Jane Austen: Modern (1775–1817)

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
“Bingley.”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? how can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”


Today she is one of the most towering figures in literature, but she passed through life almost anonymously. Fittingly, the only authenticated portrait of her is a partially complete watercolor by her sister.  She could not have dreamt that Pride and Prejudice would sell tens of millions of copies and that she would achieve such fame and lofty status.

John Mark Reynolds wrote this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

It was a lightly regarded novelist of manners who has endured best to our day. A few people noticed her genius, Sir Walter Scott in particular. Scott was the great writer of his day—now too little read—and he defended “light” novels as worthwhile. The spare prose of Austen found fewer readers then, but Scott was right that the realistic and plain portrayal of one portion of English life was an important trend in literature.

Jane Austen is abused by some English departments eager for a “great woman writer” and obsessed with making the same ideological points in every book read. Austen refuses to fit neat categories. She obviously opposed the reduction of women to mindless objects for male entertainment, but in a revolutionary age, one thoroughly roiled by notions of radical emancipation, Austen was no revolutionary. She was a progressive conservative . . . a Christian in the tradition of Saint Paul.

 

Why has Jane Austen’s writing remained so popular?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


Truths Universally to Be Acknowledged
ON PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

John Mark Reynolds

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

A book full of universal truths begins with a claim about truth that isn’t. As the novel will show, not all single rich men have thoughts of, or even are in very great need of, a wife. Is the long-suffering Mr. Bennet really better off married? Perhaps, but it is not obviously so, and certainly his is not a situation most men would envy.

In fact, Austen has written a book in which many such truths are exposed as the result of pride and/or more prejudice. Both pride and prejudice get in the way of love, and the universal truth she reveals is that both men and women of any fortune are in desperate need of love from someone other than themselves.

Austen argues by demonstration and by showing the folly of alternatives. If you have not read the whole book, please stop reading this essay, go get a copy, and finish Pride and Prejudice. It’s a truth universally to be acknowledged that people who do not actually read all of a great book before discussing it spoil the power of the book when they return to it later.

My assumption is that these chapters have reminded you of the Bennet family—especially the nature of the daughters and of the tension that exists between Darcy and Elizabeth. They eventually marry (I warned you to stop reading if you didn’t know the outcome), but only when both have been purged of a great deal of pride and prejudice.

All the Bennet daughters lack something, and that something is not a man. In Austen, marriage is not the coming together of two equals but the coming together of two human beings who are very different yet compatible. Men are not women; women are not men. It is the fusing of the two “others” that makes marriage explosively fruitful.

Two become one, and civilization gets three!

———

Austen knew nothing of our modern quest for equality. People are not numbers, and so they are never “equal.” Some folk are higher placed than others, have more money, were more fortunate in their parents, or are brighter. These gifts do not come to us by merit but by the unfathomable providence of God.

At the same time, foolish people might confuse graces bestowed by God with actual merit. Mr. Collins, as odious and pitiable a man as one can imagine, makes this error. Wealthy patrons are better in their potency, but they may not have done anything with their graces. Abilities or gifts without works are worse than useless, and one who has been given much should be expected to do much. Mr. Darcy lives up to the expectations of his gifts; Mr. Collins’s patron does not.

Austen didn’t make the French Revolutionaries’ mistake of assuming that the plumber could become a professor by legal declaration and wishing it to be so. On the other hand, she also does not make the pitiable error of the Old Regime and assume that all lords are lordly.
Instead she is deeply conservative, because she is an advocate of love. Love knows nothing of equality, because the lover always elevates the Beloved above all others. Nobody makes a lover cling only to his beloved and forsake all others. Passion demands it, at least at first. It is an essential feature of Christian civilization to insist that this love vow be cherished and honored.

Men and women aren’t allowed to swear eternal fidelity and then forget. They must renew their vows and grow in love to each other. The trouble is that love, while necessary, isn’t enough this side of paradise. Ideally, all Beloveds should be worthy of our love, but not all are fit objects of our passion.

Lydia, the passionate sister, makes the mistake of believing that love always reports truly on the character of the Beloved. Sadly, she has fixed her attentions on someone unworthy of her love. Her prejudice that a man who is lovely and should be good is worthy of love and good, will ruin her by the end of the book.

God bestows great gifts on human beings with perfect justice, but not all gifts we are given come from God. Some gifts come from society or culture, and it is here that problems develop. Civilization will stunt the progress of women so that marriage to Mr. Collins is more desirable than marriage to a fit man. Mr. Collins will be given social position he misuses and does not deserve while more fit men are passed over.

Austen didn’t pretend this system is just; while it needed to be changed, it could only be changed slowly, or the revolution would cause more pain than it brought pleasure. She saw things as they were—didn’t always like them but accepted what must be accepted. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is too demanding of life.

Elizabeth demands perfect justice and knowledge that justice has been done. This is ideal, but unrealistic. Charity, absolute romance, demands that in a fallen world we judge by the standard by which we wish to be judged. She misjudges Darcy, but that’s not her only problem. She requires too much of the world, and she lacks mercy. Even with her friends she’s too quick to assume she knows what’s best.

It’s a truth universally to be acknowledged that love between beings as different as men and women can only work when the men and women are fully human. It is their common humanity, the virtue of exhibiting God’s image, that makes the dangerous fusion of two “others” fecund and not just explosive. Austen demonstrated a temporary truth, an ideal so valuable in our age, one that before Christ returns will never quite be realized. We will have to be charitable even to Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, understanding that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).