A truth universally acknowledged: Jane Austen, Aristotle and Aquinas

A possible sketch of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra.

A possible sketch of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra.

Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint.

–From Jane Austen’s Juvenalia

The good Dominican brothers at Dominicana  are running a series on Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. The first entry, introducing the series, is here.

Now, since I am who I am–a fervent Janeite–I would have to, of course, write my own ideas in my own blog space, because, as much as I appreciate the Honored Brother in his devoting attention to my Dear Jane, there are a few things with which I have issue, or which my Jane obsession could serve to clarify some points. (Are you liking my Jane writing style yet?)

In the first essay, In Pursuit of Happiness, Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility is discussed:

Another critical aspect of Aristotelian virtue ethics is the importance given to the individual, moral person in her totality. It is not a question of mind over body, but rather of an integral whole, mind and body, making decisions in the face of challenges that come up in life. This dynamic is the primary focus of Sense and Sensibility, as the title declares forthrightly. A rather poor reading of this novel would suggest that Austen favors a rational approach to romance to one based upon feeling or that Elinor, as well as Marianne, must learn something from her counterpart. However, when the narrator introduces Elinor to the reader, she is described as having “an excellent heart” and that “her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them.” Mind is not given a monopoly in virtuous action, and Elinor is by no means a stranger to emotion. It is through the union of the intellectual and the sensible that Elinor is able to weather her troubled course throughout the novel much more composedly than her overly affectionate sister, Marianne.

Indeed, a rather poor reading of this novel would lead to the idea that Austen suggests Elinor is the model to be followed. In fact, Austen put much of herself into Marianne (the love of Cowper, of drawing, etcetera), and intended that the readers would see the need for a healthy balance of both sense and sensibilityElinor may not be a stranger to emotion, but the only time is it visible to others is during the scene when Edward proposes to her at the end of the novel, when it literally comes pouring out of her. Elinor has a “good heart”, yes, but suffocating her emotion is not a healthy thing, either, as we see.

The central conflict of the novel is that pull between sense and passion, which almost kills both protagonists–Elinor, the life in her soul for the loss of Edward, and Marianne, her physical death due to her walk to Combe Magna in the rain once they reached Cleveland. Both sisters need to learn from the other–Elinor, to be a bit more open in her affections, and Marianne needs a dose of Elinor’s common sense. Both sisters reach this balance by the end of the novel and end up happily married.

The second essay, “Foundations Once Destroyed”, focuses on the Jane novel nearest to my heart–Mansfield Park. I say that because it’s what I wrote my senior thesis on, in college, in particular the idea that Fanny Price is an excellent example of feminism, properly understood, and especially in the Catholic sense of femininity. There is one mistake in this essay:

In so few words, the narrator of Mansfield Park identifies the foundation for the remarkable attachment of the charming and playful Henry Crawford for the demure and boring Fanny Price.

BORING! Fanny Price is not boring. She is demure and introspective, but if she were boring, neither Mary nor Henry would’ve paid the slightest attention to her. Instead, she is a delightful enigma to them, as they both interrogate the Bertram children about Fanny’s background, whether she is “out or not out”, and about her social history. Henry sees her as a challenge, declaring to his sister Maria that he will make Fanny Price fall in love with him. By calling Fanny boring, the entire piece loses its steam because by saying she’s boring, the reader can think that her goodness is boring. And it is not. Fanny’s virtue is revealed to triumph in the end, when Henry and Maria are seen for what they are.

In an interesting side note, Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister, wanted Fanny to marry Henry. She thought that she could have reformed him. And indeed, Henry shares several qualities with Jane’s favorite brother, also named Henry.

Mansfield Park inspires more debate than any other Austen novel–many critics, through the centuries (its bicentennial is on May 9 of this year) have hated Fanny, calling her among other things, repellent and lacking in self-knowledge, generosity and humility. Lionel Trilling, who defended Mansfield Park, said:  “Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.”

Trilling obviously did not know us, those of us who like Fanny Price. But to call her boring, as the author so regretful did in an otherwise good piece, is to continue to propagate Trilling’s statement.

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3 thoughts on “A truth universally acknowledged: Jane Austen, Aristotle and Aquinas

  1. Pingback: Femininity in Sense and Sensibility | Living Adventurously

  2. Lovely.
    I agree with everything in this post. It’s always nice to find someone who gets “Mansfield Park”, Jane Austen’s most complex and profound novel (my favourite among the 6 works). Sadly it’s so often misunderstood.

  3. Pingback: The Great Jane Re-Read: Sense and Sensibility | Living Adventurously

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