Perhaps because Jane Austen’s writing feels so fresh and modern, it’s tempting to imagine her as a contemporary who shares our right-thinking political and social views. If we’re left-leaning, she’s feminist, tolerant, and open-minded about sex; if we’re right-leaning, she’s devout, rigorously moral, and sexually buttoned-up. In the race to make Jane Austen familiar, it’s easy to forget that, to quote L.P. Hartley, the past is a foreign country.
So it’s useful to read a book that sets Jane Austen in the intellectual context of the thinkers who came before her, rather than insisting that she anticipates our own preoccupations. That’s the achievement of Sarah Emsley’s 2005 study Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues, the work of literary criticism that is this month’s assignment in my Austen Catch-Up Project. (As blog readers will recall, the Catch-Up Project is my effort to spend 2016 filling some of the holes in my Austen education.)
Literary criticism, which too often privileges impenetrable terms of art over plain English, is not my favorite genre, but I’m happy to report that Emsley* is a concise and lucid writer. Her slender volume is an enjoyable read even for those of us lacking Ph.D.s in Obscure Jargon Studies, and her approach to Austen is intriguing.
Emsley focuses on Austen’s heroines, arguing that the work they must do is not so much deciding which man to marry as choosing what kind of life to live. As they undertake this task, they develop and exercise the qualities that have come to be known as “the virtues.”
Classical writers, especially Aristotle, emphasized the four cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude; Christian writers like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas stressed the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity/love. For Christian thinkers, “the two traditions may be seen in a dialectical relation: the theological virtues act as a foundation for the cardinal virtues, while at the same time the cardinal virtues prepare us to receive the theological virtues,” Emsley writes.
Like Aristotle, Emsley argues, Austen conceives of the virtues as developed in practice – through action that eventually becomes habitual, not just through reflection. And because, in Austen’s novels, the virtues must be practiced in the ordinary course of human relations, inside of families and communities, their exercise demands attention to both the requirements of the self and the needs of others.
In chapters covering the six novels and the novella Lady Susan, Emsley explores how Austen draws on the tradition of the virtues, which may have come to her through writers like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Johnson. Elinor Dashwood, for instance, develops and practices the virtue of fortitude as she struggles to strike a balance between honesty and the tactful lies that social intercourse demands. Elizabeth and Darcy learn to do justice as they are educated into a humbling realization of their own shortcomings.
Darcy and Elizabeth take parallel journeys because Austen doesn’t see the practice of virtue as gender-differentiated, Emsley argues. While many writers of Austen’s time saw sexual chastity as the primary female virtue, for Austen, both men and women need the same moral education.
Thus, Emsley rejects the interpretations of critics who argue that Austen’s stories are often about the humiliation of a heroine who learns to submit to the hero’s better judgment. Viewed as a process of moral education, the humbling of characters like Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet is liberating, not humiliating, Emsley argues.
“Humility in Pride and Prejudice is not abject self-abasement, but a right sense of one’s own fallibility, and it is not just something Elizabeth learns in order to submit herself to Darcy, but something that they both learn so that they may together submit to God in the context of Christian marriage,” she writes.
Because Austen is reticent about religion – her characters seldom mention God or prayer, let alone sermonize on spiritual or doctrinal matters – modern readers may overlook the extent to which she takes Christianity for granted, the degree to which it’s the ocean in which her characters swim.
But Emsley’s Austen is emphatically a Christian writer, for whom faith underpins the unyielding moral determination of Fanny Price and the constancy of Anne Elliot. Anne’s “strength is not just stoicism, and her hope is not just romantic,” Emsley writes. “She has faith in something larger than herself, larger than her own life; that is, she has faith in God. . . . religious faith underlies the virtues of the [Austen] heroines.”
Although Austen understands the practice of virtue to be flexible – it’s not the application of a rigid set of rules but a disposition to seek harmonious balance when values conflict -- this flexibility is not moral relativism, Emsley argues. For Austen, non-negotiable standards of value do exist, and they are rooted in Christianity.
I think Emsley is right to restore this religious context, so alien to the world in which many of us live today. Austen’s poignant sense of life’s contingency, her awareness of how easily the stories she tells us could come out differently, seems modern to us, but we should not mistake it for an atheistic existentialism.
Some of Emsley’s analyses are better than others. To my mind, her chapters on Emma and Persuasion are more rushed and less thorough than her considerations of the earlier novels, and a coda discussing whether George Eliot, Henry James and Edith Wharton can be considered heirs to Austen’s philosophy of the virtues seems especially thin.
But these are quibbles, for even the less well-developed chapters are rife with interesting insights. Emsley gives us a new way of looking at Austen by reminding us that she isn’t as new -- as modern -- as we like to think.
* Full disclosure: Emsley gave Among the Janeites a generous review and has invited me to contribute to her blog on several occasions. I’ve also socialized with her at a number of Jane Austen Society of North America events.