In today’s marriage debates it is far too easy for some to forget that for over 2,000 years the definition of marriage was a closed issue. Not closed because other relationships were unknown, especially among the social elite, but because natural differences and long custom had established a view of the relationship that was held as self-evident.
Victorian culture, however, eroded this foundation. Not (as many would say) by placing too great an emphasis on marriage, but in doing so for the worst of reasons – money – and thereby reducing marriage to a mere economic relationship. In my view, the clearly reasoned and passionately portrayed argument against this view remains one of Austen’s chief accomplishments. Her works are filled with women experiencing the ubiquitous tension between marital bliss and financial stability. Yet, it would be easy to overlook the fact that for men, too, this became a real issue in the pursuit of one’s lifelong companion.
Consider the villains of two of Austen’s more famous works, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. In both cases the male character that in the end becomes the antagonist is none other than the man who chooses to marry for wealth rather than true regard. Thus, while both the readers and the characters themselves are initially won over by the charm of John Willoughby and George Wickham, in the end both men fall from grace. The tension between wealth and happiness is therefore just as present in the lives of Victorian men, but even more lamentable, since it remains primarily in their power to change things for the better.
But as we have pointed out before, Austen does not propose systematic reform, but instead calls on otherwise eligible bachelors to act in accord with their heart and head, while also tempering women’s expectation that marriage will solve all of their problems. Otherwise, the prominent women in her stories would have died old maids; instead, they fall in love, marry rich men, and settle down to live happily ever after. Austen therefore reminds us that while financial security remains an important part of family life, happiness cannot be bought.
What was even worse with the Victorian view of marriage, though, was its subjugation of the souls of men and women to these essentially economic ends. Education in Victorian England thus became focused on producing male heirs in order to provide for one’s future financial security. And this, of course, led to a logical conclusion for women: educating them in order to secure an advantageous marriage.
Thus for the Victorian woman, education became one of “accomplishment” in various home-grown skills as opposed to any formal system of schooling. Though such an arrangement would perhaps be effective in particular subjects for both boys and girls, it had the effect of producing skill without instilling a commensurate regard for good sense. Consider the early conversation at Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice concerning such “accomplished” women:
“Oh! certainly,” cried his [Mr. Darcy’s] faithful assistant [Miss Bingley], “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”
Miss Bingley clearly intends her remarks to appropriate to herself the honor of being “accomplished,” in contrast to Elizabeth. Darcy, however – in order to deflect Miss Bingley’s overt attempt to impress him and to point to Miss Bennet’s greatest asset – states that a good reader is to be preferred over one who is accomplished in everything but the use of her mind.
A similar conversation arises at Rosings Park, in which Lady Catherine becomes at first gravely interested and then outright shocked that Elizabeth and her sisters have never had a governess to look after and instruct them in such feminine arts. Her concern is that such a lack of attention and diligence on the part of the parents must only produce an equal lack of diligence on the part of the children; the girls must have been greatly neglected. Elizabeth’s reply presents a quite different view: “Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might” (ch. 29).
In both conversations, and in rather different contexts, then, we see Darcy and Elizabeth come to the same conclusion concerning education: much is certainly to be learned and some of this does indeed require specialized instruction, but in the end a broadminded, diligent reader will never fail to be the better student.
Austen’s views on marriage are therefore intimately connected to her views on virtue and human nature. Neither marriage or education can thus be tied to economic ends (a lesson both capitalists and communists need to learn), but must instead seek to cultivate the perfection of our lives through the reformation of our souls. In other words, what makes Austen’s novels work so well (and distinguishes her these days as a conservative) is her belief in right and wrong.
Among the many themes running throughout Jane Austen’s works, her concern for women remains the most discussed these days. Each of her novels is built around a strong female character that makes us reconsider how we view the better half of the human race. There is, however, something lacking from Austen’s work that continues to puzzle modern feminists: the complete lack of a consciously feminist agenda for reform. Consider the following statement from Hooker:
A seed was being planted; women’s communities were demanding a more central intellectual role in European life. This seed would blossom into the revolutionary feminist works at the end of the century: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women.
Hooker’s implied assumption is that early feminism was the seed, but not the flower. It possesses a kernel of truth, but is not able to see it to fruition. Here, I believe, we have a classic case of judging works not on their individual merit, but by an exclusively modern standard of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’. Was Austen concerned about the fare of women? Absolutely! Did Austen intend to remedy this through political and electoral reform? Absolutely not. And this is not because her vision was limited to her own generation. Instead, it is because she understands the general course of human nature and history to teach us that men and women are equal, but different, and that this is a very good thing!
Neither in her life, nor in her writings, was Jane Austen a rebel. Her chief concern was virtue, not rebellion, and against the liberal attempt to erase the distinctions between man and woman, Jane always distinguished between the particular virtues appropriate to men and women, as well as their particular vices and follies. (Wiker 228)
Thus, as even the least perceptive Austen fan could tell you, the strength of Austen’s female characters lies in their moral authority, their quiet strength, and their steadfast devotion – in a word, their character. They were strong women because they were strong people who combined bedrock principles with a prudent, common sense approach to the problems of everyday life, even those problems that were unique to women.
