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Jane Austen's guide to flourishing

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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 eventual husbands are contrasted with the selfishness and manipulativeness of others.

 

'As was the case for Jane Austen’s young heroines, the path to a full and responsible contribution to society begins in discernment.'

 

The novels encourage the modern reader to reflect on the importance of the disposition of political leaders, and particularly on the value of charismatic leadership. In the novel glittering qualities are seen as a gift, but one that encourages the wise to ask how such leaders have acted in their relationships. In the novels character is shown and grows through such reflective engagement. Persons of character will seek to shape their domestic society rather than to destroy or dissociate themselves from it.

Relating to one’s necessities, and particularly to financial necessities, is particularly important. Austen introduces many novels with a brisk review of the family’s financial resources, and so of what the protagonists must bring to and will need from marriage. The fate of a young woman without resources and left single in Austen’s world was that feared by Jane Fairfax in Emma – a lifetime spent as governess for the ungovernable children of ungoverned wealthy parents. To dismiss the importance of these economic relationships, as Marianne Dashwood, Lydia Bennet and Mrs Bennet do, reveals a frivolity of character that can lead to disaster.

If financial security was important, however, it was as a means to an end and not as a goal in itself. It was one of the essential strands in the tissue of relationships that constituted the world of the protagonists. To place wealth or class over all other values, and to allow them to determine personal relationships, as did the comic figures of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Collins, and the Crawford siblings in Mansfield Park, was emblematic of a shrivelled character covered in cloth of gold. But it had the capacity to fragment relationships. Its most spectacular embodiment was in Lady Susan Vernon, whose self-interest led to her lie and manipulate in ways that poisoned everything she touched.

The subordinate importance of economic relationships in the novels suggests that in any society attention to them is only one of the conditions necessary for shaping a healthy family and society. Economic prosperity must attend to the welfare of all their members. To a society in which the role of politics is often reduced to managing an economy run by competing individuals, Austen’s novels are a challenge and a rebuke. To a government negligent in failing to address inequality and global warming and their human costs, of gross, her rebuke would be equally severe. 

In Austen’s world the flourishing of individuals and families depends on the building of character through a network of expectations. These are expressed in the rituals of meals, introductions, formal conversation, parties, and dedication to reading, music and art. They curb the natural instincts generated by individual disposition by setting them within a broader commitment to what we might call the common good. Although attention to ritual behaviour can be hypocritical, as when charming manners mask selfishness and hostility, its intention and often effect is to commend attention to the world beyond individual interests.

This formal social network has an educative effect both in inclining people towards virtuous and unselfish behaviour and in revealing the corrosive effects of unformed character. Elizabeth Bennet comes to recognise the cynicism of Mr Bennet and Mrs Bennet’s lack of a moral centre.

This emphasis on education raises questions for our own society. Clearly the formality of the narrow world depicted in Jane Austen’s novels is not our world. Nor would the formality of the processes of building character in her world be viable today. We might still wonder, however, where people will find encouragement in our society to transcend the narrowness of their disposition and to seek a larger good. There are many places where it is found. The generous acceptance of the limitations imposed by Covid, people’s care for others, their building of small communities out of limited resources and the rejection of predatory and selfish behaviour, all display and build character.

Other trends in public culture, however, speak of a culture that devalues character. The pressure to see all relationships as transactional, for example, the emphasis on individual satisfaction and freedom as life’s goal, the applause for boorish behaviour in sport and politics, the descent of conversation about difference into shouting, and the weary tolerance of corruption and of the violation of human rights. All these things undermine character.

As was the case for Jane Austen’s young heroines, the path to a full and responsible contribution to society begins in discernment.

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Mia Goth and Anya Taylor-Joy as Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse. (Universal Pictures International)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Jane Austen, charatcer, politics, society

 

 

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Existing comments

I can’t think of a greater treat than reading Jane Austen novels in a leisurely fashion during the month of January in Australia. Only the tennis can compete with that! My favourite heroine is Emma however each of Austen’s characters truly are deeply compelling. I’m not sure I agree though that Austen’s world was narrow. On the contrary she inhabited a prodigious and deep reach of reality and the imagination.


