Austen's Great Debates

Debates, not arguments

"It is a truth universally acknowledged ..." Jane Austen's stories make her readers marvel at her power of spinning a tale. We admire her ability to create an intriguing twist of circumstances out of which we wonder, will love triumph? Her storytelling is so good, I still feel this way each time I reread her books. And, of course, there is her eye for human comedy, or absurdities, without being over the top. One thing that can be said about her charactersthey are all believable, and that only makes the humor all the more priceless. I should also mention how she always manages to give the heroine a most interesting flaw that makes the character more acceptable as well as someone we can relate to.

However, Miss Austen had a knack for something else that I have always found impressive, and that is great debates. I call them debates rather than arguments because these well-crafted conversations are between persons expressing their points of view in a calm and rational manner. She had some good arguments, to be sure, such as when Darcy first proposes and we see Lizzy and Darcy really arguing, not debating. Another famous argument is between Emma and Knightley when she talked Harriet into not accepting the farmer Robert Martin's offer of marriage. In each of these two arguments, we are drawn in, feeling the tension from both sides and we can understand why the two involved would be so irritated.

But Austen's debates take us to another place altogether ... that place where emotions don't cloud our judgement and we can stand on the side, considering the impact of what is being discussed. There is no question that the potential is there for feelings to get riled up, but they are presented in that gentle English way that has all the hallmarks of civility.

Here are some of my favorites:

In Pride & Prejudice there is a debate between Lizzy and Darcy about Bingley saying he would leave Netherfield in an instant. Darcy says Charles would just as quickly decide to stay if asked not to leave, and thus begins a wonderful debate between Lizzy and Darcy. And what a debate it is, especially considering the subject! But the two put their hearts into it as each presents sound, compelling points and counterpoints.

In Emma, John Knightley and Jane Fairfax have a debate on, of all things, going to the post office! Again we see JA’s genius in creating a very compelling and heartfelt moment on a subject that on the surface would have little emotional value, but not in the hands of Jane Austen. Talking about Emma, I should also mention the debate between George Knightley and Mrs. Weston about Emma taking Harriet under her wing. Then there are the talks about Frank Churchill between Emma and Knightley that are more good debates.

Now, my all-time favorite debate is found in the book Persuasion, though. It is between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville on the subject of whether men or women are the more steadfast in love. The subject is most compelling and profound, and yet these two gentle people discuss this with the utmost respect, and that very English thing I call reserved passion.



I have often wondered if men and women of today would make such claims for their sex? Or are people today both so prepared to dispense with the person they are with when someone they consider more interesting comes along? With so much of that sort of thing going on, I really do wonder.

This subject that makes for one of the most sensitive and profoundly moving debates ever, I know, is not lost on everyone ... consider the TV show Monk about a brilliant detective who would not, could not, forget his wife after her deathher cherished memory is ever present with him.


The beauty of Austen is how she captures both sides of any given debate with such clarity so that both sides are expressed equally well. This brings up the question, did someone with such a gift for seeing the different sides of an issue have trouble making up her own mind because she could see both sides of things so well it made it impossible to decide? Could this be why she never married?

“He is handsome, but will he remain so after he gains twenty pounds and becomes less active? Of course, he may become more active and always be away from home if he finds me disagreeable. Or perhaps I will find him disagreeable and yet he wants to always be with me ... handsome or not, disagreeable would quickly become tiresome. He has a strong youthful face now, but these British men have a tendency to wrinkle early ... could I manage to look at a badly wrinkled face each night before I am off to bedwhat horrors might await me in my dreams? And another thing, he might be a great reader but despise my writingthat of all things would be too much to bear, to see him comfortably seated enjoying some other person’s book while my stories remain only in my head ... yes, come to think of it, there are far worse things than not being married.”

Yes, we are so glad she wrote her stories, they were published, and today we can enjoy her great debates.