Some Thoughts Regarding ‘Theory of Mind’ in Jane Austen’s Early Letters and Their Influence on Pride and Prejudice

Some Thoughts Regarding ‘Theory of Mind’ in Jane Austen’s Early Letters and Their Influence on Pride and Prejudice

Trevor Jackson

In her earliest existent letter, dated January 9, 1796, a twenty year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, the following:

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend [Tom Lefroy] and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago[i](My italics).

I have italicized the second half of the last sentence to underscore what I see as a subtle, yet remarkably complex manner of communication that I believe would fall under the heading of what many today would term Theory of Mind (or ToM) a term originating in the cognitive sciences but which has lately shared significance with the humanities and has become a popular subject in some branches of literary criticism, with noteworthy authors such as David Herman, Alan palmer, Lisa Zunshine and a growing list of others producing titles that detail the role of how the human mind and its inner-workings might shed some new significance on the fiction we read, the characters we keep track of, as well as the manner and extent to which those characters keep track of each other’s thoughts and actions within the novel.

In the dependent clause that concludes the paragraph, Austen is poking fun at her own social anxieties, which she spoke of more plainly in different contexts within a number of her later letters, and which would have been immediately understood by Cassandra in this instance as being of humorous intent. The form this brief parody takes involves assuming the imaginary powers of an omnipotent narrator:  one who is capable of knowing not only the thoughts, feelings and motivations of her friend Tom Lefroy[ii], (her ‘Irish friend’) but also relevant social information one socially embedded level up from him, that is, the supposed conversations held behind her back, in which her friend was ‘laughed at about me at Ashe’[iii]. She then presents this imagined content as factual information to Cassandra in the form of a brief parody concerning the sort of Theory of Mind (as we call it today) that they undoubtedly shared  a sizeable mental index of over the years they grew up together.

To illustrate the economy of this turn of phrase as well as some other noteworthy features within it, let me attempt to unpack all of the information contained here by showing (imperfectly, I am afraid) how an author of lesser ability than Austen might have conveyed the same information contained in the italicized clause above:

I was hoping to see my Irish friend, Tom Lefroy, when we went to visit his aunt, Mrs. Lefroy, a few days ago, but I was disappointed to find that he was not there when we arrived. I tried to think of a reason for why he was not there. Was it because he knew I was coming and he did not wish to see me, so he ran away, I wondered? I recalled that he had also not visited at Steventon, as well. The thought crossed my mind that the reason he had not visited Steventon, and was not there at Mrs. Lefroy’s when we visited, was because he was ashamed to see me. The reason he was ashamed, I imagined, must have been because his friends at Ashe laughed excessively at him after seeing us sitting together at the last ball. The reason they laughed excessively, I imagined, was because they thought that I was an inferior person for him to sit with. As a result of this feeling of shame that their laughter caused,  when Tom heard that I was going to be visiting at Mrs. Lefroy’s, he must have ran away to avoid the further embarrassment of continuing to be associated with me. [I know that in all likelihood none of this is true, however, and that there is probably a much more reasonable explanation for why he wasn’t there when we went to visit Mrs. Lefroy, so I really shouldn’t take my own thoughts about the reason for his absence, and what other people might think of me, very seriously].

I have bracketed the last sentence to indicate that there is nothing textually to suggest what I have presented as thought report directly in the original text.  However, the self-generated negation of her own social anxiety is very much implicit within the context of Jane’s pithier rendition, and this would have been immediately comprehended by Cassandra. Cassandra would certainly also have seen  that the information concocted by this omnipotent narrator that Jane had momentarily created was just another example of Jane’s biting wit, seen throughout her letters, and in this instance turned inward and aimed at her own social insecurities.  Specifically, Cassandra would have understood by its context that it was extremely unlikely that Tom Lefroy was truly laughed at Ashe (and that Jane somehow learned of the affront) or that he actually ran away in reaction to Jane visiting Tom’s aunt, Mrs. Lefroy. Rather, this was simply an example of playful conjecture, likely shared more often than we have direct evidence for, that they volleyed back and forth when trying to interpret other peoples’ actions and motives.  (And in fact, the same letter contains an addendum stating that Tom Lefroy paid a friendly visit to Jane later that afternoon).

