Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Lesson from Jane Austen

I just recently finished Jane Austen's Persuasion. Having read most of her books, and come away from nearly all of them delighting in their language and wry sense of humor, but looking down on their social life as meaningless, I was surprised to get a different impression from this book.

The story bears the predictable similarity to all her others, and yet I enjoyed it more because Anne, the heroin, is less effected and mortified by her family's frivolities than say, Lizzie and Jane Bennett. (My aversion to hopeless awkwardness and impropriety is enough to make me skip certain sections both of the book and the movie of Pride and Prejudice.) So that was the first thing in Persuasion's favor.

The next thing that I appreciated, I think I may have scorned until now. And that is Austen's presentation of the virtue of contemplating propriety. I think on the whole, it's usually annoying to me to read how characters just sit around wondering whether they should do this or that...whether they should disclose this or that "sensitive" information to such and such a party. And heaven forbid that they should let their "violent" emotions show when present with truly astonishing information. But I think my feelings have changed somewhat in this latest Jane Austin reading.

Certainly, there is an enormous contrast between that kind of mental lifestyle and that of today's society. Now, people commonly recommend "being yourself" or "being honest" with no thought to propriety. You want to let out a big belch at a cocktail party?'s just being yourself. You want to be friends with the pretty, popular girls and ignore the one who is frankly horrible at playing the pianoforte? No's just being honest. Today's modern society has effectively brushed aside all consideration for the other person and constantly asks of us, "How do you feel?" and recommends, "Don't pretend to be anything other than your natural, horrible self."

And I do think that Jane Austen's society may have carried the concept of propriety a little too far. But I also think she would agree with that. For Jane Austen, I believe, valued sincerity just as much as our modern authors, and yet she effectively illustrates in her novels that sincerity without decorum (Mrs. Bennett sincerely wanted her daughters to marry rich men, and Mr. Elliot in Persuasion sincerely valued his own beautiful appearance) is quite as bad, or worse, than decorum without sincerity (take a look at Mr. Wickham or Mr. William Elliot).

The lesson for me was (is) a simple one: there is virtue in sitting down and contemplating propriety and what it ought to look like. For me, it doesn't mean trying to revert to Victorian norms (heaven forbid!). Nor does it mean going with whatever people say is right or okay in the latest fad of self discovery. Instead, I think it is important (for Christians at least) to really consider the principles laid out for us in the Bible, which gives us fairly clear guidelines that we can apply in a number of different cultural settings. What are some of these? Consider others as more important than ourselves. Don't gossip or slander. Build each other up and edify each other by speaking words of spiritual truth (as opposed to the "truth" that I might happen to hate your guts.) Dwell on what is pure and holy and blameless. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

I could go on and on and on...there is practically no end to Biblical advice on how to interact with other people, both Christian and non-Christian. So while finding the advice is easy, I think it may be valuable for those of us raised in a "just be yourself" society, to spend more time contemplating how it should change our behavior and make us more thoughtful of others around us.

1 comment:

  1. I really can't believe how often we end up reading the same books without meaning to. I started Persuasion about a week ago, it being the last of the main six I haven't read, and just today noticed on your Facebook that you just read it! I'm going to wait to read this review until after I've finished. Miss you friend,
    ~Anna L