Why We Need Jane Austen or How to be a Gentleman with Examples Good and Bad

by Mark T. Mitchell on April 5, 2011 · 29 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Writers & Poets

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Kearneysville, WV. I am currently teaching a course that includes several works of literature including Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Right from the start I must admit that I was not trained in an English department so I am hampered to the extent that I’m rather inept at reading great works of literature for their sublimated eroticism, their homo-erotic subtexts, and covert commentaries on sexual, racial, and economic oppression. It is, then, with apologies to those who know better that I read literature as a naïve lover of a good story, good writing, and commentary on the unchanging human condition.

Reading Pride and Prejudice with a group of bright and interested students has been a delight. Austen can charm students in 2011 and, given the multitude of voices and volumes competing for their attention, this is no small feat. But what, exactly, is it that makes Austen such a good teacher today? The question, itself, suggests that Austen is more than a good read, more than an escapist literary drug, more than a comedy of manners.

I want to suggest that Austen provides something for which young people—even the jaded ones—secretly long. While the world she depicts is in many ways foreign to us, it is only just different enough to bring our own pathologies into clearer relief. In short, Austen reminds us of the largely forgotten categories of the lady and the gentlemen. It is her genius to make us aspire to these roles even in a world where such notions are strange and often ridiculed.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice sets the tone, albeit an ironic one, for if anything, it is the women who are in want of a husband and the men of fortune, while not disinclined to marry, are surely not obsessed with the idea. Nevertheless, marriage is the theme of the book, and in addition to a variety of courtships the reader is given an insider’s look into several long-established marriages including the painfully mismatched Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and the delightfully compatible Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. We witness Charlotte Lucas wed the simpering and obsequious Mr. Collins for the security he can provide; we see Wickham and Lydia marry only due to pressure and pecuniary inducements from Mr. Darcy; we see Bingley and Jane, two persons of such amiability (a primary virtue in Austen’s world) that their future bliss will only be marred by their susceptibility to deception by the less scrupulous and less amiable. Finally, and centrally, we watch Elizabeth and Darcy gradually drawn together in a match that is based on both love and good sense.

Of course, the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy is far from smooth. Darcy’s pride initially leads Elizabeth to despise him, and it is one of the charms of the book that we witness both Darcy and Elizabeth become better people in the process of moving toward each other. This is not to suggest that either becomes an idealized version of himself, for Austen is too much a student of human nature to imagine the possibility (or even the desirability) of perfection in her characters. Nevertheless, Darcy’s pride is softened as he comes to realize (and admit to) mistakes; Elizabeth, likewise, comes to understand that first impressions are often wrong and that character is far more important than a winning smile and charming words. In the process, both become better fit for marriage and better suited to each other.

Austen’s gentlemen (I’m thinking especially of Darcy here) understand the call of duty; they are committed to family, reputation, propriety, and self-control. To be sure, Darcy takes himself quite seriously, but aren’t these pursuits serious by nature? To neglect one’s duty, to be careless of one’s family and reputation, to ignore the bounds of propriety and to indulge the appetites without restraint are not the actions of a gentleman. They represent, conversely, the behavior of a boor. Or, perhaps equally fitting, they are the actions of a male who has no sense of what it means to be a man. Such characters may be Guys or Peter Pans but they are not men and surely not gentlemen.

Austen’s ladies are likewise conscious of their place in society and understand that the bounds of propriety must be observed. And while it is no doubt a gain that women today are not threatened with ruin if they don’t marry, we should not overlook the social benefits latent in a society that makes marriage the ideal. The ideal lady in Austen’s world (and here I’m thinking of Elizabeth) is strong-minded and clearly the equal of any man. She is quick witted, self-confident, and an independent thinker who will not bow and scrape before a social superior such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh nor will she accede to marry any man she does not both love and respect. Like a gentleman, a lady is constrained by social limits that direct behavior even as those limits make interaction between the sexes intelligible.

