Coincidences in Jane Austen's Novels?

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The following is a lightly-edited version of messsages on the AUSTEN-L list. (In my own opinion, while it is possible that Willoughby may not have known that Eliza Williams's protector was Col. Brandon when he ran away with her at Bath, he almost certainly did know it after he had lived with her for a time, which was before his coming back to Devon and meeting Marianne.)

Date: Sun, 16 Jun 1996 18:23:18 EST
From: Tina Barton
Subject: It's a Small World After All

I have noticed what I call (to myself) the "small world phenomenon", and I have discovered it in almost all of Jane Austen's novels.

  1. Northanger Abbey:
    Mrs. Thorpe happens to be the former schoolfellow of Mrs. Allen, thereby introducing Catherine to Isabel, who was already acquainted with James Morland.
  2. Sense and Sensibility:
    I maintain that it is a coincidence that Willoughby happened to seduce the ward of Col. Brandon -- despite his comments such as "he threatened me with rain when I wanted it to be fine", I still believe that he did not know that Eliza was in any way connected to the Colonel (someone else has noted that he would not have bothered with her had he known of the relationship, since the Colonel was in a position to injure his reputation with not only the Middletons and their circle, but with Mrs. Smith as well).
    I think it quite amazing that Lucy just so happened to be a relation of Mrs. Jennings, and engaged to Edward Ferrars, so as to receive an invitation to Barton at just the right time. (Perhaps Lucy heard about Elinor moving to Barton, and put herself in the way of gaining admittance to scope things out? -- but her being some sort of relation to Mrs. Jennings is interesting.)
  3. Pride and Prejudice:
    Mr. Collins just happens to be clergyman for Darcy's aunt, and so the whole scene in Kent is set up.
    Mr. Wickham arrives in Meryton (though perhaps he had heard of Darcy being there and thought there might be an opportunity to find more ways of injuring Darcy?).
    Mrs. Gardiner once lived in a small town near Pemberley, thereby setting up the whole Derbyshire scene.
  4. Mansfield Park:

    (I can't think of anything at all in this one, other than the usefulness of Mr. Crawford's having an admiral for an uncle, giving him an opportunity of helping out William Price and looking good in Fanny's eyes.)

  5. Emma:
    This might be a weak case, but I think it a little coincidental that Frank Churchill & Jane Fairfax fall in love, and just happen to both have relations in Highbury. Now perhaps they were introduced because of this connection... who knows?
  6. Persuasion:
    Mr. Elliot just happens to be in Lyme in time to admire Anne, not knowing of the relationship.
    Mrs. Smith, the good friend of Anne, just happens to have been intimate with Mr. Elliot in the past, so as to be able to shed light on his character.
    Also a weak example: The Crofts, relatives of Wentworth, rent Kellynch, thereby bringing Wentworth in touch with Louisa et al.

There are similar things found in the writings of the Brontës (in Jane Eyre, perhaps the least believable of all: The Rivers being Jane Eyre's long-lost cousins). I find that some of these circumstances require a leap of faith, and yet I think the technique is quite interesting. I was wondering if it is merely a way of making the plot work out just right, or if it is indeed a technique to intrigue the reader. I've been writing a little fiction myself, and I'm not sure I'd have the nerve to use such coincidences.

Date: Tue, 18 Jun 1996 20:25:20 -0400
From: Edith Lank
Subject: Re: Coincidences

Remember that it was a fairly small and constricted world Jane Austen lived in: England's population was less, and further limited by the fact that she's writing about only one class, the lower gentry. Transportation was also limited, and the people she writes about go to the same places for the most part, and the men attend the same university. It's likely that people ran into acquaintances of acquaintances all the time.

Date: Sat, 22 Jun 1996 15:19:01 -0400
From: Tina Barton
Subject: A Mathematical Analogy

I agree, to a certain extent, that it was literally a small world in Jane Austen's day -- only most responders mean it more literally than I did.

For example, of all the aspiring clergymen -- the Henry Tilneys, the Edmund Bertrams, the Edward Ferrars's, and yes, the Dr. Grants -- "chance" recommended Mr. Collins to a "supposedly" clever woman like Lady Catherine. Though he suited her better than any of the above-named might have, by his pompous humility, I still think it a lucky coincidence for Elizabeth and Darcy. I don't claim it is a preposterous circumstance, but a particularly clever twist which is integral to the story -- at least, imagine what the book would be without it.

I have come up with an analogy which I would like to share. Suppose a person is set the task of typing a stream of purely randomly-chosen digits (0-9) on their computer. Donald E. Knuth (Art of Computer Programming), for one, has noticed that this is a very hard thing to do -- our brains try to avoid certain patterns which are in fact likely to occur in nature. For example a sequence of two identical digits (e.g. "44" or "77"), should occur about once every ten digits in a random stream, but people asked to type "random" digits will almost always include seemingly-significant combinations such as this at a lower rate -- thus they will more strongly avoid typing "222" or "123", though if the stream is long enough, even patterns like this ought to occur. Call these patterns "coincidences". A novice will go out of his way to avoid such sequences, while an experienced person might try to include them -- but it is hard to know the perfect rate at which to do so, in order to pass Knuth's battery of tests on truly random number generators.

I'm certainly not claiming that life is a random stream of events, or even that literature should model real life. The point is that the novice (like me) might go overboard trying to avoid plots with coincidences, for fear of them seeming too contrived. But Jane Austen, as an experienced writer and shrewd observer of life, has the appropriate balance between realistic occurrences and interesting plot twists. My claim is that she knew when to include "222" and "123".

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