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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Jane Austen Bashers, Go Away!

This week I have spent many free moments perusing, once again, the pages of Emma. It has been several years since I read it last, and now I see that it has value beyond the pleasure which any good story brings. Often readers, young men in particular, disdain Jane Austen's books as mere, girly romances about rich people. That is ridiculous. A more serious critic once claimed that she makes young ladies unsatisfied with ordinary fellows, who never survive Knightly or Darcy comparisons. In the face of these ill-conceived and unjust accusations, I affirm the universal worth of Jane Austen's novels. All of the books share similar principles, though they are emphasized to different degrees in the different works. In Emma, three struck me particularly: the obligations of justice determined by one's age and social standing; docility in its feminine aspect; and decorum as a means of preserving virtue. I shall try to explain clearer. The first is illustrated primarily in the character of Emma herself, in her relationship with her father. St. Thomas wrote the following of piety, which he addresses as a part of justice: "man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one's parents and one's country."II-II 101.1 Many of Jane Austen's heroines practice exemplary filial devotion towards troublesome parents. Emma handles her sweet but foolish father with patience and tenderness. He is a hypochondriac with little wit, yet she always honors him. She also cares for the poor of the neighborhood. However, she fails in her duties towards her less fortunate neighbors, Miss Bates and her niece Jane Fairfax. With her fortune and consequence, she owes them certain attentions which pride and selfishness lead her to neglect. Another character, Frank Churchill, reveals the weakness of his character by a tardy visit to his father's new bride. A more noble man would not have delayed, even if it necessitated the displeasure of a patroness. On to the second concept, feminine docility. Jane Austen is like the Anti-Feminist. The character of Mrs. Westin is clearly held up as a model gentlewoman, for she behaves correctly throughout the whole story. One of her greatest virtues is a submissive will, and Mr. Knightly directly mentions this as a recommendation in a wife. Emma, on the other hand, has a great attachment to her own will and a confidence in her own resources. Humbled by one mistaken judgment after another, in the end she realizes that she ought to be guided by the superior prudence of Knightly. This comes up in Mansfield Park, too; docility is noted as a recommendation of the heroine, Fanny. Finally, the matter of decorum. This is kind of related to the first point about justice, but please forgive me, since I'm a poor philosopher and my divisions leave much to be desired. Two main examples occur to me. First, Mrs. Elton is a distasteful character, and many of her vices are revealed in her lack of decorum. She assumes intimacy, patronizes obnoxiously, expresses her opinions too frankly, and demands excessive honors. If she had been raised with more proper manners, they might have curbed her pride and vulgarity. Emma also errs against decorum when she publicly mocks Mrs. Bates. That scene reveals one of the great benefits of a society with established customs of acceptable social behaviour; Emma quickly feels shame for her misdeed, a shame deepened by the obvious disapproval of everyone who witnesses the act. I believe that is the phenomenon known as nemesis in Greek, the pressure of society to do what is right. That pressure has nearly disappeared in modern society, probably because of relativism. In a healthy society, social customs flow from the moral code. There is barely any moral code left nowdays, so manners are disappearing too. Now then, enough tangents. Hopefully I have given a few reasons why anyone with traditional opinions must laud Jane Austen and why men, too, ought to read her books.


Blogger JMT said...

I just found your blog from a link on Jeff Culbreath's "Hallowed Ground." I added a link to you on my blogroll. Belated welcomes and such. :-)

Btw, I'm in complete agreement with you on this post. :-)

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Suibhne said...

I am a man and thoroughly enjoyed Emma. In fact, during my senior year at Thomas Aquinas College, I argued in class with a gentleman who thought as many male critics of Emma often do. I do not think I persuaded him, nor he me, since Emma remains one of my favorite novels.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Jack Bennett said...

Anyone who mocks the Divine Jane must be hog-tied or drunk or both. I can't get enough of her and just wish she had lived longer, judging by her rough draft of the early copies of Sanditon it would have been the best yet.

As for Emma, Jane always found time to include morals in her tales but hid it so those who just wanted to enjoy the book without any lectures could. Very different from other writers of the period. Genius.

9:08 AM  

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