Jane Austen: Modern (1775–1817)


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?”
“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

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).

Becoming Jane

NPG 3630; Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen

Jane Austen

Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.

This must have been a bittersweet day for Jane. On January 28th, 1813 her finest novel, Pride and Prejudice was finally published. At 38 she was still a young woman, but the novel had been written since she was 22. “At last!” she must have thought, and perhaps it seemed to her that she was finally on her way.  Little did she know, she would be dead just a few years later at the tender age of 41.

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 over 20 million copies and that she would achieve such fame and lofty status.

Her life has much to teach us about the context of our existence. A proverb from ancient Greece says ““Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Fittingly, its author is anonymous.  Great achievements are only rarely quickly understood.

IMG_01811 John 3:2

Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.


Dig Deeper

Art: Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, circa 1810

The only authenticated picture of Austen is a small pencil and watercolor sketch made by her sister, Cassandra, on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London.  Even so, Jane’s relatives were not entirely convinced by it: ‘there is a look which I recognize as hers’, her niece wrote, ‘though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasing countenance it is so far a truth.’ It is the basis for a late nineteenth-century engraving, commissioned by Austen’s nephew.

Literature and Liturgy: Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen was born at Steventon on December 16, 1775, the youngest of seven children. She received her education—scanty enough, by modern standards—at home. Besides the usual elementary subjects, she learned French and some Italian, sang a little, and became an expert needle-woman. Her reading extended little beyond the literature of the eighteenth century, and within that period she seems to have cared most for the novels of Richardson and Miss Burney, and the poems of Cowper and Crabbe. Dr. Johnson, too, she admired, and later was delighted with both the poetry and prose of Scott. The first twenty-five years of her life she spent at Steventon; in 1801 she moved with her family to Bath, then a great center of fashion; after the death of her father in 1805, she lived with her mother and sister, first at Southampton and then at Chawton; finally she took lodgings at Winchester to be near a doctor, and there she died on July 18, 1817, and was buried in the cathedral. Apart from a few visits to friends in London and elsewhere, and the vague report of a love affair with a gentleman who died suddenly, there is little else to chronicle in this quiet and uneventful life.

But quiet and uneventful though her life was, it yet supplied her with material for half a dozen novels as perfect of their kind as any in the language. While still a young girl she had experimented with various styles of writing, and when she completed “Pride and Prejudice” at the age of twenty-two, it was clear that she had found her appropriate form. This novel, which in many respects she never surpassed, was followed a year later by “Northanger Abbey,” a satire on the “Gothic” romances then in vogue; and in 1809 she finished “Sense and Sensibility,” begun a dozen years before. So far she had not succeeded in having any of her works printed; but in 1811 “Sense and Sensibility” appeared in London and won enough recognition to make easy the publication of the others. Success gave stimulus, and between 1811 and 1816, she completed “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” and “Persuasion.” The last of these and “Northanger Abbey” were published posthumously.

The most remarkable characteristic of Jane Austen as a novelist is her recognition of the limits of her knowledge of life and her determination never to go beyond these limits in her books. She describes her own class, in the part of the country with which she was acquainted; and both the types of character and the events are such as she knew from first-hand observation and experience. But to the portrayal of these she brought an extraordinary power of delicate and subtle delineation, a gift of lively dialogue, and a peculiar detachment. She abounds in humor, but it is always quiet and controlled; and though one feels that she sees through the affectations and petty hypocrisies of her circle, she seldom becomes openly satirical. The fineness of her workmanship, unexcelled in the English novel, makes possible the discrimination of characters who have outwardly little or nothing to distinguish them; and the analysis of the states of mind and feeling of ordinary people is done so faithfully and vividly as to compensate for the lack of passion and adventure. She herself speaks of the “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work,” and, in contrast with the broad canvases of Fielding or Scott, her stories have the exquisiteness of a fine miniature.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was published anonymously in three volumes in 1813. The narrative, which Austen initially titled “First Impressions,” describes the clash between Elizabeth Bennet, the daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich and aristocratic landowner. Although Austen shows them intrigued by each other, she reverses the convention of first impressions: “pride” of rank and fortune and “prejudice” against Elizabeth’s inferiority of family hold Darcy aloof, while Elizabeth is equally fired both by the pride of self-respect and by prejudice against Darcy’s snobbery. Ultimately, they come together in love and self-understanding.

