Friday, August 17, 2012

The Jane Austen Guide: Part 3

I'm still really enjoying The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, and discovering such wonderful new ideas that I can (try to) put into practice in my own life.

Back when I was first introduced to Austen's novels, I remember being struck by her beautiful descriptions and very clear analysis of each of her characters and their behavior. She was masterful at building complex, crystalline portraits of people of all shapes and sizes.

By extension, Austen's heroines are wonderfully skilled at understanding and explaining the people around them. Kantor writes that Austen's characters "consider it their right--even their duty--to take a position on other people's choices, and to hold up their own and their neighbors' behavior to certain principles by which relationships ought to be managed." They are able to distinguish right actions from wrong ones, strong characters from weaker ones. They are constantly putting into practice their "theory" about human nature and right conduct by observing and assessing it around them. They are better able to choose good men to marry and manage their own lives and relationships because of it.

Now to us, this kind of talking about others sounds catty. Gossipy. In today's world, we just don't know how to talk about other people and their choices without feeling guilty and judgmental. But Kantor clarifies that Austen's heroines were not judgmental, and that their practice of holding their friends and acquaintances up to a set of standards had nothing to do with gossip or a sense of their own "moral superiority." Far from it.

And this is because of "self-knowledge," which was the subject of my last blog entry on The Jane Austen Guide. An understanding of their own flaws and a desire to live up to their own principles and high standards "inoculates them against self-righteousness and ugly...hypocrisy."

Here is the lovely way that Kantor helps us to understand this. She points to Fanny Price, of Mansfield Park, who is described by Austen as "'firm as a rock in her own principles' but with 'a gentleness of character so well adapted to recommend them.'" Yes, Austen's heroines "judge" and discuss the actions of others based on a set of principles that guide "right conduct." But because they hold themselves to an even higher standard than they hold those around them, this behavior does not translate into meanness and criticism, but to compassion and respect for others.

I can't help thinking about Christianity as I'm writing this and re-reading Kantor's book. Isn't Jesus always the first one to hold us to the very highest standard of goodness and morality? And is He not the last one to cast us aside when (not if) we fail?


  1. Kate, this is so beautifully written. And I loved the last paragraph--how true!

    From a fellow Jane Austen enthusiast,
    Mrs. Pearl

    1. Thank you, Mrs. Pearl, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! You definitely should read the book--I get the sense that you would really agree with so many of the messages.


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