Among the realist tradition of writing, I must profess a great fondness for Russian realism. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pasternak strike me as having produced a great corpus of works that strike at the very heart of the human condition in a poignant way that is relatable, powerful, and pathological. Among the realist traditions in the West, I am much more divided. Some writers I adore, like John Steinbeck. Among those writers I most adore, Jane Austen stands on a pillar all her own.
Amid the sea that is the library of Albion, I would no doubt be criticized by Jane Austen for having an affinity for the romantics and sentimentalists whom she satirized with wit, irony, and sense. Augustan poetry and the Gothic novel had become the prevailing spirit in England during the eighteenth century. Augustan poetry was marked by two identifiable strands: pastoralism and sensualism. In many ways, the romantics of Austen’s own time carried on the Augustan tradition mixed with a headstrong rebelliousness against Enlightenment rationalism and the new consciousness of egoistic adventurism. The Gothic novel also inherited the strand of sensualism and took it in a darker and more destructive direction which, in my mind, reflected the subconscious guilt of the Whig desecraters of England’s old patrimony. But the Gothic novel also propelled the adventurist spirit in literature; running through dark castles and underground tunnels, witnessing the demonic, and being pursued by evil, are all characteristic of the Gothic novel.
What Augustan, Gothic, and Romantic writing have in common is the manifestation of individualism and loneliness. Characters are usually alone. If not alone, characters are often disappeared from the protagonist (generally through death) which leaves the individual alone. Childe Harold, we must recall, ventures into the world without companions. While rebelling against the vicissitudes of atomization wrought by modernity, the poetic irony of the sentimentalists is that they couldn’t escape atomization; the revolution they offered against alienation and atomization was to embrace these burdening realities while diffusing them with the intensity of sentiment as the last refuge against the encroachments of sterilizing atomistic rationality.
While I am admittedly partial to romanticist concerns, Jane Austen undoubtedly had a better solution to the plight of the modern world than did the apoplectic and often profligate romantics who double-downed in their own egoistic sensualism as the final refuge against the vicissitudes of modernity. Many of us are like Austen’s heroines, craving love like Marianne or Elinor, or believe ourselves impervious to love like Emma who boisterously claimed, ‘I never have been in love; it is not my way or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.’” Love, as any reader of Jane Austen knows, is the central concern of her corpus. (As it also was with the romantics.)
It is true that Austen’s stories follow a predictable arc. The women are single, or yet to be married. They are also beautiful, sometimes made more vivacious because of their personalities (like Elizabeth Bennett and Marianne Dashwood). The girls are sometimes of moneyed heritage. If not, then the man usually has money: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Eventually, the trials and tribulations of our female heroine and male romantic partner eventually overcome the void of singleness in marriage. Despite this pattern, Austen’s stories are still endearing and enduring. Why?
Austen’s romantic realism buttresses against romanticist sensuality and fantasy. If we can say Austen’s stories have a storybook love to them, they are not without heartbreak and struggle. One need not look further than the transfiguration of Marianne, Elizabeth, or Emma for proof positive of the hardship, struggle, and transformation that our Austenian heroines undergo.
Jane Austen’s family history is clouded by the fact that comparatively few of her letters survived to posterity. What we do know, however, does give us a clear portrait. She was the daughter of George Austen, a clergyman in the Church of England. Rev. Austen’s social standing was with the new middleclass, though he came from a wealthy family of wool merchants inheritance practices left him relatively destitute before his church career, and an inheritance through his wife, improved the family’s economic standing. It was in this world of social marriage, middleclass anxiety, and social oscillation, that Jane Austen was born and raised. In a twinkling of an eye, the middleclass life could easily vanish.
Austen never married, but her books deal with marriage. Love and marriage are the quintessential Austenian themes, with the very world she knew exerting its shadow over her heroines and their development: social scheming, marriage plans, and financial inheritances. Dislocation from inheritance gone wrong sets the stage for Sense and Sensibility, forcing Marianne and Elinor to relocate into the heart of the scheming social world of the landed gentry where marrying well—rather than for love—predominates. Likewise, Elizabeth Bennett experiences firsthand how male wealth and social standing bears down on individualistic snobbery; while Elizabeth might not be free of her own pride and prejudices, Fitzwilliam Darcy is not without his own lack of social graces, not to mention haughty sense of superiority when first introduced. Anne Elliot also suffers in this world of wealth and social standing, she had to break off her marriage with Frederick Wentworth because of his relative poverty and uncertain future. One could go on, but the gentle reader no doubt can piece together the puzzle. Austen’s characters and stories are undeniably tied to the very social world she inhabited and experienced.
