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Monday, November 16, 2009

Today in Jane: WWJD?

James Collins in the Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece (excerpted from a new book of essays on Jane) on Austen's morality in terms of its applicability today, when so many social rules and values are different than they were in her time.

Unlike today's social observers, Austen never advocated rearranging or even challenging the structure of society; she mocked the status quo, but was a big believer in protecting oneself and skillfully, practically navigating within a system that could be downright unfair to women and classist, to boot. Feminists like me may not like to admit it, but today Jane very well might be one of those pragmatic folks who urged her fellow women not to wear short skirts or go out clubbing on their own. So is she still an acceptable moral guide in our liberated world?

Collins' piece gets the most interesting partway down, when he talks about three of the more troubling (by today's standards) "moral" choices made by Austen heroines Fanny, Elinor and Anne:

If one is to argue that Austen's morality is useful for a person living today, one must deal with three hard cases. First, there is Fanny's objection to the amateur theatricals in "Mansfield Park." Then, in "Sense and Sensibility" there is Elinor's refusal to pursue the man she loves, Edward Ferrars, when she learns that he is oficially engaged to Lucy Steele, a woman who "joined insincerity with ignorance." Finally, there is Anne Elliot's avowal in "Persuasion" that she did the right thing by following the dictates of Lady Russell to refuse Captain Wentworth, even though this led to years of loveless misery for them both. In all three cases, Austen endorses a morality that seems nearly absurd in its strictness. What is the big deal with theatricals? Is the principle of honor worth upholding when it results in mismatches and regret? And what kind of value system puts obedience before love?
To find out how Collins makes sense of these tricky situations, read the piece.

I'd venture to add that Austen's descriptions of her characters' feelings provide a very human counterweight to the ultimate moral message she delivers--she doesn't pretend it's easy to do the right thing.

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