What Moral Guidance Does Jane Austen Offer in Her Novels – Book Reviews
Writing at such a time when works such as ** were being written with the express purpose of educating a young lady in the behanviour appropriate to her, Austen is writing in a climate in which there are clear and strict
rules guiding young womens comportment. Moreover, essays laying down these laws were not uncommon. Perhaps suggesting the rules would be going too far, the presence of literature on the subject is indicative of a debate surrounding the precise requirements of a young lady entertaining a gentlema, or considering marriage. It would not, then, be unreasonable to suppose that Austen, whose subject matter is almost exclusively the behaviour of these young ladies who are the object of the tracts’ attentions, she is herself then contributing to the debate. Not unreasonable to suppose this, but neither is it immediately entirely obvious if this is even th case. When looking at her works themselves, let alone what it is that she is suggesting.
The scope of Jane Austen’s work is not broad, the six completed novels focus the attentions almost exclusively on the social manoeuverings of the gentry, in a selected group of families. Many of the novels are set in simolar physical locations, such as Bath, in part because of its social implications as a spar town for the gentry to congregate and socialize. The Bath season was marked on the social calendar. As well as this, the parlours, drawing rooms and dinign tables which punctuate the narative are shared among them, emblems of the strata, *the interest of the novels*. The protagonist of Persuasion is a middle-aged woman, Anne Elliot, but she is unusual among Jane Austen’s heroines, who are young women emerging into society and looking for a way to establish themselves. *and their position* When looking into the moral guidance, Jane Austens’s novels my or may not have to offer this as a vital consideration. The themes and ideas which arise as considerations for the characetrs in the different novels often have much in common. The young protagonists share concerns and face similar moral dilemma’s, when looking to the moral teaching Jane Austen offers in the novels, one must recognise a narrowness also in the range of issues which arise, or which Austen makes pertinent to the characters.
This situation, then, might prompt an investigator into Jane Austen’s didacticism to look to her readership. The moral guidance offered by the books, given this narrow scope may unavoidably be irrelevant to an audience which cannot identify with the problems discussed in the novel. While, for example Mansfield Park has a complexity of perspective which distributes the moral issues confronted among a relatively broad selection of characetsr, others, for example Emma, are written from a single perspective. The description Jane Austen offers of the context of the novels, the details of the life style and interests and activities of the spectrum of society they portray are widely accepted as very accurate descriptions of Jane Austen’s own social experience. The dances and walks, the lovemaking of her characters are the very same that Austen herself might have experienced in life, and by extension the very same being offered to those subjects, and objects, of her novels; those young wome emerging into their own social arena’s. The narrow scope of the narrative may then be seen as ainguarly relevant to an audience which it directly addresses, the guidanceoffered, a genuine code to live by, just as ** in the essay mentioned earlier set out to direct young women.
There are two streams of morality already emerging to be considered, howevere. Jane Austen was the daughter of a rector, and a rector’s daughter. There is a strict moral code bound into her upbringing, and according to the biographical work offered about her, was a code by which she continued always to live her own life. It is possible for an author to live their own set of values, indeed to allow these to inform the creation of their literary works, without any requirment or unavoidable necessity for this to be passed on to their reader. Thus while our author lived by a specific set of values, is she concerned with passing these on to her reader in such a way as to urge their adoption by that readership. Indeed, to what depth might this go? Emma, in the novel bearing her name, ** like many of the girls in the novels, is concerned with her own movement in society, finding and making a proper match, and the particular and rigorous demands of the society’s code of conduct, the intricacies and subtleties of polite society.** Yet our author shows frequently he disparity between an outwards appearance of exemplary behaviour and character, and the motivation behind it.
Henry James has been recorded as commenting thus on Jane Austen’s work.
” ‘Jane Austen; … leaves us hardly more curious of her own process….than the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough.’ Which would suggest that Austen failed to impress him with the lack of subtelty he perceives in her work. Indeed, this seems a plausible conclusion. The novels all finish with a happy resoluiton of the dilemma’s which have caused so much anxiety thorughout; the matches are made to the ultimae satisfaction of the significant characters, and our virtuous heroines prove their sufferance to have been worthwhile, emerging victorious. This, however, is a very simplistic way of looking at novels, a tempting trap to to fal into, but one which does the complexity and sublety of Jane ust’s work no credit., and indeed misses many of the nuances which make her work so intriguing. It is difficult to believe that such simple anduninspiring a situation would have been so enduring as the popularity of austens work proves her.
