Art was a large part of Jane Austen’s life and even served as an alternative mode of expression for the novelist. In a January 8th, 1799 letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen says, “I shall be such a proficient in music by the time I have got rid of my cold […] Of my talent in drawing I have given specimens in my letters to you” (“XII”). While unable to write comfortably due to a cold and eye discomfort, Austen turns to music and drawing to express herself, just as her characters sometimes do. Austen’s characters, especially her heroines, do not often speak or act in conjunction with their actual feelings and thoughts. Facing so many societal pressures, it is sometimes easier and more polite for them to avoid speaking the direct truth. The lack of candid dialogue to reveal her characters’ thoughts can make it harder for readers to grasp complete characterization. One way Austen makes up for this lack of straightforward communication among the heroines is by depicting them engaging in the visual arts and music. Specifically, in her novels Emma and Pride and Prejudice, she uses the arts to reveal a range of character traits, from Emma’s selfishness and jealousy, to Elizabeth’s humility and revelation of warm emotion. These art forms function as an alternative language within her novels, giving readers certain characterization insights that they would not otherwise have.
In Emma, Austen uses visual art to reveal the heroine’s unspoken selfishness in her motives for wanting Mr. Elton and Harriet to succeed as a couple. Emma paints a watercolor portrait in an effort to display Harriet’s beauty to Mr. Elton. In the painting, Emma exaggerates Harriet’s height and features in order to depict her as more conventionally attractive: “‘You have made her too tall, Emma,’ said Mr. Knightley” (Emma 40). Similarly, Mrs. Weston notes, “‘The expression of the eye is most correct, but Miss Smith has not those eyebrows and eyelashes. It is the fault of her face that she has them not’” (40). Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley notice how exaggerated Harriet’s beauty is in Emma’s portrait. On the surface, it may seem that Emma’s exaggeration is simply due to how highly she thinks of Harriet as a beautiful friend of hers, but when looking more closely, the touched-up portrait indicates how badly Emma wants to succeed in her matchmaking tactics. This realization makes readers wonder whether Emma cares more about setting up Harriet and Mr. Elton for her own personal success and bragging rights or if she actually cares to find Harriet the match that is best for her. Emma also tries to prevent Harriet’s relationship with Mr. Martin, a seemingly perfect match whose only flaw is his social ranking. Although Emma would never verbally admit it, she is more selfishly concerned with getting matchmaking praise than she is with actually helping her friend find happiness. In this way, her painting an exaggerated portrait of Harriet demonstrates nothing so much as her own narcissism.
Along with visual art in Emma, Austen uses music to reveal another of Emma’s negative traits: her jealousy of Jane Fairfax. When Emma and Jane play the piano and sing for everyone at the Coles’ party, it is very clear that Jane’s musical talent outshines Emma’s. At this point in the novel, Emma appears jealous of Jane because of all the attention she gets from the Highbury community, especially for her musical abilities. Emma has so far only claimed to dislike Jane because she is too reserved or too boring: “I wish Jane Fairfax very well; but she tires me to death” (75). However, we learn that, a long time before the Coles’ party, Mr. Knightly once told Emma that she dislikes Jane because “she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself” (141). At the time of this conversation, Emma does not admit that Mr. Knightley’s diagnosis is correct, but Austen starts to reveal Emma’s jealousy of Jane through the music episode at the Coles’ party. It is obvious that Jane’s performance is better than Emma’s, and the guests praise Jane and want to hear more. For example, Frank Churchill “went to the pianoforte, and begged Miss Fairfax, who was still sitting at it, to play something more” (207). Mrs. Weston, and even Emma, join Frank’s enjoyment: “Mrs. Weston had been delighted before, and was delighted again; Emma joined her in all her praise; and the pianoforte, with every proper discrimination, was pronounced to be altogether of the highest promise” (206). This implies that Frank, Mrs. Weston, and Emma herself thoroughly enjoy Jane’s singing and playing. Jane’s performance delights Frank so much that he wants to hear more, but it is hard not to notice that no one asks for an encore of Emma’s performance. In comparing the two characters’ musical abilities and showing people’s overwhelmingly positive responses to Jane, and lack thereof to Emma, Austen shows readers that Mr. Knightley may have been right and that jealousy may be at the heart of Emma’s feelings towards Jane. Emma confirms this sentiment later, but Austen uses this musical event to give readers this insight earlier in the novel.
While in Emma Austen uses a scene of musical performance to reveal Emma’s jealousy, in Pride and Prejudice she turns to music to reveal Elizabeth’s more positive characteristic of humility. When Elizabeth is asked to perform at the Lucas’ house, she is not exactly eager to sing and play for everyone, but she agrees to anyway, not terribly concerned with what everyone will think of her performance. The quality of her playing is described as “pleasing, though by no means capital” (Pride and Prejudice 25). Although many people are watching her, Elizabeth does not appear to mind that her performance is mediocre. This episode reveals Elizabeth’s lack of concern for what others may think, which is ironic because the rest of society, especially her own mother, care so much about others’ perceptions of them. Elizabeth never literally says that she does not worry like the rest, but her mediocre performance paired with her absence of worry about others’ opinions of her singing and playing reveals her humility.
