The WSJ has a wonderful article by James Collins on Jane Austen, which contends that “to write brilliant novels was not Jane Austen’s foremost goal: What was most important to her was to provide moral instruction.”
E-gad! Moral instruction? I thought she was all about romance! How perfectly embarrassing to the modern reader who, according to Collins, “sort of blips over the moralizing sections and tells himself that they don’t really count. It is possible to ignore this aspect of her work, just as it is possible to discuss a religious painting with hardly any reference to the artist’s religious intent. But this seems absurd: Ignoring a writer’s central concern is a strange way to attempt to appreciate and understand her.”
Certainly, the morality of some of her characters is their most maddening — and endearing — aspect. I want to throttle Anne Eliot in “Persuasion” as she loyally listens to that dreadful Lady Russell’s disparagements of the lowly Captain Wentworth while the couple burns with love and longing. I find that Elinor’s tightly held “Sense” in denying herself the company of the already-promised Edward compared to Marianne’s reckless “Sensibility” over the faithless Willoughby makes Elinor look all buttoned up and frustrated — the classical spinster, like her creator.
But, as Collins says, Anne and Elinor can best be understood in the context of their — and their author’s — time, which enforced heavy constraints on women. Men like Wickham and Willoughby could be complete cads and still have a place in society, but their female victims couldn’t. Can’t argue with that.
As for life in the 21st century, I admit that, after a day on the Internet checking in on major media outlets (which is actually part of my job), I crawl home into my book nook and find in Austen and her world a happy retreat. Social-climbing couples crash White House galas, serial adultery has become the rule among the glitterati, snark is the hot new form of discourse, continuing corruption on an almost laughable scale plagues business and government, and tales of encroaching poverty and personal collapse rival anything Dickens ever wrote. ‘Twas ever thus, I know, but elements of modern society seem hell-bent on finding new acts of escalating outrageousness, mostly for purposes of self-promotion. (Don’t get me started on Adam Lambert…)
Collins, in the WSJ article, seems to agree:
Perhaps Austen’s strictness is very old-fashioned, but anyone can ﬁnd merit in the concepts of honor, duty, and obedience. Those strings have gone so slack that there’s nothing wrong in their being tightened by a sympathetic reading of this aspect of Austen; they will loosen again soon enough.
I would argue that it is this very morality that has kept readers across the centuries so deeply attached to Austen’s works — along with her sharply drawn characters, who are so often defined by their morality, or lack of it.
My surest proof of that would be the Bennet sisters, whose personal responses to the moral challenges of their time form an almost-perfect scale, from the meek, long-suffering Jane on down to the reckless libertine Lydia, with the savvy Elizabeth in the middle. We resonate to all those tones. The extremes are equally irritating, and we look for some sort of resolution. In short, we want to be Elizabeth — at least I do, unless I could be Darcy, with his 50,000 a year that gives him the leisure and the means to set everything right.
So which is it? Moral instruction, or great characters and romance? Can you separate them? Does it even matter? I just know I’m going to keep on reading — and savoring — Jane Austen.