The Dangers of Idleness
A word of warning from Jane Austen
Although the books written on education as a theme in Jane Austen’s novels are numerous and very enlightening, the indirect antithesis to education, idleness, has been often dismissed or overlooked. The lack of any coherent theory or discussion on the topic in Jane Austen’s novels seems rather strange, especially since it plays such an important role in the development of character and plot in her novels. This essay will argue that the dangers of idleness are paramount to plot and character development in Austen’s novels.
It is helpful to briefly discuss in what particular uses and forms one may expect to come across idleness it in this work.
First of all, there is the most obvious use of the word: want of employment, meaning that a man neither has paid employment nor such studies to keep him occupied throughout the year. With regards to the female sex the word sometimes takes on a different meaning, for women cannot be expected to be anything but idle in Austen’s world when compared to the male definition, one might say. When a woman is idle she does not actively search for pursuits, and does not look for any sort of employment. She does not exert herself. One of the main themes running through most of Austen’s novels and especially Sense and Sensibility is mental idleness, which is often linked to physical idleness. A character may be idle in the sense that she does not actively search to control her emotions or mind.
Since it is difficult to discuss all six novels in such an extended manner as their genius deserves, this work will limit its main examples to Sense and Sensibility and will extract other examples and arguments from Pride and Prejudice. To further show the reader that the occurrence of the theme of idleness is not something that is only present in her earlier works, examples of the other novels will have to be suffered to be present as well.
Still, one may wonder, why then the dangers of idleness, why the word of warning from Austen? Is this theory of there being a warning in the novels farfetched for such a slight topic that, although it occurs often, is likewise not even given centre stage, and is used mainly in the background of the story. This is a valid argument, however we cannot overlook the fact that often the central drama would not exist if it had not been for some little unfortunate circumstances that occurred because of idleness.
Take for instance the example of Edward Ferrars who falls in love with Elinor Dashwood representing the Sense, in Sense and Sensibility. Edward is secretly engaged to Lucy Steel, this engagement is made known to Elinor early on in the novel by Lucy herself. Elinor’s drama and emotional tension come from the fact that she knows Edward to be engaged to Lucy. Interesting is how Edward came to be engaged to Lucy Steel: when he is forced to explain his behaviour to Elinor, only after everything is settled between the two of course, he says:
“‘It was a foolish, idle inclination on my side,’ said he, ‘the consequence of ignorance of the world—and want of employment. Had my brother given me some active profession when I was removed at eighteen from the care of Mr. Pratt, I think—nay, I am sure, it would never have happened; … had I then had any pursuit, any object to engage my time and keep me at a distance from her for a few months, I should very soon have outgrown the fancied attachment.’” (Sense & Sensibility, 271)
Edward speaks plainly enough; had he been employed somehow, had he not been suffered to be idle, this engagement would not have been. This secret engagement upon which much of the drama of Sense and Sensibility rests, is paramount to the construction of the book and quite conceivably a very firm warning to the dangers of idleness to her younger readers. As Jan Fergus claims in Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel:
“The best of Austen’s immediate predecessors and contemporaries in the novel create domestic and moralizing fiction which is highly patterned and explicitly didactic, although with substantial elements of more subtle literary art. Austen’s triumph in her early novels is to assimilate their aims: to delight and instruct.” (Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel, 121)
However, as Edward Ferrars is not the only idle young man by any means in Austen’s novels, we must now turn our attention to another young man starting with the letter ‘F’: Frank Churchill in Emma:
“Frank the only man in Emma besides Mr. Woodhouse who has no profession, may be, as Mr. Knightley claims, an idle young man, but he is free to seek his ‘mere idle pleasure’ (134) more or less where he likes. He says at one point that he is ‘tired of doing nothing’(330), but this nothing does not begin to compare to Emma’s” (The Anxieties of Idleness, 107)
It may be true that Frank is allowed to seek his pleasures wherever he likes; however, what we must not forget is that Mr. Churchill decides that these pleasures must lie in a certain secret engagement with Miss Fairfax. An engagement that mimics that of Edward and Lucy in its complexity and differs only in the manner that this is a happy one.
And what of this Jane Fairfax who actively partakes in a secret engagement, something which seems to go against her natural character. Here we can draw an interesting parallel between Edward Ferrars and Jane Fairfax for, both were idle and both went against what may be supposed to be their natural inclinations and formed a secret engagement. For Jane, this engagement came about because the Campbells, Jane’s adoptive parents, kept putting off the ‘evil day’ on which Jane was to become a governess. In this interval before her employment she meets Frank Churchill, falls in love and forms a secret engagement. Indeed, if we did not know better we would think that we are all in eminent danger of secret engagements at any idle moment of our lives.
Turning back to Emma and her idleness, we see that it also has some rather severe consequences, she almost loses the love of her life because she has spent her life in the idle pursuit of matchmaking. Clearly these arguments deserve some nuancing, not all of Emma’s life consists of idleness, and not all of Frank’s life is spent in the idle pursuit of pianoforté’s and/or getting haircuts in town. It is quite striking however to note exactly how much of the plot construction of Emma depends upon idleness. We may also remember the way Emma is presented to us at the beginning of the novel, with Miss Taylor married away, and a Miss Woodhouse left alone in the house with Mr. Woodhouse, it is suggested that her sudden active interest in life outside of her house is a consequence of having very little else to occupy her time with.
These dramatic results of idleness in behaviour and upbringing are most often contrasted with the dangers of idleness to character development in Austen’s novels. Willoughby, an evil man who seduces Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, only to leave her to her own devices and marry a woman who has ₤30,000 a year, serves as the perfect example. Mr. Willoughby is the polar opposite of an Edward Ferrars and a Frank Churchill. He fails to form a secret engagement but has squandered his life away in idleness, as a matter of fact, the woman he should be engaged to, Eliza, the goddaughter of Colonel Brandon, is left in the country, alone to give birth to the child that Willoughby fathered. The string of events however, that led to the deterioration of Willoughby’s character is opened to us by the thoughts of Elinor, after she has listened to his excuses on his treatment of her sister, Marianne:
“Elinor made no answer. Her thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a feeling, affectionate temper. The world had made him extravagant and vain—Extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish. Vanity, while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least its offspring, necessity, had required to be sacrificed.” (Sense & Sensibility, 247)
In this case again we can see the results of idleness. Willoughby had an early independence however, his lack of employment, this independence caused him to become what he is now: a libertine and a scoundrel. In this paragraph we clearly see the dangers that idleness can have upon a character, and note that Willoughby is not a man who is through and through evil, there was hope for him, he was a ‘naturally open and honest’ man. Someone who in other words would have made a great man, had he not been suffered to be idle. The consequences of this idleness are related in one of the most emotional confessions in this novel.
These vivid examples amply illustrate the effects of idleness upon both behaviour and character. These are however not the only warnings issued on the topic. Austen cannot be expected to use idleness only as a plot device or only as a backdrop for the development of a character, the fruits of which are to be seen in her novel. She gives us also the minute details of the effects upon the spirits of people. As we can see in the next example, when Edward has come for the first time to visit the Dashwoods at Barton Cottage, he is downcast and out of sorts. But worse still, Edward cannot tell the people he loves dearly everything, his idleness and secret engagement now causes him to be dishonest, and to go against the natural inclinations of his character:
“‘I think, Edward,’ said Mrs Dashwood, as they were at breakfast the last morning, ‘you should be a happier man if you had any profession to engage your time and give interest to your plans and actions. Some inconvenience to your friends, indeed, might result from it – you would not be able to give them so much of your time. But (with a smile) you would be materially benefited in one particular at least – you would know where to go when you left them.’” (Sense & Sensibility, 75)
The irony in this passage of course is that Edward is not entirely downcast because he is idle now¸ but the more so because he has been in the past. Edward’s reply however is telling:
“‘I do assure you,’ he replied, ‘that I have long thought on this point, as you think now. It has been, and is, and probably will always be a heavy misfortune to me, that I have had no necessary business to engage me, no profession to give me employment, or afford me any thing like independence. But unfortunately my own nicety, and the nicety of my friends, have made me what I am, an idle, helpless being.’” (Sense & Sensibility, 75-76)
Here we truly see how dangerous secrets can be, Edward cannot tell Mrs. Dashwood the actual cause of his downcast behaviour nor is he, strictly speaking, correct in his attentions to Elinor Dashwood, whom he may never hope to marry.
But here we must be allowed to side-step for a brief moment and review Irene Collins who in Jane Austen and the Clergy most unaccountably professes Edward’s response to be: “a mixture of self-deprecation and nonchalance.” (Jane Austen and the Clergy, 36) In her book she focuses on the lack of studying at Oxford as well as the heavy drinking there. How she can attribute a quality such as nonchalance to the shy and the self-professed socially awkward Edward is rather difficult to understand however. Especially since Edward in this passage is anything but nonchalant, he is actively suffering from the most severe disappointments and regrets. He is after all, amongst the people he loves and has formed an attachment to Elinor, one that he knows can never be fulfilled as his secret engagement to Lucy Steel must prevent it. He cannot be nonchalant about this but undoubtedly is trying to evade to talk about the topic much longer, as a confession now could do nothing but ruin his hopes for the future.
On the same page where he explains how he came to be in this situation, we can also sense some of his bitterness in his satirical tone:
“and, at length, as there was no necessity for my having any profession at all, as I might be as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one, idleness was pronounced on the whole to be most advantageous and honourable, and a young man of eighteen is not in general so earnestly bent on being busy as to resist the solicitations of his friends to do nothing. I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since." (Sense & Sensibility, 76)
In this passage what Edward is allowed to say, is only overshadowed by what he does not say. His engagement is the great sword hanging over his head. What we in a sense are allowed to see here is not only what price he has had to pay for idleness but also how he continues to be drawn deeper and deeper into the web of his own secrecy and lies. Nothing good can ever come of idleness, we can almost hear it said in this novel. This theme, this topic, is what keeps returning and being forced home to the reader. Every example possible of the dangers are present in this novel. One may well question however, if it is only in Sense and Sensibility in which this theme is so acutely present but, there are other examples.
