The Unwritten Proposals in Jane Austen’s Novels

I started making a chart of all the proposals in Jane Austen’s collected works, to prove that proposals can be accepted indoors (common myth, despite the fact that Bingley’s proposal to Jane is accepted and indoors), but then I started looking at the speech. Is a person quoted or just described? It seems Jane Austen has a funny habit of leaving out the actual words of proposals.

Some proposals have both quoted and described speech, like Darcy for whom we get an opening line quoted, “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” and then described speech “he spoke well”. Others are completely quoted (Mr. Collins’s proposal to Elizabeth) or only described (Wentworth and Anne’s talk after the letter in Persuasion). Here is a chart:

This data looks very messy, however, if we look at just the on-page proposals (Bingley’s for example is off-page) and those accepted or rejected, we can see a pattern:

Women are only described when they accept proposals (She spoke then, on being so entreated.—What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. Emma), but they are very much speaking aloud when they refuse. Which I think goes into a theme of Jane Austen’s: the most important agency a woman can have is the power to say “No” (“man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal”, Northanger Abbey). And yet, when Jane Austen’s women say no, they often have to repeat themselves, and explain, and explain again, and be called irrational… But the point is they can speak, they can know their own hearts, and the men and everyone else should listen. These men are trying to take away the only power these women have!

-Elizabeth Bennet, Pride & Prejudice

There are a lot of men in Austen’s works who expect to be accepted and don’t seem to understand that “no” is even a possible answer. Emma wasn’t irrational when she said, ““Oh! to be sure… it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for any body who asks her.” After all, Mr. Elton would take a good deal of convincing before he took “no” as Emma’s answer. It took Fanny Price an entire hour to convince Henry Crawford that her “no” really meant “no” in Mansfield Park!

Just looking at Elizabeth, she is fully quoted while rejecting both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy:

“You are too hasty, sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline them.” (Ch 19)

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which you tell me have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.” (Ch 34)

However, when accepting Darcy’s second proposal, Elizabeth is uncharacteristically quiet, to the reader at least. The narrator describes but does not quote us her acceptance:

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eyes, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight diffused over his face became him: but though she could not look she could listen; and he told her of feelings which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.

Illustrated edition, C.E. Brooks

As for why Jane Austen didn’t write out every word of the accepted proposals, it makes me think of a line from Mansfield Park: “there were emotions of tenderness that could not be clothed in words.” We know the feelings of each character, so the words matter less. We, as well as the two people getting engaged, finally have a perfect understanding of each other.

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.—Mr. Knightley could not impute to Emma a more relenting heart than she possessed, or a heart more disposed to accept of his.Emma

And I think it works! The only proposal I do feel a little cheated on is Darcy #1 because I really want to hear just how much he insulted her family.

Do you feel the same? Or do you wish Austen had written every word?

Note: John Thorpe’s (Northanger Abbey) and Mr. Elliot’s (Persuasion) I classed as semi-proposals. Mr. Elliot I barely think counts because he made a vague comment in public, but many people have argued to me that it is a proposal. I think his comment about Anne not changing her name is just very obvious flirting. John Thorpe’s proposal is so vague Catherine doesn’t even understand that he is proposing!

9 responses to “The Unwritten Proposals in Jane Austen’s Novels”

  1. Alice Avatar

    I agree that Mr Elliott was only testing the waters. Had Anne shown any emotion, blushed etc. he might have proposed – but she didn’t, and he didn’t. I also agree that some of Austen’s women have to go to crazy lengths for ‘no’ to be accepted by the suitor in question!!

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Yes, that’s what I think about Mr. Elliot/Anne. It also seems important for proposals for the man and woman to be alone (this is brought up multiple times, Mr. Elton is so excited to find Emma alone in the carriage so he can propose, Mrs. Bennet keeps trying to get Jane and Bingley alone), so maybe if Anne responded as Mr. Elliot liked, he would have sought her out afterwards.

      Yeah… these “gentlemen” don’t seem to be that good at listening to women!

  2. Riana Everly Avatar

    This is a fascinating analysis. I’ve also long wondered exactly what Darcy had to so that made Bad go so very quickly to Worse. Oh, to be a fly on that wall!

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Thank you! And I know right? I’d love to watch the first Darcy proposal exactly how Jane Austen imagined it!

  3. Regina Jeffers Avatar

    Perhaps it would have been better if Darcy wrote out his proposal rather than to speak it extemporaneously. He might have realized how condescending he sounds. He tends to ramble on.
    “A wise man speaks because he has something to say, a fool speaks because he has to say something.” – Plato (or)
    “Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.” – Dionysius (or)
    “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” – Benjamin Franklin (or)
    “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain
    Can you tell “speech” was one of my minors in college?

  4. Jayne Bamber Avatar
    Jayne Bamber

    Oooh, this is a really interesting concept to consider!

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      I find it fascinating!

  5. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Great post! You really did your research!lol I also think the couple should be alone when a proposal is happening. But the man needs to say the proper thing to get the answer he wants.

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Not only does the man need to say the proper thing, the girl actually has to like him!

      Thank you 🙂

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