Noticing and Not Noticing

John Mullan

  • The Hidden Jane Austen by John Wiltshire
    Cambridge, 195 pp, £17.99, April 2014, ISBN 978 1 107 64364 2

There is no sign that Freud read Jane Austen. Yet in her use of the words ‘unconscious’ and ‘unconsciously’, Austen might have had some claim to his attention. The words had been around in English since the late 17th century, and when Austen first uses one of them, in Sense and Sensibility, it is in a conventional and wholly un-Freudian manner. Elinor Dashwood’s ghastly, venal sister-in-law, seeing the growing attachment between Elinor and her brother, Edward, observes to Elinor’s mother that Edward must find a wealthy or noble wife. There will be trouble for ‘any young woman who attempted to draw him in’. The implication (Elinor is an unacceptable nobody and should lay off) is so crude that Mrs Dashwood ‘could neither pretend to be unconscious, nor endeavour to be calm’. ‘Unconscious’ here means ‘unaware’, ‘uncomprehending’, ‘unwitting’; this is the way the word is commonly used by Austen’s contemporaries and the way it is used elsewhere in Sense and Sensibility and in Austen’s next novel, Pride and Prejudice. When Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr Darcy’s proposal, she nonetheless finds herself gratified ‘to have inspired unconsciously so strong an affection’. To be ‘unconscious’ is simply not to notice something in the world around you.

Then, in Mansfield Park, these words start being used in a new way. The stiff pater familias, Sir Thomas Bertram, returns from Antigua to find that his niece Fanny has progressed from ugly duckling to swan. He can’t help perceiving ‘in a grand and careless way’ that the thoroughly eligible Henry Crawford – rich, elegant, every inch a gentleman – is showing a special interest in her, ‘nor perhaps refrain (though unconsciously) from giving a more willing assent to invitations on that account’. What does ‘unconsciously’ mean here? Sir Thomas has just presided over the mercenary marriage of his eldest daughter, Maria, to a hugely wealthy man whom she despises, though Sir Thomas believes himself ‘infinitely above scheming or contriving’ – that ‘infinitely’ telling us that we are hearing his own proud self-estimation. So ‘unconsciously’ means not noticing something in himself. The evasive double negative (‘nor perhaps refrain’) emphasises his refusal to admit his own calculations to himself. We would now probably say that his motivation was ‘subconscious’. Acting ‘unconsciously’ means being self-pleasingly blind to his own motives.

Under Austen’s touch, the word is opening up to new possibilities. In her last completed novel, Persuasion, Captain Wentworth acknowledges this when, in the happy afterglow of declaring himself to Anne and being accepted, he explains his past behaviour to her. He tells her that, in the eight years since she was persuaded to reject his first proposal of marriage, ‘he had been constant unconsciously, nay unintentionally; that he had meant to forget her, and believed it to be done. He had imagined himself indifferent, when he had only been angry.’ His discovery and then his confession of his unconscious devotion to Anne are all the more convincing because the reader has watched and listened while his certain indifference reported early in the novel (‘Her power with him was gone for ever’) has been contradicted by all the signs of revivifying affection. Persuasion was published in 1818, a year after its author’s death, which happens to be the date of the first recorded use of ‘the unconscious’ (noun), by Coleridge, in some characteristically probing but perplexing lecture notes. ‘As in every work of Art the Conscious – is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it. So is the Man of Genius the Link that combines the two.’

‘Till this moment I never knew myself,’ Elizabeth Bennet cries, somewhat stagily, as she walks alone down a Kent lane. She has just been persuaded by Mr Darcy’s letter that Wickham is a charming rogue whose lies she has all too readily believed. Generations of sixth-formers have been taught that the heroine’s self-knowledge, quite as much as the Pemberley estate, is the prize she eventually gains. What is less often observed is the technical delicacy – unknown in fiction before her – with which Austen has dramatised Elizabeth’s ability to hide her feelings from herself. Think of the way Mr Darcy, having been repulsed in his two previous efforts to get her to dance with him, finally claims her as his partner. At the Netherfield ball our heroine has had to endure two clumsy turns of the floor with Mr Collins, before enjoying a dance with an unnamed officer who has conversed happily about Mr Wickham’s popularity among his fellow militia members. She is talking to Charlotte Lucas when she finds herself ‘suddenly addressed by Mr Darcy who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him’. ‘Without knowing what she did’: the narrative behaves as if reporting a fact, but it is inhabiting her consciousness as her instant response to his ‘application’ is turned into a perplexing reflex. She is left ‘to fret over her own want of presence of mind’, and we sense the denial of feelings hidden from herself.

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