We all know that there are things in fiction that just aren’t so in real life. That is, after all, the point of fiction. So far, I don't believe we’ve needed anyone to tell us that Elinor Dashwood and Anne Eliot never existed, and I think there have already been enough chapters written to young women, explaining that Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley never existed (and never will), that we have no excuse on that head. Oh, we may still get swept into phases of spending more time with our imaginary friends in Jane Austen’s England than we should, but we don’t forget that the people aren’t real. What we young women do sometimes forget is that “Jane Austen’s England” wasn’t real either, and if we’re not particularly crazy about our modern society, we’re probably inclined to forget that, even if the fantasy world of Jane Austen was real, it wasn’t a place we would actually want to live in.
Fiction writers get to play God, you know, even if it is only in a small way. To be sure, creating a character that never existed before is really only imitation; no one can build a character’s personality from scratch, because there aren’t any more emotions to be invented, and anything that might appear unique is just an exaggeration of something the writer had already observed in real people. Still, we have to admit that there’s a lot of the author that goes into creating the little universe that houses the story’s inhabitants—a lot of the author’s worldview, whether it’s consistent with the real universe or not.
Unlike most of her contemporaries, Jane Austen was opposed to flowery, romantic portrayals of life and love, and instead gave us a mild form of realism, which is unfortunately very easily mistaken for reality. Unfortunately, again, Jane Austen wasn’t an unbiased observer when it came to the culture she lived in, and she wasn’t so perfectly devoted to ridding her society of its ills that she was innocent of having unconsciously contributed to them from time to time. Not all of the patterns in Jane’s England, as we see it in her six novels, have anything to do with life as it really was, and there are at least nineteen of them that don’t have that much to do with life as it should be, either. I don’t think we have to panic at the idea that Jane Austen wasn’t perfect, and I don’t think her errors run so deep that we have to avoid all of the books or movies. However, going into them with our eyes open might be a good idea.
The Nineteen Most Dangerous Normatives in Jane Austen’s England:
1. It is normative to be the only (or almost the only) sane, steady, virtuous person in one's immediate family.
2. Parents are silly and selfish, and do not know what is best.
3. It is normative and desirable to experience the most important points of life at some distance from one’s parents.
Miss Austen may have really had a great appreciation for her own family, and even families in general, but in her writings, family members tend to be nuisances, rather than assets. Now, do you suppose there is any danger of a real-life young woman who is not the most superior person in her family, to begin feeling and behaving like she is? It’s not that we’re more likely to imagine ourselves into isolation within our own families because Jane Austen has told us that we would be in the majority if we did. Honestly, though, we had enough trouble with this temptation back when we thought we were exceptional cases.
Jane Austen didn’t live in a generation where the media could get away with constantly telling young people that they know better than their parents, and that the parents’ absence is the children’s freedom; but we do, and when we go off to enjoy an Austen story, we have to remember to look at it through the lens of our era as well as hers—which means a little more penetration, discernment and self-examination on our part.
4. It is normative for fathers to fail to provide meaningful direction and to take real responsibility for their own families.
5. Pastors are hypocritical, irreverent, and irrelevant.
6. In-laws are meddlesome, overbearing, cynical, and obstacles to be gotten over.
Not all of our temptations have to do with attitudes that we might pick up for ourselves; sometimes it’s enough for us to start thinking that other people’s wrong attitudes are… well, not wrong. We may not actually believe (what Marxists would have us believe) that the God-appointed leaders of the family and church are naturally unworthy of respect, or that extended family members aren’t worth loving just because they’re family; and Jane Austen died before Karl Marx was even born, so we don’t exactly have to worry about him having influenced her novels. Still, we need to watch that we don’t get so used to seeing negative examples of the relationships bad guys like Marx and Jean-Jacque Rousseau were trying to undermine (no matter when the stories are from), that we don’t notice the socialist slant to them in other books and movies.
