This month, I undertook a serious study of kissing in Jane Austen’s books. Though I’ve read all her books multiple times, I was surprised at what I discovered. The kisses aren’t at all the same as in the movies. For example, I might ask, “Who gets to kiss Elizabeth Bennet at the end of Pride and Prejudice?” Most people would respond, “Mister Darcy.” Only a few would give the correct answer: “Captain Wickham.” After he marries Lydia and comes to visit the Bennet house, Elizabeth allows Wickham to kiss her hand (Yuck!) Mister Darcy receives no such privilege.
Here’s another question: Who gets to kiss Elinor’s hand in Sense and Sensibility? You might be surprised—as I was—to learn that it is Colonel Brandon. He kisses Elinor’s hand in gratitude after she listens to the story of his past love.
I found over twenty kisses in Austen’s books.Here’s a summary:
There are over five kisses in Sense and Sensibility:
Willoughby kisses a lock of Marianne’s hair. (Chapter 12)
Lady Middleton kisses her daughter Annamaria. (Chapter 21)
Elinor kisses Marianne as she grieves over Willoughby’s rejection. (Chapter 29)
Col. Brandon kisses Elinor’s hand in gratitude. (Chapter 31)
Marianne gives Elinor a kiss of gratitude. (Chapter 46)
Pride and Prejudice features at least four kisses:
Elizabeth kisses her little Gardiner cousins. (Chapter 47)
Mr. Wickham kisses Elizabeth’s hand after he is married to Lydia. (Chapter 52)
Jane kisses Mr. Bennet after her engagement. (Chapter 55)
There are eight kisses in Mansfield Park:
Sir Thomas kisses little Fanny affectionately. (Chapter 19)
William (Fanny’s brother) kisses Fanny goodbye. (Chapter 29)
Fanny kisses Sir Thomas’s hand with struggling sobs. (Chapter 37)
Fanny’s brother kisses Fanny to welcome her home. (Chapter 38)
Mrs. Price kisses Fanny to welcome her home. (Chapter 38)
Fanny kisses brothers Tom and Charles very tenderly. (Chapter 38)
Lady Bertram kisses Fanny’s sister Susan to welcome her. (Chapter 47)
Emma contains two kisses:
Harriet kisses Emma’s hand in gratitude. (Chapter 4)
Mrs. Weston kisses Emma after they discover Frank Churchill’s deception. (Chapter 10)
Northanger Abbey has no kissing.
There is one kiss in Persuasion:
Sir Archibald Drew kisses his hand to Anne as she walks with her father. (Chapter 18)
Unless you count Willoughby kissing a lock of Marianne’s hair or Mr. Knightley almost kissing Emma’s hand, no lovers kiss in any of Jane’s books. Some have speculated about this, suggesting that Jane Austen shied away from writing what she had not experienced. Whatever her reasons, it’s clear that she mostly used kisses to show gratitude or to demonstrate love between family members.
With this in mind, I’d like to suggest an alternative interpretation of Mr. Knightley’s failed attempt to kiss Emma’s hand. In the past I have always considered this almost-kiss as a sign of his growing passion for Emma. But, judging from her other books, Jane Austen probably saw a kiss on the hand as a sign of brotherly affection. In Regency times, people did not speak in terms of being in-laws. Once a person married into the family, they became family. Because their siblings are married, Emma considers Mr. Knightley to be like her brother. However, as her feelings progress, she changes her mind about their relationship. At the ball, she teasingly asks Mr. Knightley to ask her to dance: “you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”
He replies, “Brother and sister! No, indeed.”
Thus ends chapter thirty-eight.
Perhaps the almost-kiss later on is yet another sign that Mr. Knightley no longer sees Emma as a little sister. To me, this explanation fits the pattern of family kissing in Austen’s other books. What do you think?
Despite her reputation as a romance writer, Jane Austen certainly didn’t write kissing books. What she did is something much more ingenious. She wrote in a way that brought her characters to life. Her descriptions and characterizations are so detailed that we imagine the kisses for ourselves. When I see Darcy and Elizabeth kissing at the end of a movie, I think it’s the most natural thing in the world.