The continued appeal of Jane Austen’s work is in the true simplicity and humility hidden within the complex, deceitful web of human pride and prejudice…
Taking some entertainment time, we sat down last week to watch again the classic BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) was just as pompous and proud as ever, and Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) was just as pretty and prejudiced as ever. In fact, in their own way, almost all the characters, displayed a rich gamut of pride and prejudice.
The television adaptation sparked my interest to read an obscure book which had been on my shelves for some time: Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy. Dr. Collins is a history professor and Austen aficionado. Her fascinating book explores the world of Jane Austen—the daughter of a country parson, and uses examples from Austen’s novels to illuminate her Church of England context. As a former Anglican country parson, I was intrigued to read in more detail about the lives and milieu of the Anglican country priest in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Dr. Collins explains how rationalism and Deism (she omits to mention their ugly spawn Freemasonry) had taken hold of the national church. A recent term of criticism for liberal Christianity is “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” Lest we think this is only a problem of the church at the beginning of our own century—it was the default setting for the English church during the time of Jane Austen. The Anglican clergy of the day were not only devotees of a rationalistic form of Christianity, but they were also enmeshed in a patronage system that favored the Crown, the Oxford and Cambridge establishment, and the landed gentry. Their Christianity was genteel and polite—focusing on civil morality and a noble concern for the poor. As one acerbic Australian observed, “That’s not a religion mate. That’s a set of table manners.”
The Methodists had drawn the working classes with their fervor and Evangelicals in the Anglican Church were making headway. Both were looked on with distaste. Methodism’s other nickname was “Enthusiasm,” and it was notoriously put down by one Anglican divine who said, “Enthusiasm, sir, is odious!”
In Jane Austen’s day, the whole Church of England might be characterized as being infused with pride and prejudice. Pride in their establishment position, and prejudice against Papists, Methodists, Evangelicals, or any Christian who had the bad taste of being especially fervent in their religion.
While she had not time for “enthusiasm” and accepted the Anglican status quo, Jane Austen also punctures the clerical pomposity, pride, and prejudice with the pin of satire and the inflated Anglican clergy are her target. Who can forget the obsequious Rev. Mr. Collins—so enchanted by the fireplace at Rosings? Mr. Elton in Emma is an unfortunate social climber, while the choice of clerical profession for Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey seem little more than a sensible move to respectable security. Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park is the most serious about his calling, but even he seems a dithering lightweight.
Beneath Austen’s humor is humility. She satirizes the vain, silly, pompous, proud, and prejudiced, but she does so with good nature and an underlying kindness. She is often cutting, but never cruel. She laughs, but she doesn’t mock. She understands that humor and humility are rooted in humus—the earth. She knows that we are but dust and to dust we shall return—and that knowledge makes her kind.
Like all great writers, she has an innate understanding of human psychology, and she teaches that the more one knows, the more one can forgive. Thus, in Pride and Prejudice she takes the time to explain the root cause of Mr. Collins’ foolish pride. Austen points out that his faults are the result of a repressive father and the domineering Lady Catherine and that is why he is “a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.”
If humility and humor are linked with humus, then it follows that the humble are down to earth. They are full of common sense. Her heroines (like Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot) either see through the vanity, foolishness, and pride of their family and friends, or (like Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood, and Elizabeth Bennet) they grow up through their trials, see through the vanity, and learn the virtue of humility.
The humility Austen displays is not the false obsequiousness of the social climber or the false piety of the self-consciously religious. Instead true humility is linked with a clear vision of reality. Austen’s heroes are the men and women who see and accept themselves and others with clarity and charity. They accept that good manners and good morals dictate the way to behave towards others, and that such manners and morals must always be genuine and from the heart—not simply a display of outward artifice or the result of social accomplishment.
Finally, in Austen’s stories these humble characters are most often hidden—as you would expect the truly humble to be. Because they do not affect superficial charm, they are overlooked. So the worth of Colonel Brandon, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Knightley need to be discovered, while the charm of Mr. Wickham, Willoughby, and Frank Churchill needs to be revealed as the ephemeral form of pride that it truly is. Likewise the simple humility of Elinor Dashwood, Charlotte Lucas, and Anne Elliot proves worthy despite their unprepossessing appearance.
The continued appeal of Austen’s work is therefore not simply in the comic moments and the enjoyable sighs of a love story well told. Instead the audience is intrigued and inspired by the discovery of true simplicity and humility hidden within the complex, deceitful web of human pride and prejudice.
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