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Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues

Transcendent Values

Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues
By Sarah Emsley.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.  Hardcover. $65.00.
xi + 202 pages.

Reviewed by Peter W. Graham.

Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues by Sarah Emsley has taken a favored place on my short shelf of critical studies that most usefully illuminate Jane Austen. This book’s slim physical presence belies the depth and comprehensiveness of its strong, patient, subtle argument. Well-informed by classic and current scholarship, Emsley follows Alistair MacIntyre in seeing Austen as “the last great representative” of the “tradition of the virtues;” but the specifics of the book’s argument are clearly her own. Jane Austen emerges from these pages as a woman who takes ethical development and the vocation of novelist seriously. Focusing on transcendent values rather than on historical and political contingencies, Emsley’s Austen resists being reduced to either an apologist for the status quo or a precocious articulator of secular ethical relativism. Instead, Emsley sees usten as conservative yet flexible, crucially interested in how the classical and the Christian virtues interact and sometimes compete in life as lived in her time. Emsley argues with conviction that Austen’s heroines are less centrally concerned with “Whom shall I marry?” than with “How should I live my life?”—and accordingly that Austen’s novels present, in diverse ways that highlight various virtues and combinations of virtues, moral educations that prepare her characters for ethical action in their communities. Thus Austen’s fictions offer “living arguments” for the practice of the virtues, both classical (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance) and Christian (charity, faith, hope).

Emsley’s scrupulous critical approach acknowledges and foregrounds the union of moral complexity and faith that distinguishes Austen’s novels of manners and morals from what preceded and what follows them. Emsley’s first chapter on “The Virtues According to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Austen” offers the background to Austen’s understanding of the classical and biblical virtues. Subsequent chapters proceed to explore moral education in the six novels plus Lady Susan. Emsley begins by assessing “Propriety’s Claims on Prudence in Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey,” both of which she sees as less complex than the later case studies. If Lady Susan is prudent in the worldly sense, playing upon propriety to hide amorality, Catherine Morland is an intuitively moral being who must learn prudence and must discover how to reconcile the appearance of propriety with its essence. “Sense and Sensibility: ‘Know Your Own Happiness’” introduces one of most compelling themes of Emsley’s book, the tensions arising when different virtues must be practiced simultaneously and kept in proper balance, by arguing against easy polarities in the cases and characters of Elinor and Marianne. Similarly, in the next chapter, “Pride and Prejudice and the Beauty of Justice,” Elizabeth and Darcy’s mutual educations both involve the recognition of mistakes and righting of wrong judgments that eventually allow the two characters to fulfill themselves as loving, ethical individuals and as a couple. Pride and Prejudice recognizes the difficulties of competing virtues—civility versus honesty, charity versus justice—and the surprising ways anger, prejudice, and discrimination can, if handled rightly, serve virtue. Pride and Prejudice is, for Emsley, Austen’s most effectively dramatized and most comprehensive study of how both women and men can learn to practice a range of virtues.

Mansfield Park’s heroine, so often attacked or dismissed on various grounds, is stoutly defended in “Fanny Price and the Contemplative Life.” Emsley argues that although Fanny may be consistently virtuous, her virtue is not static. Close scrutiny reveals Fanny—a reader, a nurturer of plants, an appreciator of nature—as far from the rigid naysayer she’s sometimes said to be. Morally strong through contemplative habit, she nonetheless desires growth and development. If Fanny Price lives too much in her moralizing thoughts, Emma Woodhouse initially thinks too little about her moral self. “Learning the Art of Charity in Emma” centers on how this novel’s fortunate and energetic heroine must learn that charity involves attitude as well as action. Emsley sees Austen’s brilliant presentation of Emma’s blundering but Knightley-mentored progress toward self-knowledge and moral wisdom as second only to Pride and Prejudice in dramatic effectiveness. Anne Elliot, like Knightley or Fanny, has little to learn about the practice of the virtues. Instead, “Balancing the Virtues in Persuasion” shows how tested strength has allowed Anne to endure disappointed love—and how the Christian virtue of hope grows to balance her classical fortitude. According to MacIntyre, constancy undergirds all Anne’s other virtues—and faith is fundamental to constancy, argues Emsley. The loss of faith is what Emsley sees as setting Austen’s moral explorations apart from those of novelists who can be seen as her descendants: George Eliot, Henry James, Edith Wharton. The coda “After Austen” suggests that although great writing can exist in an age of doubt, the tradition of the virtues must fade and diminish—and thus that the coherent complexity of Austen’s philosophy of the virtues has never since been surpassed or equaled. Nor has it hitherto been fully explicated with Emsley’s admirable blend of clarity, precision, erudition, and plausibility.

Peter W. Graham is a professor of English at Virginia Tech and Director of International Relations for the Missolonghi Byron Research Center in Greece. He is completing a study of Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, empiricism, and serendipity.

JASNA News, vol. 24, no. 2, Summer 2008, p. 20

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