Removing the Romance from Pride and Prejudice

Removing the Romance from Pride and Prejudice January 16, 2013

As the leaders of Christian homeschool movement embrace the (supposedly) virtuous past as a contrast to our (allegedly) hedonistic presence – emphasizing female chastity and male chivalry and even, yes, holding historically themed tea parties – they often seem to zero in on the nineteenth and early twentieth century as a sort of ideal era. And yet, this fascination with the Victorian era, along with the years immediately before and after it, often includes an embrace of literature that seems to run counter to the ideals the leaders of the Christian homeschool movement are trying so hard to promote, especially in the area of romantic relationships. There is, of course, a simple solution: reinterpret the literature and change its meaning.

For background, I highly recommend reading Sharon Lathan’s “A Very Serious Blog on a Frightening, Shocking Revelation.” In this post, Christian romance author Sharon Lathan speaks of a literature and history class she set up for homeschooled teenage girls (on request), a class that fell through when the girls’ mothers determined that the literature she planned to use for the class was not fit for their girls to read. Here’s an excerpt from Lathan’s article, in which she discusses one of the offending passages:

As I read this scene after researching the betrothal/courtship movement it suddenly became very clear. My husband instantly had the same reaction. In this scene we see a father demanding his son marry his choice of wife, and a son who is refusing. We also see a sneer at the concept of a son choosing a wife based on his emotions of love.

So was the “problem” with Miss Darcy Falls in Love that it is “too explicit”? In their twisted minds apparently so. Or was the bigger problem because it is about two people who freely feel emotions that are real and beautiful, fall in love before an arranged agreement by their elders, learn to trust those emotions, and worse yet, defy at least one parent in choosing for themselves? I think it clear my conclusion is the latter.

I can’t be inside the minds of these girls’ parents, so will not say for sure. But I can logically deduce and know what I have read and been told. It frightens me and makes me very, very sad.

With that background, I give you “Don’t Follow Your Heart: Anti-Revolutionary Lessons from Pride and Prejudice,” written by Angelina Stanford and posted on the website of the Circe Institute. In this piece Stanford explains that the much forgotten message of Pride and Prejudice is actually, well, “don’t follow your heart.”

It’s easy to forget when reading a Jane Austen novel that she wrote during a time of great revolutionary upheaval:  the loss of the British colonies in America, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s attempt to take over the world, and the deliberate assault on the institutions of the Church, the Government, and the Family.  The world had gone mad. And yet Jane Austen utters not a word in her novels about those unsettling times, at least not directly.

Jean Jacques Rousseau fittingly referred to as both the Father of the French Revolution and the Father of Romanticism, rejected both Christian epistemology and Rationalism when he argued that emotion is the highest form of truth. To feel is to know. Unfettered passion is truth. Want to know what’s right? What does your heart tell you?

From Rousseau’s mouth to the ears and arms of romantics and revolutionaries, passion and emotion as standards of truth unleashed chaos and violence unto the world. While revolutionaries picked up swords, Jane Austen picked up her pen. She stood as a bulwark against the revolutionary chaos of her time. And you thought she wrote love stories.

In the story of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Austen does give readers one of the greatest love stories of all time.  But it’s not just any love story; it’s an anti-romantic love story.  Opposed to Rousseau and revolutionary/romantic thinking, Austen sends the message: Don’t Follow Your Heart.

The first successful engagement in Pride and Prejudice is between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. It is a purely practical, almost mercenary, arrangement. Elizabeth Bennett is disappointed and disgusted by the match, as is the reader.  We agree with Elizabeth that affection, compatibility,feelings matter. And Elizabeth’s feelings are leading her to the very agreeable and handsome Mr. Wickham.

One would expect the plot to unfold as follows: Wickham sweeps Elizabeth off her feet. They get married and live happily ever after, contrasted with the miserable Collinses. Unfeeling marriage is condemned and following your heart leads to joy. Maybe if Shelley or Wordsworth or Byron wrote this novel.

Instead Austen warns Elizabeth—and all of us—when Mrs. Gardiner cautions Elizabeth against making an imprudent match with Wickham: “you must not let your fancy run away with you. You have sense, and we all expect you to use it.” There it is, in the middle of one of the greatest love stories ever written: Don’t follow your heart!

Elizabeth learns just how wise is the advice of Mrs. Gardiner, but her sister Lydia does not.  And here we see the true genius of Austen. The entire seduction of Lydia happens offstage. The reader doesn’t get caught up in the passion and the romance. Instead it unfolds through the perspective of Elizabeth.

At the moment when Elizabeth hopes that there may be a future for herself and Darcy, she receives Jane’s letter. All of Lydia’s foolishness and selfishness is evident as we mourn with Elizabeth. Unlike Lydia, caught up in her own feelings, readers immediately recognize how her actions affect everyone around her. She has brought shame and disgrace on not just herself but her entire family and has likely destroyed any chance for a good marriage for her sisters. Lydia has ruined not just herself, but her entire family.

She and Wickham followed their hearts, and predictably that choice leads to their own misery. But the genius of Austen is that their own suffering is somehow secondary; it’s an afterthought. The real tragedy to the reader is the pain afflicted on Elizabeth and her family. When people follow their hearts, they think only of themselves and neglect their duty to love their neighbor.

Duty, loving your neighbor, considering the consequences of your action beyond just your own pleasure… these are the themes that drive Pride and Prejudice. Darcy is a good man because he doesn’t follow his heart. He refuses to feed his vanity by flirting with Elizabeth when he has no intention of marrying her. Wickham, in contrast, enjoys the pleasure of flirting, and even seducing, without any consideration of the consequence.

Mercenary marriage brings no joy but neither does running away with your fancy. Good marriages have affection and compatibility but also require a husband committed to his duty and, as Mr. Bennett tells Elizabeth in his last speech, a wife who respects her husband. Love and affection rooted in duty and respect. How very anti-revolutionary.

Jane Austen’s message is just as timely today as it was two hundred years ago. How do we respond to a world gone mad? Have a good marriage, be a good neighbor, invest in your community, take your responsibilities seriously. Don’t follow your heart. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. On these hangs the only hope to restore sanity to our world.

I was going to go through and explain some of the problems I have with this interpretation, but I’m on a deadline and while I’ve always been a Jane Austen fan, I’ve never taken an English class and know little about Jane Austen’s background or the genre in which she was writing. And so, I’m going to open the floor to you lot. Critique away! Tomorrow or Friday I’ll select the best comments and add them to the end of this post.

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