It is necessary, then, to address these subtelties and complexities to determine first of all what they are and how they are communicated to the reader. Jane Austen wrote in a etter to her siser, Cassandra, explaining that;
‘I do not write for such dull elves/ As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.’ This is a sentiment ***** picked up, describing Austen’s acute awareness of ‘a critical audience lible to pounce.’ Ths may have been been the case, but it seems no great puzzle why such idea’s should be pertinent to a whole swathe of critical work on the novel Emma. Ingeneous is one word which recurs in such critical works, and seems a reasonable starting point for an examination of Jane Austen’s desire for an alert readership. In recent year, such thinkers as her have published much on the interaction of ext reader and author, andthe three way collaboration involved in the actual writing of the text itself. These thoughts have emerged from study of literature, although the authors themselves may not have been fully conscious of the situation while writing their texts, such theories are pertinent to Jane Austen’s work whilst examining the moral guidance she offers thorugh this tertiary relationship. The ingenuity she requires of her reader is bacuse of the active involvement she seeks them to take in the act of reading her novels. Indeed an active reading is both encouraged as part of the didactic process , and necessary for the process to occur at all.
*** Attention is drawn throughout ‘Emma’ to a pairing of guessing and judgment. This happens relatively early on in Mr. Knightley’s response to Emma’s ‘lucky guess’ concerning the match of the Weston’s. He suggests that any two such characters would have rationaly found a match in each other by their own devices. Suggesting Emma has not shown the particular insight into the situation that she imagines. In this way, Jane Austen consciously brings up the correlation of two such indefinite acts as judgment and guessing, bringing them to the readers attention. Winding their way through the development of the text, such an uneasy pairing strike a warning chord in the readers’ aproach to the text. Having been alerted to the possibility of such an inadvisable ellision, *** the reader is warned to step back from the text. The reader, thus, is encouraged by the writer herself through the narrative not to accept blindly what it says, but to recognize the difference between these two terms. ; guessin and judgment, subsequently confront the text with an awareness of it. Jane Auten is encouraging th reader to develop their powers of judgment, or atleast to use those they have, rather than simply reading. Helping them to come this conclusion themselves but with enough hints to reassre them this is what is required. Such skills, she implies, are necessary outside of the text also, however. In the reading of the text, nothing is at stake, such that poor judgment on the part of the readership has no dire consequences, it can thus form a safe environment in which to test skills applicable in real life where such things as a misjudgement of a character may have more sinister consequeces.
Indeed, our author presents the readerof Emma such a complex heroine that their powres of judgement are truly tested. She is a charming, witty, and intelligent young woman, and singularly persuasive. She is shown with a particular talent for getting her own way with her governess, and she works this wiley way on the reader also/ The reader, having been alerted, must remain vigilat at all times; passivity is too much of a risk and yet even once she has been exposed as fallible, the reader is once again persuaded by her remorse, and the frnk honesty of her self-appraisals. It is difficult to know if Jane Austen’s is asking a particular opinion of the readers, while she may have faults, Emma’s virtues are also presented to the reader such that he must recognise that a clear, black and white condemnation or commendation of Emma is an immature and inappropriate conclusion to make. However, wound throughtout the novel is the idea of the charade. The many layers of appearance and reality which shift and change to unsettle and confuse. The development then, of a fine and precise nuance of judgement, but also having come to a conclusion which is defensible rational and secure, the reader must remain firm.
This need for a firm self-belief is constantly re-cited as the debates occuring throughout test the reader. Both sides of the arguments are resented in such a way that they seem plausible, thus in chapter five, Mr. Knightley presents a strong, if ill-humoured case against Emma’s friendship with Harriet. Later he concedes that she has perhaps done Harriet some good. In this way Jane Austen leaves the reader to make their own conclusions, having established a mode of reasoning for themselves in which they have conviction. Thus in chapter eighteen, when Mr. Knightley and Emma are again in discussion, this time in relation to Frank’s failure to appear, Jane Austen leaves the reader with her inconclusive offering spoken by Emma,
‘we are both prejudiced; you against, and I for him.’ There is noone for the reader to turn to give them assurance in their opinion.
Austen was not alone in using her writing as something more than ‘just a novel’. Many of her contemporaries were writing morally ‘improving’ novels themselves, for example Maria Edgeworth, who is particularly widely recognised for her very explicitly didactic work. The tradition of educative fiction was well established, and this was something that Austen was able to use to involve the reader in a relationship wth the writer. Many of her novels, for example Mansfield Park, begin in much the same way as the genre dictates. Already established outside of the particular novel, then, is the general relationshp of reader to text. The reader thought he knew what to explect, and Jane Austen had a clear tradition to follow. This, then, is an irresistable forcein the writing of the novels. And yet our author feels no compunction to stick rigidly to ths; the very twists and turns she makes are those aspects she uses in the communication of her particular instruction.
