Jane Austen on Truth and Courtship
Although movie and television adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels are widely popular, I suspect few young women and men are avid Austen readers. This is a shame. Apart from the laughs they’re missing, young people would find much of value in her novels. She reminds us of the primacy of prudence to guide satisfactory relationships between men and women, and especially to direct courtship and marriage. She also reminds us that just because a person is physically mature, that doesn’t mean they’re psychologically mature. It’s an important, easily overlooked point. Put simply, there are men and women who aren’t worthy of an intimate, romantic relationship.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Jane Austen was well aware that many women were not suited to an intimate relationship because of serious character faults such as greed, snobbery, inconstancy, laziness, a complaining temper or a taste for infidelity. Austen populated her novels with women who blight their own lives and the lives of others with these follies. Austen laughs at them and invites us to share her mirth. She presents Mrs Norris, Isabella Thorpe, Lydia Bennet, Mrs Bennet, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mary Musgrave, Maria Bertram, Mary Crawford, Caroline Bingley, Elizabeth Elliot and Lady Susan Vernon for our enjoyment. And she warns us away from too much close contact with such women.
She was also aware that many men aren’t suited to an intimate relationship with a woman. These men are unsuitable because they’re self-important, dishonest, insincere, unfaithful, chattering coxcombs, bumptious and presumptuous, downright stupid or humourless. They’re everywhere in her novels, amusing blots on the landscape: Henry Crawford, Frank Churchill, George Wickham, John Willoughby, Sir Walter Elliot, John Thorpe, Geoffrey Rushworth and General Tilney. Sensible women are polite to these men but avoid their intimacy. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet says that Mr Collins, one such blot, is a “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” and “the woman who marries him cannot have a proper way of thinking”.
Jane Austen’s moral compass was set by her devout Anglican Christianity. Among the cardinal virtues, she rightly valued prudence as pre-eminent. Those who married without the counsel of prudence were sure to be unhappy; this is a consistent theme of her novels. This prudent vision is hard-won; it has to compete with the enticements of wealth, flattery and good looks. Prudence has to see through these charms to the real character behind them and make its unsentimental judgment. There’s no other way if a man or woman wants to avoid the disaster of a worthless attachment where love soon fades, its place taken by remorse, boredom, petulance or infidelity. Much of the dramatic interest in Austen’s novels—and much of the comedy—emerges as her heroines bumble through the waysides of charm to arrive at a prudent decision about intimacy.
Love and truth are—or should be—in close relationship, and Austen understood the crucial connection. She invites the reader to ask about some character, is their sincerity real or is it a disguise? Is this man’s courtship true or is he amusing himself at a lady’s expense? Is this woman open and friendly or is it a pretence? This person talks about generosity, but where is it evident in their own life? Over and over Austen portrays people whose pretended virtues do not exist. But in all of her novels she also portrays characters whose virtues are real; they are on the inside what they appear to be on the outside. These are the characters she blesses with good marriage and lasting love.
The connection between love and truth was expounded by the Polish Personalist philosopher Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) in Love and Responsibility (1981). He knew we had to discern whether what seemed an attractive quality and therefore an inducement to love was, in truth, real. This is a role for discriminating reason, for careful observation and honest reflection, because the emotions are easily misled or even indifferent regarding this point. Wojtyla explained how a lack of discernment may distort a romance, whereas a commitment to truth will aid a romance:
… the truth about the value of the person to whom another person is attracted is a basic and decisive factor. And this is just where emotional-affective reactions often tend to distort or falsify attractions: through their prism values which are not really present at all may be discerned in a person. This can be very dangerous to love. For when emotional reactions are spent—and they are usually fleeting—the subject, whose whole attitude was based on such reaction, and not on the truth about the other person, is left as it were in a void, bereft of that good which he or she appeared to have found. This emptiness and the feeling of disappointment which goes with it often produce an emotional reaction in the opposite direction: a purely emotional love often becomes an equally opposite emotional hatred for the same person.
People generally believe that love can be reduced largely to a question about the genuineness of feelings. Although it is impossible to deny this altogether … we must still insist, if we are concerned with the quality of the attraction and the love of which it is part, that the truth about the person who is its object must play a part at least as important as the truth of the sentiments. These two truths, properly integrated, give to an attraction that perfection which is one of the elements of a genuinely good and genuinely “cultivated” love.
