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.