Let us now turn to Austen’s great theme, as hitherto mentioned: love.
Modern interpreters of Austen are often clouded by their own hatred of Christianity, the religion that Austen was raised in and remained a devout member of until her death. Rather than concern themselves with the theology of eros, love, that runs through Austen’s novels, contemporary Austenian critics prefer to approve or disapprove Austen’s novels and heroines on feminist grounds. As Margaret Drabble writes concerning the conclusion of Emma, “The atmosphere of Highbury—parochial, timid, inward-looking, change-resisting—has won.” Au contraire.
There are two essential doctrines to the Christian theology of love. First is that it unites. As St. Thomas Aquinas explained it aptly, “love is the unitive force.” Second, love transforms. It is a now almost ubiquitous phrase to hear “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” Aquinas also gave this to posterity. But what is missed by Grace alone is how love operates in grace. If we say grace perfects nature, it also follows that love perfects nature. Love doesn’t destroy but reforms and perfects the self. Love moves the self toward its object of affection and happiness. As St. Augustine said, “Our heart is restless until it rests in thee.”
Austen’s heroines follow this spirit of theology laid forth in Christianity. All of heroines begin their tales atomized and alone. None are married. Some have even been unmarried for a long time. Others are lovesick, desiring love at any cost—even to the point of bringing misery onto themselves and others. Others yet think themselves impervious to love, immune to Cupid’s arrow. Austen’s many heroines all experience transformation and closure through the course of their respective stories and story arcs. “Change-resisting” Highbury, contra Drabble, does not win at all. In fact, change is the great metamorphic spirit that defines Austen’s novels. Only those who are blind to the realities of love and its apotheotic nature are unable to see this. They do not have the eyes to see or the ears to hear to songs of love that Austen composes.
Three of Austen’s great female heroines stand out in this respect: Emma Woodhouse, Catherine Morland, and Marianne Dashwood. Each heroine serves as the stand-in representative of something that Austen is critiquing. Emma is the haughty girl of power and prestige; in a word, to follow with modern feminist criticism, she is a feminist. The fact that Emma must shed her feminism and become humble and care for others—through love—is what feminists despise (and is precisely why feminist critics dislike the work). Catherine and Marianne are both romantics, but of different stripes. Catherine is the delusional imaginative romantic, creating a fictitious world through her reading of romantic fiction. She tries to live that Gothic-romantic fantasy in the real-world but quickly encounters many problems. Marianne is the sensual romanticist, the romantic of feelings and emotions.
Each of our heroines must come to reform. The errors of their way must be exposed, shattered, but then redeemed. Unlike the hyper romantics who celebrated destruction and death as the highest manifestation of romantic love, Austen allows destruction but then digs out of the rubble to rebuild. Destruction isn’t how Austen ends her works. Life is the proper ending for Austen precisely because love triumphs.
C.S. Lewis, that other great English writer, famously said that lovers see each other face-to-face. Friends, by contrast, stand side-by-side. Lovers, then, see each other’s gaze; they peer into the eyes of the lover and enter the seat of their lover’s soul through the highway of the eyes.
Marianne is, as mentioned, a romantic sentimentalist. Her concern for Elinor isn’t that Edward Ferrars doesn’t love her, per se, it is that Edward doesn’t take an enthusiastic interest in Elinor’s artistic talents. A more loving man would be gawking over her talents, the youthful and inexperienced Marianne lambasts. Marianne’s conception of love is nothing but pure emotion. It isn’t surprising that she is swept up by the dashing eroticism of John Willoughby.
But Marianne is never truly face-to-face with her supposed knight in shining armor. While Willoughby rescues her from the side of the road having sprained her ankle on a walk, their burning romantic hearts are not sealed through a face-to-face encounter but through an act of intentional seduction. John Willoughby sooths Marianne from behind, as she rests on a couch, and she cuts off a lock of her hair to give him of a memento of their supposed love. Their romantic encounters are defined by impetuous action and emotion. Then Willoughby, just as quickly as he rapturously entered Marianne’s life, leaves.
