"My name is Tracy, and I'm twenty-four years old. I graduated from college as an English major, with a minor in Journalism. I've been an Austen fan since 2007, and this was my final paper for my Honors seminar, Evolution and Humanity, my junior year of college. We were allowed to apply any of the theories we'd learned about to any topic we wished, and as the materials we'd read on courtship and mating had already reminded me of Austen, I had my perfect fit! I loved writing this paper; getting to dig deeper into the psychologies of Austen's characters was so much fun, and learning Darwin himself was an Austen fan was icing on the cake!"
A Textual Analysis of Evolutionary Mating Theories as applied to the novels of Jane Austen
Charles Darwin was a great lover of Jane Austen. Unable to abide stories with unhappy endings, Darwin turned frequently to novels by Austen and her contemporaries, but Austen in particular seems to have held a special fascination for him. Darwin’s own son remembers Austen’s novels being read aloud to and by members of the family four times apiece; they were “read and reread until they could be read no more.” Darwin’s longing for a happy ending was not, however, the only thing that drew him to Jane Austen—not only did the novels give him pleasure, they “also engaged him for reasons that resonated with his scientific interests” (Bankes, 2010 - 1). For Darwin, Bankes tells us, “the possibility of ‘all that we know’ being overthrown… is astounding, humbling, and what motivates him to try to know more. Readers of Darwin must learn the same lesson as Austen’s heroines: to read and reread, to weigh the circumstances, and to look again at the facts stored in their minds” (Bankes - 7). Austen’s characters must engage in near-scientific processes to evaluate their friends, mate choices, and enemies once they receive new information that contradicts their previous opinions. Elizabeth Bennet must reconsider George Wickham in light of a letter from Mr. Darcy. John Willoughby receives heavy scrutiny by the Dashwood women following full disclosure of his indiscretions. Edmund Bertram and his family learn, almost too late, just how wicked Henry and Mary Crawford are. Anne Elliot comes to realize her former suitor, Frederick Wentworth, is not quite so indifferent to her as she believed. All of these revelations come after careful re-evaluation of existing facts and experiences, much as a scientist would go back and re-evaluate his or her previous findings after receiving a new piece of information.
Not only do Austen’s characters engage in scientific analysis of human character, they also, amazingly, exhibit characteristics of Darwinian mating strategies. Short-term and long-term mating strategies can be observed in both the men and the women of Austen’s novels—a study has even been done to determine if modern college students can recognize this. Austen’s characters frequently come up against situations that test their mating intelligence: how should they react in the wake of a public scandal, and how does that scandal change society’s perception of them? How can one determine if a potential suitor is a cad or a dad? What does one do if one witnesses mate poaching? Today’s evolutionary theories might seem an odd find in Romantic literature, but academics in the field of literary Darwinism have found that Darwin was right to be well pleased with Austen’s novels, novels that exemplified his findings.
Summary of Basic Concepts
Joseph Carroll, a leading literary Darwinist, defines the field as follows: “Literary Darwinists integrate literary concepts with a modern evolutionary understanding of the evolved and adapted characteristics of human nature. … They think that all knowledge about human behavior, including the products of the human imagination, can and should be subsumed within the evolutionary perspective” (Carroll, 2009). He adds later that the “general function of [art] is to make imaginative sense of the world.” We know that Darwin had a great love for Austen’s novels, that perhaps they resonated with him because they illustrated the concepts about which he had theorized. His knowledge of human behavior was brought to his repeated readings of Austen’s works and others, and perhaps Darwin himself examined the literature he read from an evolutionary perspective. Certainly his interest in characters who grow and change suggests that he was interested in multifaceted characters with complex psychologies, that literature, to him, was more than pure entertainment—it was also an analytical exercise.
The theories I will apply to four of Austen’s novels—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Persuasion (1818)—are psychologists John, Naumann, and Soto’s “Big Five” trait taxonomy; literary Darwinist Sarah Strout’s concept of “self-monitoring;” ideas surrounding scandal and public perception, as put forward by evolutionary psychologists Geher, Miller, and Murphy; mating intelligence and “cad or dad” scenarios, examined by literary Darwinists Kruger, Jobling, and Fisher; and the concept of “mate poaching” as put forward by several scholars in the field of evolutionary psychology.
The “Big Five” trait taxonomy and self-monitoring are intrinsically linked. The “Big Five” trait taxonomy outlines five basic personality traits that bear on human mating psychology and predict an individual’s preference for mating strategies. These traits are:
· Extraversion: “implies an energetic approach toward the social and material world and includes such traits as sociability, activity, assertiveness, and positive emotionality”
· Agreeableness: “contrasts a prosocial and communal orientation towards others with antagonism and includes traits such as altruism, tender-mindedness, trust, and modesty”
· Conscientiousness: “describes socially prescribed impulse control that facilitates task and goal-oriented behavior, such as thinking before acting, delaying gratification, following norms and rules, and planning, organizing, and prioritizing tasks”
· Neuroticism: “contrasts emotional stability and even-temperedness with negative emotionality, such as feeling anxious, nervous, sad, and tense”
· Openness/Intellect: “describes the breadth, depth, originality, and complexity of an individual’s mental and experiential life” (John, Naumann, and Soto, 2008 - 120).