Just the other day, when we were discussing Darcy’s first proposal and Elizabeth’s adamant refusal, a bright young man raised his hand and said he had a question for a particular young lady in the class. He looked at her in all seriousness and said “Ashley, in light of your beauty and amiability would you be so kind as to accompany me to the Liberty Ball?” Several moments of stunned silence followed as the rest of us tried to discern if this was a joke or a legitimate invitation to the spring formal. The young man held his gaze with steady expectation, and in perfect Jane Austen fashion the young lady blushed. And being no less equal to the occasion than an Austen character she smiled demurely and remarked that in light of Elizabeth’s first response, she would have to say no. The young man gulped, she smiled, and then graciously accepted his offer. The rest of us broke into applause.

No doubt some who read this will be tempted to scoff and to cast aspersions on such a quaintly old-fashioned scene. However, if reading Jane Austen inspires this kind of exchange, isn’t it a dramatic improvement over the obscene pick-up line in a beer soaked frat house where a misshapen adolescent propositions a young woman who has never learned how to blush?

Austen’s focus on marriage as the natural and proper goal for young ladies and gentlemen reveals the sad inadequacies of a hook-up culture where the rutting of children is glorified as the fitting end of their sexuality. Austen teaches her readers the nobility of restraint, the goodness of decorum, and that sexuality is a wonderful mystery within the context of a marriage founded on both love and good sense. That is a lesson every generation ignores at its own peril.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Empedocles April 5, 2011 at 11:02 am

I find P&P as a fascinating study of virtue ethics. The characters are constantly discussing each others virtues and vices. The virtues they are interested in are the characteristics that will lead to a happy lifelong match. Today’s kids discuss virtues and vices as well (although they don’t call them that). But as to the end of virtues they seek, I don’t know. Being “cool” is the highest virtue, but I don’t know what end it serves. It is some kind of aesthetic virtue rather than practical, i.e., not something that will lead to happiness.

avatar David April 5, 2011 at 11:14 am

A true gentleman would not have asked the lady friend for such an engagement to dance in front of a crowd, what a spectacle of insecurity and emotional manipulation, embarrassment in the pursuit of his own ends at the cost of her standing.

Obviously you did not use the fine work of Austin to much good effect on their atrophied sense of propriety, but perhaps it was yet early in the semester when this travesty occurred.

avatar Charles Cherry April 5, 2011 at 2:33 pm

David,

You certainly ask an awful lot of an impetuous and inexperienced youth who is learning about proper manners for perhaps the very first time.

I believe the young man’s social gaffe could be excused, operating as he was in the “heat of the moment.” It took a tremendous amount of courage on his part to throw himself out there for possible (nay, probable) humiliation in front of his peers.

I suspect that his young lady friend sensed that courage beneath his impetuosity, and this was at least a factor in her equally courageous acceptance.

avatar David April 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Desperate men can feign courage–perhaps you were made of different mettle during your youth. The article’s assertion was that this incident represented a prime example of virtuous development inspired by the reading of Austin’s works. I was poking a bit of fun at such an assertion which rests on a circumstance full of adolescent impulsiveness. The “heat of the moment” is precisely the thing that gentlemen resist and are therefore, properly, called gentlemen. In ages past the word “passion” had almost universally negative connotation, this new interest in harnessing vice for the sake of virtue, this novelty, needs to wear off for humanity to regain its sanity. Civilization rests on man’s ability to withhold volition in the face of the momentary impulse.

avatar Jason April 5, 2011 at 5:56 pm

My wife and I enjoy the most recent film adaptation of P&P (although I am not going to bother to defend it from detractors). One time, she was watching it and two of our boys, ages four and six, took interest. We were surprised that that they maintained that interest to the end and it has become a family favorite. No sex, no violence, no language and it acts as a great springboard for discussions about proper (and improper) behavior. “What would Mr. Darcy do?”

avatar Rose April 5, 2011 at 6:30 pm

David,

As Mr. Darcy learned in P&P, a true gentlemen does not leap to negative conclusions when making a value judgment. In this case, you have leaped to, apparently, ironfast negative assumptions about the young man and his teacher. First, you assume the young man acted out of unconsidered passion. Second, you assume the young man did not know or care for the character and wishes of his prospective young lady and consider them as he contemplated his proposal.

