Pride and Prejudice Overanalysis, Part 2: This little character has autism, this little character does not

In an amusing coincidence, right after Ann and I did our Hollywood vs. Bollywood P&P movie extravaganza, my bookstore got its review copy of a new book, So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, which, as you might gather from the title analyzes the characters in Pride and Prejudice for characteristics of autism spectrum disorders.

Now, I do admit, I thought this was a pretty, um, shall we say “niche” thing to write about, but I figured what the hey, I’d evaluate it seriously anyway, because we might as well carry it if it was good. And just to make sure I was evaluating it as well as I could, I read the original book version of Pride and Prejudice over the weekend. I had already read the intro to So Odd a Mixture, so I knew which characters the author was going to “diagnose,” and was therefore paying attention to the possible signs she might have found.

When I got back to work, I dove into the main chapters of her argument, where she analyzes, character by character, the following: Mr. Collins, Lydia, Mary, Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Anne de Bourgh, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (I think that was everyone.) If you’ve read P&P, take a moment to consider which of these characters you might consider possible candidates.

Mr. Collins I had no problem with. While the more classic public conception of a person with high-functioning autism (HFA) is the introverted anti-social wallflower, *cough*Mr.Darcy*cough*, there are many who are quite intent on being social, just like other extroverts. Except, because they have autism, they are impaired in their ability to read those essential social cues from others that tell them how to go about this being social, and they end up violating many of the “obvious” rules of social intercourse. So Mr. Collins is unable to see that his choice of reading sermons out loud to a household of teenage girls, or his addressing Mr. Darcy without an introduction, or his frequent monologues, or his constant comparison of everything to Lady Catherine and Rosings, and so on are all highly inappropriate, and he completely misses the fact that everyone around him is put off by his behavior.

Mr. Darcy I also had no problem with. I thought the chapter on him was probably the best one, as might be expected. The author notes that Darcy is at his most socially awkward when he is in an unfamiliar situation, and appears most charming and “normal” when met at his own home. When having to deal with crowds, noise, chit chat, and flirting, he is stiff, his face lacks affect, and he makes very forthright statements that aren’t exactly calculated to make him any friends. But in his familiar environment, surrounded by things he knows and people he grew up with, he can stop focusing so much on managing himself and spare more attention for understanding other people. The author treats his character fairly, and even expresses some optimism that Lizzy’s astute understanding of social interaction will eventually guide Darcy to greater understanding and comfort as well.

But the author’s arguments were somewhat undermined, for me, by her practically hateful treatment of Mr. Bennet. Now, I thought at first that maybe I missed something about Mr. Bennet in the movies, that his character was just more sympathetically portrayed, and that I would find more autistic characteristics in the book. I didn’t get that impression upon reading it. The author makes the argument that he is callously cruel to his wife and children; that he has been extremely irresponsible in his mismanagement of money, leaving them all in danger of poverty and homelessness upon his death; that he neglects essential social duties that would further them in society; and that he retreats to his library due to autistic overstimulation, essentially abandoning his family much of the time. She claims that he has scarred his children for life and driven his wife to near nervous collapse. She uses all the negative evidence she can find from other autism research books that point to the negative effects of having someone with autism as either a husband or a father. This interpretation of his character is so strikingly at odds with the one of Darcy that it almost seems as if two different people wrote them. How can we trust her sympathetic view of Darcy’s Asperger Syndrome, when she is so ready to condemn all autistic fathers and husbands? Besides which, I’m not sure there are very many readers who don’t also want to retreat to the library when Mrs. Bennet, Kitty, and Lydia get going.

And then there are the characters that it seems she added to take up some more space. Anne de Bourgh hardly belongs there, because she was barely in the book at all. For a diagnosis that relies on observed behavior, it seems like quite a reach to diagnose a character who shows up on two or three pages, total. Lydia gets saddled with the dual diagnosis of some sort of HFA and ADHD, due to her inability to see future consequences for her actions and her apparent callousness toward her family’s reaction when she elopes. Mary is too reliant on book learning and logic, and therefore must have Asperger’s as well. Mrs. Bennet is socially unaware and inappropriate, and shows signs of anxiety disorder! But her issues have undoubtedly been made far worse by her marriage to an uncaring and unaware husband, and her constant worry about her precarious position in life, should he die. There might actually be some argument for Lady Catherine, with her strict adherence to her own set of social rules, tendency toward bald pronouncements and monologues, and basically the fact that she puts up with Mr. Collins so well.