Perhaps both men and women—abrasive men’s advocacy groups as well as trenchant feminists—would be better served if there was an admission that many men suffered terrible marriage and relationship trials because they failed to act with prudence: ill-judging themselves, they got involved with an ill-judging woman and initiated a disaster. And the same is true of many women: imprudent themselves, they settled into a relationship with an imprudent man and unhappiness is the predictable result. The speed with which many men and women launch themselves into co-habitation is indicative of this neglect of prudence. Often enough, they find themselves in unhappy circumstances and have to end that relationship—only to repeat the experiment later with someone else.
Another reality that some in the men’s movement and too many feminists seem unwilling to admit is that happy marriages do exist. Marriages aren’t always and everywhere exploitative, sexless, ridden with conflict or self-defeating. Fulfilling marriages are undoubtedly hard work and require courage and endurance, but this isn’t irreconcilable with joy and reward. This is the testimony of hundreds of millions of couples over thousands of years. In her novels Jane Austen portrays happy marriages, made with prudence and then maintained over the years with love and respect-filled kindness. Admiral and Mrs Croft, the Morlands, Mr and Mrs Allen, the Westons, John and Isabella Knightley, Captain and Mrs Harville, and Mr and Mrs Gardiner all enjoy happy marriages and are examples for Austen’s heroines.
Not everyone will find their richest fulfilment in romantic attachment. Some people will find greater satisfaction by staying single, developing their gifts and abilities, and serving their families and communities in a focused, flexible manner. There are other loves besides romantic love: love of art, of God, of one’s profession, interests or community. This sense of vocation may have a religious dimension; but a religious commitment isn’t necessary. What is necessary is an honest assessment of one’s character, skills and deepest motivations, and a preparedness to wait and discern these if there’s doubt. Courage is required because it’s an individual search which is unlikely to gain much support: it’s a counter-cultural, time-consuming and primarily intuitive discernment of personal vocation.
Marriage is only one vocation, and it requires an accommodating and adventurous character because marriage is constantly challenging. These special skills aren’t in common possession. In fact, they may be the possession of far fewer people than we imagine. The virtues and skills required for life-long love of an individual man or woman seem—tragically—in short supply in contemporary culture which tends to define values, virtues and even identity as non-essentials, mere inventions and conventions of the day. All this leads to confusion about the nature of love and the worth of permanent, committed relationships. In The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) T.S. Eliot suggested that when there’s minimal societal attendance to the particular virtues required for marriage, fewer people should be married, but those who do marry should be encouraged to have more children, while single people explore other ways to be useful and fulfilled. Eliot knew that stable marriages are necessary for a stable society, but marriage doesn’t suit every person in any society.
Men and women who don’t have the vocation of marriage—who are psychologically immature and without the skills needed for marriage—but who get married anyway, will find marriage very difficult, and divorce is frequent. They and their children pay the price of conditioning by a culture that doesn’t value careful discernment, traditional virtues or the idea of vocation. And because monasteries or abbeys are no longer in plain view, there are few obvious examples of men or women living singly with wisdom, love and cheerful service. They once provided an alternative model of creative, contented life but it’s a model that’s almost invisible in our society.
Men and women hoping for a happy romance and a fruitful marriage can learn a great deal from Jane Austen. She’s a clear-eyed realist. Her fiction is true, especially in matters of the heart: courtship and marriage are her great themes. Readers might also learn to treasure a sense of humour and the humble ability to laugh at oneself because no one in Austen’s novels—not even the intelligent Elizabeth Bennet or the shrewd George Knightley—is wholly free of ridiculous feelings and actions, or self-deluding thoughts.
Austen’s fiction foreshadows—by more than a hundred years—the observation of the French novelist Georges Bernanos: “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.”
Gary Furnell lives in rural New South Wales. His book The Hardest Path is the Easiest: Exploring the Wisdom Literature with Pascal, Burke, Kierkegaard and Chesterton, recently published by Connor Court, was reviewed in the December issue