GROWTH IN SELF-KNOWLEDGE AS A KEY TO UNDERSTANDING JANE AUSTEN’S PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

                            “Confess your sins to each other” (James 5:16)

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813, and it seems now to be a truth universally acknowledged that it is one of the greatest novels in English literature. I understand, however, that the first draft of the story, entitled First Impressions, was promptly rejected for publication without even being read! The rewrite of the story proved to be a rather worthwhile endeavor, and that is a lesson in itself about perseverance. And Pride and Prejudice is a story about perseverance. After all, Elizabeth and Darcy did end up getting married despite all the obstacles they themselves presented to such a union! I suggest in this short note that there are Christian elements in Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s joint journey to self-discovery, enlightenment and love.

On one level, Pride and Prejudice is a comical masterpiece as the preposterous Mrs. Bennett explores ways to find husbands for her five daughters, while her reclusive husband provides humorous commentary about his rather ridiculous and zany wife. And the farcical clergyman, Mr. Collins, and his devotion to Lady Catherine De Bourgh, has that mark of brilliant – even caustic –  British humor! The humor in Pride and Prejudice is worth the price of admission, and Jane Austen’s wit and satire are part of her literary genius.

But clearly Pride and Prejudice is also a novel about rational life, the powers of observation, and the acquisition of true virtue. Like the British philosophers, Jane Austen placed a high value on the power of observation (sense perception) and the corresponding value judgments that fill the tabula rasa (intellectual assessment and intuition). The human difficulty presented in the novel is poor discernment, or more precisely rash judgments, and I do not think it would be unfair to call Pride and Prejudice a literary primer on the importance of good discernment which, in the field of human relationships, takes time. Overcoming the pitfalls of poor discernment and contorted first impressions are the keys to success and happiness in Pride and Prejudice (and the key to understanding Jane Austen’s epistemology, whatever it may be, is to see it clearly involves a deeper, truer knowledge of self).

Let me add, parenthetically, that it is not necessarily the rightness or wrongness of the first impression that is crucial, but rather the inadequacy of such a truncated view. For example, it is not that Elizabeth’s first impression of Darcy was wrong (he was, in fact, rude at the ball ), but rather that it only showed her a very thin veneer of his true character, whereas Elizabeth’s first impression of Wickham was clearly flawed because she was too easily influenced by appearances. In Darcy’s case there is not only a flawed first impression of Elizabeth at the ball (flowing from his arrogance and sense of superiority), but even more problematic a failure to discern how he has hurt her by his rude conduct. In this sense Darcy lacks insight into his own deficient character, and therefore the rest of the novel is essentially a journey of self-discovery for him (as it is for Elizabeth as well, who was so put off by Darcy’s rudeness but yet so easily deceived by Wickham’s charm and affability).

I certainly do not intend to call Pride and Prejudice a religious novel (as I would, for example, call Jane Eyre, where prayer is seen as foundational to change), but it clearly is a novel about growth in virtue and love through a deeper knowledge of self and confession of one’s faults, so it clearly is a novel with spiritual overtones. Jane Austen was a novelist, and not a theologian, but it would be a mistake to think that she lacked theological formation (and, yes, everyone knows that Jane Austen’s father was an Anglican Vicar!).

Let me state from the beginning that the superficial characters in Pride and Prejudice are those who lack introspection and self-examination and therefore fail to overcome their defects. These characters – often comical and farcical and even tragic – lead highly external lives and avoid self-introspection (think of Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins). These characters lack growth in virtue because they desire not to examine and correct their faults.

Let us turn now to Jane Austen. Although Pride and Prejudice is not a religious novel – and one might rightly call it a secular novel – it appears quite clear that Ms. Austen lived a religious life. As Michael Giffen points out in his book, Jane Austen’s Religious Imagination:

“We cannot understand Austen’s life, or her novels, apart from religion, Anglicanism. While it may seem foreign to us the Austen household would have gathered to say Morning and Evening prayers daily. She would have read and heard all the Psalms once a month, most of the Old Testament once a year, and most of the New Testament twice a year. She wrote intercessory prayers designed to be read out. She cherished her copy of A Companion to the Altar [which she used] to prepare for Holy Communion” (as edited).

A biographer of Jane Austen adds: “Jane Austen’s religion… is an element in her life of the highest significance and importance. The Austen reticence kept her from ever talking much about it. But the little she did say, and what her intimates said about her, show that she grew up to be deeply religious. She actively practiced her faith, and her moral views were wholly, if unobtrusively, determined by the dictates of the Christian religion as interpreted by her church”( A Portrait of Jane Austen by David Cecil, Penguin Books).

Here is an excerpt from a prayer written by Jane Austen:

“Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our hearts, as with our lips. Thou art every where present, from thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this, teach us to fix our thoughts on thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain.

