Jane Austen is a giantess among giants, towering above the greatest writers of her own sex and indeed of both sexes. With the exception perhaps of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare, she holds her own among the greatest of all time. She can be mentioned in the same breath as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens. Few indeed can hold a candle to her in terms of the sheer brilliance of her work and the perceptive depths that she fathoms. Like Shakespeare, she can be said to be not of an age but for all time.
Born in 1775, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, Miss Austen entered a world that was ripe for, and would soon be rife with, revolution. The American Revolution was ushering into existence a new sort of nation, bereft of both monarchy and aristocracy, and the French Revolution in 1789 would bring down the ancien régime, replacing it with a secularist tyranny. Against these new ideas, Edmund Burke sounded a sagacious and cautionary note, especially in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was published at the end of 1790.
Many of Burke’s views can be seen to be represented in the character of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, suggestive of Austen’s own sympathy for Burke’s anti-revolutionary position. And it might be suggested that the hero’s name, Edmund Bertram, is a phonetic allusion to Edmund Burke himself, which would indicate that Burke had been a mentor to the young Miss Austen as Bertram had been a mentor to the young Miss Price.
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As for Jane Austen’s stance with respect to the Catholic Church, she was, like Burke, sympathetic to Catholicism at a time when anti-Catholic bigotry and sectarianism was the default position in English culture. Although this can be discerned implicitly in her novels, it was present most obviously and emphatically in her juvenilia, especially in The History of England, which was written in 1791 when she was only fifteen years old.
This “History” lampoons and satirizes the anti-Catholic stance of conventional history books, especially Oliver Goldsmith’s outrageously “anti-papist” four-volume “history” of England. In stark and remarkable contrast to the bias of Protestant history, which overlooked the tyranny of Tudor England, the teenage Miss Austen depicts Elizabeth I as an unmitigated tyrant and shows Mary, Queen of Scots to be the martyred victim of Tudor tyranny. In supporting the Catholic Stuarts against the anti-Catholic Tudors, she was countering the prejudice of her times and was showing herself to be an unwitting prophet of what would later become known as Anglo-Catholicism. In this, as in so much else, Catholics can feel entirely comfortable in the presence of the feminine genius of Jane Austen.
Perhaps the most frequently recurring theme in Austen’s work is a disdain for the irrational tenets of Romanticism, which emphasized emotion and the feelings of the heart over the reasoning of the head. From her earliest juvenile writings, such as Love and Freindship [sic], written in 1790, to her mature novels of more than twenty years later, she lampoons the sort of romantic novels in which women are depicted as irrational beings, weak-willed and weak-minded.
Whereas her own novels contain such women, who commit the folly of following feeling in defiance of the demands of moral responsibility, her heroines attain the fullness of human dignity, subjecting themselves as eminently rational creatures to the goodness of virtue and the objectivity of truth. In this, she has been called an Aristotelian, quite correctly. But she could as easily be described as a Thomist insofar as she accepted and embraced Christian realism in an age of embryonic relativism. She is, therefore, a veritable giantess as a philosopher, in addition to her genius as a storyteller and her perspicacity as an observer of the human condition.
All of the foregoing is present in Sense and Sensibility, the first published of Jane Austen’s novels, which wrestles with the conflict between the calculating and calculated “sense” of the Enlightenment and the impulsive emotional “sensibility” of Romanticism.
At the time of the novel’s publication in 1811, Romanticism’s reaction against the Enlightenment was all the rage. Heralded by the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, a volume of poetry co-authored by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English Romanticism sought to respond to the empiricism and scientism of the so-called Age of Reason with an emotion-driven engagement with beauty. On the one side, the head ruled the heart; on the other, the heart ruled the head. Both sides are present in Sense and Sensibility.
At one end of the spectrum are the characters who adhere to sense to such a degree that they banish sensibility. These are characters, such as John and Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele, who are cold and calculated in their relations with others, using their “sense” to serve their own materialistic and prideful purposes. At the other end of the spectrum are those who adhere to sensibility to such a degree that they ignore or denigrate the importance of sense. Characters on the “sensibility” end of the spectrum include Marianne Dashwood and the dashing John Willoughby, whose reckless, emotion-driven romance ends in heartbreak.
Those at either of these extremes are shown to be morally flawed. Those who employ sense to the exclusion of sensibility allow their heads to rule their hearts to such a degree that they become hard-hearted; those who follow sensibility to the exclusion of sense allow their hearts to rule their heads to such a degree that they lose their heads and break their hearts.
The characters who are truly virtuous are those who keep their sense and sensibility in healthy and harmonious balance, finding and then following the Aristotelian via media between the two extremes. Edward Ferrars and Marianne Dashwood achieve this moral equanimity eventually, learning from their mistakes, whereas Colonel Brandon and Elinor Dashwood seem always to possess such ethical poise and balance, in spite of the great trials and tribulations that they face. One suspects that the latter, the indomitably decorous and yet temperately passionate Miss Dashwood, bears a remarkable likeness to the indomitably decorous and beguilingly elusive Miss Austen. Indeed, it is through Jane Austen’s heroines that we perceive the virtue and brilliance of the author herself, who always allowed her own sense and sensibility to be governed by her deep Christian faith.
Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-fifth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”