils of such a match. She would not condone it, much less write it. Also, it would be very rare, if not unheard of for an illegitimate child to inherit. Illegitimate children had no standing, even when they were acknowledged. To claim that Lizzy was an heiress about to inherit would make a great JAFF story (and has, a number of times) but not as JA wrote it. Such contrivances, as you pointed out, are common in modern historical novels, but I believe it’s overreach to claim it’s there in Pride and Prejudice.

      • Thank you for your considered reply, Diana–I am well aware that the idea of Lizzy as a Darcy is a very far stretch–even if you don’t go that far, there is a midway interpretation, which is that it is not a coincidence that Darcy, Wickham, Collins, and Mrs.Gardiner all appear in Meryton in a very short period of time, but that, offstage, one or more of them is FOLLOWING one or more of the others.

        That doesn’t require buying into my Darcy illegitimacy theory, it merely takes a preposterous QUADRUPLE coincidence (which is a hundred times less likely to occur than the SINGLE coincidence of your daughter meeting her friend in Europe) and gives one simple explanation, which is that the narrator is not telling the reader what Eliza doesn’t know. In real life, none of us has a narrator perched on our shoulder telling us why other people we meet do what they do.

  9. I love the thought of connections. There is someone out there who needs what you have to give and visa versa. One cannot predict the why or the where, but being a religious person, I feel like God always has a plan.

    • When you understand how critical connections of any sort are in that era, especially family connections, it illustrates how loaded some of Austen’s intertwining of characters really is. As for real-life, I too believe that God often has a hand in these things. When I was talking with my daughter about her experience, she said that the other girl knew that she was in Russia and had really hoped to run into her. My daughter believes that the coincidence occurred because of her friend’s faith.

  10. I met a lovely lady at a networking function for work. We agreed to meet for coffee and she texted me to make sure that it was okay if she brought her goddaughter. I was very surprised to get there and find out that said goddaughter is the youngest child of her college roommate and one of my very close friends from childhood. We joke now about how shocked she was when said munchkin took off running in Panera to give “Auntie Steph” a hug. I think I’ve posted before about meeting someone and finding out that she was dating the ex-husband of one of my very close friends and having to decide how to delicately skirt THAT. LOL The “coincidences” for me are just that. It’s amazing to me how intertwined we all are NOW, much less 200 hundred years ago in the tiny bit of real estate that is England.

  11. Diana, your story is pretty good! Your daughter’s story does happen. Now if ~you~ had happened to originally meet your husband in Minsk and then the church thing had happened at home, ~that~ would have been contrived!
    What I always find difficult to swallow when reading, is when E&D coincidentally meet in some highly populated place like NYC, and then, for some reason, happen to be in some other highly populated place like Chicago, and keep bumping into each other. Or perhaps instead of Chicago, they end up in a not so highly populated place but unlikely for both of them to have any reason to be there at the same time, such as a tiny burg in Kansas.
    However, for Jane Austen’s books, I believe her coincidences are a little easier to accept, as long as one keeps a few things in mind: England is a small place. There were fewer people back then, and at least half of those people (servants and lower classes) wouldn’t have been moving around where E&D did, so the chances of running into someone were higher.

    • Ginna, I whittled the story of how I met my husband down to the bare bones for this post – it actually involves so many coincidences that came in a series that it’s almost confusing to tell. You’re so right about the circumstances of Austen’s time period being very different from our day. If it had all happened in one county it would have seemed less of a stretch but Hertfordshire, Kent, London, and Derbyshire are all fairly far afield from each other. I’ve often wondered what made Bingley pick Hertfordshire in the first place.

  12. My small world phenomena involved people meeting in Germany, Central America and culminated at a university in middle America. Suffice it to say, there are too many links to try to describe here, but it makes all of the “coincidences” in P&P completely believable for me.

    • I love that you’ve had “too many” to describe here. I wonder if it happens to some people more than others? Do you think that if you know more people, the statistical odds of it happening go up?

      • I would think the odds would go up if you know more people, but I can say my own “small world” episodes came down to being aware enough to ask the right question of the right people at the right place and time. I would bet if people stopped walking through life with their blinders on, more people would see the connections to those around them.

        • You may well be right. My dad was an outgoing guy and loved striking up conversations with strangers. It was rare that he didn’t find some connection to them. Once he met a man who was a descendant of the brother of one of my great-great (not sure how many greats) grandmothers. Apparently, her family didn’t approve of the marriage, and the resentment over that marriage is still the talk of that family!

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