Jane Austen: Living Toward the Eternal
Jane Austen’s Novels Help Us Pursue the Good, Scholar Says
BY AMY SMITH
Register Copy Editor
April 12-18, 2009 Issue | Posted 4/3/09 at 12:01 PM
The novels of Jane Austen have been literary favorites for generations.
Perhaps her best-loved work is Pride and Prejudice, the quintessential romantic comedy that follows Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy as they progress from wrong first impressions to self-awareness, then mutual respect and love.
Christopher Blum, professor of humanities at Thomas More College in Merrimack, N.H., wrote the introduction to a new edition of the novel from Ignatius Press.
It’s part of the Ignatius Critical Editions series, edited by Joseph Pearce, which concentrates on traditional readings of the classics.
Blum talked about the novel’s moral lessons — and why Austen’s writing continues to resonate with readers.
To what do you attribute Jane Austen’s popularity?
It’s a healthy sign in our culture that Jane Austen’s so popular.
People have battered lives. When they have bad experiences, they tend to despair, to think that happiness is not for human beings. She shows normal people living their lives in a contented way.
Not that everyone’s perfect. But they find rational, godly fulfillment in their normal duties. People instinctively sense that.
What does she have to say to a culture that is superficial about love?
Pride and Prejudice is a probing reflection in love. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet plainly come from good enough families. Mr. Bennet has a decent moral sensibility.
It’s hard to praise Mrs. Bennet, but her brother, Mr. Gardiner, is such a good man. That makes it all the more tragic that they were governed by their passions and married on a whim. It was not a good match. Lydia is a pure version of her mother.
The question is: What’s going to happen to the younger sister, Kitty? At the very end of the novel, we learn that Kitty is going to spend time at Pemberly with the newly married Darcys.
She’ll grow up and turn out okay. There is stability here, and in the other novels, too. There is the hint that goodness is achieved in the marriage of the hero and heroine. It’s self-diffusive.
They help other people become better. They support the good life. People naturally yearn for that.
Jane knew that to judge someone’s character requires a fair amount of time.
There’s an attentiveness to her characters, little signs of deeper reality. Jane Austen shows us a careful approach to marriage. When Elizabeth reads the letter from Darcy, she starts to think about how Mr. Wickham really behaved.
How is Catholic morality evident in the novel?
If by Catholic morality, you mean specific to Roman Catholic teaching, then, no, you will not find it. Jane’s father was an Anglican minister, and she was a dutiful member of the Church of England. But if you mean a Catholic cast of mind, a moral vision, yes.
Like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, she views life lived toward the eternal, toward God. We play out that drama chiefly through family life. That’s an aspect to Pride and Prejudice that often strikes people. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, whose behavior — off the rails, at times — is not proper to their children and strangers alike. Yet, Elizabeth, the character we know the most about, is incredibly forgiving. She still loves them. She sees their faults and weaknesses but honors them.
And there’s the obvious: Mr. Wickham and Lydia’s elopement is simply wrong. Jane Austen understands her audience. They agree with her that it’s wrong. Everyone knows Wickham’s a scoundrel.
The drama played out with the young people will determine how they age. Will Eliza Bennet be so angry and bitter that she never marries — becoming the female version of her father? One senses that Eliza’s wit is so sharp and her folly so acute that she could have grown into that. The same with Mr. Darcy. He has the prospect of marrying a woman who can’t stand up to him: Caroline Bingley or Miss de Bourgh; neither would have made him a better man.
What brought about your own interest in Jane Austen?
My wife has been a Janeite for two decades. She’s the one who got me reading Jane Austen.
And there’s a tremendous book, After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre, a convert to the Catholic faith from the University of Notre Dame. In the space of four pages, he lays down all the principles for understanding Jane Austen. Anything I say is just a footnote.
You note that “her novels help us to pursue the good not by teaching us exactly in what it consists, but by revealing to us that the rational and virtuous life is the most attractive and, indeed, the only happy life.” How does Jane Austen understand true happiness?
Happiness is understood as an entire life lived well. That’s what’s so refreshing about Jane Austen. It’s not a question simply of the wedding day. In her novels, including Pride and Prejudice, readers are acutely aware of the fact that the hero and heroine are going to grow old together.
We know the hero and heroine will have wonderful children. They’ll be wonderful parents and will pass on the lessons they learned.
I’m a historian by training, so I have a tendency to look backwards. I think there are a couple of different kinds of teachers. There are teaching authorities like John Paul II, Aquinas, Augustine, doctors and Fathers of the Church. If you’re in doubt of a question, they’re where you turn for answers.
Then there are others. They’re not so much teachers as witnesses, such as the saints. Jane Austen is like that. She pays testimony to the fact that living out the Christian life does succeed. There is happiness that we can attain in this valley of tears.
There’s a little of a parallel with St. Thérèse here, in terms of her spirituality: Little crosses come, but one can still have a happy life.
What other lessons does she impart?
She writes with proportion, even reserve, but she’s not afraid to make moral judgments. She is not afraid to portray her characters in detail, with respect to the finer shades of meaning. Even villains have good sides, and the good people have flaws. That’s why we can read them over and over. They’re not caricatures. They’re real people. That’s what makes her novels so broadly loved.
There’s a timeless quality to Jane Austen’s lessons, isn’t there?
Falling in love, relating to family — this is where we live out the moral life. It’s absolutely timeless.
You end the introduction with: “Jane Austen is loved, and loved widely and deeply, because her own love for the good and her faith in God’s Providence are infectious. To read — and to reread — her stories is to nourish the virtue of hope.” That sums it up well, doesn’t it?
You can’t read Pride and Prejudice without smiling. One’s heart sings when Lizzy and Darcy run into each other at Pemberly. God wanted it to happen. You smile and think, “Thank you, Lord, for caring about the little details, for happiness.”
Amy Smith is the
Register’s copy editor.
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