What would Jane do?

The famous Austen author is very funny. Her characters are vivid. The poise of her sentences is perfect. Her plots are pretty good—at least, they keep you reading. However, to write brilliant novels was not Jane Austen’s foremost goal: What was most important to her was to provide moral instruction.

In their essence, Austen’s books are moral works. “Northanger Abbey” is really about Catherine Morland’s moral education: She learns that the world does not operate on the principles of a gothic novel. As the title indicates, “Sense and Sensibility” is a moral tale: It is the story of Elinor’s self-command and Marianne’s self-indulgence. The central event of both “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” is each heroine’s discovery of her own moral weakness. “Mansfield Park” treats any number of moral issues, from the propriety of engaging in amateur theatricals to the consequences of leaving one’s husband for another man. The premise of “Persuasion” is that Anne Elliot once sacrificed her happiness by doing her duty and obeying the admonishment of her moral guide, Lady Russell. Moral concerns are not only reflected in the large themes of the books, however: They are pervasive. Even the smallest act or the briefest dialogue or the mere description of a character’s manner of dress is freighted with moral content.

So says James Collins, writer and editor of “A Truth Universally Acknowledged,” an anthology of essays about why we read Jane Austen.

Today’s readers, he says, tend to appreciate Austen despite her didacticism rather than because of it. She can be positively priggish, and that is an embarrassment. The contemporary reader who loves Jane Austen sort of blips over the moralizing sections and tells himself that they don’t really count. It is possible to ignore this aspect of her work, just as it is possible to discuss a religious painting with hardly any reference to the artist’s religious intent. But Collins reckons this seems absurd: “Ignoring a writer’s central concern is a strange way to attempt to appreciate and understand her.”

Read the full article online at the Wall Street Journal …

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