Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 29 2016 01:00PM

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.




By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2015 02:00PM

Despite the New York Times’ efforts to persuade us otherwise, Jane Austen is not a Christmassy writer. It’s true that the word “Christmas” appears in all six of the completed novels, but only three (Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion) include scenes set during holiday festivities. And even those scenes lack the trappings -- trees, stockings, gifts, etc. – that we have come to associate with the Victorian version of the day.


The Christmas scene in Emma – which celebrated its bicentennial yesterday – is actually a Christmas Eve scene. And surely the dinner party at Randalls must rank as one of the worst, if also one of the funniest, Christmases in English literature, bookended, for Emma, by two unpleasant carriage rides with self-absorbed men. John Knightley’s grumpy rant about the horrors of going out in the snow ("A man . . . must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside, and encounter such a day as this, for the sake of coming to see him”) is topped only by Mr. Elton’s won't-take-no-for-an-answer marriage proposal, as the glib vicar graduates, in the space of a few paragraphs, from tipsy faux-sentimentality to sincerely nasty social condescension (“Everybody has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss”).


Over at Sarah Emsley’s blog, Nora Bartlett takes a closer look at this scene, in the kickoff post for "Emma in the Snow," Sarah’s new blog series celebrating the birthday of this sublime novel. I, however, will confine myself to wishing you all a Christmas Eve much happier than Emma Woodhouse’s.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 21 2015 02:00PM

This Wednesday – the bicentennial of the publication of Emma – also marks the kickoff of “Emma in the Snow,” a blog series hosted by scholar, writer and blogger Sarah Emsley. Sarah has invited thirty-two Janeites to contribute guest posts on passages in the novel. (My contribution will probably run in March.)


If you’re too impatient to wait until Wednesday, Deborah Barnum, a bookseller who heads the Vermont chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America, has provided a delightful appetizer to the banquet: an entertaining and thorough post on Emma’s publication history.


Judging by the success of “An Invitation to Mansfield Park,” the seven-month blog series Sarah hosted to mark MP’s 2014 bicentennial, “Emma in the Snow” will be a treat for Janeites. Austen is so complicated, multifaceted and slippery that every rereading reveals something new. It’s always fascinating, if sometimes confounding, to hear about other readers’ insights.


So even if you’re still waiting for the season’s first snowfall, be sure to drop by Sarah’s blog this week for the launch of “Emma in the Snow.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 8 2015 01:00PM

Jane Austen wrote daily, revised her work, recycled material from unused drafts, negotiated with publishers both directly and through an agent, corrected her proofs, read reviews, made changes for later editions, and kept track of her royalties. In other words, she was a committed professional writer.


This might seem obvious were it not for the energy with which her brother and her nephew tried, in the decades after her death, to promote a very different image – of Austen as a cheery amateur storyteller who dabbled charmingly with no thought of fame or fortune. No doubt they meant well, these Austen men. They wanted to keep the reading public from seeing their beloved relative as ambitious – and thus, in nineteenth-century terms, unwomanly.


But what did Austen herself think of ambition? Did she see it as a vice, a virtue, or something more ambiguous – a human impulse that could be deployed for both good and bad ends?


These were the question opened up most entertainingly this past Saturday by writer and critic Sarah Emsley, who spoke at a luncheon meeting I attended, sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania region of the Jane Austen Society of North America.


Emsley argued that while Austen condemns characters like Mary Crawford and Isabella Thorpe for aspiring to raise themselves through mercenary marriages, she rewards those characters who hold quieter, more modest ambitions – people like Edward Ferrars and Elizabeth Bennet, who aim primarily to achieve their own vision of love and happiness.


Along the way, Emsley considered Christian, Aristotelian and Johnsonian definitions of ambition; touched on the reasons that ambition has traditionally inspired mixed feelings; and noted the ambitions that Austen arouses in her readers, including a desire to read more deeply and to think more carefully about how to live their lives.


Emsley says her ideas remain a work in progress, but she’s off to a good start. I look forward to seeing her intellectual ambitions rewarded with publication (along with love and happiness, of course).


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 13 2014 01:00PM

I’m back home after four whirlwind days at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting – held this year in Montreal – which focused on the tantalizing, fascinating Mansfield Park, as fresh today as when it was published exactly two centuries ago.


JASNA AGMs encompass many pleasures: seeing old friends and making new ones; admiring Regency gowns that seem to grow more elaborate and beautiful each year; and cruising the Emporium for the latest Austeniana (this year’s find: the Jane Austen-shaped cookie cutter!)


But at its heart the AGM is a weekend-long conversation about the author we all love, and every year I hear something that makes me think about Austen in a new way.


Herewith just eight of the countless provocative, touching, hilarious or enlightening somethings I heard at this year’s AGM:


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