The 2005 film with Keira Knightly was nominated for four Academy Awards


Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

Barbour Publishing Inc, Book Lover’s Devotional (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011).

Jane Austen, Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction 3: Laurence Stern, Jane Austen, ed. William Allan Neilson (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1917), 145–147.

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

The Incarnation

Holly Ordway

Sunlight gilds the pine boughs at my window,
Each needle haloed, dark against the light,
As if this evanescent brightness shows
The good this day may hold. The time is tight,
To catch my breath before the press of all
I have to do; the minutes slip away,
The fading sunlight moves along the wall
And I have done so little yet this day.
But still I turn aside, set down my pen,
And heed the deeper call that bids me here.
Agnus Dei, dona nobis pacem.
Time out of time: eternity comes near,
And in the hour I thought I could not spare,
I kneel, and, halting, ask the saints for prayer.

The Apostle John opens his gospel with a description of Jesus as “the Word.”  This was especially meaningful to his original readers who understood the complexity of the “logos” as an expression of the inexplicable. The Chinese language contains a similar term, “tao“, which means both “thinking” and “speaking.”  As creatures made in His image, God has set eternity in our hearts yet, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, we “cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to the end” (Ecc 3:11).  Fortunately, God graced us with the ability to gain understanding.

In her book,  Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, Holly Ordway writes:

Literature is extremely helpful in this regard for both deepening and broadening one’s theory of mind. To begin with, reading imaginative fiction that focuses on character development and interaction, such as the fiction of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope, helps us hone the skills of observing others, drawing conclusions about their character, reactions, and intentions, and then testing those conclusions.

Good stories do more than allow us to practice theory of mind: they also give us more material with which to work. Literature, here including both fiction and non-fiction in the form of well-written memoirs and biographies, can help us to see from another’s perspective. We have the opportunity to experience other cultures and times, to learn from other experiences, and to engage the world through a different personality, perhaps even very different values and ideas. As Lewis says in An Experiment in Criticism: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . . in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”


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John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Meet The Author

Holly Ordway

Ordway author photo

Dr Holly Ordway is Professor of English and faculty in the M.A. in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University; she holds a PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

She is the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road, 2017) and Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius, 2014), and she has contributed chapters to C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner (edited by Michael Ward and Peter S. Williams), C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books that Influenced Him Most (edited by David Werther) among other volumes; she is also a published poet, with poems in Word in the Wilderness and Love, Remember (edited by Malcolm Guite).

Her academic work focuses on the writings of the Inklings, especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Her current book project is Tolkien’s Modern Sources: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages (forthcoming from Kent State University Press, 2019).

She lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and travels regularly to speak on Tolkien, Lewis, and imaginative apologetics.

Dig Deeper at HollyOrdway.com and buy the book HERE.

Photo of Holly Ordway by Lancia E Smith

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Austen

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried. “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! . . . How humiliating is this discovery! . . . I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away. . . . Till this moment I never knew myself.”

Rick WilcoxWhen I visited the picturesque town of Winchester where Jane Austen is buried, my first impression was “how charming!”  Jane would have smiled at that, but would also have discounted my compliment.  Her faith was quiet, but her depth of character, which is evident in her writing, was based on what she called “constancy.”  That’s a far cry from charm.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

To be constant is to be grounded and rooted in values that persist beyond the present moment—lasting values. To constancy Austen contrasts that highly valued trait, charm. Charm is the ability to attract the attention of others without necessarily having the qualities one appears to possess. The charming person can simulate the virtues of good character by mere outward polish. Being charming is all about social acceptance rather than actually possessing admirable traits. It is concerned with how things look on the outside—how they seem, rather than what they truly are.

So often in Austen’s novels we discover that the person who has great charm is a person we later learn has poor or deficient character. And sometimes the person who may win few “style points” is eventually revealed to be a person of strong personality and depth of character, as is Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. But you would never mistake one of Austen’s books for a moral tract, for she never preaches. She observes, and she lets us draw our own conclusions. Along the way to making such discoveries, we are treated to a novel that is amusing, insightful, and well stocked with fascinating and flawed characters. She entertains us with her close observation of the human personality and she leaves us with greater wisdom about our own selves.

