James Collins explains how the novels of Jane Austen can serve as a moral compass in today’s world:
Today’s readers tend to appreciate Austen despite her didacticism rather than because of it. She can be positively priggish, and that is an embarrassment. The contemporary reader who loves Jane Austen sort of blips over the moralizing sections and tells himself that they don’t really count. It is possible to ignore this aspect of her work, just as it is possible to discuss a religious painting with hardly any reference to the artist’s religious intent. But this seems absurd: Ignoring a writer’s central concern is a strange way to attempt to appreciate and understand her.
The question arises, then, of how to reconcile Austen’s moralism with modern sensibility. To address this problem, it would be useful if we could ﬁnd someone with this modern sensibility who actually reads Austen for her moral instruction (in addition to the literary pleasure she provides). How convenient that we have someone who fits that description available to us: me.
I ﬁnd that reading Jane Austen helps me clarify ethical choices, helps me ﬁgure out a way to live with integrity in the corrupt world, even helps me adopt the proper tone and manner in dealing with others. Her moralism and the modern mind are not, in fact, in direct opposition, as is so often assumed.