Printer Friendly

Jane Austen's heroes and the Great Masculine Renunciation.

BORN IN 1775, DYING IN 1817, Jane Austen lived through tumultuous times, as we all know. Her lifetime saw the American and French Revolutions, the Irish Rebellion, the Regency Crisis, the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars. And of course, there was also the Romantic movement in literature, the Industrial Revolution, Britain's imperial expansion, and the intractable questions of emancipation and women's rights. Much critical work has been done on how these upheavals, wars, and revolutions, whether political or social, shaped Austen's life and affected her writing, and I think it's pretty safe to say by now that Austen is no longer seen as the spinster aunt oblivious to the radical transformations going on around her--the image that haunted Austen criticism until the 1980s.

As important as these revolutions are to Austen's writing and to modern subjectivity, I wish to discuss here another revolution entirely that took place during Austen's life, one that effected almost as much long-lasting change as, say; the American Revolution, and that has as much relevance to a true understanding of Austen's work as any of the cataclysms of the Romantic era. We do not talk about this revolution in relation to Austen's work, however, because it is hidden in the corners of her novels, the way the Napoleonic Wars are. It's called, fascinatingly enough, the Great Masculine Renunciation, and involves men's fashion, of all things. While the Terror of the French Revolution was bloodying La Place de la Concorde, while the Napoleonic Wars were destroying the European countryside, an Englishman called George Bryan Brummell was changing the way men dressed. Gone were the scarlets and purples, satins and velvets, lace and embroidery of conspicuous consumption that men wore in the middle of the eighteenth century. Romantic-era men wore instead dark blue or black wool coats, stiffly starched, blindingly white shirts, and skin-tight, skin-colored pantaloons--inconspicuous consumption, in fact. Brummell is famous for saying that "If John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well-dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable."

But this Great Masculine Renunciation entailed more than Romanticera men suddenly realizing that dark blue wool and starched shirts were more masculine than red velvet and pantaloons. Indeed, the ideological work that went into making that realization a reality demonstrates the radical transformation that representations of and assumptions about masculinity experienced in the Romantic era. I argue, in fact, that the total transformation in men's fashions in the Regency era was an outward manifestation of a similar renunciation in men's ability to express their emotions. This emotional change was of particular concern to female authors of novels in which a man and a woman had to fall in love with and express their love to each other--female authors of which Jane Austen was one of the earliest.

What I wish to stress here is something that I think literary critics and social historians sometimes seem to forget--that everything in society is interconnected; interdependent, even. Fashion history, portrait techniques, and literary movements are all simultaneous products of the same society, cause and effect of each other. My question is, what does it reveal about Romantic-era literary representations of masculinity that we now view red velvet and pantaloons as slightly effeminate and would much rather encounter the enigmatic but extremely well-dressed man like Mr. Darcy, (1) or the tuxedoed James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery, or any character portrayed by Cary Grant?

As an example of what I am trying to get at, I wish to compare two paintings that depict two eras of masculine fashion and exemplify the competing assumptions about masculine representation. The first is a portrait of George Lucy, by Pompeo Batoni, painted in 1758 when Lucy was on his Grand Tour. In this portrait, we can see that mid-eighteenth-century masculine fashion is all about conspicuous consumption: heavy gold embroidery weighs down Lucy's waistcoat and outer coat; his blue velvet coat is cut away to reveal the glory of the embroidery of the waistcoat; there is expensive lace at his wrists and throat. The posing and painting technique replicate the message of the fashions he is wearing. Although he is distinct from the rather anemic background (which itself demonstrates his wealth, because he's obviously not in England), his clothes are the focus of the picture. His hands are demonstrating the magnificence of his embroidery. His eyes are looking away so as not to draw our attention, once more focusing attention on his clothes. His thoughts are easy to guess at. He's either gloating--"Check out my nifty and very expensive embroidery"--or he's worrying--"Oh no, I think that coat over there is cooler than mine!" This is a portrait not of the man in the blue coat, but of the Blue Coat itself: It's a symbol of the power and wealth of a man who can afford not only the Blue Coat, but a portrait of himself in the Blue Coat.