Several specifics could be discussed (two of which we’ll look at next week), but in the end it comes down to this: Austen was not trying to free women from traditional institutions, she was trying to free those institutions (and the men and women within them) from the dross of decay, by pointing them back to their heads and their hearts. As Wiker also points out, though, we unfortunately failed to learn the lesson she did her best to teach:
Sadly, both original species presented by Austen are largely extinct. Women like Elinor [or Elizabeth] have been driven out of the culture by force or ridicule, and the Mariannes [and Kittys] have given way to something even more alarming. The Romantics might have been destructive of themselves and others (as they are in Austen’s novels), but Romanticism has been replaced by something far worse, nihilism – what is really the fulfillment of Romanticism and liberalism. (Wiker 231)
So while the world wanted more Donne and Shakespeare, what they got was Freud and Nietzsche; and this remains the Achilles’ heel of many feminists today. By reducing gender to a mere custom and relationships to a power-play, they have fallen prey to the same fallacy as every abusive chauvinist in history: that sex is a weapon to be yielded, rather than a gift to be nurtured. Austen, however, reminds us of the beauty and splendor of the gift, and calls us back to its enjoyment and true perfection in marital bliss (in the case of her characters) or chaste single-hood (in light of her own example).
In our discussion of civics, we began with a recognition of certain biblical principles (justice, honor, righteousness) that are essential to a truly Christian interaction with the world around us. And though these principles have taken a variety of forms throughout the ages, in our current cultural climate they are often labeled as conservative or traditional. But this sort of conservatism is more than a contemporary political philosophy; its roots go much deeper and broader than our current place in time and space. Of course, much more could be said on this fundamentally ethical view of man, but it is best summarized by Lewis and most thoroughly critiqued by Nietzsche.
We turn now, then, to spend some time with one of my favorite novelists: Jane Austen. Most surveys of civics, of course, would never think to include such a work (much less a romance!) into their discussion, so at first, this may seem like a detour. Austen, however, has some important lessons for us on ethics, relationships, education, and even the economy, that will be of use to us in months to come. What is more, her works can legitimately be named among some of the most conservative stories written in recent history. As Wiker points out, the Austen family lived a very conservative life as “devout Tories and equally devout Anglicans” (225), and this life is reflected clearly in the writings of its most prominent member.
For our discussion, we will focus mainly on her most popular work, Pride and Prejudice, before sharing our thoughts of some of her more important ideas. If you are not a reader, however, you can still get a fairly good idea of her novels by watching the miniseries or film-length version of Pride and Prejudice (the first is by far the better) or the fantastic 1995 film Sense and Sensibility (which is actually what Wiker discusses in his book).
But for those who do not know, Pride and Prejudice relates the joys and struggles of the five Bennett sisters, the “principle residents” of a small English village, focusing mainly on the eldest Misses Bennets (Jane and Elizabeth), who struggle to find love in an age when marriage was usually the product of economic rather than emotional or moral sentiments. The title of the work itself, however, points the reader to the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy (a much wealthier gentleman) through whom we witness the roles of pride and prejudice played out most fully.
These themes run throughout Austen’s work and are not only used to demonstrate an important point about relationships, but also about the relationship of feelings, reason and morality. This is best seen in Elizabeth’s response to Darcy’s letter, in which he defends himself against her accusations concerning her sister, as well as Mr. Wickham.
She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
Though in most things Lizzy is the most reasonable of the characters, she allows her limited knowledge and first impressions of Mr. Darcy to determine her view of his character. Taken together, we learn the following: (1) though reason is superior to mere feelings, it must be understood that one does not always have all the facts and that, because of this, (2) it is just as wrong to judge someone without knowing such things as it is to refuse to judge when such facts are known.
Having watched both versions of Pride and Prejudice before reading the book itself, I was most surprised while listening in on Austen’s treatment of Darcy’s judgment. He states his own view in chapter 35, in his letter to Elizabeth: “That I was desirous of believing her [Jane] indifferent is certain—but I will venture to say that my investigation and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears. I did not believe her to be indifferent [toward Bingley] because I wished it; I believed it on impartial conviction.”
Such a statement may not at first seem very striking to one who has seen the film adaptations, but when considered in light of the fact that both Elizabeth and Austen seem to concur with his view, it seems the movies might have left off an important point: neither Darcy nor Elizabeth are entirely correct; each is only half right. The solution, however, is not cold rationality or blind affection, but instead prudence.
Prudence is good moral judgment in our particular circumstances; it means training feelings by habit and reason. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, the question is not what feelings anyone happens to have, but what feelings he should have, and so the great task of education is to train our thoughts and feelings to correctly reflect the actual moral order. (Wiker 236)
The reference to Lewis comes from The Abolition of Man, which Wiker addresses earlier in his book, and which we also looked at recently. Therein, Lewis refers to what he calls “ordinate love” (11), stating that, “The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head” (13-14).
To Austen, this is merely good sense, however uncommon it may be. Thus, as the titles of her most prominent works insinuate, we cannot merely choose between Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but must instead learn to subject both the heart and the head to each other. And this is why her works continue to inspire, and why they are rightly called conservative.