Lady Catherine insists to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice that she must not think she will ever improve her social status by marrying Mr. Darcy: “Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified.” From Lady Catherine’s insistence on thwarting what she perceives as Elizabeth’s ambition, to Mrs. Vernon’s fears in Lady Susan that Frederica will be “sacrificed to Policy and Ambition,” to Anne Elliot’s modest ambition in Persuasion to find “a small house in their own neighbourhood,” there is in Jane Austen’s novels an ongoing preoccupation with ambitious desires, whether those desires are focused on status and power or on the pursuit of more modest alternatives.
Over the past several months I’ve been writing about ambition in Austen’s works and in her life, and in June I spoke at a JASNA Eastern Pennsylvania meeting about the question of whether ambition is a vice or a virtue, and about what we can learn from Jane Austen as we try to come up with answers. I’m in the process of working out what I want to do next with this fascinating and controversial topic — which is to say, I’m trying to figure out whether I want to write blog posts, essays, and talks, or maybe someday a book. Whatever I decide, though, I do know that I want to explore the history of ambition further, especially in relation to Austen’s novels (and, as I mentioned here a few weeks ago, in relation to novels by L.M. Montgomery and Edith Wharton).
I’ve created a new page on my website to collect quotations about ambition and to keep track of the blog posts and essays I write about “Austen and Ambition.” I’ve also started to collect articles and images on an “Ambition” Pinterest board. I would love to hear your suggestions about characters who lack ambition or are said to have too much of it, and about passages in Austen (or elsewhere) that take up this question of whether ambition is good or bad.
This project is very much a work in progress and I’m looking forward to future conversations about the “elegant but ambitious” Caroline Simpson from Austen’s Jack and Alice, the “cold-hearted ambition” of Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park, the “ambitious & Insincere” Mr. Lushington mentioned in Austen’s letters, and the ambitious or unambitious desires of many others, including Fanny Price, of whom Mary Crawford says, “if there is a girl in the world capable of being uninfluenced by ambition, I can suppose it her.”
I hope my own ambition to continue to find “good company and a great deal of conversation” will be gratified. I love talking about Austen (and Montgomery and Wharton and other writers) online and in person.
In 2016, I’ll be speaking on Austen and ambition at a JASNA Nova Scotia meeting, and I’m excited to share some new ideas I’ve been writing about in the months since my talk in Philadelphia. I’ll share more details once the date is confirmed.
Here’s the link to the new page, “Austen and Ambition.”
I’m also collecting images that appear in conversations about ambition: there’s “the bend in the road,” from Anne of Green Gables (with the imagined “new landscapes” and “new beauties” beyond), and the “alpine path” that L.M. Montgomery describes in her autobiography. I’d be glad to hear your suggestions about additional similes and metaphors. Ambition as a fire? Ambition and the danger of flying too close to the sun, perhaps?