In addition to music in Pride and Prejudice, Austen uses Miss Darcy’s crayon drawings to reveal Elizabeth’s fond opinion of Georgiana Darcy. At this point in the novel, Georgiana is somewhat of an enigma to Elizabeth. Elizabeth has not really spent any individual time with her or gotten to know her in any way. Georgiana is most prominent in Elizabeth’s life as the girl whom Mr. Bingley’s sisters have unfairly deemed the better and richer replacement of Jane as Bingley’s partner. For this reason, Elizabeth has a negative feeling toward Georgiana, but during her tour of Pemberley with the Gardiners, she is able to change her negative opinion of Georgiana. While touring the picture gallery at Pemberley, Elizabeth’s eye is drawn to Miss Darcy’s drawings: “In the former were many good paintings; but Elizabeth knew nothing of the art; and from such as had been already visible below, she had willingly turned to look at some drawings of Miss Darcy’s, in crayons, whose subjects were usually more interesting, and also more intelligible” (240). Elizabeth notices the intelligence behind Miss Darcy’s drawings and finds them quite interesting. Despite the Bingley scenario, Georgiana is known to be quiet yet skillful and talented. These drawings confirm this to be true. Elizabeth is arguably the most clever and least egotistical of her surrounding characters, and so it is no surprise that she should take a liking to these qualities of Miss Darcy. She appreciates that unlike many vacuous social climbers in her society, Miss Darcy is actually interesting. While Elizabeth’s newfound positive opinion of Georgiana is revealed to readers more obviously later in the novel, it is through the nature of Georgiana’s art that Austen begins to reveal Elizabeth’s changed opinion.
Elizabeth’s sensitivity to visual art is further shown during the episode at Pemberley, as Austen uses a portrait to cause her heroine’s emotional epiphany in which she realizes her true feelings for Mr. Darcy. In the gallery, Elizabeth notices a smiling portrait: “she beheld a striking resemblance to Mr. Darcy, with such a smile over the face as she remembered to have sometimes seen when he looked at her” (240). This portrait reminds Elizabeth of when Darcy used to smile at her, which in turn leads her to her revolutionary thoughts about Darcy: “There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth’s mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original than she had ever felt at the height of their acquaintance” (240). The picture places Darcy in a happy light in Elizabeth’s mind, and it is this work of art that brings her to realize that she is in love with him. Her true feelings for Darcy have until now been suppressed, but because of her realization upon seeing the smiling portrait, readers also become aware of her true feelings for him. Elizabeth would not dare to admit to anyone that she loves Darcy yet, even if she has known it deep down, so it is thanks to the portrait and the use of free indirect discourse that Austen reveals Elizabeth’s emotional epiphany.
In Emma and Pride and Prejudice, Austen often uses art rather than straightforward dialogue to reveal her heroines’ characteristics, Emma’s being negative and Elizabeth’s more positive. How can we account for this different use of art in her characterization of these two heroines? It is worth remembering that most of Highbury society loves Emma, and because of this, most other characters do not comment negatively about her. To make up for this, Austen uses art to reveal Emma’s negative qualities. On the other hand, Elizabeth is much less socially visible than Emma. She is disconcerted with the social climbing that her society cares so much about, but because those around her are so concerned with themselves, they never help her come to any realizations about herself. To make up for this absence, Austen uses art to reveal positive things about Elizabeth herself.
If in the cases of Emma and Elizabeth, Austen uses art in different ways to reveal something about these heroines, we find a more ambiguous case in the presentation of Mary Bennet. Here, art becomes a means to reveal something about a larger social perspective. After Mary plays and sings at the Lucas house, the people’s response shows a lot about others’ perceptions of her. Mary plays better than Elizabeth yet receives less unplanted praise: “Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well; and Mary, at the end of a long concerto, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs, at the request of her younger sisters” (Pride and Prejudice 25-26). The fact that people are wary of praising Mary even though she performed well shows that the general community, and even her own family, do not really understand her. In this case, Austen provides insight into other characters’ perceptions of Mary so that readers can better understand both the enigma that is Mary and what other characters think of her. It is interesting to note the variety of revelation that is possible through Austen’s use of art. She depicts an entirely new level of her heroines’ personalities, making up for what is not said aloud. She demonstrates how a novelist may turn to art to reveal not only individual characterization but also something that we might think of as a kind of social characterization. In the same way that Austen tells Cassandra she would “be such a proficient in music” in her letter, she has proved herself time and time again to be such a proficient in characterization through music and art (“XII”).
Austen, Jane. “XII.” Received by Cassandra Austen, 8 Jan. 1799.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Signet, 2008.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Books, 2014.