I went to Philadelphia last weekend to speak on Jane Austen and ambition at a JASNA Eastern Pennsylvania meeting, and my favourite part of the trip was the lively discussion after my talk about whether Austen saw ambition as a vice or a virtue. It was wonderful to discuss this controversial question with so many smart people who know Austen’s novels and letters so well.
The conversation inspired me to consider what I want to do next with this topic. Blog posts? A new essay on ambition, focusing on a specific novel? (Or perhaps, someday, a book on Austen and ambition?) I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about these questions. For now, if you’d like to know more about my talk, you might be interested in reading what Deborah Yaffe (author of Among the Janeites) wrote on her blog about the event: “Austen, ambition and Emsley.” It was such fun to see Deborah and other JASNA friends both old and new, and to explore this exciting topic with them.
Here are two of of my favourite passages about ambition in Austen’s novels:
Mrs. Dashwood and Edward Ferrars discuss ambition in Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 17:
“You have no ambition, I well know. Your wishes are all moderate.”
“As moderate as those of the rest of the world, I believe. I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but like every body else it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so.”
I love how Mrs. Dashwood tells, rather than asks, Edward about his ambition. She’s trying to reassure him it’s all right that he lacks professional ambition. But in fact he has very high ambitions of a different kind.
Lady Catherine to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 56:
“Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified.”
If Elizabeth had been ambitious about “marrying up,” she could have accepted Darcy’s first proposal.
And then in Austen’s letters, the best line about ambition is “I wore my Aunt’s gown & handkercheif, & my hair was at least tidy, which was all my ambition” (20 November 1800).
I had a fabulous weekend in Philadelphia and I’m grateful to Paul Savidge, Regional Coordinator, and members of the Board and Region for inviting me to visit. It was a weekend of good books and good conversations, and that made me very happy. (Good food, too….)