Pam | 03 February 2022  

Never did see her as complicit in the slave trade or unbridled capitalism. On the contrary, as you persuasively argue, Andy, an upholder of the fundamental importance of good character in families, culture and society. And also, an incomparable pleasure to read. Wherever. Whenever.


Jenny Gribble | 04 February 2022  

One of the real, still extant mansions in England, which would have been a social centre for the likes of Mr Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Stowe House, near Buckingham, which is now a coeducational boarding school for 600 members of the current British upper crust. It is possibly the most beautiful school in the world. A friend who saw it said it beats our place in St Kilda Rd or that of our nemesis at Gardiner's Creek. The park, with ornamental lake and follies galore, which also includes the secular Temple of English Virtues, is breathtaking. The Viscounts Temple sold it in the early 20th Century because they could no longer afford to keep it up. The difference between the lifestyle of Jane Austen's characters and those of the humble brethren of Hiram's Hospital in 'Barchester Towers' is breathtaking. The brethren 'knew their place'. It is a bit like that with the British Royal Family's lifestyle today. A far cry from Toxteth. Virtue in Jane Austen is very much an upper class thing. The 'lower orders' do not have that freedom. They say Methodism saved England from something like the French Revolution. It was a tainted, inegalitarian paradise, where West Indian slaves; Irish Catholics and 'the lower orders' were not admitted. Servants were 'invisible'.


Edward Fido | 04 February 2022  
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A stunning essay by Andy, with an equally illuminating reply from Edward. (Thank You!)

One addendum: while Andy is right to identify (and critique!) the personal and individual renaissance that has found its way back into little 'pockets' of renewal in our current milieu, my sense is that both the denizens of St Kilda Rd as well as that other palazzo grande at Milsom Point (not excluding many others overlooking Rose Bay, Nudgee Rd and the rest of it) are still colonised by parents who officially affirm the 'values of the school', while in their private lives paying obeisance to Andy's 'narrow' Austenesque view of the world which, while character-building, cares not a jot for its commitment to the common good.

Oh; and one more point! Jenny Gribble's heroine-worship, while aptly 'early feminist', shouldn't stand without challenge.


Michael Furtado | 07 February 2022  

A rose by any other name? I meant, of course, 'Milson's Pt'.


Michael Furtado | 07 February 2022  

Hi Andrew,

I sent your article to my daughter, who is a particular fan of Jane Austen’s writing. She has provided the following critique and I present it essentially verbatim, for your interest, because I have never read any of Austen’s books and am frankly out of my depth on this subject anyway.

“I would argue that the moralistic reading is there, but is a simplification. Jane Austen makes a lot of fun of her characters, even the best heroines when they 'become better'. You could definitely read it as a 'do better' commentary though.

“The characters are deeply flawed and often remain that way. It's an interesting take on her satire of the gentry's narrow world and he's right that the novels deliberately exclude the world circumstances at the time although they hint at them. They say much by not saying a lot about that at all and there's a lot to read in that.

“There was a lot of conflict, including the Napoleonic wars happening at the time. There's also this sense of menace through a lot of the novels.

“Here is a quick one talking about historical context in pride and prejudice https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/pride/context/historical/pride-and-prejudice-and-the-napoleonic-wars/

“This part: ‘The novels encourage the modern reader to reflect on the importance of the disposition of political leaders, and particularly on the value of charismatic leadership.’

“I don't know whether the novels encourage any of that except for a ?suspiciousness for smooth talkers. This should be supported using actual text evidence.

“I definitely agree that there is a comment on the privilege of being able to ignore economic circumstances in life and love. Austen herself sank towards poverty because she didn't accept a marriage proposal. When you think about wealth and class though she almost argued for the social order at times. In ‘Emma’, Emma tries to match an woman from a lower class with someone above her rank, and the result is disastrous. Emma comes to support Harriet with someone her equal and all is restored to order. Lizzie from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ discovers herself suddenly in love with Mr Darcy when she sees his wealth in the form of his connections and enormous estate.

“This quote: ‘In Austen’s world the flourishing of individuals and families depends on the building of character through a network of expectations. These are expressed in the rituals of meals, introductions, formal conversation, parties, and dedication to reading, music and art.’

