At first impression Jane is just an attractive, mild, naïve, docile good young woman who lacks the energy and stamina to stand up for what she wants in life and lacks the cleverness or insight to judge other people and recognize their true intentions and character. We might even come to the conclusion that in her effort to be good she refuses to see the obvious and clings to foolish beliefs in spite of blatant evidence to the contrary.
But by the end of the story Jane has accomplished at a very high level. She has married a very wealthy, good man who loves her as intensely as he can love anyone and who will certainly treat her as well as any man could. She has fulfilled her highest aspiration in life. To compound her matrimonial accomplishment, her dearest sister has married her husband’s closest friend and constant companion, there ensuring that she and Elizabeth will also be constantly together. What more could anyone in her position aspire for?
Superficially we might be tempted to attribute all this good fortune to her pretty face and docile temperament, a perfect match for Bingley’s mild disposition. We might also give credit to Elizabeth, whose goodwill played a key role in overcoming Darcy’s opposition to the match. But these positive influences were not sufficient to overcome the negative contribution of Mrs. Bennet’s, whose loud, vulgar behavior and boastful promotion of the match nearly canceled the prospect entirely.
A true appreciation of Jane’s accomplishment must take into account the central role which she herself played. Did Jane actually do anything that led to her own success? If so, it certainly did not take the form of active scheming or aggressive self-promotion. From start to finish her behavior was impeccably restrained. She remained quiet, modest and unassuming. Her visit to Netherfield was at the instance of her mother, not her own initiative. Similarly, the trip to London was foisted on her. Left to herself she would have remained passive, not even permitting herself to think too much of the man to whom she was so very much attracted.
What, then, precisely was Jane’s contribution to her own accomplishment? If we place ourselves in her position and do not mistake, as Darcy did, her passivity for, we will soon realize that the psychological effort she made was quite considerable and perhaps beyond the capacity of most people. We need not doubt the intensity of her interest in Bingley or her eagerness to marry at age 23. After the first ball, she frankly acknowledges to Elizabeth her admiration for him. When Bingley returns to London, she is severely disappointed and depressed.
Jane had been raised in a society that held up modesty and passivity as high standards for feminine conduct, and yet we find no one else in the story who comes close to her in meeting the standard. Elizabeth is charmingly aggressive and outspoken. Caroline and Mrs. Hurst are proud, haughty and on occasion offensive. Mrs. Bennet and Lydia are a constant source of embarrassment. Georgiana is the only one who approaches Jane in modesty, and we suspect that in her case youth and timidity were contributing factors.
Contrast Jane’s behavior with that of Mrs. Bennet. Both are perhaps equally eager for the match with Bingley. Mrs. Bennet is unable and unwilling to contain her eagerness. Having pressed Mr. Bennet to call on Bingley when he first arrived, she openly declares her mercenary ambitions to members of the family and close friends. Jane on the other hand refuses to take any initiative that is not thoroughly proper and appropriate. Obviously her expression of interest was sufficient encouragement to Bingley, but from a distance others had difficulty perceiving it. How many people are capable of that self-restraint?
When Caroline and Darcy take initiative to prevent the relationship from maturing by scurrying Bingley off to London, Jane refuses to suspect or find fault with either Bingley or his companions. Jane’s one concern was that she must not be known as one who sought after Bingley. She made a conscious effort not to pursue him. She even tried her best to convince Elizabeth that Bingley was only a good friend. Certainly we do not doubt that she is intensely interested in the man. What self-restraint it requires not to blame or criticize either Caroline and Mrs. Hurst or her own mother and younger sisters for her own disappointment! Her refusal to do so demanded intense psychological effort. That we do not see signs of that effort is only because it has become a hallmark of her personality and a code of conduct for her whole life. Why is that we see the intense energy of Mrs. Bennet in Lydia, Kitty and even Elizabeth, but not in Jane? Because in Jane, that energy has been channeled from an early age into a high self-discipline of feminine modesty. Her unwillingness to respond is part of the reason Bingley is so much attracted to her. Ultimately it becomes grounds for Darcy to reverse his judgment, since he clearly sees that Jane is not angling or conniving to lure his friend into matrimony.
We fault Jane for not being able to see through Caroline’s intrigues. But her inability was at least partially unwillingness, unwillingness to think negatively about anyone she knows. Everyone else in the story not only is able but almost eager to accuse, scorn or laugh at others. Mrs. Bennet accuses everyone of ruining her schemes. Elizabeth and virtually everyone else in Meryton readily believe Wickham’s worst lies about Darcy. Even when Caroline speaks of becoming the sister of Georgiana by marriage to Bingley, a situation that might augment Caroline’s own chances of marrying Darcy, Jane justifies Caroline’s aspiration as legitimate. She takes self-discipline to the point of appreciating Caroline’s point of view, even when it is directly at odds with her own aspirations.
Anyone who tries not to think negatively of other people, suspect, criticize or accuse others – especially when things go wrong – will find it almost an impossible exercise in psychological self-restraint. That self-restraint is Jane’s principal strength; the reason why she is so deeply loved by Elizabeth, attractive to Bingley and ultimately acceptable to Darcy. It is true that after Caroline calls on her at the Gardiner’s house in London, Jane wrote to Elizabeth acknowledging her blind spot. She does so mainly to recognize the wisdom and value of Elizabeth’s advice, rather than to condemn Caroline for what she has done.
She exhibits the same characteristics when Elizabeth reveals to her the contents of Darcy’s letter exposing Wickham. She tries to justify the actions of both men and regrets that either one of them might be found at fault, much to Elizabeth’s annoyance. We can easily dismiss all those as her immaturity, naivete or downright folly, but from her point of view her behavior throughout must have required a great psychological effort. After Lydia's elopement, Jane could not bring herself to believe that Wickam would not marry or that Lydia had no intention of marrying. Several times she tries to justify the actions of Lydia and Wickam. She even appreciates the efforts of Colonel Foster and refuses to fault him for negligence or indifference. After Bingley finally proposes to her, Jane delights to learn that Bingley did not know of her stay in London, but she does not condemn Caroline or Darcy for their subterfuge.
Jane’s composure and equanimity from beginning to end are extraordinary. They are not just an expression of mild docility. They are a product of intense psychological self-discipline. She does have an aspiration to fulfill a high ideal, the ideal of being the good and worthy daughter of a respectable English gentleman. The capacity not to react in the face of extreme provocation and disappointment, the capacity not to complain or condemn others for one’s misfortunes, the refusal to pursue mercenary selfish goals, the refusal even to indulge in self-pity are high human endowments which qualify Jane for high accomplishment. Jane has an aspiration. She exerts herself continuously in pursuit of her ideal. She strives to meet the challenges that confront her by further self-discipline and self-improvement. In this sense, she is one whose accomplishment is directly attributable to her effort for psychological growth.