In ways that both reflect and cause the conspicuous consumption of the Blue Coat, the ideal literary man of the mid-eighteenth-century revealed his correct thinking, his acceptable feelings, his very moral suitability as a man and as a husband, through the inordinate superfluousness of his tears--a sort of emotional conspicuous consumption, if you will. Henry Mackensie's Man of Feeling is the perfect example. The eponymous hero, Harley, in sympathy with the people he meets, "kissed off her tears as they flowed, and wept between every kiss" (202). Lucy's outfit certainly doesn't lend itself to a belief in his emotional reserve. More importantly, his outfit does not lend itself to a perception of him as masculine, according to our modern understanding of fashion and masculinity.

My second portrait is of Charles Christie, Esq., by Henry Raeburn, painted in 1800, just forty years after the Blue Coat was painted. Think about male fashions forty years ago--while there have certainly been changes, they are minuscule compared with the changes between the 1750s and early 1800s. Christie is 16 years old in this portrait, about to enter the Cold Stream Guards, years away from siring twenty children on two different wives, as he eventually does (!). The most striking thing about this portrait is that, in contrast to the Blue Coat, the viewer doesn't focus on the clothes at all. In fact, the browns and tans of Christie's inconspicuous clothes blend into the browns and tans of the Romantic background. Rather, the direct, piercing gaze of the Brown Boy focuses the viewer's attention on his face, and we inevitably question, "What is he thinking?" without being able to provide an answer. The Blue Coat man looks way too vacuous for us to care what he's thinking about, because he's obviously thinking about his clothes. Brown Boy is different. He is manifestly not thinking of his clothes. Paradoxically, precisely because he's captured our gaze, his thoughts seem inaccessible--perhaps he is brooding on his nameless crimes, or, at least, considering his age, on the nameless crimes he wishes he could commit (like siring twenty children!).

It's no coincidence that the most popular poems of the time were Byron's tales of tortured, brooding heroes. Although Byron's poetry is currently held by literary critics to have the least artistic merit of the Big Six Romantic poets, his grim, unfathomable male characters--emotionally inaccessible and morally suspect--touched a nerve in the Romantic era that spurred astronomical sales--ten thousand copies of The Corsair sold the day it was published in 1814. The portrait of the Brown Boy partakes in this new archetype of magnetically attractive, inaccessible masculinity. It is a portrait of a type of moral superiority, not economic superiority, a visual representation of the self-control it took to sit for a portrait when what the subject really wanted to do was go out and conquer the world. As one fashion historian claims, Brummell's look, the look of the Brown Boy, "suggested that the wearer exercised special powers of self-control, that his emotional and intellectual life had special qualities of rigor and discipline, that this was a man who was fully in control of his faculties and fully in possession of himself" (McCracken 452), and, I argue, thereby fully deserved to be in control of everything else around him. It is the new power pose. The Blue Coat portrait might be saying, "Check me out," but the Brown Boy portrait tells its viewer, "I'm checking you out," which fixes the power squarely with the subject of the portrait, rather than in the viewer. And precisely because of this power, the Brown Boy and, by extension, the Romantic-era male, is both fascinatingly attractive and frustratingly inaccessible.

So this is the new image of masculinity with which female authors of the Romantic era had to wrestle--Jane Austen among them. Men not only stopped wearing color, but also became sober, reserved, inexpressive--much like Mr. Darcy. Men not only started wearing wool instead of velvet, but also found it difficult to reveal their emotions, difficult sometimes even to know or understand their own emotions--much like Frederick Wentworth. And while a man's financial status was no longer immediately discernible by mentally weighing the gold thread on his coat, women also no longer possessed the tools to judge a man's moral worth--if masculine tears no longer announced men's sympathy with women's suffering and their desire to protect women from all distress, how were women to determine who was suitable husband material? Most importantly for my discussion, how were women authors supposed to demonstrate for their heroines and readers who was a villain and who was a hero? How were women supposed to tell the difference, for example, between a Frank Churchill and a George Knightley, between a Wickham and a Darcy, between a William Elliot and a Frederick Wentworth, between a Henry Crawford and an Edmund Bertram?