Neither does she shy away from an acknowledgement that she is concerned with the education of the reader. Such idea’s of education and instruction are a theme within the novels themselves. Mansfield Park shows clearly how the differing educations of the young women who populate it shape them, their voices, motivations and decisions. This does not refer to an education in the sense of learning maths and gegraphy, ratherit is the education that all these young lasdies and those of similarsocial standing for whom Austen wrote, were concerned with. The accumulation of attribtes such as singing dancing, learning the proper modes of behaviour in many social situations, preparing oneself for the best possible match. In Mansfield Park, the Crawfords have been eucatedby their uncle who who has passed onto them his material values amidst the table mannres and small talk. Their values are contrasted with the infinitely less worldly, though aspiring, Bertram sisters, and of course, Fanny. Perhaps then the reader should not be surprised by Henry Crawford’s deliberate attempt to seduce the Bertram gilrs, ad their naive readiness to accepthis advances. Fanny, slightly on the perimeter, can recognise Henry’s plan, and remains immune. Directly addressing the issue in this way, although the connection is not spelt out, raises the reader’s awareness, if nothing else, of the role of education in a person’s development as propounded in the narrative, and perhaps by Austen herself.
It has been suggested that Austen, aware of the subjective interpretation the reader will make of her protagonists, and the implications the novels have for morality, desired of her reader not an intimate recreation of the protagonist’s particularities and peculiarities, rather an identificaiton with the general role she fulfills. Austen seeks to aid the reader’s dependence on her for instruction, encouraging the indiviual instead to develop their own strategies and systems. To this end, she holds back from the reader. The shifts and charads of Emma are one tool she uses to achieve this. Such guise and disguise are no more absent from Mansfield Park. Yet here there is a slightly different emphasis of construction. The characters gather together to perform a play, an interesting juxtaposition thus occurs of the habitual performances the characters offer according to their social roles and relative positioning, and the stage performance, itself supposed to be the example of artifice. Austen has the characters take on pars in the playwhich make explicit, exaggerate or highlight the reality of the roles in life.So, Edmund has the part of a love-lorn clergyman, Mary thatof a fallen woman. The play removes the usual social bindings and gives vent to a liberated cast. The play itself, Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vows, as evidence from the time suggests, was particularly notorious and widely banned. This, then to a contempoary audience would have set alarm bells ringing. At the same time this reader recognises what it is that the play has uncovered in the charcters. It allows them to act as they never could in the drawing room and presents a reality which, to Austen and the reader is distinctly plausible. In the midst of the cast is one voice raising doubts, that of Fanny.
Fanny is the only one of the cast who has read the play through to the end and having considered it as a whole, feels uncomfortable with it. This is particularyl revealing. The other characters raise objections, make changes, but to their own parts, which they look straight o tin isolation, and in relation to its reflecion on them. The vanity which Austen repeatedly highlights among the cast ofcharactersincludes in it sdefinition both an exclusive self-interest and the pursuit of worldly goals. The theologiacal edge o this central vice in the novel ontrasts with the tint of religious colouringgiven to Fanny. Her credentials include Christianity, and as such an awareness of herself within a wider moral universe. It requires of her also a self-knowledge which is not indulgent or false, rather is encouraged by her honesty and uninflated awaerness of herself. It is such sef-knowledge that Austen desires to foster in her readers. In contrasdt with the Bertram sisters, Fanny is not led astray, her self-awareness enables amature firmness in her and facilitates a honed power of judgement.
Austen illustrates in the maturing of Fanny across the three books how the kernal of self-knowledge present at the beginning which urges her to hold back and examine the situation around her adnd what it requires of her. Thu in the first book she i very much a peripheral observer, instinctually waiting in lieu of certainty and illustrating the struggle that it is to develop judgement. The characters occupying central stage at the time are neglecting such contemplation and establishmnt of foundations, something which Austen later illustrates is woefully neglectful and foolish as Fanny comes to the fore.