Look with mercy on the sins we have this day committed, and in mercy make us feel them deeply, that our repentance may be sincere, & our resolutions steadfast of endeavouring against the commission of such in future. Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own souls.”

Finally, Professor Stovel of The University of Alberta informs us that Jane Austen admired the sermons of Bishop Thomas Sherlock, as seen from a letter she wrote which is quite revealing:

“On the other hand, Jane Austen admired the tough-minded sermons preached by Thomas Sherlock, Bishop of London, to an audience of lawyers at the Temple Church: ‘I am very fond of Sherlock’s Sermons, prefer them to almost any’ (Letters, 406).  One of Sherlock’s sermons, for example, takes as its text Psalms 19, verse 12: ‘Who can understand his errors?  Cleanse thou me from secret faults’; Sherlock explains that the deadliest faults are those secret ones that result from self-ignorance, habit, or simply a failure to reflect about the consequences to others of one’s own actions, and he points out that the general petitions of The Book of Common Prayer cover just such faults (142-65).”

Pride and Prejudice – from a spiritual perspective – highlights this process of the purgation of our hidden and secret faults through self-examination, painful humiliations and confession – all leading to a truer knowledge of self and to growth in moral goodness, and ultimately to a deeper capacity to love. Here is Elizabeth’s confession:

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. — Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried. — “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! — Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. — Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.” (Chapter 36)

And here is Darcy’s confession:

I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoiled by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I owe you! You taught me a lesson hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.(Chapter 58)

From the point of view of Christian spirituality, growth in self-knowledge through the identification and correction of one’s faults (often hidden by self-deception) is one of the most important steps in the spiritual journey. St. Teresa of Avila, for example, explains how important it is to spend time in the “cell of self-knowledge” in order to grow in holiness. And another great spiritual writer says: “No wonder that reliable self-knowledge is rare, when so few take pains to acquire it…All supernatural principles and all religious manliness are based on genuine, reliable self-knowledge. Give that conclusion leave to do its work in your soul, and you will see what a change it will bring about!” (F.W. Faber, Spiritual Conferences). This idea deserves to be explored further from the specific point of view of Anglican spirituality.

What an enormous change genuine self-knowledge brought about in the lives of Elizabeth and Darcy! Humility is a foundational virtue in Christianity that counteracts pride (“God exalts the humble”), and it is humility that softened the hearts of Elizabeth and Darcy and made them more capable of realizing their profound love for each other. Moreover, the confession of one’s faults is a quasi-religious act closely associated with Christianity. As Julie Rattey observes in an essay on Jane Austen’s literary spirituality, “The famous conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth near the end of Pride and Prejudice…is as much a confession of sins as it is a profession of love.” In short, who can fail to see the themes of repentance and redemption in Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s mutual confessions? And often overlooked is Darcy’s prayer for God’s blessings upon Elizabeth at the most crucial moment in the novel, there at the very end of Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, the one he wrote to her after her rejection of his marriage proposal.

As a final point, Jane Austen specifically highlights Elizabeth’s exceptional growth in holiness at the very end of the novel. In the second to last paragraph of the final chapter we read that Lady Catherine, “extremely indignant” of Darcy’s marriage, sent a letter to Darcy that was “very abusive” of Elizabeth. But we read, amazingly, that Elizabeth prevailed upon Darcy “to overlook the offence, and seek a reconciliation,” until finally Lady Catherine’s “resentment gave way.” This is the happy ending to Pride and Prejudice, an act of profound Christian charity by Elizabeth, giving rise to greater well-being in the community. How much good would we do in our own lives if we didn’t cling so tightly to the injustice of having been offended and chose instead – like Elizabeth –  to overlook the offense? There is a lesson here of profound spiritual importance.

CONCLUSION: We can certainly conclude that the journey to greater self-knowledge and enlightenment – as demonstrated by the novel’s protagonists, Elizabeth and Darcy – is a major theme in Pride and Prejudice.  A more remote conclusion – which seems justified – is that Jane Austen’s Anglican faith strongly influenced her description of the moral development of Elizabeth and Darcy. There are significant elements in Pride and Prejudice that mirror the Christian understanding of growth in virtue through growth in self-knowledge, related especially to painful but purifying humiliations and the confession and extirpation  of one’s hidden faults. Jane Austen grew up in a world permeated by Anglicanism, and it probably was not on her mind to preach Christianity to the choir. Moreover, it would have been awkward for her to mix her biting and sardonic humor with Christian sentimentalism. She seems, rather, to use the theme of moral development to express her Christian beliefs. We see, then, that the healing of pride and prejudice is made possible by a greater openness to self-examination and corresponding acts of humility, all of which leads to growth in charity, to a fuller life, and in Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s case, to a loving marriage that will touch the lives of many other people.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

References: In addition to the sources mentioned in the note, see the following internet article: “The Theology of Jane Austen” by Guy McClung. Further, there are a number of internet articles on the theme of self-knowledge in Pride and Prejudice that were helpful.

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