Online Conversation | Reading Jane Austen: A Novel Approach to Virtue
with Karen Swallow Prior
In celebration of our spring Reading on Pride and Prejudice, we were delighted to host its introduction author, and Trinity Forum Senior Fellow Karen Swallow prior for a discussion on Jane Austen and her novel approach to virtue.
As Prior notes in her introduction to our Reading, Austen offers a trove of wisdom to anyone who desires to live and love more fully and truthfully. As a “clever satirist, insightful moral philosopher, and a deeply Christian thinker,” Austen’s humorous writing, complex characters, and insightful observations on human behavior disarm our defenses and demonstrate the power of the virtues of humility and prudence, and the balance of reason and passion, perception and perspective.
Speaking of Austen’s Christian faith, Prior says, “Hers was the restrained, quiet, and personal faith of her Anglican tradition. Her novels are less altar calls than liturgies of ordinary life.” Austen’s world may feel quite removed from ours, but her focus on such everyday liturgies illustrate the importance of the seemingly mundane and illuminate the path towards repaired and rightly ordered relationships. We hope you enjoy this conversation!
The song is “Devonshire” by Patrick Doyle for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.
The painting is Chatsworth House by William Marlow, Late 1700’s.
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:
David and Lynzie Haynes
And to our co-hosts:
Transcript of “Reading Jane Austen: A Novel Approach to Virtue” Karen Swallow Prior
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on “Reading Jane Austen: A Novel Approach to Virtue.” I’d also just like to recognize and thank our sponsors, David and Lindsay Haines, out in Atherton, California, as well as our friends and co-hosts at the Pelican Project, the Rabbit Room, and Hearts & Minds Books, all excellent organizations that you’ll find out a little bit more about. If you are one of those folks who are joining us for the very first time or are new to the Trinity Forum in some way, we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life and come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s conversation will provide a small taste of that for you.
So today we have the fun of discussing one of history’s best-loved author’s best loved works, and we’ll explore what could be called a “novel” approach to virtue that is gained by reading Jane Austen. Many of us first became acquainted with Jane Austen through the various film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, and they make for great TV. I know that I spent many hours in my twenties rewatching again and again the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with girlfriends. But as delightful and entertaining as Austen’s novels are, our guest today argues that they are works of not only literary brilliance but also moral challenge and deep spiritual seriousness, and that Austen herself, through her works, serves as an instructor in virtue ethics, using satire to disarm our defenses against the revelation of our own foibles and flaws in illustrating the virtues of humility and prudence and the balance of passion and reason. It is both a fascinating argument and an intriguing invitation to consider anew Jane Austen and her novels. And it’s hard to imagine a better guide to such an exploration or one who approaches the subject with more expertise, enthusiasm, or aplomb than our guest today, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior.
Cherie Harder: Karen is a research professor of English and Christianity & Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as a frequent writer on literature, culture, ethics, and ideas for publications like The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Vox, First Things, and Christianity Today, among many other outlets. She’s the author of several books, including Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah Moore, her wonderful book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, as well as the introduction author of our latest Trinity Forum Reading featuring selections from Pride and Prejudice, and the creator of a forthcoming podcast series entitled “Jane and Jesus,” which examines the Christian themes of Austin’s writing. Karen, welcome.
Karen Swallow Prior: Thank you, Cherie. It’s so wonderful to be with you again, after a year of hibernation.