From back-body seduction to letter writing, Marianne convinces herself she is in love with Willoughby and he her, despite an overcoming of sorrow upon his sudden departure. She cries and cries and cries, “They saw nothing of Marianne till dinner time, when she entered the room and took her place at the table without saying a word. Her eyes were red and swollen; and it seemed as if her tears were even then restrained with difficulty. She avoided the looks of them all, could neither eat nor speak, and after some time, on her mother’s silently pressing her hand with tender compassion, her small degree of fortitude was quite overcome; she burst into tears and left the room.” But Marianne sooths herself and indulges in a new phantasmagoric romanticism through her many letters to Willoughby. Again, he is neither beside her as a friend or face-to-face as a lover.
When she has a face-to-face encounter with him, in London one day while out for a walk, he spurns her. Willoughby is, of course, flirting with another woman. Dejected, Marianne attempts to coax Elinor into grabbing Willoughby’s attention for her.
Marianne’s sentimental romanticism nearly kills her. When Willoughby returns her locket of hair, admitting to just playful flirting and nothing more, Marianne is heartbroken. She wallows in her own tears and her health becomes sickly. She is on the point of death.
Elinor’s good sense, in contrast to Marianne’s sentimentalism, helps heal her. Elinor is both beside her and talks to her, face-to-face, as a loving sister does. Marianne eventually reforms her sentimentalist ways and embraces the good sense of her sister in marrying Colonel Brandon and enjoys her life as a result of her reformation. Yet the love of Colonel Brandon was visible from the start. Colonel Brandon loves Marianne from the first moment he sees her. He is not enraptured by her body or hair, but her face. She has a radiance that Colonel Brandon sees but Marianne, still the impetuous blind youth she is, cannot see past Colonel Brandon’s older age. Love, however, reforms Marianne’s and unites these two souls together in blessed felicity.
Catherine Morland is not that dissimilar from Marianne Dashwood. Both girls are exceedingly young, Catherine is seventeen (at the novel’s beginning) and Marianne sixteen. Both are romanticists, but of different stripes as previously mentioned. Catherine’s romanticism is fantastical, she vicariously lives her romantic fantasies through Gothic novels. The world of fictitious Gothic literature is, for Catherine, the real world while the real world of flesh and blood souls is fictitious. Until reality smacks her in the face in the halls of Northanger Abbey.
Social scheming is very much part of the real world and doesn’t abstain from touching Catherine’s life. Her supposed friend, whom she does spend much time with side-by-side on the streets, Isabel, is only a friend because of her probing James Morland—Catherine’s older brother. Isabel believes that James is due for a rich inheritance and intends to marry up and well. Catherine is but a vessel in Isabel’s hunt. Their mutual love for Gothic novels is but the mechanism for Isabel’s ingratiation and scheming. Once Isabel learns James’s relative destitution, she abandons the Morlands.
Catherine eventually makes her way to the Tilney residence at Northanger Abbey. She imagines a world like Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. She blinds herself to Henry Tilney’s romantic heart. Catherine, imagining Gothic murder as the cause for the death of General Tilney’s wife, causes a rift between her and Henry. Henry upbraids her for her insensitive imagination. Catherine leaves crying, believing she has destroyed Henry’s feelings for her.
Catherine and Henry may not have been lovers from the start, but they grow to love each other over the course of the novel. Of course, those who start off as friends, side-by-side, may eventually become face-to-face lovers. The side-to-face dynamic is breathtaking to behold. Catherine and Henry go from strolling streets and halls at each other’s side to deep and intimate conversations and flirting face-to-face. Even when Catherine flees to her room in tears for her insensitivity brought on by her fantastical imagination, her feelings indicating in herself a transformed feeling for Henry because she fears she has lost his love, that moment was a face-to-face encounter.
Austen, in this moment, produces a tour-de-force of symbolism and signification. Henry tells Catherine, “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” Henry’s rebuke declares a return to realism and a return to Christianity, two things that Catherine has departed from because of her frenzied Gothicized imagination. Then Austen informs us of Catherine’s disposition, “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously she was humbled. Most bitterly did she cry.”
Although we take pity on Catherine this moment represents her apotheosis. Her eyes are open! She realizes her errors. She is broken, “humbled,” and cries into a new baptism. She becomes a changed person because of Henry’s address, not dissimilar from the voice of God causing efficacious change to the Israelites in the Old Testament. After this episode she finds herself in conversation with Eleanor and Henry, Isabel’s scheming has been revealed; consolation, for herself and her brother, is not undertaken in lonely isolation but in the presence of friends. In fact, this final act of loving consolation is face-to-face. Catherine has been reborn into the real world.
While General Tilney suddenly returns when Henry is absent, excoriating Catherine and forcing her to leave alone, this does not break the bond sown between Catherine and Henry. The two have been mystically united, and Henry, upon his return, seeks out Catherine as lovers do. Alone, Catherine is unhappy. Henry’s sudden visit sparks her heart to beat again. Love is the air. Happiness is nigh.
Henry seeks to marry Catherine, and the love they share eventually breaks General Tilney’s heart of stone. Love truly conquers all. General Tilney approves of their marriage. Love reformed Catherine and brought her new life by bringing her out of the imaginary world of the Gothic phantasmagoria she had constructed for herself. Love also bore down on General Tilney to see marriage as more than social and economic matchmaking. True, the Morlands are not poor. But they aren’t rich either. They do have some money and that also manages to change General Tilney’s mind. But the tenacity of Henry’s love for Catherine and Catherine’s rebaptism through tears into the real world, was manifested in Henry’s brief renunciation of his father. Once again, love reforms and ties together what is lost and separated.
Finally, we come to Emma Woodhouse and Emma. Of all the stories of social scheming, Emma is the one novel where it is brought to the fore—from the very onset of the story. Emma is a beautiful and wealthy wannabe matchmaker. Thinking herself immune to love, she has fallen in love—pardon the pun—with the idea of herself as Venus, the thunderbolt of love socially arranging the love of others. She is an intimate participant in social scheming, not much different than Philip Elton or Frank Churchill.
While it is true that Elton and Churchill scheme to the point of flirtatious seduction and instrumental commodification, the purpose of their instrumental abuse and disregard for the soul is for social advancement. They scheme and want to make the most of their prospective marriage match. Emma, in a gentler manner, partakes in the same process. Emma’s veil of helping Harriet isn’t that of good friendship—as George Knightley says to Emma—but of satiating Emma’s own twisted yearnings for playing matchmaker. Emma feeds her own ego, rather than have genuine concern for her friends. At least initially.
Emma is a book about character and character transformation. Austen is bluntly criticizing the idea that wealth and social standing make good characters. While some persons of high wealth and standing may be good and virtuous souls, this is not universally true. Not even a profession as a cleric necessarily makes you virtuous. Philip Elton is anything but a virtuous soul. And his nouveau-riche wife isn’t a virtuous lady either. She even scoffs at Emma’s wedding party, ‘Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business. Selina would stare when she heard of it.’” But again, white satin and lace veils do not a lady or gentleman make.
Although Emma is our heroine, she is troubled. Austen doesn’t sugarcoat this problem for us, “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments.” Emma has an internalized and psychological pride that must be broken over the course of the novel. Furthermore, in “think[ing] a little too well of herself,” she also isolates herself from those who depend on her—like Harriet. Only in Harriet’s initial heartbreak, having been led away from the humble but virtuous farmer Robert Martin, does Emma begin to feel remorse for others instead of pride for herself.
Emma takes Harriet under her wing with the veil of guidance and protection. In reality, Emma isn’t looking after Harriet but is only interested in her own grandiose schemes and dreams of herself. It takes the virtuous George Knightley, much Emma’s elder and with greater world experience on the things that matter in life, to break Emma’s blindness.
Emma does begin to grieve with Harriet and tries to be a better friend to her. Through Emma’s side-by-side friendship with Harriet, her immunity to love begins to break. Slowly, Emma is brought low—so to speak—out of the realm of superiority and into the realm of loving messiness. She begins to feel love but also tries to keep it at a distance. She continues to play matchmaker, but with a gentler hand and heart than before—God forbid she feel guilty over Harriet’s broken heart once more.
In the swirling maelstrom of Highbury, the balls, dances, and conversations—not to mention obvious flirting and social climbing—Emma is scandalized by the revelation of Frank Churchill’s actions. George Knightley, however, had been able to see through his immature and selfish mask from the beginning. Emma rushes to Harriet in her moment of apotheosis. She is now a friend deeply concerned for Harriet’s well-being. The stuffy and prideful woman we met at the beginning of the novel has become an empathetic soul, one concerned with the happiness of other souls instead of her own. Emma is, of course, relieved to know that Harriet hadn’t fallen for Churchill’s selfish sexual flirtations and partying. At this moment, Emma recognizes how much of a “fool” she has been—blinded by her own grand visions of herself and others.
In Emma, Austen deconstructs the myth of the virtuous upperclass and putrid underclass. Our two underclass heroes, Harriet and Robert Martin, have been among the most virtuous souls in the book. Likewise, it takes the virtuous soul of George Knightley—through his love and kindness—to begin the transfiguration of Emma. Against the virtuous souls stand the selfish, immature, and conceited. The Eltons. Churchill. Even Emma when we are first introduced to you. The main difference between Emma and Mr. and Mrs. Elton, and Frank Churchill, is she realizes the errors of her ways and reforms herself becoming a better friend and person in the process. Emma sheds those “real evils” that had afflicted her earlier in the story.
It may have taken a long and arduous journey, one of many shocks, twists, tears, and turns, but Emma realizes that the love which has purified her was always right in front of her: George Knightley. She also learns that virtue transcends social classes. Harriet and Robert marry and are happy together, and, more importantly, Emma is happy for them. Emma has learned, at long last, to will the happiness—love—of others rather than herself. Emma and Knightley also marry and, in the presence of their true friends, enjoy the love and happiness that has brought them together and made Emma a better person.
Even though Austen majestically celebrates the apotheotic nature of love, she is not without her own sharp wit and critique of institutionalized Christianity. Clergymen factor prominently in her various stories. Some clerics are kind-hearted gentleman, like Henry Tilney. Others are social climbers and connivers, like Philip Elton—a deeply unprincipled man with a mercenary heart. Others are pretentious like William Collins. Clergymen are humans too. Austen certainly doesn’t pedestalize clerical figures; there is no stench of clericalism running through her pages.
But this doesn’t entail, as some fanciful critics profess, that Austen throws shade on Christianity. On the contrary, as we’ve just witnessed through an analysis of reforming and perfecting love, Austen’s understanding of love and its transformative power to unite—even across social classes—is thoroughly Christian in conception. We can, I believe, go as far as saying that Jane Austen was the greatest writer of apotheotic love in the English literary tradition.
If love is the unitive force, and if love reforms and perfects nature, no novelist captured this reality so powerfully and imaginatively as Jane Austen. She touches on the human condition in all its fallenness and desires. That love wins out in the end speaks to our optimistic and better nature. That is but one of the reasons for Austen’s endurance after two centuries.
But reform and perfection isn’t where love stops. Love, of course, is about happiness. Love does not exist independent of happiness; and the happiness of love in this love is but a prefiguration of the eternal love and happiness of the Beatific Realm which is also governed by the spirit of tranquility. So reform and perfection occurs, but its teleological purpose is happiness in marital union since that is the telos of love itself.
Here, Austen also shines so very bright. Happiness, and that tranquility found in loving happiness, is precisely where her metamorphic pilgrimages of love conclude. “Between Barton and Delaford there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate; and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.” Marianne and Elinor are not alone in their happiness. Elizabeth joins them in Austen’s pantheon, “With the Gardiners they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.” Despite her loneliness for nearly a decade, Anne Elliot has persevered. Love has conquered and she takes her place alongside Austen’s other heroines of happiness, “Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in Captain Wentworth’s affection…She gloried in being a sailor’s wife.” Catherine Morland also found love, not by living in an imaginary world of Gothic castles and dungeons but in embracing the fleshly reality of the present: “To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well.” Emma, in finding joy for Harriet instead of being uptight about herself and vicariously living through others as matchmaker, comes to experience the great bliss she long resisted, “But in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” Austen, I believe, would agree that we could paraphrase Holy Writ to include that it is not good for a woman to be alone.
Wealth and social class doth not good souls make. Love, more than anything else, shapes souls into their better nature. Love, as understood and written by Jane Austen, perfects nature. Love perfects all our characters who dance with us in the pages of Austen’s many novels.
Jane Austen’s corpus is the human life written on paper. In reading Austen, we too participate in that grand pilgrimage of metamorphosis by love. If we love, Austen is communicating—especially to a world devoid of love and governed more by selfish interests—we will reach that blessed destination we all truly seek. The world may also become a happier and more tranquil place because of it.