Two hundred years after Jane Austen’s death, we can still learn from how her characters relate to each other.
Far from old-fashioned, the standards of honesty, courage, chastity and charity come to life in the casts of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Austen’s other novels. These characters are also comfortable with their distinct and complementary gender roles.
Honesty and a commitment to direct communication are virtues many of Austen’s characters possess. In Persuasion, Capt. Frederick Wentworth expresses his feelings for Anne Elliot in a letter:
“I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been; weak and resentful, I have been, but never inconstant.”
Another suitor, who is first a devoted friend, is not afraid to be honest to the object of his affections in Emma:
As George Knightley talks with Emma about a woman they both know, Emma states, “I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty and such temper the highest claims a woman could possess.”
Mr. Knightley responds: “Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have is almost enough to make me think so too. Better to be without sense than misapply it as you do.”
Even a man with less-than-stellar character, John Willoughby, rises to the occasion when Marianne Dashwood twists her ankle while walking home during a rainstorm in Sense and Sensibility: “The gentleman offered his services, and perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms without further delay and carried her down the hill.”
It also takes courage for men to be forthright and charitable in expressing interest — or lack thereof — without stalling or giving mixed messages, as Austen highlights in Pride and Prejudice. After Elizabeth Bennet declines Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy’s first marriage proposal, he tries again, gently but directly, after sensing her feelings may have changed — and after he assists her family in a much-needed way.
“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.”
In Austen’s world, women also show courage when they pursue true friendship with men and allow men to lead if the relationship becomes romantic. Sometimes this is illustrated by contrasts. Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne rashly publicizes her relationship with Willoughby without knowing his intentions, while her older sister, Elinor, waits to publicly reveal her feelings to the man she loves, Edward Ferrars, until he is able to share his feelings for her.
Many of Austen’s 19th-century characters don’t wrestle with occasions of sexual sin on the pages of her books, but most of her male characters are concerned about propriety and protecting the reputations of the women in their lives.
When they aren’t the moral leaders in the relationship, scandal results, as happens with military officer George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. After dumping a woman he wooed for her money, he runs off with Elizabeth’s sister Lydia and only will marry her if he’s paid — hence Darcy’s aforementioned assistance.
The virtue of chastity is cultivated when couples seek to let their intimacy grow slowly, as Fanny Price did in Mansfield Park:
“It was her intention, as she felt it to be her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness, in her affection for Edmund.”
In Austen’s time, as now, charity has been the indispensable virtue for both sexes. As Colossians 3:12 exhorts: “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
Knightley shows charity and kindness not just for Emma, his romantic interest, but for all women, including those of lower station and those who are older or unattractive, as well as for Emma’s aging father.
Characters also live out Romans 12:10: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
In Mansfield Park, Fanny continues to be a good friend even when the man she loves confides in her about a woman with whom he is infatuated. And in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor honors another woman’s secret engagement to Edward, whom Elinor herself loves.
Austen’s characters wouldn’t be very interesting if they were perfect, but they do show virtue and common sense in their relationships, a much-needed reminder in the 21st century.
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.
This story was updated after posting.