“This is not really true - character is not proved to be built through those. In fact she explicitly make fun of the obsession with "accomplishments" including all of those, and implies that they are in no way necessary to build character. I think character in the novels is built mostly on making mistakes and self discovery.

“I'm not quite getting the point of the essay and I don't think it does Austen’s sharp satire justice.

“I agree with the comparison that narrowness and focus on domestic relationships has come back to everyday focus during covid.

“If anything maybe the argument could be that Austen remains relevant in times of great change and upheaval because of how narrowly obsessed with our everyday lives we (the privileged few) remain, a cultural malaise for people struggling financially, our attempts to solve these problems by throwing just enough money to keep people in their places, and of many people's empty pursuit of betterment during the idleness of lockdown. And then our return to the same social order as soon as we can.

“…of course then there is the obvious comparison in the way they lived - social distancing rules and a dread of getting sick and dying from something common you could catch easily.”


Frank S | 05 February 2022  
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You are a kind father to your daughter, Frank. Perhaps adding that Andy is Jesuit priest, and that Eureka Street is a liberal arts and policy journal (in case she didn't know it) might have given her a clue as to the 'justice-based' critique that hallmarks his essay.

Context, after all, is everything, especially in the generous purveying of messages. For example, the fact that she is your daughter and you profess to know nothing of Austen and her work doesn't exactly neutralise your position, much as I can see that you strive to be fair.

Thanks.


Michael Furtado | 08 February 2022  

I'm probably as much a fan of Jane Austen as Andrew, Pam and Jenny but I do think that the characters she creates are drawn from a very narrow slice of English (small s) society an that there is no doubt that they live in the fashion they do on returns from capitalist endeavours including slavery. Whether Jane, or more correctly, her family, benefited financially from slave labour or slave trafficking is, I understand, a contested point, but there is no doubt that her class, as a class, did so. The very fact that the abolition of the C18 slave economy was so difficult conforms how valuable it was to those, and there were many, who were involved.


Ginger Meggs | 07 February 2022  
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Thanks, Ginger - I’m currently reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. He’s as fine a writer as Austen and, importantly, like her, he makes me think deeply. Not only about the storyline but about who he is.


Pam | 08 February 2022  

The First British Empire was built on the backs of African slaves who laboured in the plantations of the West Indies and the American South. A collateral ancestor, Thomas Fido, was one of the first English settlers in Barbados and had a plantation there. My own family remade their fortunes when Joseph Fido went out to India in the East India Company's Artillery. All of us of British descent had a part of it. Lucky the descendants of Wilberforce and his circle. The confessions of John Newton, former slave ship captain turned abolitionist are quite harrowing. From what I read of Jane Austen she was a thoroughly decent and honorable person and charitably inclined. She would not enrich herself with a convenient and profitable marriage. Her real love was a dashing Irishman, one of the Lefroys. It was not to be. Money. Her sister, best friend and confidant, Cassandra, destroyed much of Jane's letters, as they were far more acerbic than the seemingly gentle ironies of her writing. Anna Chancellor, the actress, is Jane's great-niece. She is also a woman of considerable character and presence.


Edward Fido | 08 February 2022  
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Well said again, Edward.

I'm not sure that Andy intended to make Austen's character the subject of his critique. He simply points to the fondness in eighteenth century Augustan writers of the English novel or play the tendency to focus on a comedy of manners that is sometimes desirably critical but, more often than not, merely frivolously entertaining.

For our 'O' Levels we studied (and performed!) Sheridan's 'A School for Scandal'. I was Lady Sneerwell and enjoyed the adolescent badinage and gay-inspired snootiness I brought to the role, with Fr Gilson borrowing wigs for us from Loreto House next door.

Imagine our disorientation when, during one of our rehearsals, our top studentasked Sr Cynthia Barber if Mother Teresa had once been a Loreto nun.

Stunned silence ensued until Sr Barber imperiously suggested that he had strayed a bit 'off-topic'! I think Andy's essays - God Bless Them! - sometimes have that effect on our readership.



Michael Furtado | 08 February 2022  

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