Of course, the above attempt at unpacking everything conveyed in Austen’s original clause destroys the off-handed wit that she dashed it off with in half a sentence. The fleeting existence of her personal anxieties which are simultaneously dismissed using the vehicle of humour can hardly be reproduced by the method above.

Why, then, is this brief dependent clause of interest in relation to her novels?  I point it out, along with my lengthier and more awkward rendition of its contents, to shed light not only on the considerable quantity of information expressed in remarkably few words, but more importantly to suggest it as a fledgling and unpretentious example of a unique category of information, contained in all of her six novels, at least two of which she had reportedly already begun work on.[iv]  I think this clause reveals a tendency for the young Austen to concern herself with the unknown thoughts and actions of others in interesting ways; a predilection which she was busy developing, in her fiction, into a narrative mode that she not only utilised to expose character, but which she seamlessly integrated as a central feature within the movement of each of her plots.  A quick survey of her six finished novels does not lend an immediate refutation to this idea – all of them contain, as a central element to the functioning of each plot, the necessity of uncovering hidden information about the thoughts and feelings of central characters, embedded within the complexities of their respective social milieus. In each of the six novels, this information needs to be uncovered and successfully mediated in some way for the plot to progress to its conclusion. Misunderstandings and faulty intelligence abound and serve to propel each plot twist forward.  While a prolonged study may show that other authors conveyed the same sort of information I have dissected above, what made Austen unique, I think, is the manner in which she integrated this category of information within the plot structures of her novels.

With this theme in mind, I would like to suggest in what follows how Austen made a significant, and still largely unrecognized, contribution to the development of the novel by integrating a new layer of social as well as personal information, not only in the service of character development, which is obvious enough, but more importantly to the creation of plot structures that were uniquely capable of accommodating her characters’ development with the accompanying social and psychic accoutrements she appended in ways that were not apparent in any significant sense within the novel’s ascension before Austen.

Hidden Motives and ToM in Pride and Prejudice

Perhaps the simplest way to suggest how her representation of characters’ consciousness   was uniquely integrated into the workings of plot within her novels (as well as the missing information they came with) is to take a look at the novel which, we understand from Cassandra, Austen began working on shortly after this letter was written.[v]  Like the letter above, the first of chapter of Book II of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is also of interest for the ways two sisters (in this case fictional sisters) attempt to fill in missing information.

Before detailing the parallels, though, perhaps it is worthwhile to mention Austen’s friend Tom Lefroy again, as many have since argued that their brief acquaintance played a significant role in the sentiments later expressed in her novels. Exactly how their friendship, and the feelings she had for him, were integrated in her subsequent fiction is unfortunately not possible to retrieve with any great assurance.  Much later in life, though, after a long and illustrious political and legal career, Sir Thomas Lefroy confided to a nephew that he had been in love with Jane Austen. “It was a boyish, love,” his nephew quoted. [vi] Austen may very well have experienced a more potent form of the shared sentiment. In a letter written shortly after the one detailed above, she wrote:

Friday.-At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea…There is a report that Tom is going to be married to a Lichfield lass.[vii]

The feeling of melancholy she reported in his absence may be echoed in a pivotal scene in Pride and Prejudice. The first chapter of Book II opens with a conversation between Elizabeth Bennet and her sister, Jane, which includes a discussion of the contents of a letter from a “friend,” Caroline Bingley, and ends with a narrative account of the growing familiarity the family enjoys with a new potential suitor named Wickham, whose friendly and easygoing manner is contrasted with Fitzwilliam Darcy, who appears to be the antagonist at this point in the plot – a signature entanglement of misunderstanding  and misinformation that will have to be straightened out before the plot can be resolved.

