Monday, August 13, 2012

In Defense of Jane Austen


Do you group Jane Austen's works with all those other Romantic novels that the best of the "good little Christian, conservative homeschool girls" doesn't touch - or if she does she never tells her friends in order to keep up her facade?  Maybe not.  But, do you sometimes feel a bit guilty watching your favorite Austen flick, because you think you are wasting your time watching a romance instead of doing something else to add to your "amazing, Christian young lady" resume?  That used to be me.

 "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; 
and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, 
I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter."
~Jane Austen~

Would we really watch Pride and Prejudice to the end just for that bit of romantic embrace which is nothing compared to most modern chick-flicks?  Granted, all screen adaptations infuse more romance than is encountered in the books.  But, would we really watch a 200 year old story filmed in stuffy costumes and funny talking people just for a little romance?  Some would argue our sex is weak and emotional to the extant that we do succumb to such an extravagant waste of the ticking of numerous hours.

No, instead we say that we watch Emma to laugh at her unsuccessful matchmaking.  We love Pride and Prejudice for Elizabeth's wit and her annoying family members.  We wear our heart on our sleeve like Marianne.  We laugh at Miss Moreland's obsession with Gothic novels.

Is this still all Jane Austen is good for?

I would argue that she is worth a great deal more than this.  She isn't simply making fun of Regency society in a single brushstroke.  Jane Austen is the master of Christian satire.  She pulls communities and families apart in her examining room.  She isn't even willing to remain in London or Bath, in fact her characters never quite feel at home in a Georgian metropolis.  She doesn't really try to tackle them as Dickens would later on.  

No, indeed it is Merryton and Highbury that must run from her clutches.  Are you a member of one of the largest estates in your village and are yet inconsiderate to those in need?  "Badly done, Emma, badly done indeed!"  Are you prejudiced in first impressions of newcomers to your community?  Expect an entire novel written about you.  Instead do you revel over young men in scarlet attire?  Then one of your innocent young ladies will become victim to one of them.  Whether minister, single or married woman, woman of calm or excited disposition, rich, middle class, poor, you will be examined in your responsibility among society.  But, she examines based on morals and relationships, not on class status.

The influence of sibling's actions on the plots occurs with more frequency than we want to admit in our current culture.  We like to set ourselves up as individuals, living as if nothing we do will affect anyone but ourselves.  Whatever decisions we make, whomever we choose for friends, no matter the lifestyle it is ours.  My indiscretion won't affect my sister's life.  My lack of chastity won't tear my family apart.

What would P&P be without Lydia and Georgiana's part?  Even Jane's story has an effect on Lizzy's.  Mansfield Park would have no climax without the cousins' foolishness and Maria's affair. And, of course what is S&S except for the story of two sisters?  We either ignore the damage done and let the hurt fester underneath for years or the drama is there, but we're modern about it.  We end up hiding it as best we can to still look normal, we enable someone who needs to learn their lesson, or we unleash a 30 minute pity party on everyone we meet at the grocery store.  But, do we deal with it?  Do we pursue restoration?  Is there redemption and grace?

Even the patrician outlook isn't left unscathed.  Now, I am not about to turn Miss J.A. into a feminist because her heroines didn't always bow at the knee to their fathers.  Nor am I to say that because she included men in her satires she was attacking the root of her culture's views.  No, but she does include them, and they are very human.  Emma is loyal and loving to her father, but we see him as a sweet hypochondriac.  Elizabeth is obviously close to her father, but his neglect to involve himself when needed influences the novel's climax.  For the Dashwoods their story begins with their father dying and they meet betrayal, protection, deceit, and love from various men throughout the novel.

Austen never leaves us with a family holding hands and singing "We Are Fam-i-ly."  But, we do see a Lydia and a Maria who have to reap some rewards for their actions.  She does leave us with an Elinor and Marianne who truly love each other.  Mr. Bennet gives his blessing to two of his daughters' marriages.  The sticky situations are talked of, brought in the open among families, and brought to some sort of restoration.

Pinned Image

She doesn't stop there, she tears apart human nature, forcing us to look at ourselves.  She rips apart our humanity that we find so much pride in.  She slaps on gaudy colors and glues on a few feathers so that we might go, "Ouch, is that what I really look like?"  She doesn't allow us to only see the heroines and dashing young men.  We must look at the eccentrics and annoying characters, because for us she holds the mirror.

She introduces us to hearts we end up knowing better than our own.  The little thoughts, emotions, and sins we don't want to admit she makes public.  How do I deal with difficult circumstances, an embarrassing family, control from myself and others, prejudice, and popular culture?  When there is climax in my life what goes on in my heart that no one else sees?

When Elinor feels like she must hold the family together in the midst of her own secret heartbreak, when Lizzy and Emma come to see their sins before them, we are given the invitation to view every bit of their sanctification.  We empathize with Anne Eliot as she deals with the long shadows of decisions and the conflicts of personal and outside persuasions.

Miss Austen minutely dissects the human heart so that we don't feel so alone when we experience the consequences of human sin in our own little worlds.  She never lets a sin go astray.  Every sin is accounted for either by confession, association, or punishment.  It is exposed through the inner workings of hearts, emotions, public and private displays.  No one gets away with anything-not due to class, age, or familial standing.  Mr. Bennet is rebuked for his fatherly neglect.  Lady de Bourgh and Darcy's pride is exposed.  Lizzy's prejudice, Marianne's indiscretion, and Anne's insecurity are all brought to light.  The hated seducers are never excused for youth and foolishness.  

We are taught character through her novels: duty, humility, acceptance, loyalty, discretion, consideration for others, contentment.  We are given human heroines, ones who need reformation in some areas, but who are excellent examples of imitation in others.  Elizabeth is responsible and intelligent.  Emma has a loyal and loving relationship with her father.   Elinor is constant to those around her and displays contentment despite her circumstances.  Even the infamous Marianne has a contagious love for life and her eventual loyalty to Brandon shows that she is capable of learning of reform - she isn't really just a flirtatious, flighty girl who will latch onto anyone.  

Jane Austen brings us a gift, in the guise of a novel, which really is a type of the Holy Spirit.  Edgar Allan Poe did it rather shockingly in his Tell Tale Heart.  Unlike Poe's story, we aren't merely convicted, instead we are shown how our actions have influenced others and how we can restore those hurts.  We are also instructed in what to do when it isn't our actions but the actions of others creating so much tumult in our lives.  What do you do when you are tempted to become bitter because of what someone else did to you?  Or what of times when someone you love is hurt and you could seek revenge or at the least be ungenerous and unforgiving.  Many times we are called to involve ourselves in the redemption, when the sin was not our own.

Do you want to learn about sanctification and human relationships?  Are you willing to subject yourself to the mirror?  To search for satire and not romance?  Then, I dare you to pick up one of Jane Austen's gifts and read.

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