Everyone knows that good Christian girls love Jane Austen.
But perhaps not everyone knows that good Catholic Christian girls also love St. Thomas Aquinas.
That is why I had to have mama fetch my smelling salts when the Masked Thomist linked me to a whole series of posts on Austen, Aquinas and Aristotle at the Dominicana blog. In a series of 5 posts, Br. Aquinas Beale argues that,
There is something more than romance and drama in the novels of Jane Austen, namely a systematic approach to leading the good and happy life.
It’s true you know.
Austen’s novels are a perfect education in Thomistic virtue ethics. Aquinas (following Aristotle) maintained that everything we do, we do in order to be happy. Even when we do bad or miserable things, we do them out of some twisted sense that this bring us happiness. Often it does bring us a kind of happiness — but it rarely lasts long. The only true and lasting happiness come from good actions. But we humans are fickle creatures and we make decisions instinctively. That is why we have to train ourselves to instinctively choose good actions and “habits that dispose us to choose the good are called virtues.”
What sets Austen’s heroines apart is that they get this.
They reflect on their actions and make a sincere effort to change, to develop more virtuous habits. They choose the good and we the reader get a glimpse of these thoughtful, honest women as they navigate the tricky of business of growing in virtue… and finding a husband with 5,000 a year. (A regency girl has got to get her bonnets, somehow!)
Marianne is ashamed of her carefree openness to Willoughby; Elizabeth regrets her prideful disdain for Mr. Darcy and imprudent trust in Mr. Wickham; Emma rues her callous treatment of Miss Bates and meaningless flirtation with Frank Churchill; and, of course, Catherine cries and laments over her naïve and unfounded suspicion of General Tilney’s character and her bold liberty in snooping about a house in which she is a guest. (The Way of Shame: Moral Education in Northanger Abbey)
Like Aquinas, Austen stresses how important it is to govern our passions and emotions, and not be controlled by them. For example, Marianne goes through hell and back because her emotions are so unruly. She almost dies of a broken heart (yes, seriously). Elinor, however, is different because she has learnt to govern her emotions and her mind.
Mind is not given a monopoly in virtuous action, and Elinor is by no means a stranger to emotion. It is through the union of the intellectual and the sensible that Elinor is able to weather her troubled course throughout the novel much more composedly than her overly affectionate sister, Marianne. (In Pursuit of Happiness: An Aristotelian Appreciation of Jane Austen)
Neither Aquinas nor Aristotle were terribly concerned with marriage (unlike Austen) but all three knew the power of virtuous friendships. Aristotle argued that there are three kinds of friendships: there are friendships of utility, of pleasure, and lastly of virtue.
Br. Aquinas writes that we can see this most clearly in Pride and Prejudice.
Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins for utility. Lydia Bennet marries Mr. Wickham for pleasure. But happily, both Jane and Lizzy marry Mr. Bingley and Darcy (respectively) for a true friendship of virtue built on mutual respect and care for the other.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet provide a prime illustration of the risk that such couples run if they do not base their marriage upon a solid relationship. Mr. Bennet has found that he cannot esteem his wife, while Mrs. Bennet does not care for that esteem and respect. As a result, their household crumbles beneath them, to which Lydia’s unrestrained, unprincipled behavior testifies. (Love and Friendship: Virtue and the Varieties of Relationship in Pride and Prejudice)
Br. Aquinas’ posts end with Austen’s last novel and, in my opinion, her most beautiful, Persuasion. Anne Eliot is oldest of Austen’s heroines: “Forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older”. Throughout Persuasion, we see Anne’s confidence grow and her sense of hope too, even before she marries Captain Wentworth.
According to St. Thomas, it is hope of the final end that gives way to charity, which is the perfect love of God. So in a way, hope is one of the final virtues that must be acquired before the end can be attained. (Heaven’s Last Best Gift: Marriage as the Final End in Persuasion)
This is exactly what Anne learns through Persuasion. She learns to hope and her hope is solid one because it’s not dependent on her circumstances but on her character.
Anne stands out as living the most independent life of virtue; even the paragon of all things good, Fanny Price, does not quite learn to expect happiness apart from marriage with Edmund before providence intervenes. (Heaven’s Last Best Gift: Marriage as the Final End in Persuasion)
Just as hope leads to love, so too Anne’s growing hope leads to another love, that of Captain Wentworth’s.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying if you’re virtuous, you get to marry a wealthy naval captain. (More’s the pity.) In this joyful vindication, Anne’s life is a metaphor of the Christian life. Through sufferings, we grow virtue and character. Because then virtue directs us towards what is eternal and truly lovely, we grow in hope.
And this hope (like Anne’s Captain Wentworth) does not disappoint.
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience — or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope. (Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility)