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

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.

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