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

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues (3) Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility, Sarah Emsley posits, is about social virtues in tension with the virtue of honesty. Who among us can't think of some uncomfortable situation when we have been forced to speak, knowing honesty might wound? Emsley describes this problem thus: "In loving one's neighbor there is an inherent tension between respect and affirmation; that is, it is difficult to draw the line between being polite and sympathetic to someone, and being complicit with that person's behavior" (59). This is certainly true in S&S, in which it seems as if the Dashwood sisters are surrounded by the most vulgar, villainous, or cloying people imaginable. A balance must be struck through sympathy tempered by judgment.

Kind and friendly behavior is referred to in Austen's novels as amiability. Like the other virtues, it is a mean, with faults lying at both extremes. "The excess of amiability is obsequiousness... and the defect is cantankerousness" (62); S&S certainly has its share of characters - from Lucy Steele to Mrs Ferrars - falling on either side. In discussing the qualities of friendship and social life, Emsley brought my attention to a description of the Middletons that will now make me momentarily abandon my essay tone: "Continual engagements at home and abroad... supplied all the deficiencies of nature and education." Sorry if this is mean, but to me that's an exact representation of the Middleton family who feature so much in gossip columns today. ;)

 Emsley goes on to discuss whether virtue is best formed in contact with the world, or in isolation from it. In exploring this question she returns to the theologians à Kempis and Augustine who advocated separation from the world, but acknowledged that the monastic life is not for all. She then turns to "Areopagitica", concluding that Austen agrees with Milton that "knowledge and survey of vice... [are] necessary to the constituing of virtue." Austen demonstrates this belief in a number of ways. Elinor speaks to Colonel Brandon of Marianne's need for a "better acquaintance with the world".  Edward states that his foolish engagement to Lucy was the "consequence of ignorance of the world". This need for knowledge is, however, balanced by the conclusion "the world [has] made [Willoughby] extravagant and vain". Knowledge, therefore, is necessary to the formation of good judgment in the young, but utter license is destructive to their character.

One of my favorite insights in this chapter involves how Austen signals out Willoughby's seduction of Eliza Williams as the "origin" of all his other crimes. Emsley points out how "this is in contrast to [David] Hume's theory that a man's virtue can be more easily redeemed. Thus Austen's fiction might be seen as opposing Hume's double standard of virtue" (60).

Another striking, though simple, insight was the presentation of the virtues as a chain. "Self-knowledge may bring us to understand our faults, knowledge of how we have injured others may bring us to exert ourselves...[,] and the constant discipline... requires courage" (74). This idea of virtues that "cause and affect each other" (74) reminded me of 2 Peter 1. Perhaps that text is especially significant in the light of the foundation of religion in Austen's worldview: "Add to your faith virtue."

One thing I question is Emsley's conclusion that, unlike Marianne, Elinor is not "prepared to ask for divine grace" (81). Although it is true she does not do so as explicitly as Marianne, could it be because Marianne has "sinned" more publicly? To what degree must confession be public? (Emsley uses the term penance in referring to Marianne's behavior. Could this be a Catholic element in Austen, or is this merely part of Marianne's tendency to extremes?) These questions are very interesting, when we consider the fact that three heroines (Marianne, Elizabeth, and Elinor) experience identifiable times of repentance, while the less hasty heroines (Elinor, Fanny, and Anne) seem to have little for which to repent. Emsley explores these differences further in the following chapters, especially relating to Fanny, but perhaps part of the answer lies in a quote she cites from Alastair Duckworth suggesting that Elinor "does not so much evince a moral growth as a constant internal moral struggle" ("The Improvement of the Estates" 114).

This moral struggle remains in evidence as Emsley ends her discussion of the tension between honesty and amiability. She concludes that "by behaving civilly to other people, Elinor is closer to practicing the virtues than Marianne, because a virtue is no longer a virtue when the practice of it is unjustly harmful to others" (71).

(A note on quotes: I'm providing page numbers for Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues because I may wish to use these in future essays. I'm not providing page numbers for Austen's works, as they may all be easily searched on the internet.)


