Deborah Yaffe

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Nineteen

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 31 2018 02:00PM

Nineteen is a number much on our collective minds today, as we prepare to usher in 2019, the last year of the second decade of the twenty-first century.


Accordingly, I went looking for nineteens in Jane Austen -- and I found eleven references, in ten different passages spread over four of the completed novels. (Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are nineteen-free zones.) With the exception of one throwaway Mansfield Park reference to “nineteen times out of twenty,” Austen’s nineteens are an interesting bunch – at any rate, significant enough to provide fodder for discussion while awaiting the Times Square ball drop.


For Jane Austen, nineteen is both too young and old enough: her nineteen-year-olds are variously mature and naïve, sensible and foolish. For Austen – and for us? -- nineteen is a transitional age, a waystation between childhood and adulthood.


In Mansfield Park, “eighteen or nineteen” is the age at which Mary Crawford expects girls to retain a certain innocent shyness, even if they are officially “out” in the marriage market. “One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to everything—and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before,” Mary tells the Bertram brothers (ch. 5).


Yet some nineteen-year-olds are perfectly competent, it seems: Although Emma Woodhouse, at nearly twenty-one, still has much to learn, “at eighteen or nineteen [Jane Fairfax] was, as far as such an early age can be qualified for the care of children, fully competent to the office of instruction herself” (Emma, ch. 20).


The nineteen-year-olds of Persuasion are old enough to fall in love for keeps -- like Anne Elliot, who is nineteen when she accepts, and then refuses, Captain Wentworth’s marriage proposal. But they are also young enough to mistake infatuation for the real thing -- like Louisa Musgrove, who, interestingly, is also nineteen when her charms temporarily turn the same man’s head, perhaps because he is unconsciously trying to recapture his youthful romance. And the novel contains a third naïve nineteen-year-old -- Mrs. Smith, who is nineteen when she meets, and initially likes, the duplicitous Mr. Elliot. “At nineteen, you know, one does not think very seriously,” she tells Anne (ch. 21).


Well, some nineteen-year-olds don’t: At the start of Sense and Sensibility, Austen tells us, Elinor Dashwood already “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother” (ch. 1). Like Persuasion, however, S&S features three significant nineteen-year-olds: in addition to the Elinor of the novel’s opening, there are the Edward Ferrars of four years earlier, whose “youthful infatuation of nineteen” has unhappily bound him to Lucy Steele (ch. 23), and the newlywed Marianne Dashwood of the novel’s end, who “found herself, at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (ch. 50).


Austen’s nineteen-year-olds are old enough to experience deep and sincere emotions, yet young enough to make dreadful errors of judgment. Some of them are ready to give counsel, while others trustingly follow the counsel of others. They stand on a threshold, looking backward to the consequence-free choices of childhood and ahead to the responsibilities of adulthood, with one foot in each place. Rather like us, tonight, as we leave 2018 behind and look ahead to what will come.


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