Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The fact that my husband was making just over the equivalent of ten thousand (modern British pounds) a year when we got married is not the real reason that Natural Family Planning makes my life like a Jane Austen novel. Neither is the fact that I have several very silly sisters, nor the fact that I am not going to be left a very large inheritance. The main characters in Austen’s novel and Catholic couples practicing NFP face the world in a similar way. Both combat the worldly temptations to self-love and self-indulgence by recognizing a higher good. They know that one’s every act forms one’s character, and that to be fully human one must act according to reason through the pursuit of virtue and the resistance of superficial worldly charm.
If you have ever read a novel or two by Jane Austen (I allow myself the pleasure of all six whenever I am pregnant), you may have noticed that in each of her novels, a heroine is pursued by a charming man of the world. Yet, as Alasdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue, Austen shows that those who use only charm to attract the affection of others often have unhampered passions (see Ch. 14 and 16). Underneath that charm one often finds inordinate self-love, no real care for others, and unbridled self-indulgence. For example, the heroine Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, finds herself taken in by the charm of Mr. Wickham, who has the easy ability to make himself liked no matter the company. His pleasing manner causes his creditors to overlook his debts and not mind his vicious habits of gaming and pursuing women. Yet, as Elizabeth learns, he has all the appearance of virtue while his rival Mr. Darcy has all the actually virtue.
Mr. Darcy, partly because of his pride and partly because of his pursuit of virtue, is unable to simulate the charm of Mr. Wickham. He finds it difficult to present himself as someone he is not. But the difference between him and Wickham is that he strives to overcome his faults by developing good habits. A virtue is a perfected good habit. He works to form his conscience through good acts, and learns to humble his pride to develop virtue. This interchange between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth shows the importance of discipline and practice in order to develop habits, whether moral or practical:
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “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.”
“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I suppose it to be my own fault—because I would not take the trouble of practicing. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.” (Ch. 31)
Yet, despite his limited ability for small talk, Mr. Darcy was naturally inclined to be devoted to his friends and family. He has what Austen explains as the virtue of constancy, which is demonstrated through his concern and care for his close friends and his sister.
Constancy, a faithful love, according to MacIntyre, is for Austen the chief of virtues and that which she praises in all of her novels through the example of her characters. A person with constancy is one who perseveres in their devotion to the other in patience and with courage, and they do not give up their faithfulness to another even when their hope of being with the other is all but lost. The clearest example of constancy in Austen is that of Anne Elliot and her Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, who, after being separated for prudential reasons in their early youth, remain constant to each other for over seven years. Anne herself explains what it means to be constant: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (Ch. 23). For Austen, constancy is essential in order to have other virtues. Her characters without constancy are those who have to use charm to attract others or are simply unendurable for others.
Mansfield Park shows a great contrast between those who seek to charm the world and those who live to be virtuous. Fanny Price is guided in virtue by her older cousin Edmund Bertram. Edmund, to the disgust of a more worldly character, actually wants to be a clergyman. Fanny is more concerned with being a virtuous person than with pleasing the whims of others who desire her to violate her well-formed conscience. Her struggle to uphold what she knows to be true and to act accordingly brings about harsh consequences in her life, but she stands steadfast in courage, patience, and humility because she knows herself to be in the right.
Fanny and Edmund are put into stark contrast against the other members of the Bertram family and the charming, worldly brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford. Everyone loves to spend time with Henry and Mary. The Misses Bertram both fall for Henry immediately. He is carefree and flirtatious, not wrapped up in forming virtuous habits through denying himself. Edmund himself is caught up in Mary’s charm, yet after a tragic family event, an adulterous affair of two worldly people, Edmund sees Mary in a different light. She describes the adultery as a small misfortune, not as a serious sin, and Edmund sees through her façade. The charming life of ease, unconcerned with self-restraint, appears to simulate virtue, but underneath there is nothing but empty promises. The life of those in Jane Austen’s novel is a life of finding balance between worldly, self-indulgent extremes and prideful self-righteousness. And those who practice NFP live in a similar situation.
One afternoon while perusing a magazine in a waiting room, I came across an ad for some new kind of contraception. It was one of those devices that is inserted into the uterus and has all kinds of horrible-sounding side effects. The ad had a family of five smiling happily together on a bed with the large words plastered over the top: “Your Family Is Complete.” The charm of the scene was quite appealing to my tired, mother-of-young-children self. Here was an ideal of a family; the contraception seemed to offer a promise that there would be no more changes in family size, no more unpleasant pregnancy symptoms, no more long nights with infants; those days were over. Now they could move on to the blissful next days of family life. Yet, the finality of the statement rang hollow in my mind, and I remembered that the deceiver often uses what seems attractive to lure us in for his own ends. The glossy charm of an ad for something which violates the natural ends of sex seemed to say that it is crazy not to use birth control to limit one’s family size.
This particular birth control advertized itself as easy: one that can be used without discipline, without planning, without thinking. The life of ease is raised up as a standard in our secular society, and we embrace it because our fallen human nature has an aversion to anything difficult. Yet, to live out God’s plan for human sexuality, to not frustrate the natural ends and the goods of the marital act, is something that requires discipline and self-restraint. Even if one chooses not to space children in any way, one still has to have the discipline to coordinate a growing family and provide for the basic needs of clothing, shelter, food, and education. To use the gift of sexuality properly, we must moderate our passions, submitting them to reason. And perhaps it sounds unromantic, but if that is the case, why does everyone admire Mr. Darcy’s noble and magnanimous character and despise Mr. Wickham’s uncontrollable passions? Why is the serious Colonel Brandon of Sense and Sensibility better loved than the lively Mr. Willoughby? It is more romantic to be in a virtuous marriage where the husband and wife are giving of themselves daily than to be in a marriage where one is always self-serving. The discipline of the practice of NFP promotes growth in virtue and forces one to use reason to overcome one’s passions.
From a worldly perspective NFP is not appealing at all. Why chose self-discipline and careful charting over a pill, injection, or other contraceptive device? Who wants their inclinations overruled by reason? (Wait, isn’t that what we are supposed to do?) One wants to have free reign to do what one is inclined to do when one is inclined to do it without the possibility of an inconvenience such as a child. Yet, NFP forces one to put the possibility of the child to the forefront whenever one chooses to enter into the marital act. Are we ready for another child? Can we support another child and all the needs that come with a child? Is this a time when a child could possibly be conceived? The planning, the reasoning does not have any sort of worldly charm about it. One has to be much more like Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram than Henry and Mary Crawford.
Yet, the charm of the world distracts from the focus of family life. Wouldn’t it be nice to have more time for myself and not more children to keep me up at night? Or perhaps to go on a date with my husband without having to pay a babysitter? Or to be able to “use” whatever night we please without having a child nine months later? Plus, there is all that careful monitoring and charting that NFP requires. So annoying.
The world would want me to believe that the point of this life is to please myself, to indulge my desires, and to not offend others.
The world tells me that a couple of children are okay, but more than that is insane, because they will ruin my social life and my body. My body will never be the same.
The world would prefer that I forget that my life is meant to be a gift given to others, not hoarded for myself.
When placed against the backdrop of what our lives are meant to be, the charms of the world fall away. As humans, we all have the potential for virtue, a good habit, which we form through good acts is in accord with our nature. The heroines and their heroes in Jane Austen recognize the necessity of virtue to live a fully human life, and that involves submitting our wills to reason. The practice of NFP is a way a couple can form that virtue in regard to their sexuality. The charms of self-indulgence are not appealing when one is concerned with loving the other. When a couple follows God’s plan for marriage, they actively pursue virtue, seeking to grow in their love beyond the first attractions of youth. They encourage each other to grow in virtue and create a home life which fosters this growth. And that is how NFP makes my life like a Jane Austen novel.