Friday, September 14, 2007

Christian Charity in Jane Austen's Works

Christian morals have come from so many writers in such varied forms, that each reader has his or her opinion about what an acceptable form should be. CS Lewis writes his Narnia novels in an unmistakably allegorical form; JRR Tolkien's Rings are much more subtle and relies so much on the myths of his culture's Germanic and Norse roots to make points that square with the Christian ethos. Johanna Spyri portrays the effect of Christianity and a child's innocence on hardened hearts in Heidi, notably through that life-transforming, astonishing little parable of the prodigal son. Patricia St. John's very similar work, Treasures of the Snow sees itself as a children's novella that ties together concepts like God's sovereignty, beneficence, power to transform lives, heal relationships and sickness.

Among these great writers also stands tall Jane Austen, as this article by Dr. Jerram Barrs titled 'Jane Austen- Great Christian Novelist' explains. His explanation covers these five points:

1. Austen was no romantic- I find this very true. Unlike the Bronte sisters who have criticized Austen for her gentle treatment of her characters' personalities (compared to the molten passions of their own novels' characters), Austen treated relationships with wisdom and a lightness that settles nicely on them so the reader participates with the author in giving them a circumference that he or she can relate to. Austen never gives us a climactic fairytale ending or a Hardy-esque bitter end (which I believe is another form of romanticism- for such ends are ironical only because expectations are set wrongly). Her endings satisfy because they are right, not because they are what the protagonists have desired all along. Indeed in Sense and Sensibility, as Dr. Barrs explains, the effects of unbridled passion are demonstrated to be unsatisfying.

2. Austen literary ability was outstanding- Dr. Barr doesn't elaborate on this, but of course this is borne out by her time-tested works. Who would have expected them to remain at number 5 on a modern best-seller list of novels in the mid-1990s?

3. Austen sketches characters intimately- Once again, absolutely right. The humour, the wisdom, the unanswered questions, the courtesy- all of these give such depth to them, one is struck by the fact that the author doesn't get carried away by any one of these characteristics.

4. Austen's vision of moral and spiritual uprightness was profound- Countless instances prove this. In Emma, Mr. Knightley admonishes Emma Woodhouse with righteous indignation when she has thoughtlessly criticized Miss Bates. Miss Bates deserved Emma's compassion because she was poor. Emma's remorse that follows and the course of events after this set a moral tone to the novel that reaches out to us without seeming pontificatory. Mr. Knightley's ability to tolerate Frank Churchill's apparent courting of Emma is also lauded, as being typical of the parfait knight (as the play on name correctly indicates). Similarly in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood similarly goes through a courteous and gracious if confused time of playing the understanding friend to Edward Ferrars who she hears is set to marry someone else. This is considered the 'sensibility' part of the title, and similarly lauded.

5. Austen wrote with a humour that also typifies many of her characters' personalities. This sets her apart from so many female authors of her time and subsequent ages. A modern novel like the God of Small Things for instance has the kind of humour about it that is ironical, vaguely forboding or sarcastic. In contrast, Austen's works have genuine humour that is beneficent and hearty without being annoying or foolish.

Among the other Christian writers, I believe Austen holds a special place in her treatment of everyday relationships, social equations, courtesy and self-control that flow from the considered Christian life.

No comments: