Autism has been recognized for only a short and recent period of history. Though proper medical diagnosing procedures are exclusive to the modern world, there are many traceable signs of autism that can be secondarily observed across the gaps in time. That possibility has led scholars to speculate. What’s more, some claim to have identified certain fictional characters as being on the spectrum, making them autistic.
One of the best examples of autism in a work of pre-20th century literature is in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, primarily regarding the character Mr. Darcy. In the article “Austen and Autism: Reading Brain, Emotion, and Gender Differences in Pride and Prejudice,” Mikhal Dekel describes a rather intriguing argument about Mr. Darcy’s character. It attempts to reframe his seemingly posh and elitist attitude with the added perspective that he may be on the Autism Spectrum. Below is perhaps the most telling quote from Austen’s novel regarding such:
I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.Pride & Prejudice – Jane Austen
This quote describes one of the many struggles that people on the spectrum face. In a review of Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer’s book So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in ‘Pride & Prejudice’, which delves into 8 of Jane Austen’s characters shown (on some level) to have autistic traits, Alexandra Gaspar stated that “Whereas scholars see Darcy as shy, Bottomer believes that it “is not pride, but subtle autism that is the major reason for Darcy’s frequent silences, [and] awkward behavior at social events.”
Taking that idea further, Gaspar wrote that “the eight characters analyzed and diagnosed by Bottomer as autistic are basically all the major characters [in her books].” The list includes both Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, two of their daughters Mary and Lydia, Catherine de Bourgh, and Mr. Collins, as well as Mr. Darcy.
It is interesting to consider the implications of autism, both for our reading of Jane Austen’s works and for the author herself. Gaspar explained that this literary speculation is somewhat validated by the possibility that her “family members or neighbors” were on the spectrum and had seeped into her work. Another theory is that Jane Austen was herself autistic and writing from personal experience, as explored in a blog post by Kimberly Sullivan.
Whether she or those she knew were on the spectrum is impossible to know for certain. There is simply too much uncertainty surrounding the condition. If anything, this theory constitutes a modern reframing of a classic story that has and will continue to shape people’s literary lives.
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