There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Monday, 8 July 2013

Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues (2): Propriety's Claims on Prudence

In the second chapter of Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues, Emsley discusses virtue in Austen's early works - Northanger Abbey and Lady Susan. Of course, any good Janeite will be quick to point out that the eponymous heroine of Lady Susan is entirely without virtue - possessed of the kind of shocking amorality that in later novels Austen is hesitant to assign even to the rakes. However, Lady Susan makes a great show of propriety -- leaving the Manwarings' house, or being a model of feminine reserve to Reginald DeCourcy - to cover her selfishness and immorality. Emsley points out the ghastly degree of Lady Susan's immorality when she encourages her friend Alicia to bring on the death of the feeble Mrs Manwearing "through irritating her feelings".

Feminist critics have sometimes viewed LS as Austen's exploration of female power, a theme patriarchal influences forced her to discontinue pursuing in her later works. Emsey agrees "that Lady Susan criticizes female power," but posits "the heroine's pursuit of virtue in [the] later novels as a quest for a different kind of power. Given that older definitions of virtue (or vertu) had to do with strength and power, it is important to emphasize that the virtues are moral excellences, and therefore may be seen as more powerful than aggression or manipulation" (48).

Lady Susan is an inherently amoral character who uses propriety to cover her villainy. In contrast, Emsley views Catherine Morland of NA as an innately virtuous heroine, who must learn the proprieties of society. For example, Catherine would consider it a sacrifice to ride with the Thorpes rather than walk with the Tilneys. In contrast to George Eliot who once stated that "All self-sacrifice is good", in this instance Austen upholds the propriety of following through with the first engagement. For Austen "the morality of sacrifice depends on what the sacrifice is for... In Northanger Abbey... Austen tests sacrifice against loyalty, honesty against propriety, and authority against natural inclination" (54).

While I agree with the analysis of Catherine's innate sense of honesty as vital to her actions and character, I think there may be room for a little more exploration of her terrible surmises and consequent moment of shame. This chapter is Emsley's weakest (though I'd still give it an A), probably because it deals with works Austen wrote at a young age. Among Austen's ouvre, NA seems most influenced by contemporary sentimental novels and Emsley acknowledges that "later Austen heroines will have to think more, struggle more, and suffer for more than ten minutes or one dark night in a scary room" (55).   Emsley's analysis focuses primarily on a couple of Catherine's interactions with the Thorpes and Tilneys in Bath, without exploring the gothic elements introduced at the Abbey. Although something of an off-shoot from discussing specific virtues, the exploration might be expanded by a look into the moral implications of imagination and sentimentality.

Despite its slimness, this chapter also provides some fabulous incites into Austen's originality. For example, "That villains can be ordinary people is radical, just as the idea that heroines can be ordinary people is radical" (55). That's why NA is another wonderful examplar of Austen's lessons for us today. Today in my ordinariness, I can be a heroine. Like Catherine I can acknowledge my mistakes and then take comfort in Austen's declaration, "She had nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever."


  1. I thought Emsley's assertion that Austen's heroines pursue a different kind of power was genius. It can be disgusting to see the way some women (and men) attempt to gain power, and they don't realize what true and real power consists of.
    "The virtues are moral excellences, and therefore may be seen as more powerful than aggression or manipulation."
    Great essay by the way. I'm enjoying reading your thoughts on the book.

    1. Yes, it's a very important distinction that gets ignored in almost all portrayals of powerful men and women in pop culture. It's probably a large part of the reason for the proliferation of violence (though it's an age old problem of human nature, just aggravated by the media). Emsley contrasts power through virtue to some feminist criticism, but I don't think the dichotomy has to be partisan. My interest in feminism has actually led me to learn more about my own privilege and the needs of the marginalized, which has in turn led to more compassion and humility. With this framework, I don't think Austen's version of power through virtue has to be in opposition to a feminist call for greater justice and equality. I know you may be uncomfortable with the term feminist (and coming from a conservative background myself I do understand why some are) but those are just my two cents on virtue and power.

    2. I'm also glad you're enjoying the posts. I'm creating these posts off my notes, and I tend to write down very striking things in those rather than the main argument. I'm a little afraid the overall theses of some of the chapters may get lost in my love for details and quotes. :( I'm going to direct people to your posts as a more excellent summary.

    3. No, no! The striking things are the best! :) I, too, get lost in the quotes. Most of the time realizing after I've "written" a post most of the words are not my own. Oh, well...theirs were better!

      I don't know that I'm uncomfortable with the term feminist, but it really depends on what one means by the term. My experience with self-proclaimed feminists is not a pleasant one, but that does not mean that there are those who use the term but mean something other that what I've observed it to be. Just so, the term "conservative" can have very negative connotations. Shouldn't we all be "liberal" in the sense that we are giving, truthful, and even gregarious? Unfortunately, these terms are now twisted into meaning things that they really don't mean. As Inigo Montoya says in 'The Princess Bride', "I do not think that word mean what you think it means." At least, that is how I feel in many conversations (with me as the one who is unsure of how the other is using the term).

      But to clarify, I would say that my opinions are definitely more in line with Emsley than with many of the feminists I've read on Austen. With many of them, I felt as if they wanted desperately for Austen to affirm their lifestyle and political opinion instead of letting Austen influence them. And that's just sad. I've heard other women do the same at the other end of the spectrum, but they don't write books about it. My rantings on the topic:

      I'm really enjoying these posts! You are making me want to go back and read all of her novels right now. :)

    4. I thought Alice von Hildebrand's discussion on feminism was helpful.

  2. Lady Susan is such a fascinating book - I'm not entirely sure that Austen was necessarily critiquing female power specifically as power abused in general - but perhaps extracting the gender of the power-wielder isn't a useful project. And I'm not sure that Austen did abandon the question - you certainly have similarly powerful (though less actively malicious) portraits of powerful women in Lady Russell, Emma, and somewhat ambiguous or evil characters like Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs. Ferrars (and possibly Mrs. John Dashwood).

    The, of course, there's the profoundly difficult portrait of Mrs. Norris - a character who I probably hate more than any other character in Austen's books - a bully, psychological and emotional abuser, hypocrite, miser, and cruel woman - who nonetheless has a lot of real reasons for the way she acts. Her vulnearable position, real sense of gratitude/dependancy on the Bertrams, and fear of being lumped in with the less fortunate all create a compelling dynamic - even if I cannot accept that the way she chooses to deal with it (undermining anything that gets in her way and especially her absolutely baseless viciousness towards Fanny).