Rediscovery as Theological Virtue: A Jane Austen Retrospect by Davis Smith
One of the manifold joys of a life infused with a love for literature is the rich felicity offered by revisiting a work. One’s first time with a book or a poem is never an experience in the fullest sense of the term. Rather, it is an encounter. I can’t imagine that, were I given the (utterly realistic!) privilege of embarking on space tourism, I would describe my initial glimpse of the blue marble that is our home seen from the throes of vastness as the mere “sight” of earth. I would be awestruck, humbled, perhaps even undone by the moment. I would drop to my knees in prayer, as is often the only appropriate reaction to being overcome by beauty. But I would never say that I “saw” the earth from that vantage point. Straightforward words like “see” and “experience” reduce the faculty of knowledge to the mechanistic processes of the mind and senses. But in fact, one’s knowledge of anything worth knowing deepens and ripens with time. That first immersion in a poem and the first encounter with earth seen from above settle into the soul and set down roots. One returns to the budding plant time and again to draw wisdom and truth from the soil and apply it to one’s life. Then, some time down the road, when we crack open the book or find ourselves in space once again, we take a step closer to experiencing the object in its glory through rediscovery.
I am one schooled in the educational art of rediscovery. I have had far too many encounters with literature, musical works, paintings, nature, cities, Bible passages, even fellow humans; that left me initially cold. But even indifferent first encounters are capable of reforming the soul if the object contains inherent worth. Later, we become convicted of our short-sighted attitudes at the moment, and we become determined to approach the scenario again with that lesson firmly tucked in our hearts. C.S. Lewis observed that “a pleasure is fully grown only when it is remembered.” Then, when we bring our newfound humility and receptiveness back to the banquet table, we find that rediscovery has changed us. We read the same words, see the same sights, shake the same hands; yes. But in so doing we are offered the precious truth that all good things have eternal meaning in this world that will become transfigured into the Kingdom of God. We follow T.S. Eliot in his masterful poem Little Gidding: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”
In the last year, the pangs of rediscovery have hit me hard. Despite possessing a great affinity for nineteenth-century British literature; ever since my first disillusioned encounter with Pride and Prejudice in high school, I had been completely baffled by the popular acclaim lavished upon Jane Austen. For starters, her thematic scope seemed too narrow and irrelevant for my tastes. All six of the novels she published in her short life are subtle variations on a common theme: A young woman in early nineteenth-century England must decide who to marry. That’s it. The “action”, if you can call it that, is confined almost entirely to drawing rooms and manors within the rigid circles of high Regency society and its lords, ladies, and clergymen. I also found her prose close to impenetrable. Why in tarnation would anyone feel the need to write such convoluted, pretentious sentences in service of such basic, apparently insubstantial stories? I knew that she is praised for her sharp social satire and her finely-drawn sketches of headstrong women trapped between their society and their desires. But I simply couldn’t see why such a trivial, rambling writer could gain such lasting popularity. Much the same perceptions met me when, five years later, I tried her last novel Persuasion, and was quite literally almost bored to tears. What was I missing?
As a general rule, it’s safe to assume that if one does not care for a work of high art that is almost universally praised, then the work of art or its creator is not the problem. With this in mind, I began to consider my own shortcomings, and whether they could possibly be repaired in service of the literary edification I desperately desired to glean from Austen. Nothing seemed to be clicking until I encountered a passage in Alasdair MacIntyre’s brilliant philosophical book After Virtue, which I was working through as a dense summer reading challenge. MacIntyre speaks of Austen as one of the last proponents of virtue ethics in Western culture before the rise of impersonal industrialism, pragmatism, and subjectivism in the nineteenth century. He praises her novels as paragons of our timeless efforts to recognize the stumbling blocks which prevent us from achieving happiness, and what we need to do to recover an authentic fellowship with our fellow men. I was intrigued by this characterization, but also felt a stab to the soul. If Austen writes about the necessity of self-reform in service of love, understanding, and morality; maybe I needed to undergo that program for myself before I could really appreciate what she was doing in her fiction. Maybe if I embarked upon the voyage of rediscovery with the goal of knowing myself further, then I could let Austen train me in the virtues of constancy, prudence, and empathy—essential tools to slake the thirst for self-knowledge.
Thus, I revisited Pride and Prejudice through this lens, and was simply won over. From the masterful first chapter, which sketches a tantalizing comic scene in scarcely three pages, I was reading the same words as I had before but not thinking the same thoughts or experiencing the same feelings. I marveled at the dazzling wit and astuteness of this woman who had never traveled beyond a small wedge of England in her life, but who knew her very specific niche and stuck with it. This lack of travel, coupled with her basic education, made her one of the least formally “educated” of all great writers, but she proves that being gifted in accumulation of facts and “head knowledge” is less important in the grand scheme of things than diligence, observation, and intuition. In fact, both the central characters of Pride and Prejudice—the quicksilver-witted, too-good-for-society Elizabeth Bennet and the smug social elite Mr. Darcy are both conventionally “smart.” But that is not enough for them to succeed at being human. Elizabeth must renounce her superficial reliance on outward appearances (which lead only to prejudices) so that she can be brought down from her “high horse” and reintegrated from her would-be tragic hubris back into the community; while Darcy must free himself from the unthinking, unfeeling muck of the community’s customs so that he can be free to contemplate Elizabeth in her true state. Society is something to which we must be reconciled. It is not something either to repudiate entirely (Elizabeth) or to wallow in unthinkingly (Darcy). Love in Austen works subliminally, proving itself to be the natural consequence of proper virtue that far transcends and illuminates one’s temporal circumstances.
I was reading the same words as I had before but not thinking the same thoughts or experiencing the same feelings. I marveled at the dazzling wit and astuteness of this woman who had never traveled beyond a small wedge of England in her life, but who knew her very specific niche and stuck with it.
Austen’s dialogue is barbed with uproarious wit; her characters speak as if assuming center stage in a theatre comedy. Life as a divine comedy is, in fact, the natural conclusion of every Austen novel. Her stories always end in joy with the union of marriage because she believes in the beatific vision: the end of human life is blessedness at the marriage supper of the Lamb which is foreshadowed in the earthly bliss we are offered. Pride and Prejudice threatens to spiral into tragedy at any given moment. Elizabeth has all the nobility and pride of a classic tragic figure, but she narrowly averts self-destruction in her central epiphany, which convicts her of the blind prejudice she has been holding toward Mr. Darcy and sets her on the path to self-reform. Darcy challenges and guides her toward virtue, and vice versa. By the resolution of the story, the pair have lost none of the wit, outsized personality, and indeed shortcomings that make them who they are. But they have learned the art of sacrifice. They have pledged to support each other in daily crucifying their desires and reconciling each other to truth. I could apply a similar analysis to the nonetheless very different Persuasion, in which the dashing comedy of Pride and Prejudice is toned down in favor of a quiet, autumnal study of re-enchantment that is a spellbound fairy tale in all but name. But alas, I must leave you to the joy of your own encounters and experiences. In short, Austen teaches her readers how to be better human beings. Her range may be small, but her constricted world and recurring character types are microcosms of universal truth. Mysteries abound in her idiosyncratic approach to writing fiction. She was always a committed Christian, but references to faith are almost completely absent in her work. I think this is because she refused to put her faith “in a box” and treat it as something abstractly isolated from the mundane and the quotidian. In the self-examination, forgiveness, and eventual harmony which all her domestic heroes and heroines reach; the biblical drama is lived out through the actions of ordinary people who are simultaneously saints and sinners. Just like the books of Esther and Song of Songs, the lack of overt references to God makes the message all the more powerful since we know that the characters have chosen to align their desires with that of Providence, and that what is contained within the pages of the book only begins to tell the great eternal story which they have entered. Further, through this joy of rediscovery, I now see the incredible relevance that the work of this singular spinster has for the contemporary landscape. I return once more to C.S. Lewis, who “regard[s] as the greatest of all divisions in the history of the West that which divides the present [age] from…the age of Jane Austen” (“De Descriptione Temporum,” in Selected Literary Essays). It is nearly impossible to imagine a writer with the singular talent of Austen living nowadays—one who can critique her society while recognizing the importance of it to the good life, and one who believes firmly that human happiness is not determined by our individual wants but by our duties. Perhaps in reading Austen, we can take steps toward coming to grips with the shallow excesses of our world which nonetheless must be engaged and transformed through virtue. Nothing is beyond redemption when grace and love enter the picture. And just maybe we will rediscover ourselves amidst it all.
Austen teaches her readers how to be better human beings. Her range may be small, but her constricted world and recurring character types are microcosms of universal truth.