Of Austen and Autism

Of Austen and Autism

These days it seems like you hear about autism everywhere, and that includes in the world of Jane Austen. Some people say that Fitzwilliam Darcy, our aloof and haughty hero, typifies the isolation and lack of social graces that are the hallmarks of autism. In this, my first blog post on Austen Authors, I thought it would be interesting to take a deeper look at this question.

My own interest in the topic stems from having a child firmly on the autism spectrum, and from having several other close family members with Asperger’s syndrome (a milder form of autism). I live, eat and breathe autism every day. In fact, my writing career started in part as a response to the stress of having to deal with securing services for our daughter as she makes her transition from a school setting to an adult with autism. If it weren’t for autism and the therapeutic escape of writing Jane Austen fan fiction, I wouldn’t be posting on this blog today.

Darcy, we are told, is insensitive to the feelings of others, especially those who are his social inferiors. He’s haughty. He’s arrogant and more than a little proud of himself. He sits out dances if the mood takes him, rejecting the social requirements of the day. He feels free to meddle in the lives of others. More than that, he seems utterly oblivious to the effect he has on other people. Few men, for instance, would dream of insulting the woman they love even while they ask for their hand in marriage. In short, Darcy seems to live in his own insulated, hyper-rich, snobby world, unable to properly relate to those around him. In fact, he’s not all that different from the character of Sheldon (often described as autistic) on the Big Bang Theory.

sheldon

But take a closer look. Darcy’s actions are all about choices. He doesn’t sit out dances because he doesn’t understand the social rules; he sits them out because he does understand them, and he prefers not to interact with those he views as inferiors. He readily comprehends the various kinds of social gaffes committed by Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bennet, the younger Bennet daughters, and even Caroline Bingley, and he has no problem using both verbal and non-verbal means to communicate his own feelings about them. His interactions with Elizabeth, on and off the dance floor, are both sophisticated and subtle. None of these are characteristics of somebody on the autism spectrum.

dance

This is not a person with a social or communication disorder.

Most importantly, Darcy is able to overcome his character flaws because of his love for Elizabeth, not because he suddenly overcomes a disability. He doesn’t need help to understand how badly he has treated those around him—he needs someone in his life who makes him want to try to do better, and that person is the one woman who will not accept him until he does. Elizabeth (and we readers) fall in love with Darcy not because he can’t help himself, but precisely because he can.

So no, I don’t think you can make a strong case for Darcy having autism.

But if you want to make a case for this guy having a social and communication disability

I won’t argue with you.

Here are a couple of links in case you want to read more about the debate over Darcy being on the autism spectrum:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1547881/Why-Mr-Darcy-was-the-strong-but-silent-type.html

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2007/apr/04/dontdiagnosefictionalcharac

 

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68 Responses to Of Austen and Autism

  1. My son was recently diagnosed with Autism. My daughter is getting tested in June. I can definitely see Collins as being on the spectrum! Loved this post!

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