“It was certainly a very remarkable coincidence!”—Northanger Abbey.
Writing from roughly 1795 on, Jane Austen is usually seen as the last major writer of the 18th century. In many novels of that century, plot coincidences were not only accepted, they were expected. It was a big coincidence if there were not major coincidences driving the plot.
Most of them were pretty ridiculous, like an important set of cast members being shipwrecked (à la Shakespeare’s The Tempest) at just the right place and time in Ann Radcliffe’s famous novel The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Henry Fielding, another major writer of the 18th century, builds wonderful characters and scenes atop ridiculous plot contrivances. One critic praised Fielding for displaying a “great knowledge of mankind,” yet had his characters involved in such “incalculably improbable” circumstances that fairies might well have intervened to resolve the plot.
This issue of coincidences is one that bedevils every writer of realistic fiction. A coincidence here and there is fine; ordinary life has coincidences. Too many, however, and the plot ceases to be believable. As a writer who pioneered realistic fiction, Austen used coincidences too. But how much, and why?
Sense and Sensibility is her one book that has traditional coincidences straight out of the 18th century. One is that Mrs. Jennings hears second hand of the comeuppance of Lucy Steele, which ultimately frees Edward Ferrars to marry Elinor Dashwood. And there’s Colonel Brandon conveniently overhearing of Willoughby’s marriage from two ladies waiting for a carriage. The news leads him—generously or opportunistically—to show up to express his concerns over Marianne’s broken heart.
But Austen uses these typical coincidences a good deal less than most other authors of the 18th and early 19th century. Almost always, the important matters in Austen’s fiction result from actions of the characters themselves. Usually, her coincidences clean up minor matters. Clerical livings, for example, come up twice at just the right time to settle the couple’s finances in Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. Characters also sometimes happen onto one another conveniently, as when Elinor runs into both Robert Ferrars and her half-brother John Dashwood minutes apart at the same place in London. These happenstances save Austen a few pages of prose here and there but don’t alter the course of the character-driver production.
A major coincidence in Pride and Prejudice involves what I call the “gathering of the cast.” Four different outsiders—Darcy, Wickham, Mr. Collins, and Mrs. Gardiner—all arrive at the small town of Meryton within a few weeks of each other. All have some degree of association with each other, and all become involved with the heroine, Elizabeth. These circumstances are not real likely.
To me, this string of coincidences is a lot like the coincidence that opens The Tempest. What are the odds that the same Italian court that banished Prospero twenty years earlier is now wrecked on the very same island he was? It’s about the same as Austen winning the English state lottery. Does anyone care about Shakespeare’s contrivance? It’s a device to bring everyone together and set the action in motion.
What matters is how the characters behave once they are all on stage together. Though The Tempest is not realistic fiction, the characters do behave realistically once they begin. With almost any novel, a reader can ask, how plausible is it that these two (or more) people end up at the same place at the same time to kick things off?
In one sense, it’s completely implausible that a particular boy, Pip, would meet and help a particular escaped convict at the start of Great Expectations—one who later wants to repay the favor. Yet some kid likely did meet some convict loose in England in the age when naval hulks were used as prisons.
What are the odds that Nick Carroway would meet Gatsby when and where he did? Yet somebody would have.
Hemingway (the other one), known for his hard-core realism, has two different sets of lovers meet “coincidentally”—one at a war hospital and one in the middle of a war zone. How likely is that? Well, the first one is based on something that happened to Ernest himself. More broadly, young people facing death tend to hook up. They’ll meet somewhere, somehow.
In a more Austen-like vein, how did the French lieutenant happen to meet up with that particular lady—while being watched by that particular spy—at none other than Lyme, on the very Cobb where Austen set one of her most popular novels? The reason is that John Fowles loves Lyme, where he lived much of his life, and also appreciates Austen. He had to have the officer and lady meet somewhere to open his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman!
And in the Regency era, young people actively sought out opportunities to meet others. If the Bennet girls had not met these particular eligible bachelors, they’d have met others, especially with Mrs. Bennet on the job. Other meetings would have led to other romantic entanglements.
In other words, the way any group of characters meets in a fictional setting to start a novel’s activities is going to have some element of contrivance. Even more when you ask the question: How did the narrator also end up there reporting the scene? There must be some “willing suspension of disbelief” about the opening of almost every work of fiction.
In Pride and Prejudice, it’s reasonable that a rich bachelor and his friends would move into a country neighborhood to get away from London. It’s reasonable that Mrs. Gardiner showed up; she’s a relative at a time when people regularly traveled to visit family. It’s reasonable that at least one gentleman in that area would have an entailed estate that would bring someone like Mr. Collins around. Austen actually could have staggered Mr. Collins’s arrival because he makes enough of a fool of himself in the Bennet home that he didn’t need to be a doofus at the dance. However, his actions reinforce his character in a reasonable way, and having him come at a different time might have added another scene or two that would be otherwise unneeded.
The least likely coincidence is the convenient encampment of the militia at Meryton, bringing the villain onto the stage. Yet, the militias did move around regularly. Many small towns dealt with the influx. Many had the same result—foolish young girls entangled in an unseemly romance, and local businesses left with unpaid bills. To get Wickham there without the militia, Austen would have had to come up with some other complication that might not have been any more plausible than what she does. (Adrian Lukis shown above as Wickham from the 1995 BBC production.)
In other words, a little “compaction” of characters and plot is a reasonable tradeoff at the beginning, when there are a lot of characters and actions to set in motion. (Compaction is common in movies, when directors combine two or three characters from a novel to simplify some of the plot.)
Consider the alternative. If Austen had spread the arrivals more realistically over, say, ten months instead of ten weeks, how would she have filled the time in her novel? What would Austen have plausibly written about to cover anything more than a short time in which the cast assembles?
Would she fill it with “shade,” by having it “stretched out here and there” with a long and extraneous chapter—“some solemn special nonsense” or “something unconnected with the story” such as an essay on writing or a critique of Walter Scott? In a letter of 4 February 1813, Austen speaks of having “lopt and cropt” Pride and Prejudice so much that she might need to add such extraneities to make it weighty enough.
We don’t know what she cut, or whether the decision was hers or her publisher’s. It’s entirely possible that she was asked to sharpen the opening and that she “loptd” a much longer and slower gathering of her team.
Regardless, economy in fiction requires the cast to collect in a reasonable period of time. So Austen gathers them quickly. She trades off coincidence for the ability to set a lively—and realistic—story into motion quickly.
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.