Cherie Harder: You were one of our first guests on this series, so it’s great to have you back. So let’s just start with the most obvious question, which is, while Jane Austen’s works are much loved and much enjoyed, there are still those who seem to consider them the works of fluffy period pieces, bits of chick lit or the like. And I’ll quote something that you said here, which you said, “Nothing could be further from the truth. Jane Austen was a clever satirist and insightful moral philosopher and a deeply Christian thinker.” So why do you consider Jane Austen to be a moral philosopher?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, first, I want to say I’m not alone in that understanding. No less than Alistair Macintyre, one of the foremost moral philosophers living today, actually calls Austen one of the last in the great tradition in the modern age of moral philosophers. And he’s right. And the reason that she is one of those is, first of all, she does write satire, which I know we’ll talk about later. But satire is a moral correction. It kind of holds up our own vices and follies and gently or not so gently mocks them so that we might see them and correct them. And even though Austen’s novels are always about love and marriage and romance, whether it’s romance that goes well or goes badly, that’s really just the surface. Underneath the surface of that story, she is inviting us to look at our own interactions with one another, our own misperceptions and misreadings, and I think that’s really why her works remain so endearing to us today, because she reveals the truths of our human condition that never change and that we’re always wrestling with.
Cherie Harder: So what would her moral philosophy consist of? I mean, it’s always difficult to sum up a moral philosophy, but if you had to give it a shot, how would you do so?
Karen Swallow Prior: So Austen writes in the tradition of virtue ethics, and so virtue, classically understood, is a moderation between an excess and a deficiency. So, for example, the virtue that we call courage: to have too little of that quality would be cowardice. But to have too much of it would be rashness. And we often forget that true virtue really does require having sort of that balance, that middle way, that moderation between two extremes, and almost every character or every situation—even the titles themselves that Austen uses, especially Sense and Sensibility—display her attempt to show how easy it is for us to err on the side of either excess or deficiency, to have too much pride or too little, too much sensibility or too little. And so she’s writing in a long tradition that goes back to the classical ages, reemerged in the 18th century, and really follows in that tradition much more than the romantic writers that she was contemporary with.
Cherie Harder: One of the interesting things about Austen is that in her stories she so consistently depicts the act of reading itself as being necessary to character formation and also a clue to the characters of her characters. I’m thinking of Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion, who reads nothing except his own aristocratic genealogy, or the reckless, clueless Lydia who reads nothing at all. And in contrast, we have Elizabeth Bennet, who is actually chided for reading. But this is sort of an indication of the depth and complexity of her character. Why did Austen consider reading essential to character formation?
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, this is another aspect of Austen that I find so brilliant, because when we’re reading her novels and we encounter in the story characters who are reading, it makes sense. There was no television then. There wasn’t Twitter. There wasn’t Facebook. So it’s very realistic for her characters to be engaged in reading as a form of entertainment or instruction. She’s writing in the age when literacy and books were widespread. And so there’s an element of realism there. But again, this is a quality that really does transcend and translate to our time, because reading in Austen is much more than just literal reading. It’s actually perceptiveness or it’s reading well or reading poorly. You know, for example, Mary in Pride and Prejudice reads a lot of books. She’s very bookish, but she goes to an extreme that Elizabeth doesn’t because Mary can find a lot of knowledge in the books and learn a lot, but she doesn’t know how to apply it to her real life. And so while Elizabeth reads, she doesn’t mistake reading for real life. She doesn’t escape into it in a way that causes her to disengage from real life. So she’s a virtuous reader, even though she needs to grow and develop as a reader because she so easily misreads the characters around her—first Mr. Wickham and then Mr. Darcy, whom she misreads.
And so even though we might not all be as bookish a character or people as we have in Austen’s world because we have so many other things that we can spend our time on and competing for our time, we still need to be concerned with the same kind of reading that Austen is. Because there’s literal reading, but also metaphorical reading. How are we reading the people around us? How are we reading situations and relationships and character and even reading our own character? Because we know that one of the most famous lines in Pride and Prejudice is that moment when Elizabeth says she hardly knew herself, which is her expression of her not really being able to read her own character. Well, until that moment of revelation.