The degree to which an individual displays these traits is generally indicative of which mating strategy he or she prefers (though not always, as we will see in Austen’s occasional subversions of these predictions). Sarah Strout observes that “extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience were positively correlated with short-term mating, while agreeableness and conscientiousness were negatively correlated with short-term mating” (Strout et al., 2010). Strout also introduces the concept of self-monitoring and its correlation to mating strategies. High-self monitors tend to maximize their mating opportunities by not establishing committed relationships and not restricting themselves to a sexual orientation. Low self-monitors lean more towards committed relationships and limit themselves to a sexual orientation. Observing how an individual monitors him or herself can often help a reader predict the reasons for which he or she will choose a mate.
Ideas of scandal and public perception are exemplified by an examination of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in Glenn Geher, Geoffrey Miller, and Jeremy W. Murphy’s work Mating Intelligence. What the public interpreted as Clinton’s “bad sexual judgment” in fact might have been considered an evolutionarily advantageous mating ploy in prehistoric eras. By choosing to mate with the young and fertile Monica Lewinsky, rather than his wife, who had passed her prime childbearing years, Clinton displayed a high degree of mating intelligence. However evolutionarily advantageous this affair might be, the scandal wrecked Clinton’s public image and seemed to reveal “reckless impulsiveness, poor judgment, and the pursuit of short-term lust over long-term political respectability and marital stability” (Geher, et. al, 2007 - 20). This view of sexual scandal seems to be the one endorsed by Austen’s fiction—though the affairs that take place seem evolutionarily prudent, they are in fact irredeemable missteps in the eyes of a scrutinizing public.
The concept of mating intelligence and the ability of women to discern between “cads or dads” (or, as Strout puts forth, of men to determine whether a woman is a “mother” or a “lover”) is present in nearly all of Austen’s works. Mating intelligence is defined as “the total set of psychological capacities for sexual courtship, competition, and rivalry; for relationship-formation, commitment, coordination, and termination; for flirtation, foreplay, and copulation; for mate-search, mate-choice, mate-guarding, and mate-switching; and for many other behavioral capacities that bring mainly reproductive (rather than survival) payoffs” (Geher, et. al, 2007 - 10). All of these capacities combined indicate an individual’s degree of mating intelligence, the ability of a person to think critically of his or her and others’ efforts towards mating. The need for discernment in determining whether a man is a “cad” or a “dad” is an example of this. Daniel J. Kruger, Maryanne Fisher, and Ian Jobling define “cads” and “dads” as follows:
· Dad: “men who are socially respected, financially well-off, ambitious, industrious, dependable, emotionally stable, and romantic, all qualities that indicate the ability and willingness to sustain long-term, parentally investing relationships”
· Cad: “men who consistently demonstrate a marked desire for sexual variety… [A] successful philanderer would have been likely to sire a large number of children.” (Kruger, et. al, 2003 - 226).
Mate poaching and its converse, mate guarding, concerns the possibility of one’s mate straying to another if seduced, and efforts taken by the non-philandering partner to prevent this behavior. Schmitt and Buss (2001) define mate poaching as “actions specifically intended to lure someone away from an established romantic relationship” (Schmitt and Buss, 2001 - 894). Meanwhile, the mate not being poached can “go to great lengths to prevent their mates from having sex with others,” known as mate guarding (Nordlund, 2007 - 165). In extreme cases, this can lead to violence; cads especially take risks by employing their short-term strategies. “The costs,” Strout emphasizes, “are that [a cad] might gain a reputation as a ‘womanizer’ or face injury or death at the hands of a jealous rival” (Strout et al., 2010 - 320).
Austen’s Characters: The Big Five and Their Respective Mating Strategies
Austen’s characters often exhibit one marked personality trait from the Big Five, which often (but not always) predicts their mating strategy. Some noted examples of Big Five characteristics in Austen’s characters include:
· Extraversion: Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia Bennet. A behavioral example of an extraverted person provided by John, Naumann, and Soto is “[I will] approach strangers at a party and introduce myself” (120). Lydia is fearless among strangers; “while there was an officer in Meryton,” Austen observes, “[Lydia] would flirt with him; and while Meryton was within a walk of Longbourn, [she] would be going there forever” (Austen, 1813 - 140). By contrast, Mr. Darcy, by his own admission, “certainly [does not have] the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done” (116).
· Agreeableness: Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford. Mary, in her attentions to Fanny, adheres exactly to the description offered by John, Naumann, and Soto: “Lend things to people I know; Console a friend who is upset” (John, et. al – 120). When Fanny is in need of a chain for a cross her brother has given her, Mary offers up her jewelry box: “‘You see what a collection I have,’ said she, ‘more by half than I ever use or think of. I do not offer them as new. I offer nothing but an old necklace. You must forgive the liberty and oblige me’” (Austen, 1814 – 202). When Fanny is attacked by Mrs. Norris, her haranguing aunt, Mary observes her tears and speaks to her in a “kind, low whisper,” saying, “Never mind, my dear Miss Price, this is a cross evening: everybody is cross and teasing, but do not let us mind them” and attempting to “raise her spirits” all the rest of the evening (116).
· Conscientiousness: Sense and Sensibility’s Colonel Brandon. Brandon fits the definition provided above of someone who “think[s] before acting… follow[s] norms and rules, and plan[s], organiz[es], and priorit[izes] tasks” (John, et. al – 120). This is in sharp contrast to John Willoughby, Marianne Dashwood’s other suitor, a man of whom others observe that “self-denial is a word hardly understood by him” (Austen, 1811 – 326). Brandon pays close attention to social norms; this causes him anxiety in his pursuit of Marianne, as he is older than her by nineteen years and thus perhaps not considered a suitable mate by society: “he had little to do but to calculate the disproportion between thirty-six and seventeen” (344). When an emergency arises with his ward, Eliza Williams, Brandon cancels his proposed trip to Whitwell, declaring, “It is not in my power to delay my journey for one day” (65). His trip to Whitwell, planned and meticulously organized for the pleasure of others, is upended by his priotizing family over his own amusement and that of others.
· Neuroticism: Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. Fanny very frequently feels “anxious, nervous, sad, or tense,” not in the least because her own relatives causes her to agonize over her position in their household and what she ‘owes’ them due to their kindness (John, et. al – 120). Fanny is terrified by the thought of her debut into society via a public ball and seems to exhibit intense social anxiety: “but the idea of having such another to observe her, was a great increase of the trepidation with which she performed the very awful ceremony of walking into the drawing room” (Austen, 1814 – 174). Edmund, her cousin, observes that “It is in [her] disposition to be easily dejected, and to fancy difficulties greater than they are” (273). Indeed, Fanny’s constant “faint[ness], weak[ness], pale[ness]… [and] ‘excessive trembling’” seem to be “physical responses… of exhaustion, agitation, and fear,” characteristic of victims of child abuse (Seeber, 2000 - 105).
· Openness/Intellect: Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. Anne has a more complex mental life than many of the others in the novel; she performs the equivalent of “watch[ing] documentaries or educational TV” by reading not only poetry, but moral tracts that can improve her understanding and general knowledge of the world (John, et. al – 120). This is a direct contrast to the moody Captain Benwick, who only reads poetry, and who Anne gently disciplines out of his melancholy indulgences by “recommend[ing] a larger allowance of prose in his daily study… [she] mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters…” (Austen, 1818 - 74).
As mentioned above, the traits of extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience generally indicate a short-term mating strategy, while agreeableness and conscientiousness generally indicate a long-term mating strategy. Not all of these suppositions hold true for the above characters, but some seem particularly apt. Lydia Bennet, for example, certainly exhibits a short-term mating strategy in her flirting with multiple partners; in her imaginings, “she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once” (Austen, 1813 - 152). However, Fanny’s neuroticism and Anne’s openness to experience do not indicate inclination towards a short-term mating strategy. Indeed, in Strout’s study of “mother vs. lover” characters in Austen’s novels, Fanny was one example of a “mother” character. The male college students surveyed “liked [Fanny] more than [Maria, who exhibits a short-term mating strategy], and expressed a preference to sexually hook-up with [Maria]” (Strout, et. al, 2010 – 324).
Strout (2010) notes, in addition, that men who were low self monitors were more prone to liking Fanny, whereas men who were high self-monitors were more prone to wanting to “hook-up” with Maria. This coincides exactly with the mating patterns evident in the partners Fanny and Maria eventually choose: Fanny ends up with Edmund, a low self-monitor who prefers a mate with “loyalty, honesty, kindness, and similar beliefs and education” (321). These traits are, markedly, everything Mary Crawford proves not to possess: her publicly wishing Tom, Edmund’s brother, would die so that Edmund can inherit indicates unkindness; her disparaging remarks about the clergy, Edmund’s chosen profession, and her belief in the London maxim that “everything is to be got with money” indicate her and Edmund’s widely diverging beliefs (Austen, 1813 – 47).
On a different note, Maria Bertram pursues an extramarital affair with Henry Crawford, a man who fit into the tradition of high self-monitors, “a person who easily changes with the situation” and who “prefer[s] partners with high social status, physical attractiveness, financial resources, and sex appeal” (Strout et al., 2010 – 323, 321). Henry is definitely a changeable person; as the play Lovers’ Vows is being staged at Mansfield, Fanny observes that Henry is “considerably the best actor of all” (Austen, 1814 – 129). Indeed, Maria exhibits every trait a high self-monitor would seek: she has high social status, as the daughter of Sir Thomas, who owns a plantation in Antigua; she is the beauty of the family; she is from a richer family than Henry’s; and she attracts him above any other girl in the family.
Sexual Scandal and Public Perception
Several of Austen’s characters find themselves enmeshed in private scandals involving men of bad moral character and women whose judgment proves lacking. These scandals, if publicized, could cause disaster, and the decision to conceal the scandal once it happens, or to not anticipate the scandal by intervening, often alters the fates of characters who are not even directly involved.
