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Jane Austen's guide to flourishing

  • 02 February 2022
  Holidays always promise an escape from the world of daily reality into the world of the imagination. After Christmas I was privileged to spend some time by the beach with Jane Austen’s collected novels. I looked forward to leave behind the shrillness of Australian public conversation for the elegance and precision of Austen’s writing about intimate and domestic relationships.

In the event the novels kept reminding me of our public life. First, by the invisibility in them of evident social issues: the disparity of wealth, for example, the dependence of family and social life on unnamed servants, the unquestioned investment in West Indian slavery, and the advantage taken of the Enclosures Act for remodeling estates were simply taken for granted. The social and political building blocks of privilege were unquestioned. 

More significantly, however, Jane Austen’s exploration of a narrow social world illuminated issues central to public life in our own world. In particular, the importance of character in building harmony in her domestic world raised questions about its place, presence, and importance in political life today.

By character I mean a habitual way of behaving that shows respect in all one’s relationships to people and to things. In the novels, character, or its lack is displayed in the way in which people respond to situations. It is also built or eroded through their response. In contemporary public life it is similarly honoured, scorned, or violated in the way public figures and institutions act. Trust in those involved in public life grows or decreases correspondingly.

The raw material of character is the disposition that inclines us to judge, act and to relate in certain ways. Today we often describe it as personality. It is a gift, but a gift with bias. In Jane Austen’s world it needs to be tempered by reflection on whether our inclinations lead us to act respectfully all salient relationships. Ideally people learn from their experience. By disposition Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is generous but proud, Elizabeth Bennet has a lively intelligence but is quick to judge. Over the course of their relationships and reflection on them, they transcend their respective pride and prejudice.

Other novels also explore the disposition of their protagonists and their struggle to move beyond its partiality. Emma Woodhouse is self-confident, Marianne Dashwood feels deeply, Catherine Moreland is self-doubting. In each novel, too, the path to good character of the protagonists and the steadiness of their