You also apparently misread another major facet of Pride and Prejudice. While Jane Austen gives a beautiful structure for courtesy and consideration between the sexes, she also subtly pokes humor at those who would cast all their actions into the structure and trap of “perfect manners.” The form of courtesy is both necessary and beautiful, yet, all courtesy done only to form is dead as she shows in her exquisitely painful drawing room scenes with Lady Catherine. Judging from the reaction of the lady the young man’s declaration was given, and apparently read, with both humor, honor, and courtesy. Yet, you degrade him because he did not fit your “model” of courtesy. Should we not rather praise him for taking courtesy smoothly into the unknown?

avatar Charles Cherry April 5, 2011 at 6:40 pm

I agree with you David, I was just pointing out that applying the standard of an Elizabethan gentleman to a youth of today might be asking a bit too much. I willing to cut the boy some slack, considering the age in which he has been raised.

I think that might have been at least part of the author’s point when he said, “isn’t it a dramatic improvement over the obscene pick-up line in a beer soaked frat house where a misshapen adolescent propositions a young woman who has never learned how to blush?”

avatar Takashi April 5, 2011 at 6:41 pm

@David

Seeing as I know both of the people in question, let me assure you that the young man is neither vulgar nor manipulative. In fact, he is among the brighter and more intelligent individuals that I know and well known on campus for his jovial nature. The situation, out of context and without proper knowledge of his character could possibly be interpreted as crass or lacking your unsparing sense of propriety. However, the gesture was made in good faith and received in due fidelity.

P.S. “Austin” is the capital of Texas.

avatar David April 5, 2011 at 10:28 pm

@Rose I admitted I was poking fun, I apologize if this was insufficient to communicate that I was deliberately exaggerate my response for effect. I sometimes find myself in the camp of the more extreme commenters on FPR and it seems necessary to lampoon myself as a measure against the very pride that pursuit of perfect manners may increase. In fact, that same pride which rightly is called out by name in the title.

@Takashi You called it best when you called me on my sloppy spelling. My attention was elsewhere (for all the good it did my attempt at creative posting with double-intent). AustEN is full of such double-intended speech in her novels which is why I think they continue to fascinate even after the stories themselves might otherwise become bland.

In this case, the virtue most missed is humility (is this not a mark of amiability?). If you want to find it in me, you’ll have to talk to my priest. Or go to my blog and read my poetry (such as it is). When posting on FPR I am never frivolous, but I am occasionally bombastic, troublesome and on a bad day, a provocateur.

As for whether or not the individuals, either the author or the young man, deserve my teasing (and I assure you it was teasing and not judgment as you assume) is utterly beside the point. I assumed nothing. I teased not on the intent, but on the act itself. I do not believe people are who they intend to be, but who they are. I am a wreck myself. I accept that. The boy would be better to accept that it was a selfish act which had potential damages for the very person he was claiming to adore, if he is genuinely concerned for her then he would correct his future behavior with this new wisdom.

You see, we love people by loving them, not by trying to love them, or by hoping our actions will be seen as loving.

@Charles Cherry is the fairest and most honest of us. And yes, this example is a great improvement. It is also a great improvement that my 2nd wife didn’t cheat on me like my first wife did, but I am fortunate that her virtue is far greater than the standard of “better”. I am “better” these days myself, I hope by God’s grace, than I was (though being remarried might color me differently in the eyes of some, which I accept as the burden folks will cast against me when we first meet).

This is my point. Manners are not about intent, though we hope that like the Israelites it was hoped would learn the “spirit” of the law they were given. Christ said as much on the sermon on the mount–that they had “missed” the point. However, manners are actions, not intent. And that’s all I was really pointing out to begin with; as I said, less than successfully.

FPR needs a court jester.

avatar Beau April 6, 2011 at 8:42 am

@David:

I understand your point!

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 6, 2011 at 10:28 am

I agree with David at least to this extent: the young lady should have made him wait at least until that evening before replying, “yes.” Courtship and deferral are the very form of training for being a good husband.

Nonetheless, I’m glad she said yes, and one has to admire his formulation of the invitation.

Finally, as a young teen beholden to the worst conventions, moral and artistic, of our age, I was required to read “Pride and Prejudice” in literature class. In very un-Austen fashion, I proceeded to embarrass myself by gushing to all my friends about how wonderful a book it was. Those were probably the first seeds of my growing up; too bad they had to be planted so late and in such poor soil!

avatar Nicole April 6, 2011 at 2:59 pm

James, I think Austen would disagree with you… I an thinking of the scene in which Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth. In response to Elizabeth’s polite but firm rejection, he assumes that she is acting as a “woman of fashion” and delaying her acceptance to increase his love. She vehemently disagrees, calling such action heArtless and rude. My apologies for not being able to quote the text exactly, but I hope you get the idea…

avatar Mike Hall April 6, 2011 at 10:17 pm

I have yet to read a more appropriate and, in my humble opinion, accurate portrayal of Miss Austen’s work. I also feel quite vindicated in knowing I am not the only man who finds her writing culturally educational and innately enjoyable. I wish every college freshman were required to struggle through the basic meaning and sense of Jane Austen’s social commentary.

avatar Evenstar April 6, 2011 at 10:34 pm

“It is, then, with apologies to those who know better that I read literature as a naïve lover of a good story, good writing, and commentary on the unchanging human condition.”

David,
Here, here! My son-n-law just finished a required reading in his college class in which he simply enjoyed the story and then went online to find the “teacher” had ripped it into shred of vulgar images and explicit erotic details. He has written a paper disputing her “findings” and totally expects a failing grade.

avatar G. Koefoed April 7, 2011 at 6:28 am

I’m interested in Mr. Mitchell’s thoughts on singleness. What interests me is how in Austen’s novels and later Victorian culture the idea of propriety and restraint actually help to foster bachelor and spinster cultures that are almost unthinkable today (sisters living together, brother and sister arrangements, bachelor friends living together, etc.) In the 19th century men had to be socially and financially established to marry and women from middle to upper class families were much more concerned with a much larger definition of “suitable match” (emotional needs, pleasing family, husband’s station in society, etc.) when marrying.

It seems to me that as a result, the 19th century saw a much more robust culture of friendship love vs. the current single-minded emphasis on love=personal good feelings generally accompanied by sex. Obviously Austen fosters visions of ideal marriage, but this ideal also creates many interesting questions about a gentlemanly and ladylike culture of singleness. This culture is even more foreign to contemporary culture than Austen’s prescriptions for courtship or decorum in finding a spouse.

Our culture does two things poorly. 1. Promote and support healthy families 2. Provide matrices of meaning for single people (the celibate or non-celibate). My concern is that the root of our weakness in promoting families lies in the 20th century glorification of sex and the reduction of humankind to biological impulses. Healthy examples of celibate singleness slap this kind of thinking in the the face, but a great deal of “pro-family” thinking takes the underlying 20th century cant about sex as gospel. It doesn’t necessarily address the root problem.

avatar Carl Eric Scott April 7, 2011 at 8:38 am

Oh Mark, that’s priceless–my congratulations and envy for such a beautiful teaching moment!

I just finished reading Emma and a fine Lionel Trilling essay on the same(my thanks to prof James Seaton for the tip!), and I want to report to FPRers that there is a very interesting character in the book, a Mr. Knightley, an aristocrat who is in touch with the local farmers while also moving in the Mozartian P and P world of Austenian refinement. Aristocratic, and, democratic, and, decidedly localist…a man and a community portrayed just the way Tocqueville would like it, albeit, as Trilling reminds us, made deliberately idyllic by an Austen who also knew which way the modern world was moving.

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 7, 2011 at 9:41 am

Ah, well observed, Nicole. Austen does not simply criticize the impetuous who flaut society’s disciplinary rituals, she also takes a relatively no-nonsense paddle to those rituals — the ornamental courtships of an earlier age giving way in the process.

avatar Dan Sullivan April 7, 2011 at 11:33 am

Like Jason, I am surprised and happy to report that my daughters watched P&P for the first time two years ago when they were 6 and 4, respectively, and were immediately captivated. Incessant questions, yes, liberal use of the pause button, yes, but it’s now a family staple.

Thanks Prof. Mitchell for drawing our attention to Austen’s reservoir of wisdom.

avatar Aimee Byrd April 7, 2011 at 11:59 am

What a good reminder of manly men. And what a contrast to today’s glorified man-child. Our young men can use these better examples as they try to mature in a society that tells them it is cool to be self-gratifying and irresponsible. As C.S. Lewis put it, “We are too easily satisfied.”

avatar David April 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Incidentally, it was women who summoned into being this departure from civilization’s better aspiration, this so-called man-child. Beta males of Austen’s time were differently incentivized and while we would hope that virtue for virtue’s sake would endure, it cannot. A man is developed by his community as much as the community by the man. Women have systematically undermined all the previously efficacious methods with a narrow regard for their limited interpretation of interests. However, I will excuse this much, that men as a whole did not react well to industrialization, bureaucratization and nationalization of their communities and tempted women by their failure.

Essentially men who ought to have earned the respect of women, lost it, so women gave up on the project of making respectable men. Now we face the cataclysm, we are near the point were a critical mass of respectable men may not be available to continue to the project of civilization. And yes, civilization is what men do to impress women. What goes on from here forward will be some other new beast, perhaps with some redeeming quality I cannot foresee. But I have my doubts.

However, if we would like to retain what value may yet be found in the work of generations, I suggest women reconsider their appreciation for the Beta male and reincentivize him instead of dehumanizing a generation of men who are simply acting rationally given their incentives.

avatar Julie April 8, 2011 at 8:05 am

Wow! A man who understands (to a point) Mr. Darcy’s draw for all us women?! Bravo Mr. Mitchell. Most men don’t get it. Your analysis is splendid and has a great deal of truth to it, I think. Don’t child psychologists say that children need boundaries? That it’s healthy for them to follow rules? Well, I think that applies to society as a whole, and the rules of propriety that governed the worlds within Austen’s novels provided that structure to the characters and gave them the freedom to be ladies and gentlemen.

avatar Brendan McHugh April 8, 2011 at 11:08 am

I recommend “Daniel Derronda” as a study in gentlemanly behavior. I didn’t read the book. I just watched the movie.

avatar Brian Edward Miles April 8, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Takashi,

Your personal knowledge of the parties notwithstanding, this is not exclusively a matter of intent (whether the request was made in good faith), nor a matter of pragmatics (whether it was kindly received; i.e. successful).

The question at hand is whether or not it is appropriate for a young man to turn a request for a date (a private agreement between himelf and the young lady) into a public spectacle. And yes, it was a spectacle as is evidenced by the shock and disbelief exhibited by those who witnessed the proposal.

Even if the young man was assured of his success, to spring what is an inherently sensitive and delicate matter upon a young lady–in front of an unsuspecting audience–is at best careless, and as such is much more in keeping with Lydia’s character than Mr. Darcy’s. The young man gets full marks for boldness, but utterly fails in his tact. This kind of occasion demands discretion, a fact which is not mitigated by either his good intent or his success.

avatar Lety April 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Mark,

Thank you for such a refreshing account of your experience with P&P. I salute any efforts to introduce Jane Austen to our wonderful young people.

avatar Jessica Hooten April 14, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Peter Leithart titles the first chapter of one of his books on Austen: “Real Men Read Austen.” I’ve used it in my literature classes as an introduction to her novels. I was inspired by the story in your classroom, and I hope it happens more often!

