Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In a 1954 essay on Jane Austen, C. S. Lewis calls attention to the “hardness—or at least the firmness—of Jane Austen’s thought.” “The great abstract nouns of the classical English moralists,” he writes, “are unblushingly and uncompromisingly used; good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude, ‘some duty neglected, some failing indulged,’ impropriety, indelicacy. . . . vanity, folly, ignorance, reason.” For Austen, “all is hard, clear, definable. . . . Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen’s is at once less soft and less cruel.” 

Moral firmness doesn’t make Austen ponderous or priggish; she’s no Mary Bennet, that fountain of misapplied aphorisms. On the contrary, Austen is among the most bemused and amusing novelists in English literature, capable of writing splendid scenes—like the one in Sense and Sensibility where Elinor and Marianne Dashwood first encounter Robert Ferrars at a jewelry shop:

He was giving orders for a toothpick-case for himself, and till its size, shape, and ornaments were determined, all of which, after examining and debating for a quarter of an hour over every toothpick-case in the shop, were finally arranged by his own inventive fancy, he had no leisure to bestow any other attention on the two ladies, than what was comprised in three or four very broad stares; a kind of notice which served to imprint on Elinor the remembrance of a person and face, of strong, natural, sterling insignificance, though adorned in the first style of fashion. . . . At last the affair was decided. The ivory, the gold, and the pearls, all received their appointment, and the gentleman having named the last day on which his existence could be continued without the possession of the toothpick-case, drew on his gloves with leisurely care, and bestowing another glance on the Miss Dashwoods, but such a one as seemed rather to demand than express admiration, walked off with a happy air of real conceit and affected indifference.

The foundation of this comic masterpiece is Robert’s absurd extravagance, as he devotes excessive time, energy, and money to selecting a trivial appurtenance. But much of the comedy depends on the moral judgments embedded in Austen’s descriptions, rendered by a narrator who adopts, yet distances herself from, Robert’s point of view. Robert doubtless saw himself as full of “inventive fancy,” but the narrator twists the phrase to irony. Robert’s life doesn’t depend on possession of the toothpick-case, but he shops as if his “existence” can’t continue without it. He leaves the scene with a “happy air,” which the narrator subverts with the balanced contrast of “real conceit/affected indifference.” “Conceit” is the narrator’s appraisal, “indifference” is Robert’s own; by setting the different assessments side-by-side and characterizing the conceit as “real,” the narrator almost imperceptibly reveals Robert’s entire lack of self-knowledge. Throughout the scene, the narrator slips in and out of Elinor’s consciousness, and the coup de grace is her description of the impression that Robert’s stares leave with Elinor. When Austen follows a string of adjectives like “strong, natural, sterling” with the noun “insignificance,” you can hear Robert deflating. Robert is a man of style without substance, punctured by repeated pricks of Austen’s wit. 

The scene highlights one of Austen’s recurring themes: The subtle distinction between fashionable conduct and good manners. Tony Tanner has made the point well. For Austen, good manners are essential to preserving social order and living the moral life. Yet in the very places and times when manners are most on display, they’re most difficult to read. A ball is an occasion for a country village to parade, enact, and practice its codes of conduct. A ball is an inherently theatrical occasion, when everyone is “acting” according to the script. But how can one tell whether someone is “acting” his acting or being sincere about his acting. Everyone in Emma finds Frank Churchill’s manners pleasing, but Emma Woodhouse can’t figure out “what he truly was.” In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s first impressions of both Wickham and Darcy, formed during a ball, are badly mistaken. Smooth manners can charm and seduce, dressing up a vicious character as an angel of light. Austen’s heroines need training in hermeneutics in order to discern the moral substance of mannerly words and gestures, and Austen’s ironic narrator offers herself as an interpreter. Her novels are, among other things, exercises in moral suspicion, training the reader to distinguish true actors from duplicitous ones. 

Austen is funny not in spite of her moral firmness but because of it. As Lewis observed, “the hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible.” Without a standard of morality, “nothing can be ridiculous, except for a brief moment of unbalanced provincialism in which we may laugh at the merely unfamiliar. Unless there is something about which the author is never ironical, there can be no true irony in the work.” And where there is no true irony, there’s no space for making moral judgments. In our hyper-ironic age, when satirists can barely keep up with reality, Austen has much to teach us about the mutual dependence of comedy and morality.

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.

Photo by Charlie Haung via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles