After many long, inexcusable years, I finally sat down to read a Jane Austen novel; Pride and Prejudice, to be exact. I suppose I had avoided them in my youth because they were the type of thing my sister–a girl, mind you–read. Also, I’d been subjected to the film Sense and Sensibility as a young boy and I’m still not sure what effect that’s had on my disposition ever since. In any case, inspired by my English acquaintances and a sense of nostalgia for literature, I picked up the copy off the shelf last week and got to work.
It was delightful, of course. Singing Austen’s praises is a bit absurd at this point; the humor, lively characters, dialogue, and so forth, was a wonderful change of pace from all the theology and biblical studies. (And ladies, I get it. That Mr. Darcy. What gallantry.)
Now, I’ve known for a while that reading literature is more than simple entertainment. Reading thick literature is a soul-expanding experience, especially with novelists possessing as keen an eye for the richly textured diversity of human experience and character as Austen. Indeed, it’s not simply that Austen was a keen observer, but she was also a moralist in the best sense of the word, whose portraits of virtue and vice not only amuse, but enlighten, shape, and form us. I remember one of the liveliest sections of Alasdair MacIntyre’s magisterial After Virtue was dedicated to examining the shape of Austen’s moral thought. I’m sadly only now in a position to begin appreciating it.
(BTW, spoiler alert on a 200-year-old novel). While there were multiple passages throughout the novel that caught my eye, one encounter between our protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane in particular drew my attention. It is towards the close of the novel, when the amiable, wealthy, generous, and all-around perfect match, Mr. Bingley has finally proposed to Jane and their happiness is secured. Jane and Elizabeth are rejoicing at her good fortune and we find this little nugget of moral wisdom:
Jane: “Oh Lizzy, why am I this singled from my family, and blessed above them all! If I could but see you as happy! I there were such another man for you!”
Elizabeth: “If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness.” pg. 331
Elizabeth’s response to Jane ought to be memorized by our particularly discontented and unhappy age. Jane looked at her sister in the rapture of her own delight in her impending marriage to such a good man and wished that Elizabeth might too share in that same kind of joy. For Jane, the cause of her joy and happiness was Bingley and she supposed that if Elizabeth could also have a Bingley, she would be just as happy.
Elizabeth knows better, though. While not writing off the truth that Bingley is a good man and that the situation that goes along with him is a favorable one, she knows that the another significant difference in separates the two young women: their “goodness” and “dispositions.” In other words, their characters. All throughout the novel we are keenly aware that Jane is far more humble, less critical, a bit too trusting, but much more easily contented, and, in a word, more virtuous than Elizabeth. (Though I’m sure some Austen fan could correct me here.) The point is that Elizabeth knows happiness is not only an issue of having favorable external circumstances, or even the possession of a great good, but one of having the right character.
You see, it would not matter if even the most advantageous situation were cooked up, a woman with the wrong character would be unable to enjoy a good husband. The woman lacking in wisdom would be unable to recognize the good man for who he is. The woman lacking humility would suppose the good man is deserved and so would be unable to receive him with the delight of a gift or with gratitude; also, should there be some understandable, human defect, she would be tempted to take it as a greater affront and be less likely to forgive, be contented, or patient. I could go on listing any number of virtues and vices and you’ll the problem. It doesn’t matter how good the situation is, if the virtue is missing, there can be no long-term joy, only short-term pleasures. Of course, this applies equally to men.
I’m reminded of a section in Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage where they speak of the happiness of holiness. Many think that marriage is about making you happy, being pleased by and pleasing your spouse. The Kellers show disastrous fruit of pursuing that impossible approach at length. Instead, Paul teaches us that the end-goal of marriage is the holiness of your spouse. Marriage is about sanctification and one day seeing your husband and wife looking radiant, with the beauty of Christlike character. In that setting, the struggles, the pains, trials, as well as the pleasures, joys, and celebrations can take their place as part of a grander whole.
Now, at this point some may get the impression that marriage isn’t about happiness at all. But that would be a mistake. In fact, what we’ve seen with Austen is that happiness and goodness, or happiness and holiness go hand in hand. The Kellers write:
Does this mean “marriage is not about being happy; it’s about being holy”? Yes and no. As we have seen, that is too stark a contrast. If you understand what holiness is, you come to see that real happiness is on the far side of holiness, not the near side. Holiness gives us new desires and brings old desires into line with one another. So if we want to be happy in marriage, we will accept that marriage is designed to make us holy.
-Timothy and Kathy Keller. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (pp. 124-125).
While being so much more than this, Austen’s novel, in many ways, is parable about that suitability of character in marriage, and the happiness that attends holiness. I’d commend you, then, to pick it up, make yourself some tea, plop yourself down into a couch, and prepare to be entertained and maybe even edified at the same time.
Soli Deo Gloria