Jane Austen and (eek!) modern moral instruction

December 4, 2009

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.

6 Responses to “Jane Austen and (eek!) modern moral instruction”

  1. Duchess Says:

    Well, hell, everyone wants to be Lizzie.

    And clearly it is not possible to understand either Austen’s novels or her life without understanding the concept of duty.

    • msmeta Says:

      Ah, duty. What a quaint concept. Austen’s characters — her decent ones, anyway — have such a strong sense of duty to family and society. I think that’s another thing that has been lost, or at least watered-down, over the years.

  2. byjane Says:

    Haven’t read the WSJ piece but I’ve read enough Austen scholarship to say—hmmmmm, one could (and has) argued both sides, not to mention somewhere in the middle. Austen people are ferocious in believing that They Know Jane. I used to be an Austen person, so all points of view are rallying ’round my brain.

  3. Duchess Says:

    Come on, Ms M, we want some more about that old fashioned drug store you hung out in after hours. You’ve been quiet for too long.

  4. Duchess Says:

    When we last met we were discussing duty… I don’t think I can quite claim you have a duty to your sometime followers. But perhaps you have raised expectations. Our own dear Jane might have thought you had also raised some small obligations — at least to say good bye.

    If you need encouragement that there are those still interested in your voice, you have it.

  5. byjane Says:

    Indeed….


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