Jun 7 2011 1:30pm

Amiable Rancour: Jane Austen’s Insults

Jane Austen quote

Would Jane Austen issue an insult? Would any have of her characters (other than the mean ones, of course)?

Certainly not. Jane Austen is that sweet little Regency-era lady who wrote those nice romantic novels. She is “dear Jane” or “Aunt Jane” or just “Miss Austen.”

Oh, really? Some of us would disagree. Some of us would tell you that Jane Austen is that woman with the satirical eye and wickedly sharp pen. 

“Come on,” you say. “I can’t remember one unkind word in any of her work.” Well, I didn’t say she wasn’t subtle. She does have a way with an insult. And she does have some not very kind words to say about men.

Persuasion by Jane AustenMary Musgrove in Persuasion would like us to know that “If there is any thing disagreeable going on, men are always sure to get out of it.” 

In Pride and Prejudice,  Elizabeth Bennet asks the age-old question, “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Fanny Price, of Mansfield Park,  points out that, “I think it ought not to be set down as certain that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.”

In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe, who might have reason to know, says, “You men have none of you any hearts.”

Lest you think it’s only Jane Austen’s heroines who have  way with an insult, let’s hear what Sense and Sensibility’s John Willoughby has to say about Colonel Brandon, “whom every body speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.”

But Jane Austen saves her best insults for the family. To fully appreciate our Dear Jane’s rancorous side, you must read her letters. Allow me to give you a head start.

Still on the subject of men, Jane writes to her sister in 1801, “There was a scarcity of men in general and a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much.”

To her sister Cassandra, on the birth of a son to one of their sisters-in-law,  April 25, 1811: “I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.”

And about another of their nephews: “I shall think with tenderness and delight on his beautiful and smiling countenance and interesting manner, until a few years have turned him into an ungovernable, ungracious fellow.”

On September 23, 1813, she wrote to Cassandra about a young man she had met: “He seems a very harmless sort of young man, nothing to like or dislike in him—goes out shooting or hunting with the two others all the morning, and plays at whist and makes queer faces in the evening.” Sounds charming, doesn’t he?

Not even mourning escapes Jane’s caustic pen: “At the bottom of Kingsdown Hill we met a gentleman in a buggy, who, on minute examination, turned out to be Dr. Hall—and Dr. Hall in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead.”

Nor war. In February of 1817, she wrote to Cassandra about the Peninsular War, “How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!” 

When neighbors moved in 1811, she observed, “The Webbs are really gone! When I saw the waggons at the door, and thought of all the trouble they must have in moving, I began to reproach myself for not having liked them better; but since the waggons have disappeared my conscience has been closed again, and I am excessively glad they are gone.”

No domestic detail escaped her notice. In May of 1801, Jane writes to Cassandra, “Mrs. B. thought herself obliged…to run round the rooms after her drunken husband. His avoidance and her pursuit with the probable intoxication of both, was an amusing scene.”

Let us now ask the opening question one more time. Would Jane Austen issue an insult? You bet. And she’d do it in style.

“Amiable Rancour” image from The Republic of Pemberley calendar.


Myretta Robens
The Republic of Pemberley

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
When people talk about Jane Austen, and how she wrote sentimental romance (like Naipaul, the ass), I wonder if they ever even read these phrases. Her remarks are so cutting! Subtle, yes, but so directly skewering the target. I am in awe of her wit.
Carrie Strickler
2. DyslexicSquirrel
It's those little jabs that are my favorite part of her writting, I must admit. They make me giggle. I guess because I find so much in common with them.

I have a thing for collecting pins (you know the decorative ones that you put on bags and such). I found one in San Diego that I just couldn't pass up getting:

"Tact is for people who aren't witty enough to be sarcastic."

So true.
Myretta Robens
3. Myretta
@DyslexicSquirrel, if you collect pins, you might be interested in the Republic of Pemberley's Jane Austen pins: http://www.cafepress.com/pemstore/398155
Naz Keynejad
4. nazkey
@Myretta: your shop is going to be the death of me (and my wallet!) SO many awesome things! *sigh*

Great blog! Yes, Jane was much more than a romance writer. nudge nudge, wink wink.
Carrie Strickler
5. DyslexicSquirrel
@Myretta: I think I will love you forever now. I'm so going to have to buy some of those.
Julie C
7. Jaya
I don't remember the exact quote from the book Pride and Prejudice, but in the BBC series Mr Bennet says something like (of Mr Collins) "he simpers and smirks and makes love to us all." when referring to him being a fine fellow. And in the text she also makes comments on Mr Collins being verbose and some fairly cutting things about Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

That reminds me! I should have most of Wednesday free, I might sit there and watch all the hours of the BBC miniseries. :P
Myretta Robens
8. Myretta
@Jaya. That's Mr. Bennet talking about his new son-in-law, George Wickham in Chapter 53: "He is as fine a fellow," said Mr. Bennet, as soon as they were out of the house, "as ever I saw. He simpers, and smirks, and makes love to us all. I am prodigiously proud of him. I defy even Sir William Lucas himself to produce a more valuable son-in-law." Mr. Bennet does have a way with words. And I definitely think that watching the miniseries would be an excellent use of a Wednesday.
Myretta Robens
9. Myretta
@DyslexicSquirrel & @nazkey. I'm happy to lead you down the primrose path. :-) I'm glad you liked the blog. Jane Austen is always fun when she's at her most acerbic.
Post a comment