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.