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

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Summer Reading Roundup (Part 1)

 Currently Reading: Adam Bede by George Eliot (absolutely absorbing!); William Wordsworth: A Biography with Selected Poems by Rosanna Negrotti; The World of Ellen G White edited by Gary Land; and listening to a librivox recording of Jane Eyre.

Summer has been busy and -- as some of you have probably gotten sick of being reminded -- my laptop gave up the ghost. Hence, my failure to provide monthly reading updates. However, my review compulsion, and love of discussing books with my friends here, won't let me go without giving a few lines on what I've been reading in the past months.

 The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
It's not my favorite Sayers work, but that's probably my own fault for rushing through it without making an effort to understand the change ringing. Nevertheless, it has some gorgeous prose and a just-surprising-enough-but-not-too-much mystery solution.

Doctor Adrian: A Story of Old Holland by Deborah Alcock (reread)

(image from

This poster of Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems rescuing his Catholic pursuer hangs in my room. The novel Doctor Adrian takes place in the Dutch provinces, ravaged by Philip II's inquisition. I probably should mock its sentimental Victorian prose and penchant for treacherous Jesuits in disguise... but I rather like both. I like still more the title character -- a fictional protege of Andreas Vesalius -- with his fictional friend, Dirk Willems' son. Still more I like the heroic portrayal of the Prince of Orange, who is the primary focus of the next book I read...

Stories of the Reformation in the Netherlands by Ruth Gordon Short (reread)

(Praise for the Prince of Orange and other Protestants, mostly opprobrium for Philip II and his minions, though with some occasional sympathy for Charles V. That's probably all most of you care to know. Since I was having all my Orange feelings several months ago when I wasn't posting, you're all spared the recital.)

I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman's Journey to Reclaim Her Heritage by

Listening to this as an audiobook helped humanize the communal Anabaptist group every prairie Canadian knows on sight. Mary-Ann's life growing up in the colony was in many ways warm, loving, and idyllic. Her description of her family showed real Christianity in their lives, but as with most exclusive groups, corrupt power dynamics rose in the colony, and eventually drove her family to the difficult choice of starting a new life in the "English" world.

To Drink of His Love by Mary Wuestefeld
A young woman's experiences escaping the clutches of legalistic religion that had made her question how the gospel could really be good news.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Conclusion: After Austen

 Jane Austen's popularity has ensured that every generation sees some writer heralded as "the new Jane Austen". Most, of course, sink back into relative obscurity, although the various genres Austen is credited as influencing continue. Having placed Austen in a tradition of ethical writers stretching from Aristotle to Shakespeare, Sarah Emsley looks at the inheritors of Austen's moral seriousness and ethical deliberation. For Emsley, three authors stand out: George Eliot, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.

Anyone familiar George Eliot knows about her emphasis on empathy, or sympathy. Emsley states that for Eliot, "Sympathy is the alternative to faith as the grounding of all virtue..." (161) Humility is a necessary part of sympathy, as Maggie rages at Tom, "You boast of your own virtues... [and] have no sense of your own imperfection" (The Mill on the Floss) However, Emsley agrees with Will's criticism of Dorothea's "fanaticism of sympathy" as unable to bring about ultimate virtue and happiness (see Middlemarch). Eliot's novels contrast with Austen's in that "faith is discussed explicitly and frequently, but the reason why it is addressed directly is that it is often either lost or endangered" (Emsley, 162). This, of course, is because Eliot had lost her once-strong faith. I admit, I love Eliot and her idea of sympathy. However, as a Christian, I think I agree with Emsley that it cannot be the sole foundation of virtue. (Rohan Maitzen has written some interesting pieces on Eliot's view of sympathy, rather than religion, as moral framework.)

In "The Janeites" Kipling declares that Jane Austen left "lawful issue" in Henry James. However, according to Emsley, in "James's later novels, virtue seems not just a mysterious desert, but an unfathomable sea" (162). In one work "Aesthetics replace ethics" (163) for the hero. In another, two characters decide on a system of "care" that entails "never consciously" wounding others. Their "care", however, involves keeping their affair a secret from their respective spouses. Their ethical deliberation "works toward what makes life.. more comfortable" (163). While in Austen's novels "it generally becomes clear where the moral center of the novel is..." this is not so for James. Emsley tells us, "Increasingly for James's main characters, the virtues are replaced by the values of modern life, values that are negotiable rather than flexible" (163). James is more interested in knowledge and analysis of ethics than ethical action. He too seems hardly a worthy heir for Austen.

Emsley argues that Edith Wharton's novels lack hope born of "faith in something positive". "The ruling value is authenticity" (165) Wharton, therefore, also fails to live up to Austen's vision of virtue that produces happiness.

