Missing Magic? Jane Austen’s Skeptical World
Updated: May 4, 2022
By Kara Pleasants, author of Disenchanted
Twilight Dreams by Arthur Rackam
The word magic does not appear in the collected works of Jane Austen. Type it into the Literature Network’s searchable text tool and you’ll come up with zero results. An internet search on the topic of “the Regency and magic” will bring up a list of Jane Austen fanfiction titles and Sorcery and Cecilia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot articles (an excellent novel), but scarce information about the practice of magic in the period when Jane Austen lived and wrote.
As an English teacher and fantasy fanatic, I was well-acquainted with the ancient fairytales and folklore of the ancient English isle, and have read the works of Thomas Mallory, Edmund Spencer, William Shakespeare, and Alfred Lord Tennyson--all of which are steeped in the magical tradition of fairies and spells and Otherworlds. What could account for a gap in magical literature? A space not unlike the one in my novel, where Darcy is puzzled to find a hole in the room where magic ceases to exist.
The mid-eighteenth century to early 19th century was a period when skepticism of the magical and supernatural came in vogue amongst the prominent scientists and thinkers of the day--which heavily influenced the attitudes of the educated English populace during this period. While the hey-day of witch-burning was in the 17th century, by the time Jane Austen was born the last “witch”, Janet Horne, had been (controversially) burned over 50 years before in 1722.
As far back as the period of the Interregnum, hot Protestants in England gave rise to the skepticism of witchcraft and the supernatural--and the period of the Englightenment led to a robust debate. Skepticism of the supernatural--rather than being seen as dangerously close to atheism--was seen as rational, scientific, and less dangerous than the superstitious beliefs of the less educated. Folklore and fairy-tales continued to thrive in the beliefs of the common people but disappeared from the literature and art of “higher” society (Hunter 402).
Jane Austen--the daughter of a clergyman, and well-educated--was a product of her time. Her wit and skepticism align with the thinking of the day, more akin to our own, modern beliefs, that magic exists for children: relegated to “the realm of make-believe” (Hunter 424). Austen is beloved exactly because her two feet are planted so solidly on the ground. Her works explore the everyday lives of the sort of people she knew: her lively wit and concrete depictions of character are the workings of genius.
The rare mentions of supernatural elements in Austen’s works initially seem to be confined to those who are less educated, silly, or unlikable. In chapter 10 of Manfield Park, Mrs Norris accosts a gardener and promises to give him a charm to ward off his grandson’s cold (this is the only direct mention of a sort of spell that I came across in my research). In Emma, when Mr Elton leaves a riddle, Emma and Harriet pretend that it was “dropt, we suppose, by fairies”. Still, Emma chides Harriet for being overly whimsical in her attempts to decipher the poem: "Mermaids and sharks! Nonsense! My dear Harriet, what are you thinking of? Where would be the use of his bringing us a charade made by a friend upon a mermaid or a shark? Give me the paper and listen” (Emma, ch 9).
Emma itself, as a kind of mystery novel, turns more and more towards a romantic enchantment as it progresses. At the ball where Mr Knightley gallantly saves Harriet from disgrace by dancing with her, Miss Bates had earlier declared that is was a “meeting quite in fairy-land!-- Such a transformation!” (ch 38). Indeed, Emma and Mr Knightley’s feelings themselves will undergo further transformation. When Mr Knightley finally realizes that Emma does, in fact, love him, Austen describes his hopes as thoughts that were “enchanting” (ch 49).
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786 William Blake 1757-1827. Source
And it is in my favorite of Austen’s works, Pride and Prejudice, that romance is overtly described as magical. At Netherfield, Darcy realizes that he “had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by” Elizabeth (Pride and Prejudice, ch 10). For all of Austen’s grounding in reality, the transformation of love is akin to a spell. Darcy is drawn to Elizabeth because of her fine eyes and lively mind--and Elizabeth, in turn, often notices his gaze. Beautiful eyes are a familiar allusion to folklore surrounding the fairies. And Elizabeth’s heart is also transformed when she first arrives at Pemberley, a place described as both beautiful and one with nature. My story explores this more literally when in my story Pemberley exists not in the real world, but in the Otherworld of the land of the Fae.
So, while it is true that magic was viewed skeptically by the Georgians, and the Victorian obsession the supernatural and with fairies (who first gave fairies wings) was still a few years away, the magic is there. It is with matters of the heart where we see a glimpse, even in Jane Austen’s work, of pure magic.