A Tale of Two Janes

A Tale of Two Janes


Recently I was re-reading Emma and was struck by the character of Jane Fairfax—how she is held up as this example of feminine virtue and accomplishment, but still remains a mystery. I was trying to think of comparable characters in Austen’s other novels and I hit upon another Jane: Jane Bennet. Like Jane Fairfax, Jane Bennet is described as beautiful, well-spoken, and amiable. The two Janes also share a certain inscrutability; other characters frequently have difficulty discerning their true feelings.

Both Janes also serve as foils for the main characters of their books. Jane Fairfax is held up as an example of all the feminine virtue that everyone believes Emma cannot achieve—including Emma herself. Jane is endlessly patient and kind, far more accomplished at the pianoforte, and well-educated. Emma actually admits to herself that jealousy prevents her from becoming better friends with Jane. Similarly, Jane Bennet contrasts with Elizabeth. She is patient and kind—and tends to think well of everyone. She is not prone to the kind of emotional outbursts Elizabeth displays during the proposal scene at Hunsford.

Interestingly, both Janes suffer because of their mild natures. Jane Fairfax allows herself to be talked into a secret engagement and then must suffer from the secrecy. It torments her so much that she actually falls ill. Jane Bennet loses Mr. Bingley in part because his friends do not believe she is really in love. P&P makes it clear that Jane suffers greatly, although she tries to hide her pain from her family. Austen seems to admire such characters, but she also sees the problems inherent in being too good and too passive.

Of course, there is a third Jane in the equation: Jane Austen. What are we to make of the fact that she gave her own name to these two exemplars of feminine virtue? It could simply be a convenience. After all, there are also a number of characters named Anne and Mary throughout her books. But so many of Austen’s other choices are deliberate, it’s hard to believe that one is random. It could be that Jane Austen saw herself in these two Janes, but her letters suggest that sees herself as witty and flawed. In other words, she more clearly resembles Elizabeth and Emma than either Jane.

It’s impossible to think of the name Jane without thinking of the phrase “plain Jane,” and perhaps Austen held something of that view about the name. Her female protagonists often have longer or fancier names: Elinor, Marianne, Catherine, Fanny, Elizabeth, Emma. Perhaps she was contrasting these flawed but fascinating figures with the more perfect but also more generic Janes. It is certainly true that Austen’s heroines go on more interesting journeys than their Jane colleagues.

7 Responses to A Tale of Two Janes

  1. This old post has been revived on social networks and I cannot help to add another Jane in the stew: Jane Watson, from The Watsons, who by all counts would not be a perfection model, but closer to Fanny Dashwood.

  2. Victoria, I have had an answer to that question for nearly a decade, and if you’re not averse to hearing one of my “shadow story” interpretations of Austen’s novels, I’d be happy to share my answer with you. 😉

  3. I have wondered this too, and I don’t believe Austen made any random choices in her writing. My theory is that she gave these characters (who are quite similar to each other) her own name because she felt pressured by (society? her family?) to be like them, in the traditional ways of “accomplished young women,” which she knew she was not. She had them suffer for awhile, even though they were “good” and seemingly “did everything right” because she did not believe good people always came to good ends, although she had them find happiness in the end. I also wondered if she modeled “the Janes” on Cassandra. I wonder if she hoped she would find happiness in the end, and if she redefined that happiness. I also wonder what “end” she would have created for Caroline Bingley!

    • What an interesting theory! I agree that Austen would have seen herself as more of an Elizabeth or an Emma than a Jane Faifax or Bennet. The question is to what extent did she embrace that part of her nature?

  4. I’ve always wondered what it says about Jane Austen that she named those two characters Jane, but I’ve never come to a conclusion that seems ‘right.’ As you said, it’s her name, yet she seems more like Elizabeth than Jane. Could Jane Austen have wished she were more like the Jane’s she conjured up and made real on the page? That said, as you also pointed out, she made them suffer for being too good. Not eternally, though 🙂

    • Hi Summer, I agree that it’s a bit of a conundrum. I don’t think she sees herself that way, but I’m not sure if she wanted to be a feminine paragon either.

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