Spirits freshened and thoughts relieved: a few stress management tips from Jane Austen’s characters

Is Jane Austen’s fiction descriptive or prescriptive? Does she confine herself to depicting a real or imaginary world or does she intend to lay down rules for individual and social behaviour? The subject is rather complex. In order to answer the question, we should, among other things, distinguish between authorial and character voice, and determine to what extent irony and jokes express her real views. And, of course, general rules are not the same as tips. In a nutshell, I dare say that, though her writings are undoubtedly informed by her values, she doesn’t mean to be didactic.

And yet, after a particularly trying week, I turned to them wondering whether I could get any guidance on stress management. Many quotes came to mind, and others popped up as I browsed through. Eventually I decided it’d be fun to put them together and share them with my readers, with the caveat that her characters’ opinions might not reflect hers. Here are some of the choice bits of wisdom/folly I’ve come across:

1.‘Run mad as often as you choose; but do not faint.’

These are the last words of Laura’s beloved Sophia in Love and Freindship. A warning you cannot afford to ignore, as the former explains:

How could it be otherwise accounted for that I should have escaped the same indisposition, but by supposing that the bodily Exertions I had undergone in my repeated fits of frenzy had so effectually circulated and warmed my Blood as to make me proof against the chilling Damps of Night, whereas, Sophia lying totally inactive on the ground must have been exposed to all their severity. I was most seriously alarmed by her illness which trifling as it may appear to you, a certain instinctive sensibility whispered me, would in the End be fatal to her.

Therefore, indulge in a little bout of insanity every now and then, if you must, but keep your smelling-salts about you, just in case …

2. In Jack and Alice, ‘somewhat heated by wine,’ Miss Johnson seeks ‘relief for her disordered Head and Love-sick Heart in the Conversation of the intelligent Lady Williams.’ Unfortunately, neither booze nor social interaction provide any solace: she is ‘uncommonly out of spirits,’ and can ‘think of nothing but Charles Adams … and … the unreturned affection’ she feels for him. Worse still, she forgets herself in the most undignified manner, as ‘her head is not strong enough to support intoxication (1) .’

The hapless girl,

heated with wine and raised by passion … could have little command of her temper … “From Words she almost came to Blows’ – when Mr Johnson luckily entered and with some difficulty forced her away from Lady Williams.

Elinor & Marianne
Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

3. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Jennings recommends comfort food:

Had not Elinor, in the sad countenance of her sister, seen a check to all mirth, she could have been entertained by Mrs Jennings’s endeavours to cure a disappointment in love, by a variety of sweetmeats and olives.

As Marianne’s misery persists, more substantial fare is metaphorically suggested:

Well, I shall spirit up the Colonel as soon as I can. One shoulder of mutton, you know, drives another down. If we can but put Willoughby out of her head!

4. ‘A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever,’ declares Mrs Bennet, who knows a thing or two about ‘nervous’ tremblings, flutterings, and spasms. In spite of Mr Woodhouse’s misgivings, a dip in the ocean was widely believed to benefit those who suffered from all sorts of physical and psychological disorders. Mr Parker, who, admittedly, had a vested interest in the matter,

held it indeed as certain that no person could be really well, no person (however upheld for the present by fortuitous aids of exercise and spirits in a semblance of health) could be really in a state of secure and permanent health without spending at least six weeks by the sea every year. The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible … Sea air was healing, softening, relaxing fortifying and bracing, seemingly just as was wanted sometimes one, sometimes the other. If the sea breeze failed, the sea-bath was the certain corrective; and where bathing disagreed, the sea air alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure.

The restorative influence of nature in general cannot be denied. Not without a little sarcasm, Lizzy Bennet exclaims:

‘What delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend!’

5. Emma’s never been to the seaside. Her demanding aging father wouldn’t let her leave Highbury, and looking after him can be taxing:

The weather affected Mr Woodhouse, and he could only be kept tolerably comfortable by almost ceaseless attention on his daughter’s side, and by exertions which had never cost her half so much before … The prospect before her now, was threatening to a degree that could not be entirely dispelled–that might not be even partially brightened. If all took place that might take place among the circle of her friends, Hartfield must be comparatively deserted; and she left to cheer her father with the spirits only of ruined happiness.

How does our heroine avoid burnout?