Both Georgiana Darcy, of Pride and Prejudice, and young Eliza, of Sense and Sensibility, are seduced by cads: respectively, George Wickham and John Willoughby. For George Wickham, the “chief object” is Georgiana’s fortune of thirty thousand pounds, and he conspires with Georgiana’s governess, a prior acquaintance, to get Georgiana to consent to an elopement. “Regard for [Georgiana’s] credit and feelings prevent[s] any public exposure” when Darcy is informed by Georgiana of the planned elopement, and thus the scandal is never spoken of outside those involved and one member of Darcy’s immediate family: Georgiana’s other guardian, Colonel Fitzwilliam, a cousin (Austen, 1813 - 133). Darcy’s regard for Georgiana’s “credit” is particularly telling; he knows that if it were to become public that Georgiana had almost eloped with Wickham, her chances for a future match would be impacted—most especially, her chance of potentially marrying Mr. Bingley, a favored match by his sisters.
For John Willoughby, pleasure is his prime objective. He seduces Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza the younger (daughter of Colonel Brandon’s childhood beloved, the first Eliza, who I will henceforth refer to as Eliza the elder). Colonel Brandon gives in to the pleas of Eliza the younger to be allowed to go to Bath, and he later recognizes this was “imprudent” (Austen, 1811 – 197). Eliza and a female friend who does not care for morals—likely someone who would get on well with Lydia Bennet—move through Bath unchaperoned, as the friend’s father is an invalid and thus cannot supervise them. Eliza the younger engages in a short-term affair with Willoughby, one that has great consequences: “He had left the girl whose youth and innocence he had seduced, in a situation of the utmost distress, with no creditable home, no help, no friends, ignorant of his address! He had left her, promising to return; he neither returned, nor wrote, nor relieved her” (198). Eliza the younger is thus pregnant and abandoned, and Brandon must decide how to react. He and Willoughby “meet by appointment” for a duel to defend Eliza’s honor—though both return uninjured, the danger posed by the duel seems indicative of the threat of “injury or death” that Strout notes cads are at risk of facing (199).
Dueling Willoughby and seeing Eliza the younger through her labor, delivery, and the subsequent removal of herself and her child to the country are the only actions Brandon takes in the immediate aftermath of the scandal. Like Darcy, he is forced to consider how Eliza’s reputation would be harmed by public knowledge of the scandal. Brandon, Hardy tells us, has a “sense of propriety [which] includes an innate delicacy in realizing that certain things should remain private and therefore not be subject to the prying eyes of others” (Hardy, 1984 - 27). Eliza, an illegitimate child herself, borne of a “guilty connection” of Eliza the elder’s, is now a fallen woman. Judith P. Saunders explains the desirability of premarital chastity: “[it] has proven to be one of the most reliable indicators of future sexual loyalty, so that ‘women damage their social reputations as a result of sexual indiscretions,’ particularly in the eyes of high-status men who can afford to be the most discriminating in their choice of wives” (Saunders, 2009 - 29). It is Brandon’s hope of concealing Eliza’s shame, preserving her reputation, and his own neglectful conduct that keeps him from speaking up about Willoughby until Marianne has very nearly escaped Eliza’s fate.
It is the silence of both Darcy and Brandon about these scandals that harms Lydia Bennet and Marianne Dashwood. Indeed, parental inaction is damned by Austen, and often blamed for the scandal. Darcy and Elizabeth’s silence about Wickham’s character can be seen as partially at fault in Lydia’s decision to eventually take up with a dubious man, but it is Mr. Bennet’s allowing Lydia to go to Brighton that is most loudly condemned: “For one thing, the Lydia-Wickham fiasco serves to reveal… Bennet’s inadequacy… Elizabeth first doubts her father regarding his decision to let Lydia go to Brighton, and she blames him bitterly for the subsequent scandal” (Fraiman, 1993 - 362). Like Colonel Brandon, Mr. Bennet imprudently allowed his daughter to go unchaperoned among young men of dubious character, and his daughter pays the price for both his negligence and her own moral lapse. Lydia elopes with Wickham after becoming reacquainted with him in Brighton, and neither intend to get married. It is only when Darcy intervenes to bribe Wickham with a considerable sum of money and the payment of his substantial debts that Wickham agrees to marry Lydia.
Colonel Brandon’s not speaking earlier about Willoughby leads to the Dashwood women being deceived about his character, and therefore shocked when he abandons Marianne after such intimacies have passed between them—indeed, at a point when everyone on the outside assumes Willoughby and Marianne to be engaged. Barbara K. Seeber is critical of Brandon’s refusal to speak earlier, saying, “Colonel Brandon’s reason for not warning the Dashwoods about Willoughby is to protect his own secret rather than Marianne’s happiness… His excuse is perhaps as thin as Willoughby’s for abandoning Eliza” (Seeber, 2000 - 72). In choosing to conceal their wards’ scandals from the general public, Bennet, Brandon, and Darcy wish to avoid those same charges of “reckless impulsiveness [and] poor judgment” that were faced by Bill Clinton (Geher, et. al, 2007 - 20). But in so doing, they endanger other girls who lack the discernment necessary to tell if a man is a cad or a dad.
Lest it be thought that Wickham and Willoughby escape these entanglements unscathed, I will now attempt to examine the aftermath of these affairs and how the parties involved fared. To begin with, both Eliza the younger and Lydia are removed to remote locations to conceal their shame: “[Brandon] removed [Eliza] and her child to the country,” and Lydia and Wickham are “banished to the North” (Austen, 1811 - 199; Austen, 1813 - 204). In the wake of sexual scandals, women are to be removed from view, relegated to obscurity, as quick as possible, lest others charge them with impropriety. (In Lydia’s case, this is imperative, as her scandal endangers her sisters’ chances at marriage, and Lydia, the youngest, being married before her elders is a scandal in itself.) Men, meanwhile, seem to suffer more personally than women; known more generally to philander, they are excused from the charges that attend a fallen women, and are instead relegated to loveless marriages. Wickham and Lydia’s marriage is described as subsisting upon a fleeting attraction and frequent debt: “Their manner of living, even when the restoration of peace dismissed them to a home, was unsettled in the extreme. They were always moving from place to place in quest of a cheap situation, and always spending more than they ought. His affection for her soon sunk into indifference…” (Austen, 1813 - 253).
Willoughby is likewise dissatisfied with his marriage and financial situation: His aunt and benefactress, upon hearing of his liaison with Eliza, disinherits him, and he is forced to abandon his courtship with Marianne (who, the reader is assured, he would have married, if not for her lack of money). He then courts and marries an heiress, Miss Grey, who commands a fortune of fifty thousand pounds. Miss Grey is embittered upon learning of Marianne, and Willoughby avoids his loveless marriage by “liv[ing] to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself,” engaging with his horses and dogs rather than with his wife (Austen, 1811 - 353). Willoughby’s hasty, dispassionate marriage seems to reflect Judith P. Saunder’s evaluation of a match in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth: “Jack, in his turn, decides that the benefit of Gwen’s wealth outweighs the cost of her homely looks and dull personality” (Saunders, 2009 - 27). For Willoughby, not loving his wife seem to be a small price to pay to be able to keep up his self-admitted proclivity for expense: “My fortune was never large, and I had always been expensive, always in the habit of associating with people of better income than myself” (Austen, 1811 - 299). Both Wickham and Willoughby, in settling for their mates, have forfeited their own chances at happiness for pecuniary advantage.
Mansfield Park, in its treatment of scandal, takes a very different approach than Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, by examining a private scandal that goes public, though Maria is resigned to the same fate as Eliza the younger and Lydia. Maria Bertram elopes with Henry Crawford not long after her marriage to Mr. Rushworth, and this is publicized in a newspaper:
“… it was with infinite concern the newspaper had to announce to the world a matrimonial fracas in the family of Mr. R. of Wimpole Street; the beautiful Mrs. R., whose name had not long been enrolled in the [marriage lists], and who had promised to become so brilliant a leader in the fashionable world, having quitted her husband's roof in company with the well-known and captivating Mr. C., the intimate friend and associate of Mr. R., and it was not known even to the editor of the newspaper whither they were gone” (Austen, 1814 - 345).
Seeber parallels Maria’s fate to the younger Eliza’s: “… against his better judgment, [Sir Thomas] marries his daughter to Mr. Rushworth… with similar results: Maria Bertram elopes and, like Eliza, is exiled to the country” (Seeber, 2000 - 75). Maria ends up divorced and isolated from her family, banished from Mansfield Park forever, a sort of cautionary tale for those looking to engage in extramarital affair. Maria is irrevocably sunk in the opinion of both the public and her family, thanks to the newspaper’s publishing her scandal for all to read.
“Cad or Dad” in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice
“Women,” Miller tells us, “quickly learn the difference between male short-term mating and long-term commitment. They know it is generally easy to get a man to have sex, but hard to get him to commit” (Miller, 2000 - 96). In this vein, Marianne Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet are both forced to make choices between “cads” (John Willoughby and George Wickham) and “dads” (Colonel Brandon and Fitzwilliam Darcy). The cads, as discussed in the previous section, exhibit short-term mating strategies by engaging in short-term sexual affairs with no intent of marriage. Cads often “have a tendency to libertinism, rarely marry, and are almost always unhappy if they do marry,” a description that conforms exactly to Willoughby and Wickham’s habits of expense and attitudes towards their marriages. Cads also epitomize “rebellion and social alienation” (Kruger, et. al, 2003 - 230). Willoughby attempts to rebel against his aunt’s desires with his plan to propose to Marianne; Wickham paints himself as an outcast to Elizabeth by emphasizing Darcy’s supposed injustices (his denying him the living that was rightfully his according to old Mr. Darcy’s will, etc.).
Alternatively, “dad” figures are “entirely monogamous” and “keep in the background and in a neutral posture, till they are absolutely forced to come forward” (Kruger, et. al, 2003 - 231). These characteristics seem to describe Brandon and Darcy. Brandon has not allowed himself to look at another woman romantically following his thwarted relationship with and the death of Eliza, and when he eventually does come to love Marianne, he refuses to act on it until Willoughby is entirely out of the question. Meanwhile, Fraiman describes Darcy as “a father by virtue of his age, class, and a paternalism extending to friends and dependents alike” (Fraiman, 1993 – 360). Darcy, initially, is proud and haughty, and does not pay women like Caroline Bingley any attention—indeed, the only woman in whom he expresses interest throughout the course of the novel is Elizabeth, proving his monogamy. He is ‘absolutely forced to come forward’ by his own deepening feelings for Elizabeth, exclaiming, “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed” (Austen, 1813 - 125). It is only under the duress of Elizabeth’s turning down his proposal and disparaging his character to his face that he is forced to action, explaining himself to her in a letter.
Eventually, Marianne and Elizabeth’s decisions are affected by both a better knowledge of the cads’ characters—Marianne after Elinor has enlightened her with the story Brandon told her of the two Elizas and Willoughby’s involvement; Elizabeth after Darcy’s letter reveals to her the whole truth of Wickham’s indiscretions—and a re-evaluation of their previous opinions about the dads. Marianne initially objects to Colonel Brandon on the basis of his age: she exclaims “he is old enough to be my father” and then asks, “Did not you hear him complain of the rheumatism? And is not that the commonest infirmity of declining life?” (Austen, 1811 - 39). In objecting to Brandon’s age, perhaps Marianne is wondering at what the adverse outcome of such a match might be for her: such a disparity in their ages could result in Brandon’s death while she herself would still be young, vital, and likely a mother of young children. Perhaps his rheumatism would prevent him from being an active father to those proposed young children. Eventually, it is her knowledge of Brandon’s great moral character and deep capacity for love that allows her to overcome their age difference and accept him as a mate.
However, the age difference that is so appalling to Marianne could be a victory for Brandon. Brandon is thirty-five years old; women his own age have surpassed their years of peak fertility. “Women, unlike men, are confronted with an obviously circumscribed period of fertility,” Saunders notes, and Marianne, at age seventeen, has at least fifteen to eighteen years left of fertility (Saunders, 2009 – 17). Brandon makes the same choice as Bill Clinton: “At the time of the affair in 1995, Monica Lewinsky (b. 1973) was 22 (near peak fertility), and Clinton’s wife Hilary (b. 1947) was 48 (with negligible fertility, approaching menopause). From a strictly reproductive viewpoint, Hilary had an expected future reproductive value of zero, and Monica had the potential for several offspring” (Geher, et. al, 2007 - 21). In choosing the young and vital Marianne over women of his own age, Brandon makes an evolutionarily advantageous choice, maximizing his potential to have several offspring.
Elizabeth Bennet learns of George Wickham’s past misconduct via a letter from Darcy that outlines Wickham’s attempted elopement with his younger sister and past indiscretions from his youth. She had previously believed Darcy to be unjust towards Wickham and undeserving of her further notice, but she soon concludes that Wickham was in fact unjust towards Darcy and his family. Thereafter, it is seeing Darcy’s estate, Pemberley, and Darcy’s desire for her to meet Georgiana that causes her to view Darcy as a “dad” and, thus, a viable mate choice. Darcy, she learns, takes great care of his estate, and his servants never speak ill of him—an indication of Darcy’s steady character and his investment in being a homemaker. However, it is Darcy’s wanting Elizabeth to meet Georgiana that truly causes Elizabeth to recognize the change in his character:
“There is also one other person in the party,” he continued after a pause, “who more particularly wishes to be known to you. Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during your stay at Lambton?”
The surprise of such an application was great indeed; it was too great for her to know in what manner she acceded to it. She immediately felt that whatever desire Miss Darcy might have of being acquainted with her must be the work of her brother, and, without looking farther, it was satisfactory; it was gratifying to know that his resentment had not made him think really ill of her. (Austen, 1813 - 166)
Darcy’s indicating that he’d like Elizabeth to meet Georgiana speaks to a willingness to commit—a man who is so careful about the people he introduces his young and malleable sister to is not likely to allow her to meet someone he has deemed somehow unworthy or undesirable. He has clearly deemed Elizabeth to be worthy of his time if he wishes to integrate her into his family circle; perhaps he might have even reconsidered his poor opinion of her nearest relations. Indeed, he seems to believe that Elizabeth would be a suitable choice for a mother figure for Georgiana; his second proposal to her and their subsequent marriage, which Austen states serves as an example for Georgiana of matrimonial happiness, shows his willingness to incorporate Elizabeth into his family.
“Mate Poaching” in Mansfield Park and Persuasion
Maria Bertram’s suitor, Mr. Rushworth, and Anne Elliot find themselves engaged in situations where “mate poaching” could deprive them of their most viable options for future companionship. “Male and female sexual relations,” Carroll states, “have compelling positive aspects, but they are also fraught with suspicion and jealousy” (Carroll, 2011 - 113). This is certainly true of those who witness Henry Crawford’s affair with Maria. Maria’s sister Julia is jealous of her sister for attracting the attentions of a man with whom she could conceivably have mated, especially when Maria is in no position to mate with him herself, as an engaged woman. Fanny suspects Maria and Henry of indiscretion in making their preference for each other so public. But it is Mr. Rushworth who suffers most from Maria’s pursuit of and subsequent affair with Henry Crawford.
In every respect, Henry Crawford is Rushworth’s superior. Austen describes Rushworth in highly unflattering terms: “Mr. Rushworth was an inferior young man, as ignorant in business as in books, with opinions in general unfixed, and without seeming much aware of it himself.” Maria’s behavior to him, moreover, is described as “careless and cold,” and “she could not, did not like him” (Austen, 1814 – 156). Meanwhile, Henry is described by the narrator as “the man she loved” and who she is pleased to introduce to her father—the very man who disapproves of Mr. Rushworth as an unsuitable match for his daughter (151). Henry is in every way an opposite of the stupid but steady Rushworth: “To anything like a permanence of abode… Henry Crawford had, unluckily, a great dislike.” His own sister views him as a heartbreaker, a cad likely to trifle with the Bertram sisters’ affections: “If your Miss Bertrams do not like to have their hearts broken, let them avoid Henry” (33-4).
It is the performance of Elizabeth Inchbald’s play Lovers’ Vows that allows Henry and Maria to engage in indecorous behavior and indulge their flirtation. Playing a mother, Agatha, and her illegitimate son, Frederick, Maria and Henry engage in “indefatigable rehearsals” and Henry takes advantage of the stage directions that necessitate physical closeness. Even after the play is interrupted, Henry remains “pressing her hand to his heart” (132, 137). Though Henry and Maria are playing mother and son, the subtext is ostensibly sexual—it is a son born of an illicit affair, a fallen woman foreshadowing what Maria will, in some respects, become. Mary Crawford notices their closeness and attempts to play on their playing family members in order to comfort the jealous Mr. Rushworth: “I thought he began to look a little queer, so I turned it off as well as I could, by whispering to him, ‘We shall have an excellent Agatha; there is something so maternal in her manner, so completely maternal in her voice and countenance’” (133). Despite the precautions taken by Sir Thomas, in attempting to prevent Maria’s marriage to Mr. Rushworth, and stopping the play’s performance at Mansfield, Maria does eventually engage in an extramarital affair with Henry Crawford, as outlined above, and just as the participants of Strout’s survey predicted, when presented with descriptions of Maria and her marriage.
In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth’s time in Uppercross upends potential matches and leads to unexpected romantic outcomes. Wentworth engages in flirtation with both Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove—much to the dismay of Anne Elliot, Wentworth’s former fiancée, and Charles Hayter, a family cousin who is intended for one of the girls. Charles Hayter notes with distress that Wentworth is moving in on his “territory,” so to speak—he is “aware of being slighted” by Henrietta, is “a good deal disturbed by” Wentworth’s intimacy with the Miss Musgroves, and is disposed to think Wentworth is “very much in the way” of his pursuit (Austen, 1818 - 53). Henrietta is eventually engaged to Charles Hayter and thus is safe, but it is Wentworth’s courtship of Louisa that becomes a force for narrative drama.
Critics frequently argue over the role of Louisa Musgrove in a story that is essentially Wentworth and Anne’s. Indeed, some view Louisa only as a writerly device, dwelling on her eventual fate and deus ex machina-esque marriage: “Louisa is turned into a tool that marks the growth of Wentworth… The accident at Lyme knocks poor Louisa senseless but brings Wentworth to his senses” (Seeber, 2000 - 55). The ‘accident at Lyme’ is the most controversial part of Louisa’s story: Louisa, reckless, insists on being jumped down a steep flight of stairs at Lyme, precipitates Wentworth’s ability to catch her, and receives a near-fatal head injury upon falling to the ground. Louisa, much changed, later marries Captain Benwick, but it is this incident that leads Wentworth to realize that he may as well have been engaged to Louisa. He later tells Anne that had Louisa asked, he would have been “hers in honor” (Austen, 1818 - 181). But it is Wentworth’s very attentions to Louisa, his attempts to make Anne jealous in a sort of conscious mate poaching by letting Louisa pursue him, that threaten to undermine the narrative. Seeber believes Wentworth to be “hardly the honorable hero” in Louisa’s eyes, and goes on to criticize Wentworth: “Wentworth claims that he never cared for Louisa, that in fact she was a mistake… Louisa is very much like the other women characters in Austen whom we see unfairly treated and deceived by dubious male characters” (Seeber, 2000 – 56-7).
Though Anne forgives Wentworth for his folly in courting Louisa, the near-death of Louisa and the near-destruction of Wentworth’s chances with Anne, along with consideration of Maria Bertram’s fate, leads to the reader drawing the conclusion that mate poaching scenarios often will not end well. Louisa Musgrove is forever altered by her fall; Wentworth nearly ended up entangled in a loveless marriage; Maria Bertram is divorced from her husband and banished from her home. Mate poaching, Austen seems to argue, rarely ends happily, and a reader would do well to take note.
Are these findings applicable to American literature?
