Almost paradoxically, it is this hard-won wisdom that points characters toward happiness in Jane Austen's world. There is a point in Pride and Prejudice, for example, when Elizabeth Bennet must admit to herself that her first impression of Fitzwilliam Darcy was mistaken, and she was wrong to speak ill of him. "How despicably I have acted!" she cries out. "I, who have valued myself on my abilities!" Acknowledging her shortcomings causes Elizabeth pain, but she is wiser for doing so. "Till this moment, I never knew myself," she says. With self-knowledge comes maturity; Elizabeth has grown up.
A similar thing happens to Emma Woodhouse in Austen's novel Emma. Convinced of her own cleverness, Emma tries too hard to impress her friend Frank Churchill and glibly insults kindly Miss Bates, whose only fault is talking too much. Emma's moment of truth comes later, when Mr. Knightley, a much-admired family friend, points out that she did wrong. "Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life," Austen wrote. "How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!" Emma made her hurtful remark out of immaturity; when she goes to apologize to Miss Bates, she has taken a big step toward womanhood.
Austen parodied gothic novels in Northanger Abbey, but even the heroine of this work gets her comeuppance. Catherine Morland's imagination runs wild, and during her visit Northanger Abbey, home of her new friends the Tilneys, she expects at any moment to discover dark, hidden secrets. It's all harmless fun until she conjures up the notion that her host, General Tilney, murdered his late wife. When Catherine is caught snooping in the dead woman's room--by none other than handsome, eligible Henry Tilney--she is embarrassed for having gone too far. From this moment on, her actions will be rooted in reality.
The author gave a different structure to Persuasion, her last completed novel, but the lesson is the same. Readers meet Anne Eliot, who at twenty-seven is Austen's oldest heroine, eight years after she has suffered her painful moment. At nineteen Anne had been persuaded to break her engagement to a man she loved, and she has regretted this mistake ever since. Austen was kind to Anne, giving her a second chance at love, a chance the author never enjoyed in her own life.
Some critics have faulted Jane Austen for losing interest in her characters once their path to a happy marriage is clear. They have occasionally blamed her single status for keeping her ignorant of engagement and marriage. Yet Austen's novels are not really about love. It is true that all her heroines marry, and marry rightly, but at the core these books are about growing up.