In defense of the ordinary (responding to a comparison of Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre)

I was recently talking to a friend about books, and she said that Jane Eyre (of Charlotte Bronte’s novel) has a much stronger character and more interesting story than Elizabeth Bennet (of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). What’s the point of reading about an Elizabeth Bennet, when you can read about a heroine like Jane Eyre?

It’s true that Jane Eyre overcomes more difficulties than Elizabeth Bennet and has more self-possession, perceptiveness, and moral integrity. But why even compare these two characters? I’m not sure.

They come from very different novels. Different in tone, style, subject matter, scope, time period, and authorial intention. Also, the fact that Elizabeth doesn’t have Jane Eyre’s moral or intellectual stature doesn’t matter. She isn’t meant to be like Jane Eyre.

Elizabeth has ordinary imperfections and leads an ordinary life for a woman of her social class. That’s part of what makes her story interesting.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Collins from the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

One of the reasons I appreciate Jane Austen’s writing is because she understood that the ordinary can make a huge difference. The commonplace decisions you make and small-scale dilemmas you face are part of the moral fabric of your life.

Austen understood the power of a remark spoken in a thoughtless or bad-tempered way – how much it can hurt someone, damage a relationship, or project a bad impression of yourself. She understood what can happen when you fail to put your pride aside, when you give unhelpful advice, or when you form an impression of someone’s character too quickly and in a limited context.

Something small-scale can still produce a good deal of misery. Or it can bring joy to people, if you behave with integrity and with consideration for them.

Austen’s novels do have some heightened drama as well – like Wickham running off with Lydia. But even the more dramatic incidents stem from so-called small or ordinary decisions.

For example, Lydia gets into the sort of trouble she’s in partly because of her parents’ carelessness in letting her travel when she’s clearly not mature and well-behaved. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet aren’t abusive parents. They aren’t extreme in their behavior. They’re silly (Mrs. Bennet) and largely uninvolved (Mr. Bennet). These milder weaknesses in character still have a huge impact on Lydia’s life, and the lives of all the Bennet sisters.

Similarly, when Austen explores marriage compatibility, she doesn’t focus on the more extreme cases of terrible marriages (like when a wife is locked in an attic). She presents more commonplace problems, like when a spouse is consistently selfish, coldly overbearing, or gratingly pompous (so they’re monologuing at the table while you try not to carve out your ear drums with a dessert spoon). Or maybe your spouse is more shallow than you or shares few of your values, to the extent that you can barely have a conversation with them or see eye-to-eye on anything.

Most people aren’t going to face the kind of dramatic decisions that Jane Eyre needs to make. And even if they do, most of their lives will still be made of more ordinary but still meaningful moments.

A lack of appreciation for the ordinary can lead to callousness. For instance, there are people who say they love humanity and want to aid humanity – but they’re rude to their waiter, unfair to their employees, dismissive of their friends, and indifferent to their spouse and kids.

I’m not writing this post to criticize people’s feelings about fictional characters. It’s fine to have a preference for different kinds of novels, or to love more than one kind of fictional character. You don’t have to read and enjoy Austen. As for Charlotte Bronte’s works, I prefer Villette (largely because of how she wrote the first-person narration). In any case, I think Austen’s understanding of human nature in more ordinary contexts is one of reasons her books are enjoyable and valuable.

(The image is from the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the left is Elizabeth Bennet, played by Jennifer Ehle. On the right, the inimitable Mr. Collins, played by David Bamber.)