Life doesn't always end happily. Jane Austen knew that, but you wouldn't think so to listen to a lot of her fans. Janeites are happy to wax eloquent (or simply to wax) on the romance, the humor, the happy resolution for women like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Elinor Dashwood. They often fail to note the Christian assumptions undergirding Austen's fiction, the way she portrays humans as less-than-perfect, shows the consequences of sin, and celebrates the quiet and contented life.
The humor is reason enough to enjoy reading Austen. Everyone has a favorite scene—Mr. Collins' ill-fated proposal, Catherine's realization that Northanger Abbey is a nice place and not dark and horrifying, Frank Churchill's speedy departure to obtain a haircut. But her genius wasn't simply in observing people and their idiosyncrasies, her mastery of dialogue, or her uncanny ability to identify what men and women want in a spouse and bringing the appropriate characters together by the end.
Jane Austen's genius was in her ability to show things as they are without moralizing. Any author can say "this is wrong" or "that is good," but how many can present the facts in such a way that readers know which is which? In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is not perfect. He may be the man of many girls' dreams, but he has serious character flaws that need mending. Fortunately for him he changes, but Austen never says, "Now this is what we learn from Mr. Darcy......"
It's all done so effortlessly. At first glance, these novels are little more than sustained glimpses into British Regency culture among the upper-middle classes. A little deeper, and they're reflections on marriage and love. Deeper still, and they become subtle satires on the mores and attitudes of a cross-section of her social milieu. Fortunately for most readers, her most incisive observations aren't buried that deep: what she shows any reader from any cultural context are the consistencies of human nature.
For Jane Austen characters, things go well if their decisions are wise and their tongues well-managed. In Pride and Prejudice Lydia ends up with the deplorable George Wickham because of her frivolity and rebellion, not because "bad things happen to good people." Elizabeth, on the other hand, ends up with the upright and responsible (if not always charming) Fitzwilliam Darcy only because she refused to make stupid decisions that offered quick solutions to difficult problems.
Some modern critics are quick to point out that Austen was attempting to show the injustice of a system in which women had to rely on matrimony to obtain a secure future. What they fail to note is that none of her heroines see this as a burden—it is only when a lady is impulsive or irresponsible that she need fear making a terrible mistake in her choice of spouse. If she has her wits about her and a generous heart, there's nothing to worry about.
Peter Leithart has made an excellent study of the Christian themes in Jane Austen in his book Miniatures and Morals (which also serves as a study guide for her novels). It's a perspective too often ignored in our hyper-intellectualized postmodern approach to literary criticism. Miss Austen lived long before postmodernism was around and would've rejected its principles due to her Christian presuppositions. It seems only fair to interpret (and enjoy) her brilliant novels on her own terms.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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