Elizabeth discusses the dangers of ignorance and above all the dangers of parents leaving their offspring to idleness in Pride and Prejudice:
“Excuse me -- for I must speak plainly. If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. … and from the ignorance and emptiness of her mind, wholly unable to ward off any portion of that universal contempt which her rage for admiration will excite. In this danger Kitty is also comprehended. She will follow wherever Lydia leads. -- Vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled!''” (Pride and Prejudice, 172)
This speech shows the same theme of idleness, this time however it is presented as a warning for young women. In Pride and Prejudice there is however another warning from an infamous character, after all who can forget the fate of ‘dear Mr. Wickham’ with his ‘happy manners’, who ended up so extremely poor and below his stature as to aptly punish him for all those indecencies he committed throughout the novel. In Darcy’s confessional letter we read:
“In town, I believe, he chiefly lived, but his studying the law was a mere pretence, and being now free from all restraint, his life was a life of idleness and dissipation. …he applied to me again by letter for the presentation. His circumstances, he assured me, and I had no difficulty in believing it, were exceedingly bad. He had found the law a most unprofitable study, and was now absolutely resolved on being ordained, if I would present him to the living in question -- …You will hardly blame me for refusing to comply with this entreaty, or for resisting every repetition of it. His resentment was in proportion to the distress of his circumstances -- and he was doubtless as violent in his abuse of me to others, as in his reproaches to myself.” (Pride and Prejudice, 273)
Wickham’s story is similar again to that of Willoughby, his life of debauchery and idleness leads to some very unfortunate circumstances however, Wickham consciously tries to seduce Darcy’s younger sister, something which makes him so unpalatably evil that there can be no other solution than to give him a taste of his own medicine. He is therefore married off to Lydia and they are to be poor and unhappy for the rest of their existence.
Even in what some critics say is Jane Austen’s greatest masterwork, Mansfield Park we see a form of a Willoughby/Wickham return in Henry Crawford. When he is sure no one is around he speaks to his sister on how he means to amuse himself on the days that he ‘does not hunt’. She replies:
“‘To ride and walk with me, to be sure.’
‘Not exactly, though I should be happy to do both, but that would be only exercise to my body, and I must take care of my mind. Besides that would be all recreation and indulgance, without the wholesome alloy of labour, and I do not like to eat the bread of idleness. No, my plan is to make Fanny Price in love with me.’” (Mansfield Park, 164)
Henry Crawford is a charming fellow indeed. He will amuse himself on the days he does not hunt, by hunting Fanny Price, the irony of the situation cannot have escaped Austen’s notice and must be on purpose. The siblings wanton pursuit of pleasure, the wasting of their lives in idleness has some very unpleasant consequences for the both of them.
When we combine all of these examples it may be deemed undoubtedly proven that idleness and the dangers thereof were indeed a very great part of Jane Austen’s works. There has not been a lack of evidence in the novels of Austen, every work of her provides us with another example of how not to live one’s life, and how dangerous the temptations of idleness can be. It has been more difficult to limit the number of examples and to show constraint in their analysis than it has been to find those examples in the novels.
As a concluding note it must be mentioned that although many times in this paper the words dangers and warnings have been used, what is meant by the dangers of idleness are the consequences of idleness, which in most cases lead to disaster. These dangers can be anything from an unalterable state in character (Willoughby, Wickham, Crawford, Lydia) to a dangerous type of behaviour (Ferrars, Churchill, Fairfax, Emma). The warnings however may be open to a different interpretation. To state here that it was undoubtedly Austen’s sole intention to warn her readers of these dangers, is going too far. Since we have found no evidence in her letters and there is very little in her various biographies to suggest such a matter, this is a claim that this paper is not willing to make.
It remains of course a rather great coincidence that in all of Austen’s novel the general theme of the dangers of idleness is present. That she herself may have thought it something dangerous, seems hereby proven. In how far this can be seen as another didactic theme to her novels could be further extrapolated on in a more in-depth study of the subject.
Finally, if the reader will allow me one final piece of advice: after reading this essay it seems wise to ensure that this activity is immediately followed with an equally productive activity, lest your character or marital status be irreversibly tainted.
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Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. London: Penguin Classics, 2006.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Macmillan Heinemann ELT, 1999.
Austen, Jane. Sense & Sensibility. London: Butler & Tanner Ltd, 1958. 285.
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen and the Clergy. 2nd ed. London: Hambledon and
London, 2002. 216. Print.
Jan Fergus. Jane Austen and the didactic novel. 2nd ed. London: the Macmillan
Press Ltd, 1983. 162. Print.
Jordan, Sarah. The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth Century British
Literature and Culture. Massachusetts: Associated University Press, 2003. 110. Print.