I am currently teaching a course that includes several works of literature, among them Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Reading this work with a group of bright and interested students has been a delight. Austen can charm students in 2011 and, given the multitude of voices and volumes competing for their attention, this is no small feat. But what, exactly, is it that makes Austen such a good teacher today? The question itself suggests that Austen is more than a good read, more than an escapist literary drug, more than a comedy of manners.
Austen provides something for which young people -- even the jaded ones -- secretly long. While the world she depicts is in many ways foreign to us, it is only just different enough to bring our own pathologies into clearer relief. In short, Austen reminds us of the largely forgotten categories of the lady and the gentleman. It is her genius to make us aspire to these roles, even in a world where such notions are strange and often ridiculed.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice sets the tone, albeit an ironic one, for if anything, it is the women who are in want of a husband; and the men of fortune, while not disinclined to marry, are surely not obsessed with the idea. Nevertheless, marriage is the theme of the book, and in addition to a variety of courtships, the reader is given an insider’s look into several long-established marriages, including the painfully mismatched Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and the delightfully compatible Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. We witness Charlotte Lucas wed the simpering Mr. Collins for the security he can provide; we see Wickham and Lydia marry only due to pressure and pecuniary inducements from Mr. Darcy; we see Bingley and Jane, two persons of such amiability (a primary virtue in Austen’s world) that their future bliss will only be marred by their susceptibility to deception by the less scrupulous and less amiable. Finally, and centrally, we watch Elizabeth and Darcy gradually drawn together in a match that is based on both love and good sense.
Of course, the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy is far from smooth. Darcy’s pride initially leads Elizabeth to despise him, and it is one of the charms of the book that we witness both Darcy and Elizabeth become better people in the process of moving toward each other. This is not to suggest that either becomes an idealized version of himself, for Austen is too much a student of human nature to imagine the possibility (or even the desirability) of perfection in her characters. Nevertheless, Darcy’s pride is softened as he comes to realize (and admit to) mistakes; Elizabeth, likewise, comes to understand that first impressions are often wrong and that character is far more important than a winning smile and charming words. In the process, both become better fit for marriage and better suited to each other.
Austen’s gentlemen (I’m thinking especially of Darcy here) understand the call of duty; they are committed to family, reputation, propriety, and self-control. To be sure, Darcy takes himself quite seriously, but aren’t these pursuits serious by nature? To neglect one’s duty, to be careless of one’s family and reputation, to ignore the bounds of propriety and to indulge the appetites without restraint are not the actions of a gentleman. They represent, conversely, the behavior of a boor. Or, perhaps equally fitting, they are the actions of a male who has no sense of what it means to be a man. Such characters may be Guys or Peter Pans, but they are not men and surely not gentlemen.
Austen’s ladies are likewise conscious of their place in society and understand that the bounds of propriety must be observed. And while it is no doubt a gain that women today are not threatened with ruin if they don’t marry, we should not overlook the social benefits latent in a society that makes marriage the ideal. The ideal lady in Austen’s world (and here I’m thinking of Elizabeth) is strong-minded and clearly the equal of any man. She is quick witted, self-confident, and an independent thinker who will not bow and scrape before a social superior such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, nor will she accede to marry any man she does not both love and respect. Like a gentleman, a lady is constrained by social limits that direct behavior, even as those limits make interaction between the sexes intelligible.
Just the other day, when we were discussing Darcy’s first proposal and Elizabeth’s adamant refusal, a bright young man raised his hand and said he had a question for a particular young lady in the class. He looked at her in all seriousness and said “Ashley, in light of your beauty and amiability would you be so kind as to accompany me to the Liberty Ball?” Several moments of stunned silence followed as the rest of us tried to discern if this was a joke or a legitimate invitation to the spring formal. The young man held his gaze with steady expectation, and in perfect Jane Austen fashion the young lady blushed. And being no less equal to the occasion than an Austen character she smiled demurely and remarked that in light of Elizabeth’s first response, she would have to say no. The young man gulped; she smiled, and then graciously accepted his offer. The rest of us broke into applause.
No doubt some who read this will be tempted to scoff and to cast aspersions on such a quaintly old-fashioned scene. However, if reading Jane Austen inspires this kind of exchange, isn’t it a dramatic improvement over the obscene pick-up line in a beer-soaked frat house, where a misshapen adolescent propositions a young woman who has never learned how to blush?
Austen’s focus on marriage as the natural and proper goal for young ladies and gentlemen reveals the sad inadequacies of today’s culture where indiscriminate self-indulgence is glorified as the fitting end of sexuality. Austen teaches her readers the nobility of restraint, the goodness of decorum, and that sexuality is a wonderful mystery within the context of a marriage founded on both love and good sense. That is a lesson every generation ignores at its own peril.
A version of this essay was originally published online on Front Porch Republic (April, 2011).
Mark T. Mitchell is Associate Professor of Government and the Chair of the Government Department at Patrick Henry College. He is the author of Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing (ISI Books) and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (forthcoming, Potomac Books). He is the co-editor of The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry (forthcoming, ISI Books). Currently he is writing a book on private property and freedom. Read full bio.