Why (and How) Moral Goodness Is Manifest in Jane Austen’s Novels
BOOK PICK: ‘Jane Austen: Writings, Politics, Society’ delves into the cultural milieu in which the novelist lived and the world in which her books take place.
Writings, Politics, Society
By John Keymer
Oxford University Press, 2020
192 pages, $18.95
To order: amazon.com
When I finally got around to reading Pride and Prejudice, some years after buying a copy, it defied my expectations. I had half-consciously expected it to be, at best, the type of feminine love story I could respect as literature despite my personal boredom; and, at worst, something repulsively maudlin. Instead, I was introduced to a satirical genius of the highest rank, hardly put the book down until finishing it, and gradually moved on to Jane Austen’s other works. But if only the truly humorless could miss Austen’s comic side, there is also a subtler aspect of her writing not easily noticed by contemporary readers. That is the subject of Tom Keymer’s Jane Austen: Writings, Politics, Society — her commitment to the (in some sense) conservative old-world society broadly influenced by traditional Christian morality.
As Keymer makes clear, this conservatism was not unthinking, across-the-board acceptance of every iota of the status quo. In fact, he goes too far in the other direction, grounding himself in the widespread error that challenges to any aspect of “the establishment” must be grounded in at least moderate tendencies toward at least some liberal values; thus, he overlooks ways in which Austen’s challenges to certain common attitudes and conventions of her age could have been grounded in the traditional worldview that he recognizes was an important influence on her beliefs.
Fortunately, however, he is an honest enough scholar to provide the critical reader with facts that suggest alternative interpretations, while his attempt to “save” Austen from herself demonstrates both the strength of the evidence for aspects of her conservatism that he accepts and the fact that her beliefs were not held in ignorance of “modern” alternatives.
Two historical contexts provide keys for understanding the worldview of Austen’s novels. One is the class warfare of the French Revolution. Much as Austen might scathingly highlight the arrogance and selfishness that was found among members of the aristocracy, she considered these the personal moral failings of individuals (not flaws in the hierarchical social structure) to be corrected by individuals turning to the moral goodness manifested by some of her other aristocratic characters (rather than egalitarian political “reform”). Her attitude toward relationships between the sexes was probably similar. Wishing for changes eliminating the need for women to marry a Mr. Collins out of financial necessity or be dependent on uncaring half-brothers can coincide with traditional Christian concepts of husbands and fathers as heads of families and need not entail feminist “liberation.” Women’s education supported by the most devout and “conservative” Christians long before Austen’s day, the “finishing school” alternative derived from the fashionable priorities of more secular and worldly segments of society.
This brings us to the second major context of Austen’s writing: Britain’s Regency era. Legally speaking, this lasted from 1811 until 1820, when the future King George IV held the office of regent during the mental incapacitation of George III. Colloquially it refers to a longer period during which the younger George exerted a decisive influence on notoriously dissolute elements within high society. Villains in Austen’s novels invariably share the lifestyle of the Prince Regent’s inner circle — fashionable, prodigal and loose in their sexual morals. Marriage might appeal to them, but romantic relationships are largely a flirtatious game that may well end in sin, with family life, as a whole, of little interest. Not content with affluence and elegance, they fixate on costly but superficial maximizing of their own aggrandizement while disregarding the less fortunate.
Though Keymer sees Austen’s criticism of that segment of society as evidence that her conservatism was less than consistent, her position accords with that held by British conservatives throughout the 18th century — those who favored a paternalistic aristocracy that was at least indirectly guided by Christian concepts of charity and whose wealth was based upon land ownership in the country (which was associated with religiosity and moral virtue) rather than upon capitalistic finance in the city (which was associated with irreligion and moral dissipation). Keymer overlooks the fact that attitudes thought to epitomize conservatism in more contemporary times were considered destructive of the old order by conservatives of Austen’s day, but he well articulates the link between her broader beliefs and her depiction of rural life, writing:
“Set-piece descriptions of landscape were never a big part of Austen’s repertoire. ... Instead she emphasizes the picturesque ... in which nature is arranged, with studied informality, as a source of affecting charm and pleasing freedom. Her landscape depictions in this vein are always strategic, used in particular to indicate moral and aesthetic alignment. There’s one such moment in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth perceives Darcy’s Pemberley estate as a place of organic harmony and spiritual refreshment, surveying ‘the whole scene, the river, the trees scattered on its banks, and the winding of the valley ... with delight’ (III.i). Yet Pemberley also conveys ethical meaning. ... Its landscape expresses the Burkean values invested in Darcy as a benign exemplar of enlightened paternalism and responsible stewardship.”
James Baresel writes from Front Royal, Virginia.