We encounter a great number of ridiculous characters in Jane Austen’s works, characters whose hypocrisy we are clearly invited to laugh at, such as John Thorpe, Mr. Collins, or Mr. Elton. Yet we would be wrong to assume from this that Austen’s taste for humor and irony indicates an insensitivity to real merit when it is mixed with the ridiculous. The following passage from Persuasion demonstrates that Austen advocates sympathy and respect for true emotion, even when such emotion is displayed in a laughable manner.
Near the beginning of their acquaintance, Captain Wentworth is called to listen to Mrs. Musgrove’s tearful account of her dead son, Richard. Unfortunately, Mrs. Musgrove’s physical appearance makes her a ridiculous sight in her grief. Austen writes:
Mrs. Musgrove was of a comfortable substantial size, infinitely more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humor, than tenderness and sentiment; and while the agitations of Anne’s slender form, and pensive face, may be considered as very completely screened, Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for.
Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain,—which taste cannot tolerate,—which ridicule will seize. (45-6).
Austen communicates the humor of the sight with the “large fat sighings,” a phrase sure to raise a chuckle from the reader. Additionally, the description of Anne as “very completely screened” creates a humorous image of Mrs. Musgrove’s size contrasted with Anne’s slim figure. Austen herself seems to be indulging in a smile at the sight she has conjured for us.
Yet at the same time, Austen acknowledges the impropriety of such a reaction and commends Wentworth’s better response. She begins by noting that size truly does not determine one’s capacity for feeling sorrow. But nevertheless—“fair or not fair”—it is equally true that Mrs. Musgrove’s largeness and her tears form one of those “unbecoming conjunctions” which lead one to laugh, despite all better reason. The final sentence’s parallel construction broken by a series of breathless dashes even mimics the barely restrained, involuntary laughter which the sight produces. Our narrator does not pretend herself so scrupulously good as to be immune to the temptation to laugh. But even in her own mirth, Austen acknowledges her response is not right. She bestows the greater “credit” to her hero Captain Wentworth, who has brought himself under control after a private smile of amusement and now offers “the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in [Mrs. Musgrove’s] feelings” (45). Thus, the passage offers a double example of the appropriate response to such a situation through Captain Wentworth’s caring attention and the narrator’s commendation of him. Furthermore, Austen’s narrative skill is evidenced by her gentle acknowledgement of her own human weakness in the tendency to laugh inappropriately.