Learning Virtue From Jane Austen

This baby needs to be rebound…

Every couple of years (usually during pregnancies) I pull out our tattered volume of the complete works of Jane Austen and read it from cover to cover. And with each reread of her novels, I discover more about how she saw human nature. This past reading I was struck with her exploration of her characters’ natural inclinations. We all have them, an inclination to certain sins like sloth, gluttony, selfishness, or over-indulging various pleasures. But we also have inclinations to good things. Some of us are more inclined to quiet prayer, while others are inclined to a long run, and others to friendliness. And while we are to spend our lives overcoming our weaknesses, we do so with the aid of our good inclinations.

In Austen we see her heroines and heroes overcoming their natural weaknesses, and her villains succumbing to them. The villains of her stories, such as Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or Mr. Crawford in Mansfield Park, have no guidance or inclination to seek virtue, and often they are influenced by others with the same weaknesses to lead a life of vice. A character that is inclined to self-indulgence often has been raised by someone of the same character or been spoiled in their youth by a well-meaning adult. Those who overcome their weaknesses, such as Emma in Emma and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, are encouraged to do so by a good upbringing or by another character who is self-aware enough to see the need to overcome weakness. In Austen we see these good influences in the forms of a mentor or of a romantic interest who sees more clearly the other’s faults. Clearly, one cannot form oneself in virtue alone.

Austen has very little conversation about God in her novels, and her characters’ attempts to overcome their weaknesses do not include prayer. In fact, about half of her clergymen, such as the unforgettable Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice or the prideful Mr. Elton in Emma, are inclined to various vices that they do not overcome. I imagine that Austen did not want to preach to her readers, but was merely making obvious the importance of forming ones own character and the character of young people for the best.

Despite her lack of attention to the importance of prayer, her emphasis on improving upon our natural inclinations reminds me of St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. Early in this beautiful and practical spiritual work, de Sales discusses the importance of overcoming our sins so that we can become holier. He explains that the more we pray, the more we open ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit

As the Holy Spirit enlightens our conscience we perceive more clearly and distinctly the sins, inclinations, and imperfections, which hinder us in attaining true devotion. The same light which discovers to us these tares and weeds, also kindles us with the desire to cleanse and to purify our hearts from them.”

If we don’t want to end up like Mr. Wickham or Mr. Crawford in Austen’s novels, we must seek a life of prayer, and in that life of prayer work to weed out our natural inclinations to evil. And while Austen does not teach us to seek God to overcome our weaknesses, she does warn us that if we do not seek to form ourselves in virtue, we will make bad choices and surround ourselves by vicious people. The only way to ensure a good life of virtue is to seek to overcome our weaknesses and seek out others who are doing the same.

Originally posted at Truth and Charity…