Jane Austen & Emotional Intelligence

Professor Fiona Stafford on why reading Jane Austen is (among other things) a lesson in emotional intelligence.

When Jane Austen died in July 1817, her brother and sister rallied to get her last finished novel ready for the press. The Elliots would enter public life as Persuasion, accompanied by the novel formerly known as ‘Susan’, now Northanger Abbey. Their creator’s bereft brother fuelled his grief into a brief memoir of his younger sister, summing up her leading character traits as ‘cheerfulness, sensibility and benevolence’. For those who, two centuries later, turn to Jane Austen’s pages for sharp social observation and acerbic wit, Henry Austen’s tribute may come as a surprise. Her novels crackle with comedy at the expense of snobbery and sycophancy, avarice and autocracy, hypocrisy and hypochondria – not to mention pride and prejudice. She’s the mistress of the verbal parry and the put-down, the uncompromising cameo and the caustic comment. How does the novelist who gave us Mr Rushworth and his pink satin cloak, Mr Collins in raptures over Lady Catherine’s entrance hall or Mrs Elton and her ‘pic-nic parade’ match the placid, forgiving, good-natured woman lamented by Henry Austen? Can Mr Bennet’s memorable remark to his middle daughter after her excruciating performance on the piano at the Netherfield Ball – ‘You have delighted us long enough’ – really be her work? Perhaps most startling of all is the decidedly unbenevolent description in Persuasion of Mrs Musgrave’s ‘large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody cared for’.

Jane Austen’s devastatingly unsympathetic sentences have prompted a long line of readers into detecting what D. W. Harding, writing on the brink of World War Two, famously termed her ‘regulated hatred’. It is worth remembering, however, that these quotations are all taken from novels and reflect brilliantly created characters and points of view. If Mr Bennet’s remark to Mary sounds unkind in isolation, when read in a scene offered almost entirely through the eyes of another daughter, Elizabeth Bennet, it appears rather differently. As so often, Austen’s narration encourages emotional investment in one character, which then colours everything. Mary’s performance at the piano is almost the final straw for Elizabeth, already mortified by her family’s general behaviour over the course of the evening. And yet, Austen’s minor characters are drawn with such deftness that it’s possible to see from multiple perspectives, especially on re-reading. It may come as a relief to see Mary Bennet rescued from the contempt of the Bingley sisters, making her father’s intervention more protective than derisive, or indeed, merely motivated by a desire to spare Elizabeth’s blushes. The central character is not the only one worthy of sympathy. Mary’s performance is uncomfortable not just because it embarrasses her witty, naturally attractive, elder sister, but because it reveals the middle sister’s desperate need to attract attention. Mary, ‘the only plain one in the family’, strives to please and impress by reading ‘great books, and making extracts’ or doggedly working at her long concertos. Teased and ignored by her more vivacious sisters, Mary looks in vain for a husband to save her from her unlucky lot. All of this is apparent in her performance at Netherfield, making her father’s comment almost as tragic as it is funny.

Jane Austen’s novels can be read with great enjoyment as superbly crafted situational and romantic comedy. They can be read again and again for their psychological revelations and insight into the dynamics of social interaction. Over the course of a novel, scenes can change disconcertingly as a character-other-than-the-heroine’s perspective dawns. In Emma, we’re invited to share the heroine’s sense of quick-wittedness by seeing her friend Harriet Smith struggling over Mr Elton’s charade (‘What can it be, Miss Woodhouse? – what can it be? I have not an idea – I cannot guess it in the least’). It’s easy enough to feel superior, of course, because Emma has already solved the riddle and silently shared the answer with her readers, if not with Harriet. But while Emma’s able to solve a word puzzle, she’s failed in the rather more important challenge of deciphering Mr Elton’s object: ‘For Miss…, read Miss Smith’, she announces, without a nanosecond’s hesitation. Later, at Box Hill, the same self-confidence backfires badly, when her quick wit lands painfully on Miss Bates, who may be slow to bat back a clever remark, but whose silent distress is evident in ‘a slight blush’ of pain. Blushes, flushes, sudden pallor are all signals of intense emotional reactions to what may seem nothing more than social chit-chat, received by some characters, invisible to others. After Mr Knightley has taken Emma to task for her unfeeling joke, she is overcome by her own lack of emotional intelligence: ‘How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!’

But if Emma is startled into silence, reflection and tears, her readers also have much to think over. For those of us who have assumed that Miss Bates is something of a comic caricature, tedious in her incessant chattering and excessive gratitude, the revelation at Box Hill may come as quite a surprise. And yet, there are plenty of earlier pointers to Miss Bates’s natural feeling and sympathetic understanding – her long monologue at the Ball, apparently packed with time-consuming triviality, actually reveals that she’s on friendly terms with most of Highbury and privy to the intimate lives of many who remain mere names to Emma. Whatever Miss Woodhouse’s view of the local residents, most of them evidently appreciate Miss Bates’s good heartedness and take very little notice of the mistress of Hartfield. More revealing still is the scene in which Emma and Frank Churchill’s flirtation involves embarrassing Jane Fairfax with anagrammatic jokes about her supposed affair with her best friend’s husband. Miss Bates may not shine at the scrabble board, but she’s very quick to read her niece’s blushes, stepping in to rescue the situation, ‘though Jane had not said a word’.

One of the many surprises in Emma is that Miss Bates turns out to have far greater emotional intelligence than the handsome, clever, and rich Miss Woodhouse. And once this has dawned, the entire novel changes. Instead of seeing Emma as she sees herself, we can begin to think about why she sees things as she does. Far from being omniscient, Emma is often the last person to realise what’s really going on around her. The minor characters, only marginalised by the heroine’s sense of self-importance, all have the power to make us rethink often merely becoming silent witnesses. Even sympathy for Jane Fairfax’s suffering under the trials of Mrs Elton’s condescension is complicated by her own horror of the ‘governess-trade’: not the most tactful outburst when the other people present are Emma and Mrs Weston, who has spent years before the novel’s opening as the kindly devoted governess at Hartfield.

Jane Austen was a brilliant comic writer, highly skilled in creating witty dialogue, social embarrassments and entertaining characters, but her comedy is deepened by a profound understanding of human feeling and its subtle manifestations in social gatherings. She shows acute awareness of the social minefield of competing individuals with very different motivations, personalities and points of view and the ways in which they ignore or navigate the hazards. There are almost as many reasons as readers for turning to Jane Austen, but for anyone in search of heightened emotional intelligence her novels reward reading, and re-reading, and re-reading again.


Fiona Stafford is Professor of English at Oxford, where she regularly lectures on Austen.  She has edited Emma for Penguin and Pride and Prejudice for OUP and is the author of Jane Austen: A Brief Life (Yale UP, 2017). Other recent books include The Brief Life of Flowers (2018) and The Long, Long Life of Trees (2016).

Professor Fiona Stafford