Jane Austen’s friendships

Jane Austen, possibly the most well-known female English novelist, is the author of what are considered to be the greatest love stories in western literature. The explosion in her popularity over the last twenty years (mostly due to that lake scene) and subsequent influence on popular culture has turned her into something of an authority on love and romance. But a closer reading of her novels reveals a multitude of relationships that are often deeper and more complex than falling in love – friendship.

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Postcard view of Chatsworth House. Photo by Individ-ewe-al via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The friendships in Austen’s novels can seem like plot devices to accelerate or impede a romance, for instance Caroline’s faux friendship with Jane, Charlotte marrying Mr Collins and thus inviting Lizzie to Kent, Lady Russell breaking up Anne & Captain Wentworth, or Lucy Steele’s adopting Elinor as her confidante. Friendships are some of the closest relationships and friends spend more time with each other than people in love do. Sisters are not always friends, but the sibling friendships between Jane & Lizzie Bennet and Elinor & Marianne are among the very closest. Since Jane Austen never married, the most important relationships in her life were her family and friends, especially her sister Cassandra, so she was writing from experience. Marriage, at this time, was very much an economic decision, and the only career open to women of a certain class. Friendship, on the other hand, was more likely to be based on mutual liking and was therefore a much more genuine relationship.

Some of Austen’s closest friendships are those between men, most notably Darcy and Bingley. There is a noticeable difference in class between them, which Jane Austen uses to great effect in portraying Caroline and her sister as inexcusably snobbish, since they are not landed gentry, their money comes from trade and they have to rent a house. Darcy does not let this influence his friendship with Bingley, and even when he breaks up Bingley and Jane he believes himself to be acting in his friend’s best interests. Darcy, who some have attempted to diagnose with Asperger’s, is actually just very shy and relies on Bingley’s extroverted nature to grease the wheels of social interaction. Similarly Captain Wentworth and Captain Harville also have a close friendship, formed during their years of active service in the Napoleonic wars. Harville, in conversation with Anne, gives another example of friendship which gives an insight into Wentworth’s character – he takes on the sad task of informing Captain Benwick of his fiancee’s death, and stayed with the grief-stricken man for a week, thereby saving his life from either suicide or illness. He also declares that he would ‘bring anything of Harville’s from the world’s end, if he wanted it’.

“Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.” Northanger Abbey

People in Jane Austen’s time would not have had the opportunity to meet a large number of people, particularly if they lived in rural areas. Men (with wealth) had the opportunity to travel more than women – Mr Darcy would probably have travelled around western Europe, and the sailors of Persuasion would have had the unusual chance to sail around much of the Atlantic. (Not forgetting of course, Sir Thomas Bertram’s trip to his plantations in the West Indies). Emma is not unusual in never having left her home town, and the characters of Persuasion are very excited by a trip to Lyme. Most women had to make whatever relationships they could with the people who lived nearby (like Mrs Bennet and her frenemy Lady Lucas). Sometimes Austen throws her characters into unfortunate friendships simply as a result of proximity. Catherine Morland’s already fanciful imagination is excited further by the sensational novels she reads with her friend Isabella, while Emma’s tendency to matchmaking is encouraged by having a very silly friend in Harriet Smith. Mary Crawford is initially friendly to Fanny Price, but soon becomes her rival for Edmund’s attention, while pushing Fanny towards her brother Henry. (The happy ending with Fanny and Edmund’s wedding is slightly spoiled for modern readers by the fact that they are first cousins. Even the royals have stopped marrying their relatives these days).

One of the most interesting relationships in Sense and Sensibility is the friendship between Elinor and Colonel Brandon. They spend long periods of time together and he confides in her the story of his younger days. It is also significant that Marianne has no female friends apart from her sister, and her obsession with Willoughby is detrimental to all other relationships. Similarly, Anne and Captain Benwick form a mutually therapeutic friendship over their shared love of poetry. Initially using him as an excuse to avoid Captain Wentworth, she finds an intellectual equal with whom she can have an intelligent conversation. Their friendship is not misinterpreted by anyone, in part because he is still in mourning.

“My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company…” Persuasion

The most deep and lasting friendships are those between intellectual and emotional equals – Lizzie and Jane, Darcy and Bingley, Anne and Mrs Smith, Wentworth and Harville – or when the protagonist has a friend wiser than herself – Emma and Mrs Weston, Catherine and Eleanor Tilney.

Romance is the main theme of her novels, and marriage with a wealthy partner is the aim of many of the characters. Friendship is almost taken for granted, and, in the eyes of many modern readers, not given the recognition it deserves.

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