Emma resolved to be out of doors as soon as possible. Never had the exquisite sight, smell, sensation of nature, tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a storm, been more attractive to her. She longed for the serenity they might gradually introduce; and on Mr Perry’s coming in soon after dinner, with a disengaged hour to give her father, she lost no time in hurrying into the shrubbery.–There, with spirits freshened, and thoughts a little relieved, she had taken a few turns, when she saw Mr Knightley.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

6. Jane Fairfax is also under a great deal of strain, what with her private engagement, his fiancé’s thoughtless flirting with Emma, their frequent tiffs, the alternative prospect of becoming a governess, her oversolicitous aunt, and their small home.

“Oh! Miss Woodhouse, the comfort of being sometimes alone!”–seemed to burst from an overcharged heart, and to describe somewhat of the continual endurance to be practised by her, even towards some of those who loved her best.

Her daily walks to the post-office provide a precious opportunity to be by herself she’s unwilling to give up. Like Elinor Dashwood, she must keep a secret and knows she is ‘stronger alone.’

7. In the course of similar perambulations, Lizzy Bennet turns things over in her mind.

Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections.

Every Austen heroine needs to engage in some ‘quiet reflection’ in order to make sense of upsetting or confusing events and compose herself. If nothing else, meditation eases pain and leads to self-knowledge and self-control, as Marianne Dashwood tells her sister:

My illness has made me think–It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past: I saw in my own behaviour … nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave …I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it–my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved.

8. Talking to a sister or a kindred spirit can also help. Elinor and Marianne confide in each other by the end of the book. Jane and Lizzy Bennet,  Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, Emma Woodhouse and Mrs Weston, and Elizabeth and Emma Watson do it more regularly. Anne Elliot envies Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove

nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.

9. The plan Marianne refers to is a ‘scheme of … rational employment and virtuous self-control.’ It combines physical exercise with ‘a course of serious study’ and music practice.

The fact is she can’t forget Willoughby: ‘His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment.’

Elinor thinks she should be commended for it, but doubts she’ll be able to keep her resolution. Her goals seem too ambitious. Perhaps she should have taken baby steps …

10. This is precisely what Harriet Smith does:

Emma watched … her own particular little friend; … she could … most heartily rejoice in that light, cheerful, unsentimental disposition which allowed her so many alleviations of pleasure, in the midst of the pangs of disappointed affection. There she sat–and who would have guessed how many tears she had been lately shedding? To be in company, nicely dressed herself and seeing others nicely dressed, to sit and smile and look pretty, and say nothing, was enough for the happiness of the present hour.

Though Harriet is not very bright, this seems wise enough: why wallow in dejection and self-pity when we can put them aside and enjoy ourselves for a while?

Similarly, Mrs Bennet, for all her fretting and worrying about the entail and her daughters’ future, still manages to find ‘solace’ in ‘visiting and news.’ She is clearly thrilled to learn about the latest fashion trends:

The Bennets are shocked
Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

I do not blame Jane … for Jane would have got Mr Bingley, if she could. But, Lizzy! Oh, sister! it is very hard to think that she might have been Mr Collins’s wife by this time, had not it been for her own perverseness. He made her an offer in this very room, and she refused him. The consequence of it is, that Lady Lucas will have a daughter married before I have, and that Longbourn estate is just as much entailed as ever. The Lucases are very artful people indeed, sister. They are all for what they can get. I am sorry to say it of them, but so it is. It makes me very nervous and poorly, to be thwarted so in my own family, and to have neighbours who think of themselves before anybody else. However, your coming just at this time is the greatest of comforts, and I am very glad to hear what you tell us, of long sleeves.

11. Though Mrs Bennet is not clever enough to smile at her own ‘follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies,’ a little sense of humour never comes amiss. Emma believes Frank Churchill has been laughing up his sleeve at the expense of the trusting inhabitants of Highbury:

‘I do suspect that in the midst of your perplexities at that time, you had very great amusement in tricking us all.–I am sure you had.–I am sure it was a consolation to you.’

‘Oh! no, no, no–how can you suspect me of such a thing? I was the most miserable wretch!’

‘Not quite so miserable as to be insensible to mirth. I am sure it was a source of high entertainment to you, to feel that you were taking us all in.–Perhaps I am the readier to suspect, because, to tell you the truth, I think it might have been some amusement to myself in the same situation. I think there is a little likeness between us.’

While double-dealing and deceit ought to be condemned, the ability to appreciate the funny side of things appears to be vital in coping with any kind of stress. After all, as a certain gentleman philosopher puts it, ‘for what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’


(1) These words are crossed out in the MS.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Jane Austen’s Juvenilia quoted from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blvolfirst/Front_(left)_board.html

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