Jane Austen as Moral Guide

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22 December 2009

A wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal by James Collins about reading Jane Austen for moral content.

The word “moral” has a bad rap in modern intellectual life.  I like how Collins is reclaiming and endowing it with the nuances it requires.

Here’s a snippet about Austen and Romanticism:

Austen lived on the cusp of the 18th-century Augustan and 19th-century Romantic ages. In our own time, nearly every song, advertisement and movie is based on Romantic principles. No matter how much we may enjoy the “felicities of domestic life,” as Austen put it in “Persuasion,” we still feel the enormous Romantic pull to do something more heroic and intense. Rather than digesting a good dinner while conversing with friends, we should be out forging the consciousness of our race in the smithy of our soul, or some damn thing. I don’t really want to forge the consciousness of my race, but at the same time I don’t want to miss out on all that Romanticism offers. This is where Austen comes in, for she is an Augustan familiar with Romanticism, which makes her more useful than a modern writer in helping us face the Romantic challenge. Only she can so credibly show us that it is possible to have moderation and deep feeling, good dinners and good poetry.

And here, Collins further shows us that Austen is a consummate “both/and” artist, not “either/or” — something I care about and worry over more persistently than probably anything else in life.

How can morals, sentiments and manners help one live in the world? What should one’s relations to the world be? Should one reject the world entirely as corrupt and mercenary and hypocritical and shallow? Or is there some other way, where one can keep one’s integrity and sensitivity, but live in the world too? W. H. Auden stated the problem well when he wrote:

“Does Life only offer two alternatives: ‘You shall be happy, healthy, attractive, a good mixer, a good lover and parent, but on the condition that you are not overcurious about life. On the other hand you shall be sensitive, conscious of what is happening round you, but in that case you must not expect to be happy, or successful in love or at home in any company. There are two worlds and you cannot belong to them both.'”

In effect, Auden is asking if life offers only the two alternatives of “Sense and Sensibility,” and one can sympathize with his cry of despair, for when the dilemma is put the way he puts it, the two seem hopelessly irreconcilable.

Austen comes to our rescue, though, for she does manage to modulate between “Sense and Sensibility,” rejecting the excesses of both. Her attitude appeals because the combination of morals, sentiments, and manners provides a way of living that allows one both to be in the world and to enjoy the sweets of sensitivity as well. Austen does not write about bohemians and rebels; she doesn’t want to change her world—”she would not alter a hair on anyone’s head or move one brick,” as Virginia Woolf wrote. Her sympathetic characters participate fully in their society and accept its conventions, yet they have exquisitely well-tuned minds and hearts. Good sense does not have to be at war with sensibility.

Enjoy the whole article, and, I say, let reading — all reading — shape you in every way, including your moral education.

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