When were your first impressions wrong about someone?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


Jane Austen

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolor, circa 1810

(1775–1817). Through her portrayals of ordinary people in everyday life Jane Austen gave the genre of the novel its modern character. She began writing at an early age. At 15 she was writing plays and sketches for the amusement of her family, and by the time she was 21 she had begun to write novels that are among the finest in English literature.

Jane Austen was born on Dec. 16, 1775, in the parsonage of Steventon, a village in Hampshire, England. She had six brothers and one sister. Her father, the Reverend George Austen, was a rector of the village. Although she and her sister briefly attended several different schools, Jane was educated mainly by her father, who taught his own children and several pupils who boarded with the family.

Her father retired when Jane was 25. By that time her brothers, two of whom later became admirals, had careers and families of their own. Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their parents went to live in Bath. After the father’s death in 1805, the family lived temporarily in Southampton before finally settling in Chawton.

All of Jane Austen’s novels are love stories. However, neither Jane nor her sister ever married. There are hints of two or three romances in Jane’s life, but little is known about them, for Cassandra destroyed all letters of a personal nature after Jane’s death. The brothers had large families, and Jane was a favorite with her nephews and nieces.

Jane Austen wrote two novels before she was 22. These she later revised and published as Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). She completed her third novel, Northanger Abbey, when she was 27 or 28, but it did not appear in print until after her death. She wrote three more novels in her late 30s: Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), and Persuasion (published together with Northanger Abbey in 1818).

She wrote of the world she knew. Her novels portray the lives of the gentry and clergy of rural England, and they take place in the country villages and neighborhoods, with an occasional visit to Bath and London. Her world was small, but she saw it clearly and portrayed it with wit and detachment. She described her writing as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor.”

She died on July 18, 1817, after a long illness. She spent the last weeks of her life in Winchester, near her physician, and is buried in the cathedral there.

I Learned Everything I Needed to Know About Marriage From Pride and Prejudice

Karen Swallow Prior

When I teach Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I take great pains to un-sully it from students’ film-adaptation-induced misconceptions that it’s a “romantic” novel. As a satirist, even if a gentle one, Austen offers rather unromantic corrections to vices and foibles, many of which range far beyond the surface themes of love and marriage. Indeed, like most early novels, Austen’s contend with the seismic social shifts birthed by modernity, particularly the rise of the individual. In Pride and Prejudice, as in Austen’s other works, the private angst surrounding the choice of a marriage partner really reflects the larger, public anxieties swirling around a disintegrating class structure, a new social mobility, and increasing personal autonomy.

Nevertheless, the truth is that I still learned everything I needed to know about marriage from Pride and Prejudice.

Marriages are foremost in Austen’s world, and, its place in literary theory and history aside, Pride and Prejudice enchants me again and again with its hairpin sharp insights into matrimonial matters. Here are nine lessons Pride and Prejudice taught me about marriage—and surely, there are many more.

Mutual Respect Is Essential to a Happy Marriage

The first marriage we encounter in Pride and Prejudice is Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s. These two illustrate magnificently by negative example just how crucial respect for one another is to marital bliss. Mr. Bennet treats Mrs. Bennet like the fool she assuredly is, and Mrs. Bennet, in return, exerts the only authority she has: nagging. As readers, we may laugh with Mr. Bennet (and the narrator) at Mrs. Bennet, but we don’t side with him entirely. Even Elizabeth, as much as she loves her father and as much as he respects her, admits she “could not have formed a very pleasing opinion of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort” based on her parents’ marriage.

We can’t help but wonder along with Elizabeth, who “had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband,” if Mrs. Bennet might have grown into a better partner and woman with more active loving-kindness from him. Instead, Mrs. Bennet fits the description of what one marriage expert—Pat Ennis of the marriage-enrichment program The Third Option—calls the “Critical Nag,” one who is never happy with how others do things. Mr. Bennet, meanwhile, is the “Ridiculer-Name Caller,” the person who constantly puts others down. Ennis says that respect is the bedrock of lasting love, wisdom the never-married Austen recognized long before psychology, life coaches, and marriage retreats were invented.

First Impressions Can Be Misleading

As fans of Pride and Prejudice know, “First Impressions” was Austen’s original title for the work. The first half of the novel is an accumulation of false impressions, particularly Elizabeth’s misperceptions (leading to the titular prejudice) about the seemingly, titularly, proud Darcy. Ironically, Elizabeth’s confident assessment of Mr. Darcy as proud stems greatly from her own pride in her keen, but not infallible, perceptiveness. The rest of the story consists of the correction of those misreadings—and of the prejudice and pride that foster such misunderstandings.

Like Elizabeth, but for different reasons, I’m fortunate that my first impressions of the man who would become my husband were wrong, too. When as a Lydia Bennet-esque college freshman, I first spotted the man, marriage was far from my mind—and he appeared to be someone who might regard it the same way. He didn’t. Then I didn’t. We never looked back (as I have written about here).

You Can Judge a Man by the Size of His Library

In Austen’s world, size matters. The size of one’s book collection, that is.

While stuck at Netherfield because her sister has fallen ill there, the hospitable Mr. Bingley offers Elizabeth access to his books, to “all that his library afforded.” Elizabeth assures him she is content with what she has. He admits, “I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit; but I am an idle fellow, and though I have not many, I have more than I ever looked into.”

Then coy Miss Bingley attempts to converse with Darcy while he is engaged in reading. “When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library,” Miss Bingley proclaims. “I am astonished that my father should have left so small a collection of books. What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!”

“It ought to be good,” he replies. “It has been the work of many generations.”

“And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books,” Miss Bingley says flirtatiously.

Later, after Elizabeth has shed her initial false impressions about Darcy, she recollects the evolution of her feelings toward him. She explains that her love for Darcy “has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” Indeed.

In the provincial world of Austen’s novels, small-mindedness is among the greatest of personal and social follies, for which an expansive library serves as a counterbalance. Darcy’s fetching library serves as metaphor for a variety of qualities in a marriage partner today which might counteract contemporary excesses and limitations: broad-mindedness in an age of identity politics and narrow partisanship, integrity in an era of brutal pragmatism, strong work ethic in a culture of shortcuts, steadiness in a swirl of passing fancies. While countless other qualities might substitute for those represented by Darcy’s library, these attracted me to my husband and have deepened my love for him more over the years. Not to mention the fact that he built me my own library, and its shelves are overflowing.

Romance Is Not Enough

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet married, we learn later, out of youthful imprudence and passion. This same error is repeated by their daughter Lydia (who is all romance, no prudence) when she elopes with the conniving Wickham (who is all prudence with no romance). It doesn’t take long for the honeymoon luster to fade, and upon hearing of her sister Elizabeth’s impending marriage to Darcy, Lydia is reduced to begging the couple for a court appointment for her husband, confessing, “I do not think we shall have quite money enough to live upon without some help.” Such dire straits are not in keeping with Lydia’s former romanticism.

Austen would not likely be surprised at recent findings reported here at The Atlantic that for the middle class today (which is approximately the class of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice) the difference between a happy marriage and a miserable one is something decidedly unromantic: chores.

You Really Do Marry a Family, Not Just a Person

A survey in the November issue of Glamour found that the majority of men polled by the magazine said that they judge a woman by her family. This truth universally acknowledged forms one of the great obstacles between Elizabeth and Darcy, a point revealed in the explanatory letter Darcy writes to Elizabeth following her refusal of one of the most infamous marriage proposals in all of literature. Darcy’s objections to the marriage between his friend Bingley and Elizabeth’s sister Jane, he explains in the letter, owed “to that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by [Mrs. Bennet], by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father. Pardon me. It pains me to offend you.” It does offend Elizabeth—at first. But once her pride subsides, she recognizes the truth and the validity of Darcy’s concerns.

These familial objections are, of course, overcome in time for the happily ever after. But Darcy has recognized, wisely, that he is marrying into a family and he does so with open eyes and readiness—as much as that is possible—to accept that fact of life.  Indeed, my own “happily ever after” has, after many years, come to mean a household that includes my aging parents. Anyone who doesn’t believe that you marry a family should talk to a man in my husband’s situation.

Missed Communication Is Miscommunication 

In other words, silence is the voice of complacency. The lovely match between Elizabeth Bennet’s eldest sister Jane and Mr. Bingley nearly doesn’t happen, in large part because neither makes their feelings clearly known to the other. Natural reserve isn’t a character flaw (see: Darcy), but it’s a trait that must be overcome when reticence means letting something—or someone—important slip away.

