Many view Jane Austen as a decidedly “feminine” writer. And it’s true: every woman must read Jane Austen. But there’s a lot to be found in Austen’s work, apart from romance, interesting characters, and good plot development. Austen explored the depths of human nature, its foibles and fancies, and wrote novels that promoted virtue to great effect.
This is what Br. Aquinas Beale argues for in his blog series, “Austen the Aristotelian.” His posts are remarkably insightful and interesting. He goes through Austen’s primary works, and reveals their parallels with Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. Not only are Austen’s works fun to read—Beale shows that they are philosophically profound.
Beale offers a deep look into the virtuosity inherent in Austen’s plot lines. But I want to return to that earlier statement—“every woman must read Jane Austen”—and demonstrate why it has nothing to do with the novels’ romantic storylines (though they are good, too). I would reinforce the fact that Austen’s works contain lessons and delights for any reader, regardless of gender. But a woman who reads Austen will find truths sadly lacking in most other modern novels created for women. When it comes to the “romance” novel, Austen stands apart.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is through her heroines. Their virtues are decidedly counter to the “cultural norm” we would expect from a 19th century woman novelist. There is freedom, independence, strength, and valor within these women. They displayed a courage and virtue that, while enveloped in the docile scenery of English countryside, are decidedly robust in caliber.
Jane Austen wrote three novels that perhaps best exemplify the virtues of bravery and resilience better than most others: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Mansfield Park is a close runner-up to these three (I highly recommend Beale’s insights into Fanny Price and Mansfield Park).
These novels’ protagonists face a series of disappointments and griefs. Lizzy Bennett weathers family trauma and disruption, doggedly protects her older sister, faces down her coldest enemies, and overcomes the fear she’s lost the man she loves. Elinor Dashwood has to uproot herself in the wake of her father’s death, takes charge of her family’s future with prudence, walks her sister through heartbreak, all the while struggling with inner turmoil and disappointed hopes. Anne Elliott braves the callousness of her father and older sister, bears the judgment of becoming an “old maid,” and watches her former love flirt with other women—and she never stops serving and loving the people around her.
Lizzy, Elinor, and Anne are good, strong characters—while being single. There is never any indication on Austen’s part that they are lesser women without a man. It’s true that they have romantic interests, and indeed wish to be married at some point. But their love isn’t tempestuous, nor is it willful or selfish. Austen’s romance, while still emotional, is very rational. Her characters pick good men—men with character, humor, and gentility. These girls aren’t swept away in momentary crushes. In the same way, they don’t let unrequited or rejected love derail them: Elinor is perhaps the best example of this. She holds strong in the midst of inner disappointment. Anne “fades” for a while, but as Beale points out, she learns to seek happiness and hope in the future. She doesn’t lose herself in the past.
There are a few novels by Austen that teach virtue through sillier, more frivolous protagonists. These characters learn and develop their virtues, not through periods of intense circumstantial difficulty, but rather through their own shortcomings and shame. The lessons they offer us, however, are just as important—if not more so.
Marianne Dashwood is an excellent foil to her sister Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. In a sense, she’s the Bella Swan (from Twilight) of the Austen novel: an emotional girl, deeply sentimental, and completely obsessed with Willoughby, her dark and romantic suitor. When Willoughby turns out not to be the knight-in-shining-armor she was hoping for, she sinks into the depths of despair. She becomes fixated on her own pains and broken heart. It’s only through a long and painful process that she finally moves on. Note this: Willoughby doesn’t come back, and explain the whole thing, and redeem himself. He actually tries—but there is imprudence and vice in him that cannot be ignored. Marianne has to give him up, and seek new hope for the future. This is often counter to the way we write romances. But it’s truer to reality.
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Moreland is a sweet and innocent girl—but also quite immature. Northanger Abbey is a story of Catherine’s journey into maturity, and reality. Catherine embraces shame and repentance in the wake of her actions.This is perhaps one of my favorite Austen novels, because of its dry irony and humor. Austen deliberately makes fun of the gothic novel, and the romance-besotted girl. She shows the lack of reality portrayed in those sorts of stories. This is a cunning, clear-sighted commentary on the way sentiment and drama twist our perception of truth. It’s a worthy critique for all of us.
My favorite of these “silly” protagonists is Emma—though I always used to dismiss her as the most spoiled rotten, selfish, annoying heroine of the bunch. But the more I “get to know” Emma, the more I see her complexity of character. Emma is definitely spoiled, a youngest child who has trouble growing up. But she’s also full of good intentions and a desire to show charity. She’s independent, willful, and never wants to marry—she just wants to orchestrate the lives and marriages of everyone around her. Her dearest friend, Mr. Knightley, is a kind and wise man, who is always telling Emma to mind her own business—and yet also reminding her to be charitable. What a hard balance that is. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons this novel teaches us, is that our good intentions are so often vested in the wrong places. Imagine: what if all the energy Emma invested in matchmaking had instead gone into extending grace and charity to people like Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax? This is the lesson Austen teaches us: a truly charitable heart knows when to intervene, when to “meddle,” so to speak—and when to let people go.
In all these works, Austen built a portrait of womanhood that is both graceful and strong. She spends considerable time developing these protagonists’ characters apart from romantic ties—thus demonstrating that a woman alone, rejected, or burdened with “unrequited love” should not be idle or pining. Rather, a woman alone is powerful and equipped to make a difference in her world. Her novels end with marriage, but Austen does not paint marriage as the only happiness available to women—even though she lived at a time when marriage was seen as the most respectable path for women.
I wonder whether Austen was trying to sow seeds of her own confident singleness within her romances. One of the greatest mysteries of Austen’s work is that she wrote happily-ever-after-romances, while remaining single herself. She recognized the beauty and power of these happy endings, but wasn’t afraid to add shades and shadows of “What if?” along the way. What if Captain Wentworth hadn’t pursued Anne, after all? What if Mr. Darcy hadn’t felt he could marry Lizzy after her family was tainted by disgrace? What if Edward Ferrars had married Lucy instead of Elinore?
I believe the heroines would have continued living gracefully and valorously. They would have sought out meaning and purpose in their friendships and their families. Unlike the weak, sentimental heroines often portrayed in modern literature, Austen’s heroines had spirit and kindness. She has taught me the beauties of friendship, courage, and constancy. But most of all, she has taught me how to seek happiness—and how to suffer—with virtue.