“I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle.” (P&P, Volume III, Chapter 16)
So says Fitzwilliam Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet near the end of Pride and Prejudice, after they have become engaged. Personally, I think it is another instance of him taking a bit too much on himself – he has a tendency to accept blame and self-guilt easily – but that’s another discussion for another time. Certainly his remark serves well to illustrate the changes in his behaviour that his relationship with Lizzy brought.
The word “selfish” is used hundreds of times by Jane Austen in all her novels. “Unselfish” by comparison, was found only once (in Emma) and that to suggest that Emma was wrong in having believed Frank Churchill to be unselfish, after she heard he had travelled all the way to London just to get a haircut. The word “selfless” does not appear at all in her novels; understandable as per my etymology dictionary, it did not come into use until eight years after Jane Austen died, about 1825.
But Jane Austen understood well the concept of selflessness – “having, exhibiting, or motivated by no concern for oneself; disregarding your own advantages and welfare over those of others” – and she endowed her characters with varying degrees of the trait often. Consider Elizabeth Bennet walking three miles to Netherfield to visit her sister Jane who had taken ill – Mr Knightley dancing with Harriet Smith after Mr Elton snubs and humiliates her, or sending his carriage to bring the Bates ladies to the dance, and supplying them with “all [his] store of apples” – Captain Wentworth, still somewhat resentful of his history with Ann Elliot and yet insisting she ride home in his sister’s carriage when he notes how tired she is – Mrs Allen sponsoring Catherine Moreland for a season in Bath – Colonel Brandon offering a living to Edward Ferrars – Edmund Bertram’s kindness to Fanny Price when she first comes to live at Mansfield Park.
Sometimes, the inconvenience is slight, costing nothing more than a moment of time; at other times true sacrifice may be called for. Often, the performer of a selfless act also gains rewards, whether it be an intangible – a sense of pride or accomplishment – or a monetary gain or some other benefit. But this needn’t lessen the value of the act when the motive for it is the welfare of others over your own, even if you also profit to a degree. Large or small, these acts humanize and draw us to Jane Austen’s characters.
Perhaps the most overt example of a selfless act is that taken on by Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. When Lydia Bennet runs off with Wickham, the reputation of all the Bennets is risked, any prospects for the remaining daughters dashed as well. Darcy’s intervention does nothing less than save the entire family from ruin. It is true that his role comes to light (and he certainly “profits” from it in the eyes of Elizabeth) but not through his own agency – or wishes! One might argue that guilt spurred his involvement. But I believe his motivation was his love of Lizzy, with no expectation of gain and in the process of which he sacrifices significant sums of money and, more notably, swallows his pride to negotiate once again with a man he has every reason to despise.
This is a time of year when we see all sorts of stories about people performing selfless acts. The news media have been running a story about a gentleman who randomly goes to Wal-Mart stores and approaches total strangers to give them a hundred dollar bill to help make their Christmas a little happier by easing the financial strain the season can bring. Another story (also at Wal-Mart… hmmm, I see a trend here) spoke of a woman who went to make a payment against some lay-away items for her children only to find that an anonymous benefactor had paid off the entire account! There’s a television commercial that shows a couple decorating an apartment for the holidays, only to slip back into their own in the nick of time as the resident, an elderly widow, opens her door in wonder to find her home transformed. Lifetime and Hallmark channels nightly air films of a generosity of spirit – selfless acts – opening people’s hearts during Christmas-tide.
It’s easy to see why the holiday season, beginning with Thanksgiving in considering all we have to be grateful for, and continuing through Christmas, lends itself to highlighting selfless acts. But I certainly don’t believe that selflessness is only alive and well around this time of year; rather, that the season makes media outlets more likely to seek out and feature instances. At any given time, you can find examples in a neighbor who shovels the snow from your driveway while you’re at work; a school child who shares his or her lunch with a new kid whom no one else will sit with; a truck driver who stops on the road to help you fix a flat tire; myriad things both large and small that people do for others with little or no regard either for what they get from it or how it might inconvenience them.
Authors have for generations built plots, or resolved them, around selfless acts. Perhaps the most famous example of this at Christmas time is “The Gift of the Magi,” a short story written by O. Henry (aka William Sidney Porter) in 1905. Much less subtle than Austen’s employment of selflessness, this tale of a young married couple, each of whom sacrifices a most prized possession to buy a Christmas gift for the other, has sparked a great deal of discussion over the years as to how wise the spouses were in their choices. Della sells her remarkably long and lovely hair to purchase a watch fob for Jim. He in return has sold his watch to purchase some hair combs for Della. Each ends up with a gift of little use to either. But as an illustration of the lengths each would go to demonstrate their love, this story has spawned films, songs, lesson plans, even an off-Broadway musical.
One of the many storylines I included in the plot of my current two-volume novel, A Fitzwilliam Legacy – the primary one, in fact, for much of the first volume – revolves around a possible romance for Colonel Fitzwilliam. This narrative begins off-stage with a selfless act on his part: his inclusion, through Lizzy Darcy’s office, of a young widow at a Pemberley house party to save her being alone at Christmas-tide. Naturally, the course of romance cannot run smooth in an Austen-based Regency novel, and this one is no exception, when a series of selfless acts on the part of both the good colonel and the widow, perhaps (like Jim and Della) also not wisely employed, threaten the possibility of real understanding between them.
“You must [tell him]! Fitzwilliam must know why your interest changed so abruptly. If you are deceitful in this, then you are little better than Lady Catherine.”
Amelia drew back at this as thought she had been slapped. “How so?”
“By depriving him of a choice that is his to make.” Lizzy softened her tone then. “Richard deserves to make his own decision, freely, and without the influence of others whether it be in their own interests or in a misguided tenderness for his. If you reject him from lack of feeling, it is at least an honest result. But do not do so from misguided love and make both wretched in the end.” (Volume I: Seasonal Disorder, Chapter 26)
Will Lizzy’s advice, in itself a selfless act of kindness, move Amelia to speak openly to the colonel and prevent unnecessary sacrifices on both their parts? Volume II (New Year Resolutions) has that answer (and more!) To find out, my Christmas-tide novel, A Fitzwilliam Legacy, is available in paperback or ebook through Amazon, as well as at Barnes and Noble.com and Smashwords.
And with that shameless – and most distinctly UN-selfless – plug, I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, mindful of myriad selfless acts being performed for and around us every day to carry us into a banner new year!
Tess Quinn admired Jane Austen quietly since being introduced to the novel Pride and Prejudice at the age of thirteen. Her admiration took a more public turn in recent years, reignited by the wide resurgence of interest in everything Austen generated by films and social media. Inspired to try her hand at writing Austen-based fiction, she posted on a website with intimate readership and drew sufficient encouragement (and courage) to come out ‘officially’ as an Austen-based author. You can find Tess online on her website and on Facebook.