Emsley concludes: "Just as Austen's contemporaries often saw virtue as sexual purity, writers after Austen tend to focus on a particular kind of virtue that informs the ethics of a given situation" (165). Throughout the book Emsley effectively argues that "Even among writers of her time, Jane Austen's exploration of the unity of the virtues is original and exceptional" (166). Austen, therefore, is unrivaled in her exploration of the virtuous life. Austen's popularity also implies that she is unrivaled in showing that "An education in virtue can be dramatically interesting" (167).

As I stated at the beginning of this series, the best books "show us to ourselves". Despite being an academic work, Emsley's engagement with the principles of ethics helped me think more deeply about my ethical foundations. Her emphasis on Austen's Christian moorings made me think more closely about love, hope, and faith as ways of seeing and reacting to life. (And, yes, by extension I even thought more closely about some statements of Paul's.) I'll continue to look back on this book as a pivotal experience as I navigate the worlds of Austen criticism and virtuous life.

 This series of posts would not have been possible without Esther, who graciously sent her copy of Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues all the way to Canada for me to read. (Esther has herself written a series of posts on this book, which summarize it beautifully, doubtless covering points I missed.) I also want to thank all my perspicacious friends who commented (keep it up! the discussions don't have to end!) and shared thoughts. I especially appreciated the thoughts that the Mansfield Park post generated. And lastly, thanks to Sarah Emsley for writing such a great work and even mentioning this series on her excellent blog.

Balancing the Virtues in "Persuasion"

I have a theory that Austen made the heroines of her successive novels studies in contrast. Quiet Fanny follows sparkling Elizabeth, persuadable Anne follows confident Emma. According to Sarah Emsley, Anne is also a foil to Emma in truly possessing the "resources of mind and spirit... that Emma Woodhouse thinks she herself possesses" (Emsley, 145). Emsley also sees Persuasion as the most explicit of the six novels in balancing the virtues. She states, "Anne's argument at the end of the novel that she was right to take Lady Russel's advice, even if the advice was wrong, demonstrates that for Austen, ethics has to do with character rather than rules" (146).

Austen makes deliberate reference to the need for balance -- in this case between firmness and persuadability -- after Louisa's disastrous fall. This "recalls Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, in which virtuous qualities have proportions and limits. Though Wentworth himself does not realize it, he does think that to be sometimes persuadable is a good thing, as he has recommended that Louisa persuade Henrietta to be firm" (148).

Emsley also agrees with my theory that "It is Wentworth, not Anne, who must change in this novel" (149). Once again, critics who claim Austen does not deal with the minds of men are proven wrong, through Wentworth's succinct account of how he came to recognize his own pride.

In Persuasion, Anne must exercise her judgment in her treatment of her varied acquaintances -- from the prideful Lady Dalrymple, and the seemingly-charming Mr Eliot, to the humble Mrs Smith. Emsley demonstrates that in this novel right treatment of others requires consideration, not of "birth or fortune", but of "understanding and value" (153). Sir Walter and Elizabeth are notably without such judgment in their treatment of "only Anne" whose "elegance of mind and sweetness of character" should distinguish her.

Emsley presents Anne's pang of conscience while reading Mr Eliot's private letters as an example of the virtues in tension. In this situation "the code of honor that protects a man's private life and letters conflicts with the attempt of two women to establish the truth. In this case, truth must win in order for Anne to preserve her own character, and to separate herself and her family from the designs of Mr Eliot.. [T]he real virtue of truth triumphs over mere rules..." (154)

When Anne argues that women love longest "when hope is gone" she is uses no literary examples, and it is clear she is thinking of her own situation. However, her behavior throughout the novel demonstrates that she does possess hope, if not in a renewal of Wentworth's love (though this is a primary theme of the last section of the novel), then in something greater than herself. "[It] is through constancy and faith in Persuasion that [Austen] demonstrates the unity of the virtues... Constancy is the natural consequence of the uniting of the classical virtue of fortitude with the Christian virtue of hope" (156). While some critics have argued that Anne is depressed at the beginning of the novel, her consistent actions of kindness and care for others are examples of fortitude born of hope. This is hope as Paul conceives of it in Romans 5:4, "Experience [worketh] hope." Like love, it is not merely an emotion, but a way of viewing the world that motivates action toward others. In short, Anne possess Paul's trivium: faith, hope, and love. Emsley concludes that "Persuasion contains the closest thing to an explicit theory of the unity of classical and Christian virtues" (158).

These thoughts are drawn from Sarah Emsley's book Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues.