Moral Extractions


Mary, however, continued to console herself with such kind of moral extractions from the evil before them.Pride and Prejudice, Volume III, Chapter V (47)

Two recent articles discussing the new book A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen–well, one article that is an excerpt from the book, the other really discussing the first piece–have appeared recently.

The first, an article by James Collins (!) in the Washington Post (read it quick before it disappears behind the pay wall–and yes, we know we are at fault for not linking the bally thing when it was first published) admonishes us philistines for having a little too much fun with Jane Austen, who was Just Trying To Teach Us A Lesson, Dagnabit.

Jane Austen is very funny. Her characters are vivid. The poise of her sentences is perfect. Her plots are pretty good—at least, they keep you reading. However, to write brilliant novels was not Jane Austen’s foremost goal: What was most important to her was to provide moral instruction.

While we think that was a goal, we don’t think it was “most important to her.”

Today’s readers tend to appreciate Austen despite her didacticism rather than because of it. She can be positively priggish, and that is an embarrassment.

Seriously? When is Jane priggish?

The contemporary reader who loves Jane Austen sort of blips over the moralizing sections and tells himself that they don’t really count.

Don’t be so sure of that. We aren’t walking around with our What Would Jane Do? buttons for nothing, you know.

The question arises, then, of how to reconcile Austen’s moralism with modern sensibility. To address this problem, it would be useful if we could find someone with this modern sensibility who actually reads Austen for her moral instruction (in addition to the literary pleasure she provides). How convenient that we have someone who fits that description available to us: me.

Well, lookee here. Who’s being priggish now? (And yes, we think he is being tongue in cheek. We certainly hope so, at least.)

Austen comes to our rescue, though, for she does manage to modulate between “Sense and Sensibility,” rejecting the excesses of both. Her attitude appeals because the combination of morals, sentiments, and manners provides a way of living that allows one both to be in the world and to enjoy the sweets of sensitivity as well. Austen does not write about bohemians and rebels; she doesn’t want to change her world—”she would not alter a hair on anyone’s head or move one brick,” as Virginia Woolf wrote. Her sympathetic characters participate fully in their society and accept its conventions, yet they have exquisitely well-tuned minds and hearts. Good sense does not have to be at war with sensibility.

This is much better. 🙂 We say it all the time: stay away from extremes when it comes to Jane Austen.

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?

The value system of her time. It’s one of the hardest things for modern readers to understand. Certainly it can be understood and accepted, if not agreed with.

Robert Fulford, writing in the Canadian newspaper the National Post, is amused by the Collins piece.

The reader can enjoy her heroes and heroines but will for sure remember, even more clearly, the moral grotesques who disfigured southwestern England as Austen described it early in the 19th century. Has there ever existed anyone in the world so dim as Sir Walter in Persuasion, or so lacking in self-knowledge as the Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, or so self-important a toady as her acolyte, the Rev. Mr. Collins? Well, I’ve met a few, perhaps, but …

Jane Austen intensely dislikes these people, and expresses herself by chopping them to pieces for our amusement. She does it so often that she acquires the characteristics not of a moralist but of a vicious gossip.

Of course, I’m aware that neither literature nor journalism could exist without vicious gossips, so I make that charge with only the deepest affection and fellow feeling.

Hear hear!

Thanks to the many Alert Janeites who sent links to both articles, and pray forgive our laxness in posting them.

5 thoughts on “Moral Extractions

  1. Allison T.

    Well done, Mr Collins! Well done, indeed. Your comments about the relevance of JA’s moral view in today’s world is spot on. Enjoyed the article.


  2. Caroline

    In short, Collins is right, Fulford wrong. If only because he is unaware that Jane Austen didn’t populate her novels with grotesque characters in southwestern England. That was Thomas Hardy, Mr Fulford. PLEASE, if you are going to use English geography in an argument, get it right! Only Sir Walter, in this case. And Lucy Steele, if you remember her at all. Not Lady Catherine, though- she’s SOUTHEASTERN!!!!


  3. I couldn’t find an “open thread” post to put this comment, so guess I’ll put it here. 🙂

    I was checking out B&N’s new Nook and was perusing the Features portion. Thought it was interesting that they used P&P (“It’s a truth universally…”) to show how easy it is to read the display. I think they sold me just because of that!! And maybe a couple other features!

    B&N’s Nook


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