So while the idea was interesting, and some of it had merit, I ended up feeling like we couldn’t carry it due to how negative the author’s attitude toward Mr. Bennet was. The last section of the book discussed the various couples’ likelihood of future happiness, and she took the opportunity again to get in a number of digs at the poor man. If she had just stuck with the chapters on Darcy and Mr. Collins, all would have been well. If anyone else feels like reading the books, I suggest skipping the chapters about the Bennets, at the very least. I suspect this book will go over better with the more strictly Austen crowd than the autism community, because they won’t be as shocked or offended by the vitriol, but I wouldn’t want to recommend the book to a person on the spectrum, or even a parent.

-posted by Dana


9 Responses to Pride and Prejudice Overanalysis, Part 2: This little character has autism, this little character does not

  1. Mary says:

    I didn’t think of it that way in those terms at the time, but when watching the movie (I hadn’t read the book since high school) I felt somewhat angry at Mr. Bennett too because I felt he had excused himself from this responsibility. As a result, his wife is overwhelmed with this responsibility in a way that seems to make her appear rather ridiculous. I’ve observed this among certain married couples/parents; one of them is happy-go lucky, friendly, well-liked, but does not take it upon him/herself to attend to burdensome matters. Because the other one has all the responsibility of “being the grown-up,” he or she is overwhelmed with responsibility to the point of appearing neurotic. The author’s analysis seems over the top, but there is food for thought there.

  2. TheGnat says:

    I realize I’m making a judgment call based on your review, but that’s what reviews are for, so… I have to say from your description I’m not sure people who don’t know much about autism should read the book either. I mean, it sounds like half the major characters are being diagnosed as autistic, which gives the impression that autism is as common and treatable as depression, or for that matter, is as much a disorder as having a major personality flaw. >.>;;;;

  3. Dana says:


    Yeah, like I said, I thought a lot of her “diagnoses” were really reaching. While it’s true that autistic traits do tend to run in families, it’s unlikely Jane Austen really spent that much time around people who all happened to have Asperger Syndrome, more than a hundred years before anyone had every heard of it. The other weird thing is the author’s insistence that Austen amazingly wrote such an overwhelming number of women on the spectrum, when the male to female ratio most often cited is 4:1 or 5:1. If you look hard enough at anyone, you’ll find some sort of personality quirk, and if you are willing to blow it out of proportion, you’ll have a diagnosis!

    Like I said, I buy the descriptions of Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy, but even so, they are both remarkably high functioning individuals, which epidemiology studies put in the smaller proportion of people with autism spectrum disorders overall. The idea that all of them were is preposterous.

    But in a mild defense of the book, the author does give a basic “autism primer” for Austenites, and an Austen primer for autism people at the beginning. I hope they wouldn’t still leave the book thinking autism is like depression. I don’t think she made any bones about it being a lifelong disorder; she simply indicated that those lucky high functioning individuals who find a tolerant partner might have an okay life. Obviously, Lizzy is luckier than Charlotte.

  4. Jancey says:

    My thoughts on this book stray from its literary value and previous comments. I don’t know enough about autism or P&P to have an opinion on the diagnostic book’s merit. However, I do think the fact that a “diagnostic” book was written about a fictional (albeit well known) world/family indicates america’s obsession with black and white thinking and labeling every action as potentially pathological. I just finished a degree in clinical social work with a clinical focus on working with and the treatment of individuals with borderline personality disorder (an oft-stigmatized diagnosis.) It is my somewhat-informed opinion that most such diagnoses are more for the public/family/treatment team than the actual afflicted. It is more comfortable to “know” what you’re dealing with and apply treatments that can helpful to such labels than to embrace each individual’s unique expression of behaviors, needs, background, helpful interventions, etc etc. I’m comfortable with diagnosing only when the label is used as a jumping off point to identify treatment- not when it is used merely to corral people into groups.

    Is it useful today to recognize a 3 year old has some autistic-spectrum traits and begin early intervention? Of course. Is it useful to take some fictional characters that existed in a time period without this diagnosis and any kind of treatment for such a medical label? Not at all. The ease of diagnosing fictional characters strikes me as parallel to the ease american culture has with labeling all types- criminal, mentally ill, stupid, even “geek,” as if one word could possibly describe the range of a human condition. I believe it is our uneasy feeling of having to sit with the unknown that we embrace such labels. As is likely evident, I greatly dislike such thoughtless labeling and think it a disservice to everyone.

    as I mentioned, I’m not against all diagnosing or labeling but am against it for diagnosing’s sake. Including “geek” above is a gentle rib at ourselves. This new book, however, clearly uses diagnosis not for helpful purpose but to further a diagnostic-happy culture.

    Sorry for the rant, back to lurking. 🙂

  5. Dana says:


    I totally agree. My very first response to the book was, “What a silly thing to write about,” but I was still curious to see what she had to say. It was basically just an academic exercise that got taken to extremes, it seems to me. Your opinion of the proper use of a diagnosis seems predominant amongst most of the people I know in the autism community.

    The posthumous/fictional diagnosis trend has been very controversial. I think it really started because therapists, parents, and/or people on the spectrum were looking for historical role models, hence books like Norm Ledgin’s Asperger’s and Self-Esteem and Jennifer Elder’s Different Like Me. Elder at least is careful never to claim a diagnosis for any of the historical figures in her book, presenting them instead as people who “thought differently.”

    But when Ledgin went further and wrote Diagnosing Jefferson, he got a lot of criticism, especially from the history community, because it’s so irrevelent, and entirely speculation, given that this is a diagnosis that is based solely on observed behavior. It would only have been useful for Jefferson to be diagnosed if he could be served by the diagnosis; instead, I suspect he would not have been allowed to achieve as much as he did.

    I do think it is interesting to explore what characters or historical figures people from different groups identify with, but the need to claim them through an “official” diagnosis is going a bit far.

  6. Suzie says:

    H there:
    I read this book recently. I think it was an excellently researched and written book. The author does not claim that all of the characters definitely have AS, but that there are a number of features. To me it solves the mystery of Mr. Darcy: he is not trying to manipulate or hurt anyone, but he is doing the best he can. Note that he wins over his love by writing to her and by actions, not by expressing his social skills.
    AS has probably been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and it is not unlikely that Jane Austen knew many with AS: as most of us do, given it is much more common than we used to think. Perhaps Jane Austen put most of her AS characters in one book, as a theme of social impairment. The book would be useful, I think, to add another perspective on literary analysis. For so long Literature types, not health professionals, have done amateur psychology: this author is a health professional (speech therapist) and I think there needs to be a range of opinions in analysing the classics.

  7. Kathryn says:

    Well – I was a Jane fanatic long before I was an autism mother. So for me, this is absolutely one of my favourite books (I just about died laughing when I saw it on line one day at a special needs publishing company’s site). I too had already diagnosed everyone.

    Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, Mary Bennet – Oh yes. Traits, traits, traits.

    Mr. Bennet & Lydia Bennet – I would just say ADHD.

    Mrs. Bennet – I would just say ADHD as well.

    Anne de Bourgh – yup, she most certainly has autism. To add to all her oddities – she was very sickly. For everyone out there who doesn’t know this – autism is an autoimmune disease – and our children are VERY sick. Just go to UC MIND Institute or if you are curious.

    And finally, yes, the genes have always been there – the difference is how sick people are today. Imagine one of our children managing an estate? Lady Catherine and Mr. Darcy seemed to handle this with no problems.

    The difference today? ALL of our children are getting sicker and sicker (Type One – juvenile diabetes – is going up nearly 4% a year and will DOUBLE by 2020 – go to for that one). Too bad my child doesn’t have type one diabetes genes – as no one would dare debate “better diagnosing” for children who could fall into comas.

    Anyway, great read and if I ever start up an autism mother’s book club, this would be on top of the list.

  8. Kalevi says:

    Is this the future of literature:

    “Jane has AFD. Kevin is MCS. Malcolm is BDD. The End.”

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