Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jane Austen: Lying and Deceiving

It is not,” says Lord Bacon, “the lie that passes through the mind, but the lie that sinks in and settles in it that does the hurt.”

Jane Austen telling lies is at the heart of conflict and deceit. Many calamitous unsavory scenes in all her novels are set off by a chain of lies.

It is the brazen lies that Wickham tells Elizabeth Bennet about his relationship with Mr. Darcy that confuses Elizabeth, causing her to take an initial dislike for the maligned Mr. Darcy. Later in the course of the novel —Pride and Prejudice— readers learn that Mr. Wickham was a lying scoundrel.

Likewise in in Northanger Abbey, Mr. Thorpe has no compunction about lying to Catherine, and even to others. Having set a walking date with Henry and Miss Tilney, Mr. Thorpe is determined to prevent Catherine from befriending them. At one point Thorpe even takes the liberty of speaking for Catherine: “Well, I have settled the matter, and now we may all go to-morrow with a safe conscience. I have been to Miss Tilney, and made your excuses.”

Catherine of course protests. But Thorpe continues:
“I have, upon my soul—left her this moment—told her you had sent me to say that, having just recollected a prior engagement of going to Clifton with us to-morrow, you could not have he pleasure of walking with her till Tuesday.”

In the end readers learn that John Thorpe is not only a congenital liar, but also a brazen slanderer with a meddlesome attitude. Yet, he doesn’t match the villainy of Willoughby (in Sense and Sensiblity)  and Frank Churchill (in Emma), who not only lie, but deceive, which is lying and tricking with ill intentions.

Sir Walter Scott in his epic poem “Marmion” writes: ''Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.'' Jane Austen in the end lets her deceiving characters be caught in that tangled web, from which they hardly ever escape.

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