Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How Should I live My Life?

Yesterday, my husband heard an exchange at the local library book sale that went like this,

1st lady: Yeah, I'm reading this book called Pride and Prejudice, and it is stupid. There is this girl who's staying at this house and she's sick and it doesn't make any sense.

2nd lady: Well, you just have to see the movie. It all comes together in the movie. There's a man called Mr Darcy. And the girls' mom just wants them all to be married. It's hilarious, the lines, the wit, you'll like it better...

This is a classic case of "can't get there from here". When someone can't even make it through the book while suspending judgment, or at least appreciating balancing qualities, there is little hope of building up to the point that one actually begins to see what Austen is about. A lot of critics are simply fancy versions of "Austen is neat" school of criticism. Another level is scholarly and explores important facets from a sound direction. And then there is Emsley...

Enter Sarah Emsley. If we ever needed her it is now. She is the best I have read on the works of Jane Austen. Yes, Tony Tanner is good, he's genius at some points. Of course, Leithart is worth reading. Yes, yes, C.S.Lewis, Ian Watt, Lionel Trilling, Donald Greene, James Collins, Alain de Botton, and W. Somerset Maugham are all my favorites! I have gleaned so much from them all. But it just so happens that a lady was able to do what they were unable to. And up until Emsley, all of the women I've read on JA have been sub par. Terrible in some instances. Female literary critics (e.g., Eva Brann, Dianne Johnson, Margot Livesey, -and I know he's not a girl but- Kingsly Amis, just to name a few), who should have 'gotten it' in JA have written essays I would not force on my worst enemies. Sarah Emsley is a sigh of relief. She refutes the critics with a few deft strokes.

Armed with the idea that JA's books are more about Austen's heroines learning "to ask the philosophical question about how to live their lives," Emsley is able to see what so many have missed (or butchered). That is, JA's novels centre around the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance, as well as the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Emsley shows the virtues as "high standards, precise points, but they are also flexible and must be exercised to be learned- they must become habits." JA did not only explore virtue as it was defined in her day, the virtue of a female's sexual chastity, but a full range of the virtues and how they are able to unite them, or put another way, to balance them.

Emsley points out that JA's "emphasis is on the centrality and the flexibility of the tradition of the virtues" and argues that JA's most loved heroines combine virtues with ready wit (as opposed to the daughter in JA's Plan of a Novel). Aristotle calls this "one of the virtues of social life." I would say that this is necessary to life, if it is to be enjoyed at all.

An excellent example of uniting the virtues is seen when Elizabeth in P&P was endeavoring "to unite civility and truth in a few short sentences" when conversing with Mr Collins. Again using Elizabeth, one of the most loved and most known heroines, as an example, Emsley points out that Elizabeth does not say to Lady Catherine (when discussing her future plans) that she will act "without reference to you or to any person," but states that she will act "without reference to you or to any person so wholly unconnected with me." Elizabeth often sought the advice of Jane, her Aunt (and Uncle) Gardiner, and, yes, even tall Mr Darcy. As Emsley says, "...sometimes the careful judgments of others can help her know what her own happiness is." Is not this the very thing that Emma discovers on account of Mr Knightly, or Marianne with Elinor?

These thoughts are taken from the introduction (entitled, How Should I live My Life?) of Sarah Baxter Emsley's book, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues. This gem of a book has 7 chapters (plus a Conclusion), which I hope to sum up delightfully for your full benefit. Next up, Chapter 1: The Virtues According to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Austen.

1 comment:

Lydia said...

I'll say it again, " Why don't you just write a book already??"