Jane Austen and the Redemption of Gawkiness

The novelist had a soft spot for awkward talkers and stumbling lovers—which was an immense relief for me growing up as a shy person.

Hugh Thompson / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Here is a way to win the woman you’ve loved for eight years from afar: When you see her again, avoid speaking. Jump up and leave when she is in earshot. Do her small favors, especially ones that put you within touching distance—but never let her thank you, and be sure to avoid her gaze. Eavesdrop vigorously; should she say anything that suggests she returns your feelings, write her a letter and hurry out of the room. No, wait, come back! You need to make sure that she’s seen it, so point to the letter and stare at her earnestly, mumbling that you’ve forgotten your gloves. Are you cringing? Don’t worry about Captain Wentworth. Anne Elliot finds him persuasive.

And, I’ll be honest—from the moment I read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I did too. I picked up my old copy earlier this month, revisiting my favorite of the novelist’s works for the bicentenary of her death, and was embarrassed to find the margins littered with hearts and exclamation points over its blushing, stumbling lovers. At the time, I was in my first year of college, struggling with the indignities of a crush and the terrible business of making myself likable to strangers, and I identified intensely with Austen’s acute observations of human discomfort. For all her cutting quips and criticism of drawing-room drama, Austen has a soft spot for the socially awkward, and—for this deeply awkward reader, at least—it’s part of what makes her novels so timelessly real.

Of course, the awkwardness isn’t always admirable: Austen’s best comedy comes from characters who excel at making things weird. A single chapter of Pride and Prejudice finds Mary Bennet flaunting her accomplishments with no sense of their mediocrity, Mr. Collins breaching all bounds of etiquette to flatter Mr. Darcy, and Mrs. Bennet mortifying her daughters with loud talk of their marriage prospects—all of them quite oblivious to the social rules they break. They get mocked by the narrator in free indirect discourse and by other characters to their faces, and move the plot forward (think Lady Catherine confronting Elizabeth) by sheer force of discomfort—all of which would be mortifying to the consciously self-conscious reader except for the fact that their worst sin, in Austen’s satire, is their lack of self-awareness. If you, like me, spend a lot of time living in fear of being a Mr. Collins, it is probably safe to say that you aren’t one.

Yet if the bumbling fools of Austen’s novels share a lack of social grace, her most insidious villains arguably have an excess of it. The caddish George Wickham, whose “truthful” (read: handsome) looks charm Lizzy Bennet into believing his lies and her sister Lydia into running away with him, has to his credit “no more substantial good than the general approbation of the neighborhood, and the regard which his social powers had gained him in the [officers’] mess.” Ditto to Willoughby, Marianne Dashwood’s dashing first love in Sense and Sensibility, whose “lively spirits, and open, affectionate manners” conceal selfishness made more harmful by lack of self-control. It’s as if they’ve spent all their energy on charm, leaving nothing to support the flimsy morals underneath.

The list goes on: In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford begins an ultimately disastrous flirtation with the Bertram sisters with the careless yet calculated “object … of making them like him”; when he actually does profess his love for Fanny Price, she rejects him, unable to believe that he means it. And in Persuasion, Anne is justified in distrusting her cousin William’s polished manners when old letters reveal he’s a cynical climber with little respect for her family: “She felt that she could so much more depend on the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.” Too much social skill is suspect—it makes it all too easy to hide an agenda. Awkwardness, on the other hand, is impossible to fake.

And this is where Austen’s redemption of gawkiness comes in—of characters who struggle to perform in front of others. Of Edward Ferrars (brought to stammering life by Hugh Grant in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility), who “was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome … gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart.” Of Colonel Brandon, whom Willoughby mocks for his reserve, and whose eventual triumph with Marianne constitutes the original revenge of the nerds. Of Georgiana Darcy, whose display of “all that embarrassment which, though proceeding from shyness and the fear of doing wrong, would easily give to those who felt themselves inferior the belief of her being proud and reserved” parallels—and hints at an explanation for—her proud older brother’s poor reception in the Bennets’ world. If Mr. Wickham has nothing to recommend him but his charm, Mr. Darcy is the exact opposite: a man with plenty of integrity who can’t seem to make anyone like him.

Indeed, Mr. Darcy explains to Elizabeth, he is “ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers,” and his behavior toward her would seem to back that up: After slighting her on their first meeting, he attempts to get to know her by looming at the fringes of her conversations with others (he soon gets caught). To prepare for his fateful declaration-of-love-cum-barrage-of-insults, he confuses her and her friends by sitting silently across from her for extended periods,  looking at her “a great deal.”

The first time I read Pride and Prejudice, I was crestfallen to discover that my mother’s ultimate romantic hero was a stiff and sullen bore. It took further readings, and multiple tongue-tying crushes of my own, to realize that Darcy’s silence was a sign of his sincerity. “You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner,” Elizabeth complains as they rehash their courtship—but she can’t reproach him when he replies, “A man who had felt less, might.” On the contrary, she can relate: Though she’s normally more than capable of verbally sparring with Darcy, when he finally tells her that he still loves her, she’s too embarrassed to speak.

Or take Persuasion. Captain Wentworth, just returned from glorious exploits in the Navy, plays the gallant flirt to everyone but Anne, who broke his heart years before and has regretted it ever since. Austen dwells on the minutiae of his behavior, which is admittedly confusing: He ignores her, and then, when they do speak, punctuates it with blushes and starts. He stares long and hard enough to give even Darcy a run for his money, and at one point performs the timeless maneuver of “walk[ing] to the fireplace … for the sake of walking away from it … and taking a station, with less bare-faced design, by Anne.” In other words, he’s obvious. He’s messily, painfully vulnerable, completely in Anne’s power—and his awkwardness lets her know it.

Which is important: Anne is awkward herself, barely able to speak in his presence. But she’s relieved and delighted to see him “obviously struck and confused by the sight of her … not comfortable, not easy, not able to feign that he was.” She reads “sentences begun which he could not quite finish—his half averted eyes, his more than half expressive glance” as evidence that he must love her. And just as Lizzy forces herself to confess her own feelings and rescue Darcy from “the more than common awkwardness and anxiety” of his proposal, Anne, put down and passed over again and again by her relatives, finds courage and confidence in her lover’s embarrassment.

Awkwardness, then, is an equalizer. It creates occasions for the shy to rise to, and pulls the socially powerful—men, and heroes, and those with ten thousand a year—down to the simple, raw, relatable level of their unmasked hopes and fears. In the push-pull of challenge and respect that makes Austen’s romances feel so modern, it’s the place where lovers let slip their vulnerabilities and accept each other—in the classic Austen-adjacent phrase—just as they are.

I could make a feminist case for awkwardness and say that the men’s failure to be smooth helps give Austen’s women power. I could say it fills a social gap by telegraphing the feelings people can’t put into words. Or I could say awkwardness is timeless and human and universal (and I’d mean it). But at the most honest, embarrassing level, this was the hope Persuasion gave me—that even I, misfit and gawky, might yet leave the right person lost for words.