Patricia Churchland opens chapter 6 of Braintrust, “Skills for a Social Life”:
The social world and its awesome complexity has long been the focus of performances – informally in improvised skits around the campfire, and more formally, in elaborate productions by professionals on massive stages. Among the cast of characters in a play, there is inevitably a wide variation in social intelligence, sometimes with a tragic end, as in King Lear. [p 118]
We’ll be talking about Lear next. That’s a very good description of his problem, his “tragic flaw” – it’s not anything grand or impressive, it’s just babyish clumsy oblivious lack of social intelligence. It causes him to set up a ludicrous “contest” which simply begs to be gamed, it causes him to be blind to obviously insincere flattery, and it causes him to mistake loving attempts to save him from his own blindness as treason. He’s pathetically mind-blind, and because he’s a king he’s never been taught better, or taught to let people help him navigate.
Lady Catherine is another such, and she too is insulated from the effects by her status and money. It struck me that social intelligence was Austen’s great subject. That’s not true of all novelists. It doesn’t fit Emily Bronte, exactly, or George Eliot, exactly – Eliot did write about it a lot (Lydgate, Rosamund) but it wasn’t dominant the way it was with Austen.
That’s probably why so many people think she’s minor, or trivial – but they’re wrong. Social intelligence isn’t minor or trivial. Mr Woodhouse is just a Lear writ small; he does less harm only because he has less scope.