Recently I was re-reading Emma and was struck by the character of Jane Fairfax—how she is held up as this example of feminine virtue and accomplishment, but still remains a mystery. I was trying to think of comparable characters in Austen’s other novels and I hit upon another Jane: Jane Bennet. Like Jane Fairfax, Jane Bennet is described as beautiful, well-spoken, and amiable. The two Janes also share a certain inscrutability; other characters frequently have difficulty discerning their true feelings.
Both Janes also serve as foils for the main characters of their books. Jane Fairfax is held up as an example of all the feminine virtue that everyone believes Emma cannot achieve—including Emma herself. Jane is endlessly patient and kind, far more accomplished at the pianoforte, and well-educated. Emma actually admits to herself that jealousy prevents her from becoming better friends with Jane. Similarly, Jane Bennet contrasts with Elizabeth. She is patient and kind—and tends to think well of everyone. She is not prone to the kind of emotional outbursts Elizabeth displays during the proposal scene at Hunsford.
Interestingly, both Janes suffer because of their mild natures. Jane Fairfax allows herself to be talked into a secret engagement and then must suffer from the secrecy. It torments her so much that she actually falls ill. Jane Bennet loses Mr. Bingley in part because his friends do not believe she is really in love. P&P makes it clear that Jane suffers greatly, although she tries to hide her pain from her family. Austen seems to admire such characters, but she also sees the problems inherent in being too good and too passive.
Of course, there is a third Jane in the equation: Jane Austen. What are we to make of the fact that she gave her own name to these two exemplars of feminine virtue? It could simply be a convenience. After all, there are also a number of characters named Anne and Mary throughout her books. But so many of Austen’s other choices are deliberate, it’s hard to believe that one is random. It could be that Jane Austen saw herself in these two Janes, but her letters suggest that sees herself as witty and flawed. In other words, she more clearly resembles Elizabeth and Emma than either Jane.
It’s impossible to think of the name Jane without thinking of the phrase “plain Jane,” and perhaps Austen held something of that view about the name. Her female protagonists often have longer or fancier names: Elinor, Marianne, Catherine, Fanny, Elizabeth, Emma. Perhaps she was contrasting these flawed but fascinating figures with the more perfect but also more generic Janes. It is certainly true that Austen’s heroines go on more interesting journeys than their Jane colleagues.