Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Reading Jane Austen

Over Christmas I reread Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. A family friend bought the Guthrie's a video production of the novel by the BBC. (The 1983 version, not the the awful version of a couple years ago, and certainly not the movie!) It is rare that I read works of fiction more than once, but I wanted to see how faithful the video was to the book. Very few of my Christian friends share my taste in literature. In fact, some of them think that Jane Austen is in the same catagory as the paperback romances one can find at Wal Mart. Watching movies made of her novels does not change their minds. Because Austen's plots involve one or more love stories, the whole story is dismissed as "just a love story." To this I ask, "Is Romeo and Juliet just a love story because it concerns a doomed romance? Are the novels of Dickens just detective fiction because crime is at the center of many of them? Is Braveheart just an action flick?"

In Austens lifetime (1775-1817), a new movement, Romanticism, brought changes to all aspects of life. In Romanticism, the importance of one's feelings were given priority over all things which restain them, whether those restraints were social convention, wisdom, family obligation or religion. While the movement is long since dead, its influence continued after the movement's demise. (One can argue that the Nazi view of the German "superman" had its origions in this movement, as well as the introduction of eastern religions into western philosophy.) While Austen did not reject all forms of Romanticism, and she offered no systematic criticism of it, she can be considered one of Romanticism's first public critics. Two of her six novels stand out in this regard: Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. In Sense and Sensibility, we do not just have a contrast between two sisters as to how they secure marriage partners. What we have here is an unfavorable contrast between two ways of life. Marianne Dashwood is the symbol of one who has totally absorbed Romantic ways of thought and behavior. Her feelings rule her life. To her, those who don't give feelings first priority, like her sister Elinor, are repressed, less than human. Marianne fears she will never marry because she can never find a man spectacular enough for her. When she finds such a man, Willoughby, he turns out to be bad. When Willoughby makes fun of another character, Colonel Brandon, solely because of Brandon's goodness, Marianne is swept up in the same type of thinking regarding her fellow mortals. Mariannes world view is embraced in one of England's greatest Romantic novels, Charlotte Brontee's Jane Eyre. In this novel, Evangelical Christianity is portrayed as an enemy of the emotions and therefore an enemy of true human happiness and fulfillment. The hero of a Romantic novel is usually handsome, but if not, is striking in appearence and spectacularly interesting. Not so in Jane Austen's world. The love interest of Elinor Dashwood is socially awkward and not of a passionate nature. In a Jane Austin novel, the men most likely to appeal to the Romantic imagination turn out to be bad, some very bad. The good men are those who do not invite curiousity at first glance, but further aquaintence reveals their true characters and their superior qualities as men. It is no wonder Charlotte Brontee hated Austen's novels.

In the Penguin Classics edition of Mansfield Park, Tony Tanner's introduction contrasts the two world views very well: "We are also made aware of the conflict between the joys of personality and the rigors of principle. We are shown the need to distingish between what is 'sweet' and what is 'sound', between what is 'pleasant' and what is 'prudent.' "Duty' of course is very important, but supperadded to it there must be 'delicacy.' And, a harder lesson perhaps, we are shown that the delightfulness of 'wit' (and who enjoyed that more than Jane Austen?) is trivial compared with the soberness of wisdom." Tanner quotes a letter written by Austen: "Wisdom is better than wit, & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side." In addition, Mansfield Park teaches us that life must be lived within limits; to live a life severed of all obligation to others is to deny the reality of life. This truth is still valid even if one's world of obligation includes people who are cruel and evil, as Tanner points out in his introduction. The fascination of the "new" is attributed to a society that has cast off its moorings, which includes its Christian heritage. The increasing restlessness of England's inhabitants at this time was one of Romanticism's results that Austen viewed with suspicion.

I do not think it possible that a Christian's world views can be totally unaffected by his or her culture. That being the case, it is profitable to highlight those works which can affect thinking for the good. In the world of novels, Jane Austen is a good place to start.

(First published in 3/07)