In asten’s last novel, Persuasion the reader meets a character who is more mature than any of Austen’s others, and whohas pased through this perod of learning and establishing already. Anne Elliot, having been persuaded by a friend to break off her engagement witht he amn he loves, and is alone now in the world in which she is nothing without her husband’s name, a fear reinforced by her father’s book ‘Baronetage’ which has space only for her with a husband. And yet, as the novel develops, it is revealed to the reader as Anne herself recognises the extent to which she feels relief at the fate he hsa escaped. The world she inhabits is one nwhich she is expected to be a reflection of what others want from her. This is explicitly illustrated by her father’s mirrored dressing room, and recurrs elsewhere in the text. She comes to recognise in Mary and Louisa the person she could have become, and thus the imprisonment she has escape in the cage of male authority she would then have inhabited. A reflection is only a superficial image, something the characters in the text dwell on, and indeed honour, for example Sir Walter, whose only concerns are the physical harmony and attractiveness of those around him and it is according to these standards he allocates value. The deeper self-knowledge that Anne comes to, her recognition of her love for Captain Wentworth, and ultimately her rejection of Lady Russell and her method of valuing the superfiial over more profoundemotion reresents her ultimate act of belief and self-knowledge.
Much emphasis is given to the physical in Persuasion. Its settig for the most part is Bath, a place where people go seeking a cure for physical ailments. Moreover, scattered throughout the text are invalid, damaged and ill people. The superficiality of value based on appearance is constantly covertly attacked through the novel. The illness and decay whoich surround the main characters acts as a reminder of the fragility of the physical, and more imporatantly, of its temporality and the fleeting time it will last. Set against this is the firm, unchanging strength of emotion Anne feels for Captain Wentworth, and it is this which ultimate endures, and is in fact rewarded. Moreover Anne, external to the superficial concerns and currency of the sociey around is cast as nurse. It is she who has the tools and power to regenerate and restore.
And so Austen can be seen to run together both a seemingly simple triumph of virtue over vice in all of these texts, with the more complexprocess by which this is achieved. The virtuous characters are the heroines, and those from whom the reader should learn by example how to do good. Yet, the less-than-virtuous characters of th enovels are equally as clearly protrayed, their vices rarely make them detestabe, indeed, often their enthusiasm is distinctly redeeming. In contrast, the heroine of Mansfield Park, Fanny, was even described by Austen’s own mother as insipid, and this si among th epolite criticism. Surely, it could be argued, by depicting vice so clearly, Austen is taking a risk? It is, of course, in keeping with what this essay has argued so far, Austen wants her reader to come to his own comclusions. Thus while giving examples of the virtuous, it would perhaps be neglectful or naive to exclude illustarions of the unvirtuous. Moreover, virtue then has something to be determined by.
But, then there is another consideration to be made which sheds a deifferent light on the affection shown for the rebellious, bichy foils to the virtuous heroine. Austen, desptite the intricacies ad efort in volved in these novels designed to offer an eduaction to her audience of youngladies, lives a life which thoroughly contradicts what it is she offers as an ideal. Superficially she is an old maid, living within the close family circle of her aprents andsiblings, not seeking the advantages of marriage or the pursuits of a refined young lady. Yet to hold this up as hpocrisy would be missing the very essence of the points Austen is trying to communicate. She is after all trying to assert the more integral values of a firm morality and clear judgement over the trimmings of civilised life among the getility. Yet her identification with the rebellious charcters does seem to jar slighly with the life she suggests as an ideal. There seem to be indications that Austen herself is not entirely convinced. There is a clear element shared by all the texts, but particularaly Persuasion, which explores the submission of women to male authority. It has been said of Anne that she has renounced her own life story, perhaps the ones that are being played out in the mirrors she sees around her. Austen expresses a sense of female maturity which constitues a fall from freedom and independence into a debilitating, ladylike dependence. This is something Anne has directly escaped, but suffers indirectly because the parameters of the world in which she lives define women only in terms of their position in relaionto men. The striong women figuring in the novel are absent forces: banished or dead, or widows, who have survived the male authority which previously defined them.
This resistance to the common trends of social tradition which Austen acknowledges as almost irresistable forces in her own novesl is also played out in Auseten’s own life by her. She acts, in writing, to liberate herself from the binds which weave themselves around the characters. Anne, in Persuasion, describes her distrust of literature, saying she will ‘not allow books to prove anything’ because they ‘were all written by men,’ just as her father’s Baronetage is, in which her role is seemingly defined. Anne feels at the mercy of such a tool which in her society seems to be weilded by men who govern what is recorded. Austen is un-writing this fear she describes in the novel by the very process of writing herself. Austen could use the novel form to re-write a reality in which she would not have to fight against such a dominant patriarchy. It is interesting that she does not choose to do this. Instead she writes of the society she experiences around her, and of potential experiences of individuals within that society. Inthis sense, even if she doesn’t address head on the issue of a moral negotiation of contemporary society, she does offer tactics for surviving it.
