Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is a novel in need of redemption. Pre-judged as “chick lit” (that is, literature for young women), fit only for AP English classes in high school, it would be salutary if men and women of all ages could swallow their pride and receive it as a challenge to virtue and wisdom.
When today’s traditional, American Christians call to mind the “better times” that we perhaps hope to restore, our most common images of such times are often drawn from two sources: from the time of the settling of the American plains, and from the suburban lives of white Americans in the decade or two following the Second World War. That is to say, in our imaginations, the golden age was Little House on the Prairie and the silver age was Leave it to Beaver.
However, these golden and silver ages actually contradict one another, and neither were actually terribly traditional. Suburban life of the 1950’s was already a repudiation of the prairie life of the 1880’s. Moreover, Roman Italy, Athenian Greece, and Medieval Europe all variously experienced that both life on the frontier and life in the city after a great victory are often quite unhinged from the lifeways of the ancestors. And these times that are in fact the least traditional leave their marks on our psyche precisely because they are such brave new worlds, and the afterglow of unprecedented experiments lives in our hearts as the memory of a lost, better world.
It is good advice to read books written before you were born. Since the frontier is closed and post-war optimism has given way to frustration and fragmentation, those seeking grounding in the good and the true will have to look for stories from before the birth of the American mythos, and from outside the scope of our nostalgia.
In Pride and Prejudice, we have such a story, in plain English, about normal lives in long-standing, traditional, Anglo-Christian culture. Though set during the Napoleonic wars (1797-1815), readers hardly know that big things are happening in the world of the book, so comfortably nestled are we in rural England among middle-class households and upper-class estates.
The conflicts of the novel are stated in the title, and these domestic demons haunt a story of courtship and marriage. The plot is straightforward, without flashbacks or much foreshadowing, and it is light on symbolism. Elizabeth, the second-born of five Bennet sisters, is struggling under pressure to find a suitable husband. She is antagonized by members of her family, by the compromises of her peers and the temptation to compromise herself, and by her own misguided esteem of herself and others. As the story progresses, the middle-class Elizabeth and the upper-class Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy begin to circle one another, drawn toward and repulsed by each other, pressed together and pulled apart by internal and external motives. Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy notes, is not the prettiest or the wittiest Bennet sister, and Darcy himself is far from the most handsome, charming, or adventurous of men.
This personal drama, told with brightness and classical comedy, highlights the tensions and burdens of the classes and the sexes. Jane Austen, however, never tries to deconstruct the social and moral picture of her world. Rather, through her heroines, she points toward virtue within the social drama. Her work is notable in the history of the novel inasmuch as she shares a vision of virtue in continuity with that of Homer, Aristotle, and the New Testament; she may in fact be one of the last in English literature to do so. Uniquely for this tradition of virtue, Austen is concerned about the shape of the good life lived within the contingencies of modern social existence, which was beginning to take shape in her time.
Today we often experience life as a loosely connected collection of lives: work life, family life, personal life, church life, social life, and now virtual life. Our excess energy is consumed in the deadly seriousness of our leisure activities, our attention dominated in negotiating and maneuvering various social interactions. If we are of a mind to lead the pack, we study the fine art of How to Win Friends and Influence People—our democratized version of Machiavelli’s The Prince. And we are familiar, of course, with this “drama,” the cycle of pride, prejudice, shame, resentment, self-doubt, passive-aggression, slights, betrayal, ghosting, calling-out, hashing and rehashing, and the angst over introversion and awkwardness, all having to do with insignificant things said or done, which concern only a few people.
Unlike our favorite parts of the American golden or silver ages, much of the complexity and stress of social living in Pride and Prejudice is alive and well among us. What has withered in our day is any sense that “the drama” has a higher telos or goal other than itself, or that it calls for the cultivation of any virtue. Here, Austen can help, as these are her concerns.
As you read this novel or any of her others, pay attention to the importance she places on the following themes: 1. real virtue versus counterfeit posturing and signaling; 2. self-knowledge and repentance versus self-esteem and social anxiety; and 3. a single integrity or constancy of the person within all domains of life versus the diffusion of the soul into various personalities. In the world of Pride and Prejudice, evil is manifest in meddling and thoughtless judgments. Virtue is small refusals to compromise coupled with a healthy sense of one’s own fallibility and short-sightedness. Heroism is quietly stepping in to save a neighbor from shame. It is better, we might learn, to conquer oneself on these battlefields than it is to try to save or burn the world. And, in the end, the world of the novel is saved, but only because people get over themselves and get married.
And speaking of that, having noticed that our fragmented existence generally lacks any telos (What is the point of the drama? What firm footing is it all circling around?), notice that this is not the case for Jane Austen or Elizabeth Bennet. The goal is marriage, and married life. And before you dismiss this as merely the particular convention of particular women of a particular class from a particular time and place, as you might dismiss any romantic comedy, recall one final thing: finding and living with a worthy spouse is a chief topic of Biblical wisdom.
It is well-known that the wise Proverbs of Solomon conclude with the “excellent wife” of chapter 31. Less well-appreciated is that this image is not, in the first place, impressed upon young women, but upon our sons. The attendant drama of proposing oneself as the head of a woman of intimidating excellence, and the cultivation of the necessary virtues to be found acceptable and competent as such—these are the challenges wisdom gives to all young kings.
The crisis of Pride and Prejudice is Mr. Darcy’s first proposal of marriage to Elizabeth; the climax of the story is his second.
In the first proposal, after screwing up his courage to confess his affection, “[Darcy] spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.”
Rebuffed by his affectation of condescension, and harboring her own unjust prejudices of him, Elizabeth refuses his first proposal. Some months later, he tries again. In the intervening months, things have changed for both Elizabeth and Darcy. A transformation along the lines of the virtues mentioned above has happened, and the possibility of a new telos has emerged. Now, says Darcy to Elizabeth: “‘You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.’ Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.”
We have grown accustomed, in our own times, to repeat to ourselves the meme that weak men have created these hard times in which we live, and that these hard times call for strong men who can restore the good and golden times. Perhaps, and perhaps a fine handbook to test the wisdom and virtue of such self-consciously strong men would be Jane Austen’s literature for women.
1 For a treatment of Jane Austen’s relationship to the classical virtue tradition, see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd Edition, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, especially pages 181-87 and 239-243.
2 For example, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma, among others.