While it is true that Jane is writing about love and marriage, she wants us to recognize love on a higher level.
With nary a kiss between lover and beloved, Jane Austen wrote what are considered the most romantic novels ever written. This is noteworthy yet there’s more to such ‘self-help’ oriented writing because she gets us thinking —and I wish to encourage you also think about what exactly makes a good character…and one worthy of falling in love with. Austen’s stories stimulate our consciousness because they are set in a moral universe with real life choices and consequences. Also her characters are so vivid and realistic as to pull us into their lives as they learn about themselves and others, and try for the best course of action to find happiness. Invariably, the process they use is meditation! Meditation gives calmness and clarity of thought while preparing us for making better choices. Today we need these skills more than ever as we navigate a world full of narcissistic people, fueled by social media and insatiable greed. Jane Austen’s heroines, even though written 200 years ago, are going head-to-head with some pretty egotistical characters. They must deal with the mind games of the Thorpes in Northanger Abbey, Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride & Prejudice and Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park. These are some of the darkest characters in her novels and in every case, despite being young and unworldly, they deal thoughtfully with the Dark Side of the Force when required. This requires some greatness of mind.
In a world where people are just trying to keep up with social media and consumer trends, deep thinking is almost a lost art. We are philosophically ‘hydroplaning’ our way through life. Jane Austen primes our intellect by depicting a metaphysically based world. Her so-called ‘romances’ are like little stages productions, which she originally wrote to share with her family,–with delightfully acute detail. The heroines (and heroes) are intelligent and inquisitive about consequences (or karma) for their actions. There are also characters unaware of this concept whose actions and words show their indifference to the harm they may do to others. Let’s face it, narcissists rarely consider such things. Just remember how unconcerned Henry Crawford was as to the effects of his insincere attentions to the Bertram sisters in Mansfield Park. Jane Austen considered this sort of behavior —whereby the man raises ‘expectations’ in the woman so as to elicit an emotional attachment in her! — and with no real intention to carry through, to be barbaric. The only woman not fooled by Henry was Fanny. How did she get this sort of bulletproof wisdom? By self-knowledge.
Wisdom is the source of happiness and happiness is developed by self-knowledge, or as we now call it, self-realization. It begins with understanding that the real ‘self’ is a conscious, eternal being, and not the body. External distractions draw our attention away from this fact but meditation keeps us awake to this understanding. In the beginning of our spiritual search, we might not see how limited our knowledge is yet even a little practice and the simple acknowledgement of our incomplete understanding can change our lives, as when Elizabeth Bennett was undeceived while reading Mr. Darcy’s letter. She then reflected, “Until that moment I never knew myself!”
Now a little historical background: Jane wrote two centuries ago, when happy endings were the norm in any literature with a moral message. Basically the idea was that happiness is the result of a good life. Even today, people would agree with this. So we might wonder why so many movies now seem to promote the belief that rational happiness is not ‘sexy’ enough or that romantic happiness lacks realism yet this is not true. A healthier and more realistic message would be that normal, healthy human beings seek rational happiness in stable relationships. There’s plenty of room for comedy and error. I mean really! Even some animal species mate for life so why deny the possibility for humans to grow closer? Any message that denies the possibility of normal human relationships cannot be psychologically healthy.
I enjoy the humorous romance movies of Charlie Chaplin, for example. Not overly sentimental or ‘mushy’. Jane Austen strictly avoided excessive sentimentality as did all of the best writers, such as Shakespeare. Witty and rational characters are typically more interesting, their struggles also tend to inspire us. Better characters naturally make for a better story. Getting a few excellent heroines and heroes into the mix adds great power. Consider Pride and Prejudice, where there are not just one but two, very attractive characters. Of course they are initially presented as flawed beings, by which we can easily relate to them. While being both comical and endearing, they eventually, cleverly, find their way out of their confusion by discovering the ignorance of their own perceptions. This is excellent material for romance! It inspires us to reimagine reality, and if romantic happiness is not to be expected, then what else of ‘transcendent’ importance do we have to live and aspire for?
Modern films often confuse things and present intimate relationships based on selfish motives as completely normal. Of course, no one with any sense wants a relationship with a selfish jerk. It is sign of these narcissistic times that so many cannot understand the basics of good relationships and the fact that civility and respect are necessary for romantic love. This is why I love Jane Austen’s novels.
So how does Jane depict romance in a moral universe? Let’s take a look at Pride and Prejudice, one of her most romantic novels. Many folks see nothing wrong with Charlotte Lucas’ choice of Mr. Collins as a partner yet the fact is that Jane Austen meant to create a stark contrast. There is a significant difference between Charlotte’s ideas about matrimony, and the heroine, Elizabeth’s. We are first presented with what a romance should definitely not look like. Poor Charlotte Lucas chooses her marriage partner so unwisely that she leaves herself devoid of true comfort, as hers was a comfortable home “only when the owner could be forgot” and his company was so irksome that her domestic arrangements were prioritized by how well they assisted her in avoiding her husband’s company! Mr. Collins was a “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly” man and yet Charlotte would overlook everything but the ‘comfortable’ home. Charlotte’s marriage may be considered ‘prudent’ as to fortune —and that’s all! Mr. Collins, too proud of his situation, ironically tells Elizabeth that he and his wife seem to have been “designed for each other.” Truer words were never spoken as neither truly loves the other.
Charlotte explained that she was not the ‘romantic’ type yet does this really make her decision more rational? Not at all. On the other hand, Elizabeth only seems to want more than what is rational in making the declaration, “I am determined that only the deepest love will induce me into matrimony,” yet she follows through with her decision . She waits for the right person. She is not in a hurry. She shows discernment.
One more thought: Even though some may claim Mr. Darcy’s wealth was the primary reason for Elizabeth choosing him as a partner, this can be easily proved false. If her choice had been all about money and a comfortable home, Lizzy would not have rejected his first proposal. Furthermore, if she had accepted Mr. Darcy before he had changed for the better then her marriage would not have been any better than Charlotte’s and probably would have been much worse. The happy ending is in large part earned by Elizabeth’s higher character and her accepting the good advice of her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, who hinted to her to be cautious and who gently seems to have corrected her bitterness against Mr. Darcy. In contrast, Charlotte did not take Elizabeth’s warning and disposed with all such higher principles. In modern language she ‘settled.’
Elizabeth considers her friend’s situation as something to think of with concern:
“Poor Charlotte! it was melancholy to leave her to such society! But she had chosen it with her eyes open;… she did not seem to ask for compassion. Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.“—Pride and Prrejudice
No, they had not lost their charms, or at least not yet. Still, a thoughtful person can imagine what her life will soon become when those insignificant little charms do wear off. Here’s a link to hear Professor John Mullan present the unthinkable awkwardness of Charlotte’s marriage situation. In Jane’s description of a romance based in the ‘deepest’ love, we find love based in true friendship!