One small clue in Austen's novels is to look at what we know about men's fashion. Austen doesn't tell us much about the way her male characters dressed, and whether or not this sparse description represents obliviousness or a definite choice on Austen's part, it demonstrates the principles of masculine self-expression and stoicism that were so new in the Romantic era. Men's dress, in order to symbolize power and self-control, was supposed to be unremarkable--recall that "John Bull" was not supposed to turn in the street to notice you--and therefore, for Austen to remark on a male character's dress would threaten the reader's appreciation of his suitability as a mate. Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion is the obvious example here. His effete dandyism signifies the vain self-centeredness and over-indulgence that are responsible for the necessity of his retrenchments. He obsessively remarks on his dress and looks all the time, and, not incidentally, is not only unable to retain but is also undeserving of the honor of his patrimony. And it is very telling of Frank Churchill's moral suitability as a husband that, rather than question his possible ulterior motives, everyone in Highbury finds it believable that he would ride sixteen miles one way for a haircut. On the other hand, all we know of Mr. Knightley's dress is that he buttons his own gaiters (very unfashionable), and all we know of Colonel Brandon's clothes is the infamous flannel waistcoat (equally unfashionable), but both of these articles of clothing tell us volumes about the moral suitability of these men. Mr. Knightley's unfashionable gaiters prove him to be the competent, hands-on, hard-working English landholder so necessary to national stability. Colonel Brandon's unfashionable flannel waistcoat, according to Eileen Sutherland, implies "danger, endurance and courage, a kind of military uniform" (58), and aligns him with the bravest military men of his time.

However, considering the paucity of description of male dress in Austen's novels, we can glean more important clues about a male character's moral suitability by examining his capacity to express his feelings. The depressing realization we come to is that emotionally expressive men should be regarded with suspicion: consider Willoughby's headlong tumble into love with Marianne, Henry Crawford's deliberate choice to love Fanny Price, Wickham's facile revelation of Darcy's supposed crimes, Frank Churchill's ability to charm everyone. While these men seem initially appealing precisely because of their lack of reserve, their ability to express their likes and dislikes, and their openness in revealing their successes and the wrongs done against them, their very eloquence with emotions is eventually exposed as dangerous because its excessiveness is false. Consequently, the men who seem to be in touch with their emotions are actually untrustworthy, deceitful, and, most importantly, selfish, because rather than controlling their emotions, rather than exercising self-control, their emotions control them, to the detriment of all around them. This is even true of Darcy and Wentworth to some degree. When Darcy falls under the spell of his love for Elizabeth in his first proposal, he is unconscionably rude to his beloved. While Wentworth wallows in the resentment and disappointment he feels towards Anne, he is not only hurting Anne, but he is threatening his own and Louisa Musgrove's honor by toying with her affections.

So if emotional men are off limits for marriage because they are not able to control themselves enough to be fully moral, to live up to the ideal of reserved power symbolized by the Great Masculine Renunciation of fashion, how are Austen's women to know that the men they do marry are virtuously reserved, suitably worthy? The answer, I argue, is twofold. The heroines must first perform a closer examination of not so much the emotions of the men, because they have become inaccessible, but of their motivations, which can be examined from the outside. If it can be proved that a man is acting for the good of others, rather than for his own selfish gain, then a woman can feel safe putting her life and honor in his hands. Austen's anti-heroes act for purely selfish reasons. Although marriage with a man of Henry Crawford's standing was more than poor Fanny Price had a right to expect, he was not acting in her best interests by continuing to press her after she refused him. He might truly have loved Fanny, but his motivations were entirely selfish. Willoughby, Wickham, and Walter Elliot, of course, are more obviously selfish in their pursuit of fortunes rather than love, but even Frank Churchill, who truly loves Jane Fairfax, is undeniably selfish in forcing her to hide their engagement in order to avoid the wrath--and possible disinheritance--of Mrs. Churchill.

Austen's heroes, on the other hand, demonstrate their right to that appellation by acting unselfishly, whatever their emotions. Edward Ferrars is willing to sacrifice his happiness because it's the moral thing to do--it is only the selfishness of his prospective bride and his brother that emancipate him to seek true love. Frederick Wentworth is prepared to make the same sacrifice to Louisa Musgrove, proving that he's learned his lesson. Mr. Knightley attempts to make the opposite sacrifice, leaving the field open to Frank Churchill because he believes Emma loves him, only to return and offer Emma the consolation of a friend when Frank's secret engagement is revealed. Darcy's heroism is both more elaborate and more refined than these sacrifices. Of course, his unselfish and secret pursuit of Lydia and Wickham exemplifies his heroic status, but Darcy's true heroism is demonstrated in his emotional diffidence during his second proposal--"'My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever'" (PP 366). He demonstrates that he has learned his lesson and can temper his emotion with reason and with respect for his prospective bride's feelings.

Darcy's confession and appreciation of his education leads us to the second way in which Austen's heroines can be assured they have chosen the right hero. Although in some respects the very reticence of Austen's heroes demonstrates their moral suitability because it stems from their self-control, Austen's heroes further prove their suitability by confessing in the culminating betrothal scene their understanding and appreciation of the indispensability of their heroine to the successful construction of their own respectable masculinity. They demonstrate, in fact--all irony aside--the truth of the first line of Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" (3). That is, a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, not because he is lacking a housekeeper, sexual partner, and brood mare, as Mr. Bennet might see it, nor because he is lacking someone to spend his fortune on, as Mrs. Bennet might see it. Rather, Austen's novels argue that a single man in possession of a good fortune must want a wife--that is, needs a wife--because without her he is missing a vitally necessary part of his education that can only be learned when he finds the one woman who can teach him what it is to be a true man, an education without which he is incomplete. However, Austen takes her representation of masculine education one vital step further, because not only does she argue that a single man in possession of a good fortune must need a wife in order to complete himself, as much as a woman needs a husband to be a fully functioning member of society, but more powerfully, Austen has her heroes argue the same thing, and this confession is the emotional climax of the novel.

Austen's betrothal scenes themselves are notorious for hiding the interaction between the hero and the heroine--after all, Darcy's happiness on Elizabeth's acceptance is lost behind Austen's caustic descriptions: "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" (PP 366). In fact, Darcy's very presence seems to disappear behind a stereotype: he is as warm and as sensible as any other man--or all other men--who are violently in love. The confessions that concern me are instead in the directly expressed conversations between the heroes and the heroines after the betrothal scenes. During this confession, Darcy reveals to Elizabeth and the reader his own awareness of the fact that the mantle of masculine authority bequeathed to him by his father needed correction: "'I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit'" (369). Powerfully, he then confesses not only that Elizabeth's intervention set him straight, but also that this correction was sorely needed and fully appreciated: "'and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled'" (369). The proximity of the two exclamation marks is unusual in the dialogue of the primary characters in Austen's novels and conveys Darcy's heartfelt emotion in ways that narrative description could not. In "hearing" Darcy's confession straight from his own mouth, so to speak, rather than indirectly from the narrator, his words have an immediacy, a legitimacy, and the emotional ring of truth that allow the heroine and her reader to trust that she has given her life into the hands of a trustworthy man.

