I heard of a research organization that had an employee I’ll call Jane.[i] Jane was very quiet and contributed little at meetings, but people wanted her to attend, because often the next day she would come to work with a good idea. Let us assume there was an Elizabeth at the meetings. Elizabeth would come up with good ideas immediately. Both employees were useful. In doing the research, it rarely mattered if the idea came from an Elizabeth or a Jane.
Was Jane Austen a person like Elizabeth Bennet, who had quick answers in a conversation or was she like the employee I called Jane? Did her clever ideas come to her immediately during the situation or did they come later? It is hard to tell. Even if ideas came quickly to her, she may have been too polite to say some of them.
Her letters contain humor, but not the level of wit her novels do. This is not surprising. It is likely that she edited her novels extensively. However, because paper was expensive, her letters were probably a first or possibly a second draft.
We can readily conclude that Jane Austen thought of herself as Jane, even though she lived in and wrote about a society where first names were rarely used. The exception was to distinguish people with the same last name where the proper honorific didn’t distinguish them. Miss Bates and Mrs. Bates could be told apart without a first name, but Mr. John Knightly needed his first name to distinguish him from his brother.
Elizabeth Bennet was Miss Bennet if her older sister wasn’t present. When Jane Bennet was around, it was Miss Elizabeth. Similarly, Jane Austen was Miss Jane for much of her life, since she was frequently with her older sister. She could not forget to respond to her first name.[ii]
Therefore, we know that Jane Austen, fully considering herself a Jane, gave her name to two characters, Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and Jane Fairfax from Emma. Both characters were good people. Neither one grabbed one’s attention, yet both were pivotal to the plot arcs of the primary characters. In naming two secondary characters Jane, Miss Austen may have wished to have the goodness of Jane Bennet and the talent of Jane Fairfax. Possibly, she wanted the beauty of either of them. But I also think that Jane Austen was telling us that she was more of a Jane than an Elizabeth. I think her ideas were not quick comebacks. They did not come spontaneously, but after some thought.
Because this is short, it gives us an excuse to add something. Summer Hanford and I have been busy writing stories not related to Jane Austen. She has recently published The Runaway Baroness and Kestrel: Children of the Wald. Since she was busy and I had sent her three stories[iii] to work on, I wrote a science fiction time travel novelette, Orders from the Future, using the name Teresa McCullough.
[i] Obviously, the name was not picked at random.
[ii] In case you think that the possibility of not responding to a first name is crazy, I was once in a store with my grandchildren who do not call me by my first name. We were looking in different aisles. When I heard someone use my first name, my original reaction was not to look around and respond, but to wonder who else in the store knew me or was there another person there with my first name.
[iii] The three upcoming books are:
- More Than He Seems: Reinventing Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham (Coming this autumn as part of the Tragic Characters in Classic Literature Series: Love After All)
- Mr. Collins’ Will
- Elizabeth and Jane. This title will not be used, but I need a working title. It is awkward to refer to it as “It’s the one that starts off with a scene between Charles and Caroling Bingley.”