Experts even have a name for this tendency we have to think our communication is stronger and clearer than it actually is: signal amplification bias. Motivational psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson writes that this general assumption that we have said more than we actually have is the “most common source of miscommunication in any relationship” because “people routinely fail to realize how little they are actually communicating.” I don’t think my marriage is unusual in consisting of one overcommunicative partner (guess who that is!) and one partner whose signal amplification bias is, shall we say, strong. Jane and Bingley’s relationship and the misunderstandings that surround it offer a textbook’s worth of insight for navigating real-life communication problems.

In Marriage, One Size Doesn’t Fit All

This is one of the more nuanced and difficult—but no less important—lessons from Pride and Prejudice, as Noah Berlatsky argued earlier this year. When Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins, that fawning prig whom Elizabeth had easily turned down earlier, Elizabeth is understandably disappointed in her friend’s choice. But of course, “choice” plays little part in the matter since the primary social problem in the world of the novel is that its women have so few choices. Marriage is, the novel explains, “the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” This “preservative,” Elizabeth comes to realize, Charlotte obtains in her marriage to Mr. Collins. “And at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she [Charlotte] felt all the good luck of it.” When Elizabeth visits the newlywed pair later, she observes that Charlotte has made peace with her choice. Charlotte’s new home has “really an air of great comfort throughout,” and Elizabeth can see Charlotte’s “contentment” and her “evident enjoyment of it.”

Jane and Bingley’s relationship and the misunderstandings that surround it offer a textbook’s worth of insight for navigating real-life communication problems.

Elizabeth would not—and did not—settle for the same choice. (She’d not have been our heroine if she had!) But despite their being the best of friends, Charlotte and Elizabeth are not the same. Likewise, no two marriages are the same. Nor need they be: Trying to force a one-size-fits-all formula on individual marriages invites disaster. A couple I know who are part of a conservative religious community, for example, tried for the first decade of their marriage to conform to roles they thought were expected by their community and failed miserably. Finally, she went to work full-time and he stayed home with the children—and they’ve never been happier or more stable.

The Best Marriages Balance Prudence and Passion

Have you ever known a couple whose love is rooted in pure passion, defying all reason (or any need for a good résumé or health insurance)? Or a couple on the opposite end of the spectrum, for whom love means never saying the mortgage is late? I think we’ve all seen, or even experienced, relationships in which either passion or reason reigns like a tyrant over the other.

In Pride and Prejudice,  Lydia marries out of pure passion and Charlotte marries out of sheer prudence: “Marriage had always been her object,” despite not “thinking highly either of men or of matrimony.” But the novel extols the best marriages as those that balance prudence and passion, sense and sensibility. Jane and Bingley’s marriage fits this description, even though both their wit and passion are more subdued than those of Elizabeth and Darcy.

It is, of course, Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage which the novel holds up as exemplary. Theirs is a match crowned by the twin laurels of romance and reason. Both the heart and the head assent that this is a match made in Austen’s heaven—and that of many readers as well.

A Good Marriage Challenges Both Partners to Grow

Despite being well-matched in both intellect and passion for each other, Elizabeth and Darcy have to undergo painful chastening, admit their errors, enlarge their perspectives, and see matters through the eyes of the other before they can love each other. And although the novel ends, as all classical comedies do, with their felicitous union, we know enough of their strong minds and robust personalities to perceive that challenges will lie ahead. But we are certain that Elizabeth and Darcy are, like iron that sharpens iron, equally matched. Their marriage provides the best marriage lesson of all: Marry someone whose love will develop you into a better person.

And to borrow a line from another novel, “Reader, I married him.”

This article originally appeared in The Atlantic

Sources and Resources

“Austen, Jane,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Collins, Irene. Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter. London: Continuum, 1998.

Giffin, Michael. Jane Austen’s Religious Imagination: A Balance of Reason and Feeling. Kindle edition. Amazon Digital Services, 2013.

Glaspey, Terry, ed. The Prayers of Jane Austen. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2015.

Leithart, Peter J. Jane Austen. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Stovel, Bruce. “A Nation Improving in Religion.” Persuasions no. 16. Jane Austen Society of North America, 1994. http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number16/stovel.htm.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

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