Critic William Deresiewicz refers to literary Darwinists as “a still-small but militant insurgency” of scholars who wish to apply ways of thinking about evolution to works of art. The field emerged in the mid-1990s and is still growing today, though the focus has shifted somewhat. The field is divided into two main areas: theory and criticism. Theory “seeks to explain why literature or art evolved in the first place,” whereas criticism seeks to understand “individual works, authors, genres, and so forth in the light of Darwinian insights,” as I have done here (Deresiewicz, 2009). Applying evolutionary psychology to works of literature could help readers begin to understand complex characters and their choices, and literary Darwinist Judith Saunders examined several of Edith Wharton’s works through a Darwinian lens to do just that. With evolutionary psychology in mind, Saunders looks at the mating choices, parenting styles, and ultimate chances of survival of characters in several of Wharton’s novels and stories.
Edith Wharton’s novels began to appear approximately ninety years after Jane Austen’s, in the early 1900s. Wharton’s novels are distinctive from Jane Austen’s in two ways—one, because Wharton is American and from a different time than Austen’s, and thus has a different perspective on society; and two, Wharton had knowledge of Darwin’s works and perhaps consciously applied his theories to her works. Regardless of these differences, Wharton’s work frequently deals with the same issues Austen raises: how financial needs come to bear on mate choice, private efforts to contain sexual scandals, and mate poaching.
Wharton’s The House of Mirth is primarily concerned with the unsuccessful mate search of Lily Bart, who struggles—and ultimately fails—to reconcile her need for a wealthy mate with her distaste for marrying without love. Twenty-nine and unmarried, Lily is teetering dangerously at the edge of infertility, subject to close scrutiny by potential mates who suspect her motives, and a target for wives who wish to protect their husbands from Lily’s friendship. Like John Willoughby, Lily likes to dress expensively and play cards for high stakes, habits she cannot afford to indulge. Indeed, in the novel’s opening scene, Lily describes herself as “horribly poor—and very expensive” (Wharton, 1905 - 12). Lily eventually turns to Gus Trenor, a married man, for financial assistance, eliciting the jealousy of Judy Trenor, Gus’ wife. Judy has already become suspicious of Gus’ attentions to another female acquaintance: “she shows no concern about her husband’s probable sexual involvement with Carry, focusing instead on the money with which Gus has provided her” (Saunders, 2009 - 31). This brings to mind Austen’s portrait of Miss Grey, Willoughby’s wife, who forces Willoughby to rudely renounce his preference for Marianne and to resolve his ‘debt’ to her by returning the lock of hair Marianne gave him, just as Lily exerts herself to repay the debt to Gus Trenor so that she will be exonerated in Judy’s estimation.
Wharton’s The Old Maid and “Roman Fever” both exhibit ideas of sexual jealousy and mate poaching. The primary male figure in The Old Maid, Clem Spender, is of a character similar to Wickham and Willoughby’s: “he is, in general, attuned to pleasures at hand rather than to future concerns, a trait that contrasts appealingly with the ‘cautious world’ of ‘old New York’” (Saunders, 2009 - 140). When Charlotte engages in a short-term sexual affair with Clem, she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, a scandal that must be covered by a hasty removal to the country, the exact same fate faced by Eliza the younger. Another out-of-wedlock pregnancy occurs in “Roman Fever,” wherein two women recount their past sexual jealousy by remembering the time they were both courting the same man. “I knew you were in love with Delphin,” Mrs. Slade, Delphin’s widow, tells her rival, Mrs. Ansley, and their subsequent conversation about their past rivalry could bring to mind the intense rivalry exhibited by Maria and Julia Bertram over Henry Crawford, or the Miss Musgroves’ less heated pursuit of Wentworth (Wharton, 1934 - 17). However, it is Mrs. Ansley who emerges the victor, as she engaged in a one-night sexual liaison with Delphin and eventually bore his child—a success along the lines of Maria Bertram’s affair with Henry Crawford, a success that Julia Bertram cannot boast.
Though Austen’s work predates Charles Darwin’s findings about evolutionary theory and specifically his theories of human courtship and mating strategies, it is easy to see why her novels held such a special fascination for Darwin. Many of his theories are evident in Austen’s study of characters’ personalities and how those salient personality traits reflect their chosen mating strategy, her examination of sexual scandals and subsequent public scrutiny, and her use of “cad or dad” and “mate poaching” scenarios in several of her novels. The application of literary Darwinism to the works of Jane Austen helps to elucidate further just why Darwin turned to her novels so frequently for comfort and pleasure.
I think this is brilliant, and completely fascinating! Thank you so much to Tracy for agreeing to share it. :)
I never knew about Darwin's love of Austen! I particularly loved 'the big 5' and the 'cad or dad' theories and how that linked. And the mate poaching was great too!
How the scandal being exposed altered things was also interesting to read. I mean, I knew about it but hadn't thought about *all* the scandals which take place in the novels and the different outcomes they all have.
It was interesting to read about Wentworth in a bad light - it is true his 'mate-poaching' nearly back fires!
Best line: 'the accident knocks poor Louisa senseless but brings Wentworth to his senses"!
Your affectionate friend,