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Jane Bennet is Lovely…and Dangerous

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Carolina Ciucci


Carolina Ciucci is a teacher, writer and reviewer based in the south of Argentina. She hoards books like they’re going out of style. In case of emergency, you can summon her by talking about Ireland, fictional witches, and the Brontë family. Twitter: @carolinabeci

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t love, or at least like, Jane Bennet. The eldest of the Bennet sisters is a genuinely kind, generous, empathetic person who always looks for (and finds) the best in others, and is happy to provide second chances without judgement. What’s not to like?

Well. Actually. There is one thing.

Just to be clear: Jane Bennet is a beautiful person, and in a lot of ways, someone to look up to and emulate. After all, in the world we live in, open-hearted and open-minded people are to be treasured. Without a doubt, she’s one of my favorite Austen characters. But every time I reread Pride and Prejudice, I’m struck by the same thing: as wonderful as she is, Jane can also be dangerous and harmful without meaning to be. Let me explain.

“But He’s Such a Nice Guy!”

When Elizabeth first tells Jane about Wickham’s account of his relationship with Darcy, Jane is horrified. Unlike Elizabeth, Jane isn’t overcome by an attraction to Wickham: she’s moved by her own need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. And to a certain point, this is admirable. Jane doesn’t hasten to blame or condemn either because she realizes she doesn’t have all the facts.

“It is difficult indeed-it is distressing. One does not know what to think.”

Pride and Prejudice, chapter XVII

But it goes beyond that — and that’s where it stops being admirable and veers into dangerous: Jane is also taken in by Wickham’s charisma and appearance of goodness.

…she knew not how to believe that Mr. Darcy could be so unworthy of Mr. Bingley’s regard; and yet, it was not in her nature to question the veracity of a young man of such amiable appearance as Wickham.

Pride and Prejudice, chapter XVII

Jane isn’t only inclined to think well of Wickham because her knee-jerk reaction is always to think well of others. She’s also inclined to think well of him because he’s “a young man of such amiable appearance.” In other words: he looks like such a nice guy!

How often have we heard, or even said, “he wouldn’t do that! He’s such a nice guy!” about a man who’s been accused of abuse, or other damaging actions of lesser impact? Whenever a famous man is accused of wrongdoing, especially if he’s accused by a woman, Internet comment sections become a depressingly predictable landscape:

“She’s lying.”

“She’s just doing it for the money.”

“If it’s true, why come forward now?”

“She sure seemed friendly when she posed for the same picture with him at X event.”

Like clockwork, such people display a staggering lack of understanding of how abuse works, who can be an abuser and a victim, and the various ways in which victims and survivors might react.

“But he seems like such a nice guy.”

It’s a phrase that is thrown around a lot. And it is this — this strange idea that charisma and coercion are somehow mutually exclusive — which serves to bolster a damaging misconception about abusers.

“Why “he seems such a nice guy” is the wrong response to abuse allegations” by Kayleigh Dray

When in Doubt, Listen to Maya Angelou

You know that quote by Maya Angelou that says “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”? Jane keeps extending Wickham the benefit of the doubt long past the time when it is reasonable to do so.

To have his errors made public might ruin him forever. He is now, perhaps, sorry for what he has done, and anxious to re-establish a character. We must not make him desperate.

Pride and Prejudice, chapter XL

Let’s recap what Jane knows of Wickham’s actions up to this point, shall we? He all but tried to scam Darcy, manipulated a 15-year-old girl into almost eloping with him in order to get his hands on her money, lied about Darcy’s treatment of him, and willfully and consistently maligned his reputation. The latter happened mere months before she says he might be sorry for what he’s done.

Jane. Come on. What about this man’s recent conduct makes you think he regrets anything? At this point, her generosity has become a stubborn rejection of reality.

Real-Life Implications

Nothing remained therefore to be done, but to think well of them both, to defend the conduct of each, and throw into the account of accident or mistake whatever could not otherwise be explained.

Pride and Prejudice, chapter XVII

Jane genuinely believes that everyone she comes in contact with is a good person, and that any interpersonal conflict can only be due to a misunderstanding. This ignores an unfortunate fact: oppressors and abusers exist. And they rely on people like Jane, those who need to see the best in everyone, to push their victims into isolation and silence.

Jane is a mild example of this phenomenom: she never holds Elizabeth’s harsh words at Darcy against her (“I do not know that you were wrong in saying what you did”), and she never tries to tell those who were wronged how to react against those who wronged them. But she stays neutral even after learning the facts of what went down between Darcy and Wickham, and Wickham and Georgiana. She still thinks, after all of this, that Wickham can’t have had bad intentions when running away with Lydia.

We’ve all known someone who told us to give a known bully or abuser a chance. Some of them do so out of an aversion to conflict. Some, like Jane, do it because they genuinely think that everyone can and should get along. But the results are the same: an insistence on niceness even at the expense of kindness, and people who mistreat others being granted the same leeway as those who have been mistreated.

Jane Bennet has a lot of qualities that we should emulate. But her stubborn refusal to see people for who they are isn’t one of them.