Arguably, we can learn a lot from Jane Austen's finely crafted character studies of Regency era gentry. They are penetrating studies of the subtleties of commonplace virtue and vice. They are also informed by Austen’s Christian faith.
Dwight Lindley has picked some books to help the Catholic reader get the most out of Jane Austen (1775-1817), one of the finest and best-loved novelists in the English language. You can find the second part of this interview here.
Dwight Lindley is the Barbara Longway Briggs Chair in English Literature at Hillsdale College. He has published essays and articles on Jane Austen, George Eliot, John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Virginia Woolf, and others. He lives in southern Michigan with his wife Emily and their nine children.
What got you interested in your own area of specialisation and led you came to publish research on Jane Austen? I got into literature proper because I've always loved stories, but I also wanted a discipline where I could talk about everything. This is one of the things that initially attracted me to novels and poetry. I could talk about philosophy, psychology, theology, history: everything that comes into human life.
As to this period and Jane Austen in particular, I have what Americans call Anglophilia. I have always liked British literature, especially nineteenth-century literature. I had that interest already in college. In graduate school, I began studying Jane Austen in particular. I was drawn to her from high school on. I had read some of her novels and then I read some more in college. It was not really until I was in Graduate School that I began to really think more deeply about her. Why was I drawn to her? In part, it is her strange combination of clarity and simplicity with depth. This is something that is unusual and special in her. Her stories and her language are like clear, deep water. She has this sparkling intelligence that is hard to describe. My experience of reading her and reading what other people have written about her is that she is smarter than the people who write about her. She has an insight and a wit and a wisdom that cannot be caught easily and yet it is present everywhere in her writing. So, I am really impressed with her and I have always enjoyed that intelligence of hers. Finally, I was really drawn to her wisdom about everyday, practical life, and what I would call the drama of understanding and self-knowledge that she presents. This is something that I enjoyed in her from the start. Famously, there are all these dramas about love. But they are always about the way that people in love misunderstand others and misunderstand themselves. They are about the way that they gradually emerge out of that into the truth. That is something that everyone enjoys in Jane Austen, but it is very hard to speak about it as intelligently as she does.
I began to appreciate that more explicitly and concretely after I read more philosophy. She is actually a very philosophically rich novelist. But I did not really start to see that until I had got more experienced myself. Particularly, John Henry Newman and Alasdair MacIntyre helped me to understand some of what was going on in Jane Austen. So I shall bring some of that up as we are going through specific books.
You mentioned Alasdair MacIntyre, and sometimes we think of Jane Austen as a moralist. In fact, McIntyre mentions her in that vein in Chapter 14 of After Virtue. However, Austen grew up in the faith. Her father was an Anglican priest and two of her brothers were ordained. She was a practicing Christian. She wrote prayers, and her last recorded words, uttered when she was on her deathbed, were, “God grant me patience. Pray for me! Oh, pray for me!” However, she did not wear her faith on her sleeve. So, while it is easy to see her writing about the virtues, much as Aristotle does, is Christianity prominent in her novels? Or is it secondary? That is a good question, and it is something that people have spilled a lot of ink on. There is a palpable Christian and moral framework that undergirds her novels and imagination. There are obviously some Christian social details. All these clergymen. But her novels are not what we have come to think of as Christian dramas in a straightforward sense. What to make of that?
"She is very sure of her faith, so much so that she does not need to talk about it. It is just there."
One, she comes from a time before Christianity had been challenged in her culture. She lived from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and died in 1817. Over the rest of that century, there was German higher criticism of the Bible, early Christian faith, dogma, and the formation of creeds. This criticism of organised religion and its texts really destabilised the faith of many intellectuals throughout the century. For later novelists from the nineteenth century, such as George Eliot, religious faith is a much more self-consciously held thing. It is something that you always have to talk and think about, and work through your doubts. For Jane Austen there is no such destabilisation. She is very sure of her faith, so much so that she does not need to talk about it. It is just there. She lives before this epoch of modern doubt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that we came to take for granted. You never have a Graham Greene novel or others like it, without a drama of doubt and faith.
So, it is not a Christian novel like that, but her novels take a certain kind of Christian faith for granted and presume upon it.
Everyone around her said her faith was very deep when she died. Her brother and her nephew, who wrote about her, talked about her deep faith. There was also her subtlety and modesty about it. She was not heavy-handed about it and she really did not feel attacked in her faith. She was just not very self-conscious about it.
It was the air she breathed. Yes, I would say that was true. We can make various objections to the kind of faith that she had, which had its limitations. Cardinal Newman, when he looked back at the faith of her novels, found it somewhat frigid. He has a funny remark about the Jane Austen clergyman who is cold and stiff. He wanted something like the grandness of Catholicism. I think he said this while still an Anglican, because he had very self-consciously made an older, more Catholic vision his own under the strain and stress of that mid-century period, where everything was up in the air, and you really had to find it more for yourself and make it your own. Later nineteenth-century romantic writers look back and say, “That is not enough!” But her faith is there.