Some back story is necessary to put this conversation in its proper context. Towards the end of Book I,  A letter from Caroline Bingley arrives, containing the unexpected, and very unwelcome news that, “[t]he whole party have left Netherfield by this time, and are on their way to town; and without any intention of coming back again.” In the world of Regency-era marriage politics, this was devastating news for Jane, who by all accounts would not have been too far amiss in believing a proposal from Mr. Bingley had been imminent before the arrival of his sister’s letter.  Caroline’s letter continues:

I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings, and that your beaux will be so numerous as to prevent your feeling the loss of the three, of whom we shall deprive you.”

The two sisters immediately go to work at interpreting this important social data. The gullible Jane Bennet concludes: “It is evident by this,” added Jane, “that he comes back no more this winter.” The more hawkish Elizabeth fires back, “It is evident that Miss Bingley does not mean he should.”

The conversation that follows consists of a minute dissection of the thoughts, feelings, and hidden motivations of everyone involved in the matter, and every possible influence on Mr. Bingley’s decision to leave.  Elizabeth is blunt:

Miss Bingley sees that her brother is in love with you, and wants him to marry Miss Darcy. She follows him to town in the hope of keeping him there, and tries to persuade you that he does not care about you.”

Subsequent events will prove Elizabeth absolutely correct in her mind reading, but Jane responds

naively: “Caroline is incapable of wilfully deceiving any one; and all that  I can hope in this case is,

that she is deceived herself.”

The conversation continues with Elizabeth playing the hawk and Jane the dove. An enormous amount of social information is minutely examined; considerations of the hidden or otherwise unknown motives of not only the Miss Bingleys but also Miss Debourgh (who has been identified as a likely marriage partner of Mr. Darcy), Miss Darcy, Mr. Darcy and of course Bingley himself. An attempt is made to integrate all of these components in order to solve a puzzle from very limited amounts of information, and most of it provided by, what we suspect as readers and are later confirmed in our beliefs, to be from a very unreliable source (that is Caroline Bingley).

I have described this instance of mass-ToM in Austen’s novel in an attempt to illustrate a very important distinction between how Austen incorporates ToM and how earlier writers used it in a much more causal manner. The above plot twists that Caroline’s insincere letter introduces –Bingley’s unexplained absence, his sister Caroline’s obvious duplicity and unreliability concerning his disappearance, Jane’s despondency in the matter, and, centrally, Mr. Darcy’s as yet undetected but pivotal role in the matter, all contribute Elizabeth’s “long indulged” but “unavailing” ruminations on the whole conundrum , which in book II will form the central components of the plot’s movement forward, and ultimately the keystone to the plot’s multiple, yet remarkably symmetrical resolutions.

Why Is This Important?

Alan Palmer recently suggested:  “It could be, perhaps, that Jane Austen was the first great English novelist of social minds, just as she was the first of free indirect discourse. That sounds quite likely to me.” Many share his opinion, giving a prominent place to Jane Austen in the development of the representation of consciousness within the novel. However, by Jane Austen’s time, Theory of Mind, as it is described in contemporary cognitive science, and more recently in literary criticism, was certainly nothing new – as others are quick to point out.  Theory of Mind is visible in the writing of Aphra Behn, Miguel Cervantes, and arguably much earlier, as indicated in many passages of old English as studied by Monika Fludernik and others. Don Quixote, to take one example, was a picaresque novel which, arguably, incorporated the sort of cognitive structures noted above, equipping the reader with, among other tools, a window into the minds of Don Quixote’s and Sancho Panza’s minds as they fumbled along from episode to episode of their many adventures. However, this window offered little if anything in the way of plot development in a manner that could be said to be directly integrated with the representation of their inner selves.  This is not so in Austen.  For instance, the ‘intermental’ framework that Caroline Bingley’s duplicitous letter’s bring to the continuation of the plot at the end of Book I and the beginning of Book II of Pride and Prejudice  is an example of a unique device that can be uncovered in all of Austen’s plots. In contrast to the picaresque meanderings that the novel before Jane Austen was known for, the incorporation of Theory of Mind and its deep Intersubjectivity served as a means to explore new possibilities not only for the representation of consciousness, but for the development of possible new worlds in which those characters could interact. Jane Austen, then, created a new kind of plot that was capable of accommodating a new kind of person that could be narrated in such a way as to incorporate their inner lives with the outer world of the rapidly changing social milieu that Austen’s miniaturist representations portrayed.

Now that we have recognized, and are beginning to more fully describe, Jane Austen’s contribution to the representation of consciousness in the history of the novel, the next logical step, I believe, is to more fully explore what she did with this information about people’s minds that she uncovered and how this information was incorporated novelistically within the broader framework of her plots.  Taking Pride and Prejudice as an example, it is not enough that misunderstandings are serendipitously cleared up and true character (good or bad) revealed as a result. For Pride and Prejudice to reach its conclusion, a different variety of transformation in the main characters needed to take place: in uncovering the truth regarding Bingley’s disappearance, Elizabeth first needed to reject a marriage proposal, firmly stating her reasons, triggering a letter from Darcy which offers crucial information regarding the real state of affairs. She then must use this information to modify her own character in order to respond to appropriately. Symmetrically, Darcy must also receive and process information regarding Jane’s true feelings for Bingley, among other issues, acknowledging his own errors and modify his own character in the process as well. Rather than simple misunderstandings that must be cleared up in order to bring closure to a more conventional novel of the period,  the intermental material associated with the commonly used plot devices serves as a catalyst for personal change and the opportunity for a new kind of synergy in the novelistic depiction of interpersonal relations. The self at the conclusion of an Austen novel is a new kind of social figure, capable of a sort of interaction that had not been narrated in the same manner or to the same extent before Austen.

Does Austen’s brief dalliance with Tom Lefroy offer a bridge between art and life in the development of her uniquely emplotted Intersubjectivity? Like much in Austen’s personal life, making firm connections are often frustratingly difficult. It is possible that the emotions portrayed by the character of Elizabeth, and shared symbiotically by her sister Jane Bennet in response to Mr. Bingley’s disappearance at the end of Book I were somehow inspired by similar feelings of absence felt by Austen when Lefroy was whisked away from Austen by his family (it was apparently deemed a bad match for financial reasons).  The last surviving letter mentioning him, written two years after those quoted above, indicates that his aunt volunteered no information about him (reminding us again that the absence of information is a theme throughout Austen’s corpus). In a letter to Cassandra shortly after this visit she reports:

I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise.

So ended an extremely rare instance of anything approaching concrete evidence of romantic love in Austen’s life, the absence of which may very well have propelled her plots forward a great deal more than any thoughts on its consummation, which would take up a great deal of the remainder of the nineteenth century novel.


[i] Austen, Jane . Jane Austen’s Letters To Her Sister Cassandra and Others, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/AusLett.html.accessed 2012-07-13

[ii] Sir Thomas Langlois Lefroy, who would later serve as an MP as well as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.

[iii] Ashe was a village very close to Austen’s home at Steventon Rectory where balls were frequently held. Austen and Lefroy had many mutual friends whom they met there.

[iv] For reference, this letter was written in January of 1796. It is difficult to ascertain a definitive timeline for the commencement of her first three novels, but it appears by this time that she may have had a readable draft of an early version of Sense and Sensibility and had apparently started work on an early draft of Pride and Prejudice three months before, in October of 1796. Reports differ for her commencement of Northanger Abbey, either 1795, or 1798. Suffice it to say that there is ample evidence that she was actively engaged in writing novels at the time of this letter’s composition.

[v] See above for the timeline of the commencement of her first three novels.

[vi] Tomalin, C. (1997). Jane Austen: a life. P. 49 New York, Knopf: Distributed by Random House.

[vii] Letters, Letter 2

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