  1. Fascinating - I like the way Emsley seems to examine the novels. However, I am curious about the lack of discussion of the titular qualities and their relationship to the virtues.

    The context with Hume is great - I love seeing how Austen fits into the debates of her time!

    Ah, Duckworth. Not as dear to me as Marylin Butler, but I like his stuff.

    I think your penultimate paragraph is really wonderful - the question of Catholicity and grace is a knotty one. Some people (perhaps even Emsley, when you get to the P&P chapter) have said that Darcy's change is very similar to a conversion, and I wonder if that could be applied to many of the moral changes the heroines of all Austen's novels go through as well. I don't know quite enough of Catholicism and how it differs from Anglicanism to say, but I don't really get a strong crypto-Catholic emanation from Austen. She seems very much middle-of-the-road CoE, though there might be cues I can't read because of denomination backgrounds and historical distance.

  2. Ian, I'm replying here since my last email was so long, but if you want to transfer this discussion to email that's fine.

    I think part of the reason she doesn't delve deeply into the titular qualities is that she's trying to focus on the cardinal virtues of the Christian (faith, hope, love) and classical traditions (justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude). She asserts that S&S is more about fortitude than temperance, and points out moments in P&P when prejudice is not a bad quality. Others have explored the titular qualities -- I guess one book can only do so much. ;)

    Speaking of Hume, she also had some great thoughts on how in "Enquiry" he claims that "what is evident... what is true, procures only the cool assent of the understanding" - revising the tradition of Philippians 4:8 "to demote truth" (Emsley 66). This kind of characterizes the postmodern mindset, doesn't it? I definitely need to read about him more, even though I foresee much disagreement. ;)

    Where do I even begin on the questions of grace, Catholicism, and conversion? I too don't know enough of Anglicanism and post-Trent Catholicism [not to say the doctrines have changed, but some of the rhetoric probably has] to fully judge. (Although that's no impediment to my reading Jane Eyre as being about Catholic vs mainstream Protestant grace.) Personally, I do think of the changes in Darcy, Elizabeth, Emma, and Marianne as conversions. I'm not sure if the terminology is too Evangelical to apply to something in Austen, as I tend to agree with you that she was quite "middle-of-the-road CoE". While I'm sufficiently evangelical (in a small 'e' way) that I like the phrase "conversion", I also love the fact that for Emma there are at least three moments of awakening. Emsley points this out, and I guess it resonates with me as someone who also has never had one big life-changing moment.

    Duckworth sounds great -- gotta check him out.

    There endeth the epistle. ;)

  3. Wherever you wish to discuss is fine with me! I know it's fun to have conversations on one's blog.

    Interesting about focusing on virtues as an interpretive lens. I think that's definitely valid (certainly as valid as feminism, postcolonialism, Marxism, New Criticism, or New Historicism). I do miss the title discussions, though. :)

    However, there's a very valid case to be made that Jane Austen wasn't as wedded to her titles as we tend to imagine - after all, P&P was "First Impressions" and S&S was "Elinor and Marianne." Persuasion, as far as I know, didn't even have a firm title, but three or so that Henry Austen picked when he sent it to be published. So I'm sure that my love of discussing the titular qualities could be just as warping as leaving them out. :)

    I'm more of a Locke guy than a Humean (and not a great scholar of either). But Hume is very brilliant and stimulating. Fascinating idea that Austen was confronting the rejection of truth even 200 years ago, when we like to think all the ideas we have and argue about are new.

    I think Jane Austen's relationship to Evangelicalism is something that could use more stuff written (and sadly, I have not the clerical bent, so if I ever write anything on my favorite author, it probably won't be on that). She does make both disparaging and admiring comments about the movement, though in her own wry way that makes her impossible to pin down.

    Emma is so awesome she gets three awakenings :)

    Duckworth is pretty great - I recommend trying to get hold of his revised edition of "The Improvement of the Estate," where his introduction talks about how his analysis has perhaps altered since he originally wrote the book (sadly, he spends a bit too much time bowing to deconstructionism, but what can you do).