I brought it up because perhaps it is an aspect of her novels that we overlook. More recently she is presented as a Georgian Regency writer of rom-coms, but there was more to it than that. Yes, that's right. One of the peculiarities of Austen is that you can really spend a lot of time with her and not think about religion because it is under the surface. This has been an advantage and a disadvantage to her. It has really widened her readership—and her viewership in the age of adaptations and miniseries—but it has also facilitated misunderstandings. I tend to think it is an advantage in general because, frankly, so many novels that wear religion on their sleeve end up being heavy-handed. So, let us take her as she is. We can look at religious questions, frameworks, and foundations, as they are helpful and useful. But let’s not expect her to be a twentieth-century novelist, or a Romantic, or certainly not a Catholic novelist, although, anyways, she is more comfortable with certain Catholic ideas than many other novelists of her time. The Anglicanism of the late of the eighteenth century, that she was familiar with, was very comfortable with hierarchy. Hierarchy within the Church and within the community was just presumed. There is also a presumption of liturgical order and a broadly sacramental understanding of the Church.
Part of what is so interesting about Pride and Prejudice is that it has this really clear depiction of the way that we try to understand the world by judging the character of others and by narrating the world that we live in.
Let's go to the first of the five books that you have shortlisted, Pride and Prejudice (1813). Have you put this at the top of your list precisely because it is her most famous novel? Yes, it is an easy choice. I think it is the greatest Austen novel. There are those who would dispute this, but I think it is an easy argument to make. It is the most popular and best known one. The cinematic renditions of Pride and Prejudice are also some of the best. It may be the funniest of her novels. This is another thing that attracted to me to Austen and which I still enjoy and love. This is part of what's fun about teaching her.
Is there anything about the novel you would like to stress? The thing that sticks out most in Pride and Prejudice and which really illuminates Jane Austen's contribution in general is the centrality of character-reading. Right there, at the start of Pride and Prejudice,you have two young adults coming into contact with one another: Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. She is trying to read his character. Bingley, even notices this at one point and asks whether she is a studier of character, to which she replies, “Yes.”
This is a characteristic practice of the time, where you are trying to judge the kind of person you're dealing with. In Pride and Prejudice, you are trying to get a sense of “Who are you, the person that I'm dealing with? What is the story that you inhabit?” It is a very literary way of thinking about everyday moral life that is being dramatized.
Lizzie Bennett is basically writing a novel inside of the novel, Pride and Prejudice. The drama comes from her misunderstandings or misjudgements of the people around her. She essentially imagines the wrong story for herself, for Darcy, and for this other young man, Mr Wickham, who is an army officer at the beginning of the novel.
It is through those misjudgements that she is moved towards a sort of climax of the book, where her narrative, which is problematic, collides with reality and falls apart. When that happens, she realises that she herself is the reason she has misunderstood: that her misunderstandings have to do with her own moral weaknesses. So, part of what is so interesting about Pride and Prejudice is that it has this really clear depiction of the way that we try to understand the world by judging the character of others and by narrating the world that we live in. Then, we have to deal with the challenges to that narrative, which occur inevitably when it collides with real life.
Austen has a great deal of insight into the into the way that our own personal moral life plays into that. Essentially, what she sees is that if I have problems in my own character— pride, for example, or vanity, or envy, and so forth—those things will occlude my vision. They will block me from seeing certain kinds of things, and they will cause misunderstandings and misjudgements. I could end up creating the wrong kind of story for my life, misunderstanding my relationship to other people, and misunderstanding the truth, because of problems in my own heart and my own character.
So, when Elizabeth Bennett experiences this kind of narrative collapse, it causes her to reform her sense of everything, including herself. Famously, she says, “ Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
This is one of those things that Alasdair MacIntyre actually really appreciates about her, and it is very Aristotelian: that your character determines the kind of life you live, and that prudence, the virtue of practical reasoning, works in the world by judging the character of others. That is how we make decisions all the time in life. This is something that is very alive in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. MacIntyre thinks of it in a narrative way in After Virtue: that we tend to make judgments about others and their character by putting them into stories that we then try out against reality as we experience it. That is a certain kind of narrative Aristotelianism. I think that he learned a lot of that from Jane Austen, who dramatises it over and over again in her novels, perhaps most clearly in Pride and Prejudice.
You mentioned that you liked some of the adaptations of Pride and Prejudice for the small screen or the big screen. What is your favourite one? Easily the BBC one with Colin Firth. That one is easily superior. I do not think much of the later one with Keira Knightley. There are earlier ones than that that have actually more of Jane Austen’s dialogue in them, but they are a little bit stale.
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