7. It is normative to marry without any inquiry with regard to religious ideas or convictions.
8. “Love” is the only valid reason for marriage.
9. It is normal to propose marriage, and to accept a proposal, without any prior hint at affection or commitment.
10. It is normal to fall in love with a person previously despised or disliked.
11. It is normative to experience unrequited love.
12. It is normative to form an engagement without the knowledge of any parents.
13. It is normative to fall in love with, or be loved by, more than one individual.
14. It is normative for a man to fall in love with a woman in spite of her serious character flaws, even though it is not normative for a woman to fall in love with a man under the same circumstances.
Every one of Jane Austen’s novels ends with the heroine marrying the man she loves, and usually with a number of side characters following suit. The whole point of the story is the triumph of affection over all the lesser things that get in its way; but for all the attention she gives them, it still seems that, on the whole, Jane Austen’s view of love and marriage may have been too low, rather than too high.
Her characters’ affection for one another tends to lack a really solid foundation in Christian love, conviction, or even basic civility, on occasion. And while she rightly condemns characters who are only interested in marriage as a source of temporary pleasure or mere security, she gives the better, wiser characters a “love” that can only just barely be distinguished from most of the others’. I don’t think we young women needed Jane Austen to point us toward sudden, secret affections that have no base in godliness or in real commitment, but her influence probably won’t help us avoid them, either.
15. It is nominally undesirable, but normative to have connections with people who have been engaged in illicit sexual behavior.
16. It is normative for men to think of their wives as mere companions, and not co-laborers.
17. Religion is a matter of course, and not one of choice or importance.
18. Life before marriage is more interesting than married life.
19. Children make no difference in the happiness of a married couple.
Let’s not kid ourselves about Jane Austen’s England being a world in which indelicate subjects are avoided as much as possible, in which true religion abounds, and life at home is considered the greatest earthly happiness. I know it goes a little against our ideals for Austen to have written just as much about fornication and adultery as about the married lives of her heroines, for her to have written next to nothing about their personal religious convictions, and for her to have ventured sometimes years into their futures without one word about whether any of them ever had children. We can hardly be expected to like the God-given purposefulness of a woman’s role in marriage to be conspicuous by its absence, either. Jane Austen was, however, quite the advocate of realism over romanticism, and it would be a shame for us to so romanticize her writings that we ignore the awkward reality of her subject preferences.
I think I’m probably going to scare you a little by asking you to choose which is more important to you: a biblical worldview or Jane Austen. But the point isn’t that there are only two options, when it comes to Austen novels—love God or love Jane. After perhaps a momentary cringe at the idea of putting a favorite author on the other side of the question from a completely pure worldview, we all know that we would choose the Word of God over Pride and Prejudice, if it actually came to that. We know it just as surely, perhaps, as Miss Austen, writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, knew that family was important, that marriage was about more than just personal happiness, and that love was more than an indescribable feeling. That she wrote a story which hinted at the opposite isn’t the problem. The problem is that, over the course of six books, she created a fantasy world in which the opposite is normative.
In the same way, our concern isn’t necessarily that Jane Austen is going to corrupt us into forsaking what we know is right—that we’re going to love the errors just because we love the characters who make them. But maybe the next time we read one of the novels, or watch one of the film adaptations, we should be on the watch for a few errors that we might fall into: that we might be so devoted to a collection of flawed stories that we end up taking in just as much of a worldly pattern as the author was showing forth—that our own new “normatives” will silence us on issues that need to be spoken against, even in fiction—and that, like Jane Austen, we may not even know the difference.
Images: Elinor from Sense and Sensibility; Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice; Catherine from Northanger Abbey; Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice; Mr. Elton from Emma; Mrs. Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility; Marianne and Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility; Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice; Fanny and Edmund from Mansfield Park; Lydia and Mr. Wickham from Pride and Prejudice; Captain Wentworth from Persuasion; Emma and Mr. Knightley, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, from Emma.
ARTICLE BY: AMANDA KAYLON