For a writer justly considered one of the wittiest in the English language—well known for her stunning narrative style and sparkling character portrayals—Jane Austen really spent quite an astonishing amount of time stressing very opposite characteristics. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more remarkable I’ve found it.
In fact—in the midst of all her creation of witty, exciting characters—I would submit she’s always, always emphasizing underlying qualities of discernment and solidity. Discernment and judgment is definitely the theme with Catherine Morland (her first major heroine). Later she goes on to hold up Fanny Price and Anne Elliot as near perfection while some of her ‘lighter’ characters (Lizzy, Emma, etc.) are not considered as ‘arrived’ until they learn it!
Also, some of her more apparently ‘dull’, prosy characters seemingly have a deeper part of life figured out: both Miss Bates and Mr. Wodehouse in Emma are generally beloved in Highbury, their popularity due—not to wit (or even any deep perception)—but to a general readiness and warmth of heart. Even of her heroes, Mr. Knightley along with Edmund (and Mr. Darcy) are not witty per se. And there are those characters who definitely are: the Crawfords, Frank Churchill, Willoughby, etc.
And yet Austen delights in a healthy sense of humor. At least half her heroes have an excellent balance in that regard: Mr. Knightley, Captain Wentworth, Henry Tilney…even Edward Ferrars! It’s in knowing the appropriateness—when and how and with whom to tease (as Lizzy realizes near the end of P&P).
It’s all in using it with due thought and humility. Mr. Knightley says at one point, “Cole does not want to be wiser or wittier than his neighbors.” To which Emma replies, “In that respect, how unlike dear Mrs. Elton, who wants to be wiser and wittier than all the world!” It’s about using wit while maintaining general benevolence and charity.
Though this thread of general discernment and benevolence runs throughout all Austen’s writing, her skill certainly reached a masterful depth in her three later books: Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. Interestingly enough, the order sandwiches our heroine of the week (Emma) between two strongly quieter heroines—both strikingly perceptive with a tremendous clarity of thought and vision—Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Emma certainly seems puzzling in that regard as, at first glance, it might seem Austen was flip-flopping between types of heroines. But what if, instead, she’s really exploring that same long running idea—switching the lens to come at it from a different angle?
Edmund Bertram (in Mansfield Park) and Mr. Knightley being Austen’s personal favorites out of all her characters merits strong consideration. Upright and honorable, a defining characteristic of both is that they are outspoken truth-tellers (though, of course, Edmund comes in for his own share of blindness and need for discernment).
Yet when it comes to blindness, Austen regularly points out that (though others bear their own responsibility for leading astray) our greatest vulnerability to their attack comes from first blinding ourselves. There’s Catherine Morland (with her dramatic reading selections), Marianne (whose troubles stem from “imprudence” toward herself and “want of kindness to others”), Lizzy (offended and determined to think ill of Mr. Darcy), Edmund (reasoning away his own just scruples), Emma (blinded by her vanity and fanciful pride), and Captain Wentworth (in his resentment determined to think ill of Anne). All fall prey to further troubles and blindness.
Truth is underlined as the antidote to all of them. Marianne is restored in the discovery of Willoughby’s full character, Edmund of Mr. and Miss Crawford’s, and Captain Wentworth when the truth of Anne’s rectitude and steadfast love finally reach him. For the other three—unrighteous anger leads to death and destruction, but righteous anger to repentance and life—and three of Austen’s heroes are confrontational in such a direction. Henry Tilney confronts the over-imaginative Catherine like a true forerunner of Mr. Knightley—ending with, “Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” upon which she weeps tears of shame. Mr. Darcy’s letter provides a hearty cure to Lizzy (though she provides him about an equal dose during the proposal itself). (Darcy’s truth-speaking, indeed, is not particularly out of love at the time, so much as a sense of justice—though Lizzy later refers to the ending of his letter as being “charity itself”.) But either way, it has the same effect. Lizzy, confronted with the truth from him, soon cries to herself, “How despicably have I acted! …I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! …Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
And then there’s Emma. Emma and Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley whose course of truth-speaking culminates at Box Hill in (what Peter Leithart describes as) “one of the most forceful and deeply right speeches in English literature.” The false lover flatters, but the true lover speaks hard words and they bring repentance and beauty.
Though I’d read and listened to Emma, I would never have listed it as one of my favorite stories until about two years ago—thanks to first seeing the '96 film. Somehow that particular film always makes me start seeing ways I personally need to improve, making me want to change, to press on, to—by the grace of God—be better than I currently am. And then Emma landed firmly on my favorites list! I saw the ’09—where wisdom, discernment, and generosity (shown as solidly attractive and emotionally compelling) are highlighted as positive goods—well worth the striving for.
Jane Austen’s heroines learn to subdue themselves, but they’re never suppressed. Rather they’re pruned—fitted and made ready—for further, wider places and greater authority—Barton Park, Pemberly, Donwell…
The first step is humility. Marianne has to learn this—as do Lizzy and Emma. But, it’s not self-centered ostentatious self-humiliation. (To quote) C.S. Lewis said, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
Humility is first of all a recognition of our God-given place—who He has made us to be and just what we have been called to. It’s seeing our own faults and shortcomings, and it’s a recognition that all we have is a gift of grace. And from there, humility can turn outward—turning toward others—in active, self-giving love.