Today, male fashions of the eighteenth century seem ridiculously indulgent, excessively attention-drawing, pretentious, and even slightly effeminate. The same can be said for the sentimental masculine emotional expression of the eighteenth century. While we clamor today for our men to tell us what they're feeling, the spectacle of a twenty-first century male indulging in the crying jags of Mackenzie's Man of Feeling would be laughable. However, we all still swoon when we see our significant other, or Cary Grant, or Sean Connery dressed in a sharp suit, a tuxedo, or, even more thrillingly, in a morning coat, or top hat and tails--all of which are direct descendants of the fashions Beau Brummell's elegance solidified. We swoon, I argue, precisely because the reserved style of the suits implies the power of the wearer--a power that manifests as sexual power. On the other side of the coin, the strong, silent, tortured heroes who wear those suits still make our toes curl--witness the Darcy-mania that overtook us all when Colin Firth portrayed him so smolderingly well. After all, would you rather have Mr. Bingley in his blue coat, white knee breeches, and smile, or Mr. Darcy, in his dark suit, waistcoat, and frown? We all know what Bingley's thinking. The challenge, the attraction of Darcy, lies in deciphering his dark thoughts. I argue, in fact, that part of the abiding appeal of Jane Austen's novels lies in our continued identification with Elizabeth's frustration with the opacity of Darcy's feelings for her.

Although an understanding of the Great Masculine Renunciation--of both fashion and emotional expression--is necessary, as I have shown, to a deeper appreciation of Austen's novels, it is also relevant to us today, because twenty-first century western society is still struggling with these Romantic perceptions of masculinity, as we are still using Brummell's fashions. We still feel the power of the strong, silent hero--especially in a tuxedo!--but we also want to know what he's thinking. The innovation Austen instituted two hundred years ago, one that still controls romance novels today, is that the power of the enigmatic, mysterious, sinister hero lies in the fact that he finally breaks through his self-imposed silences and eagerly admits to his heroine, and therefore to the female reader, that he would be incomplete without her to guide him, morally and emotionally, and that his admission represents the emotional pinnacle of the novel. The appeal of modern romance novels (which comprise fifty percent of the current paperback market, for all the critical scorn heaped on them) lies in their promise to divulge the hidden feelings of the enigmatic alpha-male hero as he falls in love with the heroine--telling the story from Darcy's perspective, in fact. Austen was one of the first female novelists to deal with this issue of masculine reserve, and the fact that she makes it a central theme of her books is why her novels can still feel so startlingly modern, despite having been written two hundred years ago.


(1.) In Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, after all, Mark Darcy becomes immediately unattractive to Bridget when they are first introduced because he is wearing "a V-neck diamond-patterned [sweater] in shades of yellow and blue--as favored by the more elderly of the nation's sports reporters. As my friend Tom often remarks, it's amazing how much time and money can be saved in the world of dating by close attention to detail. A white sock here, a pair of red braces there, a gray slip-on shoe, a swastika, are as often as not all one needs to tell you there's no point writing down phone numbers and forking out for expensive lunches because it's never going to be a runner" (12).


AUSTEN, JANE. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1969.

FIELDING, HELEN. Bridget Jones's Diary. New York: Viking, 1996.

Mackenzie, Henry. The Man of Feeling. 1771; New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1974.

McCRACREN, GRANT. "The Voice of Gender in the "World of Goods: Beau Brummell and the Cunning of Present Gender Symbolism." The Material Culture of Gender: The Gender of Material Culture. Eds. Katherine Martinez and Kenneth L. Ames. Delaware: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1997. 448-57.

SUTHERLAND, EILEEN. "That Infamous Flannel Waistcoat." Persuasions 18 (1996): 58.

Sarah S. G. Frantz is fascinated with all aspects of how women novelists create and represent their male characters, She received her doctorate from the University of Michigan, and has previously published articles on romance novels and Austen's proposal scenes.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Jane Austen Society of North America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Frantz, Sarah
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Jane Austen and Elizabeth Bennet: the limits of irony.
Next Article:A mind of her own: the internalization of plot in Pride and Prejudice.

Related Articles
Editor's note.
Editor's note.
The manner of reading: Jane Austen and the semiotics of dance.
"A disagreement between us": gendered argument in Austen's novels.
Editor's note.
Message from the president.
Editor's note.
Midshipman price at Trafalgar.
Editor's note.
Jane Fairfax and the "she-tragedies" of the eighteenth century.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters