What Would Jane (Austen) Do?
Moral lessons on pride and conceit in Austen's novels help us understand what it means to be a virtuous Christian.
BY: Lori Smith
Ready to pursue a writing career full-time, author Lori Smith quit her day job and took a few months off to fulfill a lifelong dream--head to England and visit all the places that were near and dear to Jane Austen's heart. Starting her journey in Oxford and ending in Stoneleigh, Lori Smith muses the connections between Austen's writings and the faith journey, opens herself to possible romance, and writes about her day-to-day contemplations about Christianity. In an excerpt from her travel journal-turned-memoir, Lori Smith meditates on the Christian values and moral themes we can learn from Austen's six novels.
Tonight I sat in a row of folding chairs in gorgeous little Christ Church Cathedral, where the air felt dusty and holy, and what hit me with full spiritual force in my exhaustion was the grace and goodness of God—that which I've begun to hope for in the everyday circumstances of my life but not entirely expect. I kept hearing those words in my head, and as I looked up at where the stone arches meet in the ceiling, I could imagine this goodness coming down to me. The Evensong prayers and the hymns and the readings and the gorgeously sung psalms—all of them added up to the message that I am not beyond grace and that perhaps I can hope even now, on this trip, for God's abundant blessings, whatever form those might take.
I don't know what Jane would have made of these terribly serious spiritual musings. She was entrenched in the church because of her father and brothers, but she didn't write anything that would hint at any spiritual angst, any struggle to believe or not believe, or even any deep spiritual emotion. Perhaps her faith was just an accepted part of her life, as steady and unquestioned as the Hampshire seasons. She seems to have judged her own Christian life the way she evaluated those around her—not by what she felt about God, but by how she lived, how she treated others.
Her nephew James Edward wrote about her spiritual reserve, about how she was "more inclined tothink
" about her faith. Her niece Anna remembered that Aunt Jane would enjoy things to the fullest, but that when she was contemplating serious matters, she would feel them the most deeply as well—"when grave she wasvery
grave." So perhaps, at some level, Jane would understand.
What is clear is that Jane operated from a moral foundation. If she knew that others fell short, I believe it was in part because she was aware of her own failings. She crafted stories about lovely, smart, intelligent women—and men—who were blind to their own faults. Pride. Immaturity. Self-centeredness. These were not small, but impurities of character to be worked out with the help of those who loved you enough to tell you the truth.
For Jane, this working out was genuine faith, this mastery of character as much to be celebrated as the excellent romantic conclusions of her novels. Jane is never heavy-handed with this, but I believe the triumph of the books, for her, in the end is not only that the relationships come together but the kind of people who are allowed to come together— two people with characters that have been hammered out a bit, with faults that have been recognized and corrected. They are wise and humble enough to help each other work out their faults and appear guaranteed of some success in that regard.
No one in Jane's stories is spared from this kind of stringent—even in a way harsh—evaluation. "Persuasion's" Captain Wentworth is not allowed to have been motivated solely by hurt feelings, but by "angry pride," allowed to be ridiculous and yielding painful consequences to himself and Anne. Emma (in, of course, "Emma"), whom everyone must agree spoke truthfully when she told old Miss Bates that she must limit the number of "very dull" things she said, is not allowed to just laugh it off as a joke. Until Emma recognizes this meanness and, as a result, her propensity to overlook her own faults and need for correction, she cannot be really worthy in Austen's mind. In "Pride and Prejudice," Darcy as a child "was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit," while Anne in "Persuasion" is nearly perfect and is easily guided by Mrs. Russell. She concedes that this is not a moral failing, but that her own personality needs a bit of firming up. Meanwhile, Marianne in "Sense and Sensibility" allows her emotions to lead her into questionable situations, readily giving offense and ultimately caring only about her own happiness, while Elinor allows her own very strict moral code to stifle any kind of emotional display. (And although Jane was writing in praise of Elinor's self-control, I cannot read it without feeling like she is too rigid.)
The faults of minor characters are on display as well. Mrs. Bennet is silly throughout Pride and Prejudice, while Mr. Bennet does not take enough trouble to discipline his daughters. In "Sense and Sensibility," Mrs. Jennings is a gossip, and Emma's poor Miss Bates cannot stop talking. Mary (Anne's younger sister in "Persuasion") is never satisfied, determined to be the center of attention, always imagining herself ill (which was one of Jane's favorite failings to mock). And even the nearly perfect Jane Fairfax, also in "Emma," entered into a questionable engagement without the knowledge of her family.