avatar Cristina April 16, 2011 at 9:57 pm

I used to be a great admirer of Jane Austen’s works, I read them all, I watched all the movies. After such a long time spent in her world I got to the conclusion that it’s a little superficial and selfish world. Heros and heroines have no worries other than those for their own or their families’ happiness. Is that a true model to give to the youth? During Austen’s time there was the first revolution in the history, didn’t she hear anything about it? There were poor people during her time, didn’t she see them? I guess Dickens was among the first in English literature to look at the poor. Last but not the least, nothing about death in her works, as if it had been carefully taken out of the picture.
What I ‘reproach’ now to Jane Austen is that she wrote more out of her imagination than out of experience. She was a dreamer, she has never married and I think that any girl who takes Austen’s idea of marriage too seriously risks not to marry. Why did Austen choose for Mr Darcy to have 10,000 pounds per year?:) Because she was a very mercantile girl or she was just a goosie, taking for granted the values imposed to her by her society. If Mr Darcy had been not so rich but poor, he couldn’t have saved Lydia from ruin, so Liz’ family would have been in real trouble. But as Mr Darcy was so rich that he could bribe not only Wickam but a dozen of Mr Wickam , the story had a happy ending:). So we can see the value of money: ).Why doesn’t exist a rich Mr Darcy to bribe all the malefic guys/bosses/etc in our lives?
For a young man or woman to become useful to their families and to society, they should not evade in dreams, in imaginary worlds, but rather appeal to and learn from real noble characters and real sufferences. I would recommend for instance to read about the sufferences of the people imprisoned during Comunism, about Yalta meeting (which is a real shame on Western World and it’s completely unknown by most of the American youth), about real history, real life and real death. Otherwise , being so enjoyably occupied with reading about imaginary characters, we might be completely taken by surprise one day when the death of our parents for instance might find us completely unprepared. Now I think that it’s worthwhile to read a book ONLY IF that book helps us to understand and stand in front of sufference and death and makes us less selfish and less selforiented. One can say that we just amuse ourselves, the problem is that we don’t have unlimited time and we have to be responsible for how we spend our life and what happens with our society. If we teach pur youth superficial books, superficial society we are going to have. I am so poignant about Austen because I lost a lot of time with her books during my youth and they didn’t help me become more altruistic or look more attentively at the sufference around me and at how I can be useful to the others and to society.
Some books that I liked and found much more useful :
‘Our thoughts determine our lives’
http://www.holycross-hermitage.com/cgi-bin/commerce.cgi?preadd=action&key=BK4355
Father Gheorghe Calciu
http://www.holycross-hermitage.com/cgi-bin/commerce.cgi?preadd=action&key=BK4356

avatar Lady Catherine April 17, 2011 at 8:53 pm

“I’m rather inept at reading great works of literature for their sublimated eroticism, their homo-erotic subtexts, and covert commentaries on sexual, racial, and economic oppression. . . I read literature as a naïve lover of a good story, good writing, and commentary on the unchanging human condition.”

Good heavens, Mr. Mitchell. It’s a wonder your English Dept colleagues are civil to you, if you’re in the habit of spouting this sort of smugly-ignorant, self-satisfied, disingenuous silliness.

I could say more, but a fine rebuttal to you has already been written by Bradford DeLong of Berkeley: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2011/04/jane-austen-blogging-oh-dear.html

And he’s an economist, not one of us foolish English Dept. folks, who can’t see a good story for all the subtext. So perhaps you’ll be willing to take him more seriously than you’d take someone like me, who has — yes, I admit it! — sometimes seen sublimated homo-eroticism in literature.

avatar Denise April 18, 2011 at 12:24 pm

I am new to the newsletter and joining the North America JA Society. i am overwhelmed with the well written comments of so many gentleman interested in this sub-culture. Kudos to the author and commentators

avatar FarmersHeart April 21, 2011 at 11:12 am

What refreshing insight!!!

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