So far, however, this essay has only addressed the mral guidance Austen has to offer the original audience, and has really only considered in depth hat the novels offer the specific details of comportment in every day society, indeed in teresting for the insight they offer. The rituals of, for example, an afternoon promenade, or an evening at the ball, or the definition of whether or not a young lady has ‘come out’ is not relevant to us. Yet, as we have repeatedly identified in the process of this essay, this is not the focus of Austen’s attention, nor does it address the many depths at hich this essay functions. Thus do the novels offer anything of this type to a modern audience? Such values as a developed power of judgement and the ability of an individual to perceive themselves as part of a broader whole are things which are universally desirable. Despite the passage of thime, the humanit a modern audience shares with Austen’s original means the novels still have a relevance today. This is subject to the same conditions as Austen’s original audience received the works under; namely, she offers no dictatorial exposition of definite rules, rather novels require the same of the modern reader as of the original: an active involvement in the text in rder to develop fo himself that framework of values which is aspired to .
Austen does not set up a polarity of right and wrong, although her life and writing were informed by a specific moral code, she is not interested in inflicting a narrow, over-simplified morality on her readership, rather Austen is in terested in the process by which morality is developed by and within the individual reader. She leads by exaple, offering illusrations both positive and negative. Though it can be argued that the continued, almost ridiculous, rushed endings in which everything climaxes happily ever after undermine the positive endorsement of the virtuous heroine and the conseueces of her decisions and choices, it is perhaps dangerous to take too simplistic and singular a view. As a proponent of moral frameworks, even if the minutiae of exactly what are difficult to pinpoint, it seems reasonable for Austen to expect tirumph for a moral person. She does not offer specific incentives to the reader for adopting a moral standpoint, this would undermine all the efforts involved in creating a space in which the reader is free to choose. And yet it does make sense that for her this is seen as the logical conclusion. Rarely does Austen outright condemn a whole character, although her heroine may not come to a wholly favourable conclusion relating to them. While she advocates morality in a person, she proposes the possibility that there are variations within this remit. Perhaps this is because the parameters are imperfect, which makes a pure morality unlikely. The disparity between what it is that Austen advocates in her novels, and her own life raises interesting questions, perhaps she realises that an upstanding moral life is something to aspire to. It is certain that her focus is on the process, rather than the actual goal throughout the novels. This also is a principle which applies as much today as it did to the original audience. Thus her treatment of moral didacticism in her novels can be seen as offering universal principles for the on-going development of an individual’s moral wel-being, an idea which is bound into the teaching and worship of Christianity. It is also temporal, such that some of the considerations she has are subject to the specific confines of her own space and time. These are interesting, though less relevant ot a modern audience, but for Ausetn form the basis of an exploration and critique of the society in which she lives.
Moralit is often talked of in terms of a ‘set of values’ or a ‘moral framework’, the concept of morality is very much contained in the english language, and by extension, finite. Morality is not the only containing force present in the novels, but the expressions of it permeate. Persuasion for example, is set in Bath, which in the eighteenth century was a city of squares and circuses; neat, sterile containers, within which the gentry were protected from contaminating elements; the uncontolled wilds of nature, te dirt and defilement of the working ad lower classes. In part this is the effect of Austen’s desire to demarcate her subject matter, isolating it from the workings of society which do not concern them. This in itself may be a reflection on the narrow scope of the characters themselves, emphasising perhaps an unreality or dislocation of their lives which has implications for the validity of their claims. Emma’s visit to the squalid labourer’s house seems charitable ad altruistic, yet wlaking roud the bend on the road away from the house she is able to leave such thoughts behind her, running straight back into present concerns of her own life.
Bath is not the only confined space available. The drawing rooms and parlours of the various houses, though they may be large and sumptuous, still represent a form of imprisonment, the space the men allow the women and in which all of thier buisness is done. The idea of containment does not have positive association, and indeed it can be looked at in terms of bringing the situation under control. If everyone knows their place, and space, within the shared framework, the risk of anarchy or the unexpected is reduced. Austen knowing the limitationsin which the women live does not demand, she suggests and advises. She does not seek to impose another set of limits on her female audience. Anne, in Persuasion, through her circumstances, has broken throught the confines she is free to act on instinct and emotion, rather than leaving these considerations exclided; an assertion of the identifiably female within the patriarchy. In contrasst, Mrs Smith has been paralyzed by the circumstances she finds herself in; trapped by her impotence as a woman.