Cherie Harder: Now, that is a great point, and that kind of leads naturally to the obvious question: how does one read well? Or how did Jane Austen believe one read well?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, you know, her biography is so interesting because she grew up in a large family, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, that was a devout family, and Austen herself was devout. We have a record of that, in her letters and in her family’s correspondence. And, of course, it permeates the pages of her books as well. But her father had a good library, and the family would gather in the evenings and tell stories, read from the books. Austen grew up reading some of the great writers of the 18th century and earlier. Shakespeare, Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson. All of these influences are strong in her work. And so she grew up a reader in a reading family. But again, it’s that perceptiveness, that kind of metaphorical reading of people, that marks her skill. There’s a famous phrase; she wrote in one of her letters about how she just simply, you know—her novels are like miniatures carved into a tiny piece of ivory because her world is very small and she just focuses on kind of a narrow scope of community and family in the country. And yet she goes so deeply and so richly into that narrow world that it reveals much to us about our own world today. That’s the kind of reading that, if we read books well, that actually can help us. It’s not automatic; it has to be intentional. To be perceptive in the way we read people around us and situations around us, we have to pay attention.
Cherie Harder: You know, I wanted to ask you about that attention and even the complexities and the challenges of it, in that Elizabeth Bennet is portrayed as a careful and attentive reader, and yet she significantly misjudges Mr. Darcy initially. And her perspective is compelling enough that it’s very easy for the reader to be suckered into a misperception as well. And so throughout the book, it’s often the reader as well as the character who have kind of a change in perspective. What is Austen doing here with this rather humbling, at least to the reader, being toyed with in terms of perspective?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, this is part of what Austen is satirizing. It’s gentle satire. She’s satirizing our own propensity that most of us have—I certainly do—to put a little bit too much confidence in our own perceptiveness, our own analysis and interpretation of the people and situations around us. And she does this through her narrative technique, which—this is getting a little bit nerdy here—she uses a technique referred to as free indirect discourse. Most of us might remember from school “omniscient narrator” or a “limited point of view narrator.” This is something in between, where Austen allows us to see the perspective of one character, then maybe another, and then that omniscient narrator. So we’re constantly slipping in and out of the perspective of the narrator or Elizabeth’s perspective. Everything in the story is not told from Elizabeth’s perspective or the narrator’s perspective.
So this is a very complicated and tricky way of narrating that forces us as readers to figure out whose point of view is this? Or who’s saying this? Or who’s thinking this? Or is this right? And that begins with the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man with a fortune must be in want of a wife.” That is not Jane Austen’s perspective. That is not Elizabeth Bennet’s perspective. And it should not be our perspective as readers. It’s Mrs. Bennet’s perspective. And Austen is satirizing that. But gently. And so Austen sort of takes us along the ride with these different points of view. But she’s asking us to test them all along the way in the same way that Elizabeth should have been testing hers all along the way and eventually does, but doesn’t do that quite early enough.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. In many ways, it seems like Austen, through her novels, asks us, the readers, to test not only our perspectives, but in many ways our reading material in the first place, in that, again, one notices in her characters she makes judgments, it seems, about what they choose to read. I mean, you think about, again, Mary and her turgid sermons and philosophy or Mr. Collins and his fondness for Fordyce’s sermons. Or even I think it was poor Captain Benwick who was sort of overdosing on romantic poetry, and I believe Anne Elliot in Persuasion recommended prose. It’s almost like Jane Austen considers reading almost as moral medicine. And I wanted to get your thoughts on that.
Karen Swallow Prior: She absolutely does. And I love—that moment in Persuasion is so important because the character of Anne Elliot, who I think is perhaps the one that we’re supposed to most solidly identify with and affirm as she is and who she is. And her recommendation isn’t just to never read romantic poetry, but her recommendation is more like, you know what, you’ve been reading too much romantic poetry, so you need to read some prose, which again goes back to that balance and that moderation, which is the essence of virtue. It’s not that one thing is necessarily bad, but it needs to be balanced. And one of her earlier works, which is just hilarious, Northanger Abbey, has that famous line that—I’m just paraphrasing—but someone who doesn’t enjoy a novel must be an idiot, or something along those lines. Because novels themselves were actually disdained and even considered suspect in Austen’s time. Most novels that were being written were not called novels because that was sort of an insulting term and no respectable author would write a novel. Well, Austen and her family read novels. They were open about it. They praised them. Jane praised them and wrote her own and called them novels. So she was a pioneer in that respect because she understood that and was prophetic in this way, that the novel form, which was new and emerging, could be used in a moral way.
And again, that’s something I think that translates to our time because we often encounter different digital forms or different kinds of media—Tik-Tok or whatever. You know, I’m probably like Jane’s contemporaries looking down on Tik-Tok and thinking how corrupt it is. But there probably are people out there who are finding a moral use for it. Maybe, I don’t know. Jane Austen teaches me to not be so time-bound or so nostalgic about how things used to be or what used to be respectable, that I don’t see the potential for newer forms and newer ways because Jane Austen, she was a pioneer in understanding the novel to be—its potential for moral instruction.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. There’s so much we could unpack there. But one thing I wanted to ask before we go there is the fact that you called Jane Austen not only a moral philosopher, but also a deeply Christian thinker, and I was curious why you would lay that particular appellation of a “deep Christian thinker” on her.
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, and especially if we’ve just watched the movies or read one novel in high school where those things are not that apparent, people can sometimes be surprised about that. Austen’s novels are not explicitly Christian. They don’t have altar calls. They don’t invoke the name of Jesus explicitly the way even some of her contemporaries might have. Austen was a member of the Church of England and she lived during the time when evangelicalism was on the rise, which as many of us might know, was a more vocal and in-your-face kind of approach to Christianity. I’m an evangelical, so I can say that. And Austen has in her letters—she really didn’t like the evangelicals at first. She thought they were a little bit too much, although later she did say that—after studying them a little bit more, knowing them—that maybe we should all be evangelical. But she was that more moderate Anglican, and so her novels don’t throw the gospel in your face, but they underlie her worldview and her assumptions. She’s questioning some things that need to be questioned about the nature and the character of marriage, which, of course, is in a very important Christian institution. But she’s not trying to revolutionize it or overturn it. She’s actually trying to make it more Christian by basing it on things like compatibility and companionship and amiability, not just wealth or money and not just practical reasons. And so once we know that her Christian faith was genuine and true—and we do because of her letters and her prayers that she wrote—then we can read her novels understanding that that’s the assumption, even if it’s not something that she makes explicit.
Cherie Harder: At one point you described her novels as less of an altar call than a liturgy of ordinary life. In what ways are they a liturgy of ordinary life?
Karen Swallow Prior: Because she focuses on everyday life of everyday people. Now, I think sometimes there’s something lost in translation, and especially with the films, so we today might romanticize the characters in her novels or in the films because they’re so distant from us. But the people she was writing about,they were upper middle class primarily. Now, Mr. Darcy was very wealthy, we know that, and Elizabeth was marrying up by marrying him. But we also know that this was a family for whom economic realities were serious, a great concern, and constantly pressing, just as they were in Austin’s family, as a family led by a minister who didn’t have a lot of money. And so this is an ordinary life for sort of average everyday people who have concerns. And Austen’s world revolves around gossip and how much we listen to gossip or pass gossip along or our new neighbor or whether it’s scandalous to walk two miles and get your dress dirty. These are the things that fill most of our everyday lives, in our modern modern translation. They are just the details of everyday life that affect most of us in the world today. Again, even though the details might be different. Her world revolves around the everyday, ordinary lives of people who are a lot like you and I.
Cherie Harder: A little earlier you were talking about Austin’s approach to the novel, the fact that she was an early adopter of it, also a developer of it, and the fact that in some ways a novel would have been an unusual choice for moral instruction since it was sort of associated with a lowbrow and the bawdy. And she does this as well with her use of irony in that we often don’t associate irony with moral instruction. We associate earnestness with it. And she is wielding irony with a point, as a woman, in a novel considered lowbrow, to essentially develop points on virtue ethics. What is she doing here?
Karen Swallow Prior: I love this question. So, yes, the novel was developing for a century or two before as largely sort of a lowbrow form of bawdy entertainment and definitely questionable in moral character. But there was another strain of novels and other literature that was morally instructive and maybe a little bit too earnest and a little bit too overbearing in its morality. And so Austin’s brilliance was to kind of synthesize those two streams and to take the sort of satirical bent that goes back a long time and then take that more popular, entertaining form of the novel and combine them. And the role that irony plays in that is that you actually can’t have irony without having a sort of standard or expectation, because irony, like all comedy, is a deviation from what is expected or the standard or the rule. And so even if we think of a simple example of verbal irony, when someone says, “There’s hail and thunder and a tornado out the window,” and someone says, “Oh, what a lovely day.” We understand that simple level of irony because we understand that it’s the opposite, that the meaning is the opposite of the words.
But we wouldn’t understand that if we didn’t have a sense of what the words mean and what’s actually going on outside the window. And so all irony depends on this expectation or this rule or the standard that we know to exist and then to understand that there’s a deviation from that and that there’s a distance between that. And so irony like comedy actually can only thrive in communities or cultures where we have some agreed-upon rules and standards that can be deviated from. And I think that’s why in our culture today, most of our comedy tends to be very niche. It appeals to a small community who gets what’s happening because they have a shared sense of expectations and rules. And then someone in another community doesn’t share that. And so for them, comedy is going to consist of something different. So comedy doesn’t thrive across our culture today because we don’t have many shared rules and standards. But it does thrive in sub-communities. I mean, just ask anyone who’s tried to explain why The Office is funny to someone who doesn’t get it.
Cherie Harder: Oh, great point. So we were talking a little bit earlier about reading as character formation and the importance of reading well, of attentive reading. And, by any measure, you have been one of the country’s most attentive readers of Jane Austen and have immersed much of your professional life in her novels as well as other English literature. How has reading Jane Austen attentively and well changed you?
Karen Swallow Prior: Wow, that’s such a [great question]. First I want to say I’m probably not the most attentive reader of Jane Austen, but I’m the most vocal one perhaps! So the funny thing is that the first time that I read Pride and Prejudice in high school—and I always loved English, I’ve loved books since I was could read when I was five years old—and I loved all the books that we studied in English except for Pride and Prejudice. I did not like Pride and Prejudice. I thought it was boring. But that’s because I didn’t get the satire. I didn’t get the irony. I just read it on a surface level and thought it was a boring story about boring people doing boring things. But all of the drama is in that narrative voice and in that subtle humor, sort of gently mocking the errors in judgment and perceptions of everyone and including Elizabeth. And so I didn’t come to understand and then love Pride and Prejudice until college, then grad school, and then teaching. So that’s one example.
But just my lifetime of reading— You know, it was actually one of my dearest and oldest friends who said this to me years ago, and she’s not a big reader; she’s a professor, but in a different discipline. And she’s the one who told me, she said, “You know, I think that you are really perceptive about people because you’ve read so many books.” And I began to think about that. And I thought, you know, reading books and seeing the world through other people’s eyes and seeing their judgments and seeing their errors in judgment, spending all of your days, so many days and hours doing that does translate into real life, because I can kind of imagine how someone else is seeing things or imagine how they might be wrong or how I might be wrong, because I’ve seen the world through other people’s eyes so many times, through the pages of books. And so reading really has— I can’t separate who I am and how I think from the countless, countless books that I’ve spent my life reading.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. Karen, we’re going to go to audience questions in just a second. But before we do, I have to ask—and in some ways this is maybe a leading question because I am speaking to an English literature professor—but we’re at a time when reading in the country is in many ways in an accelerated decline. According to all the different surveys and studies, each generation is reading less than the one before. We are comprehending what we read less. We read less for pleasure and we read less literature. What does this mean? What are the implications for both our personal individual character development, but also the character of our country?
Karen Swallow Prior: So I think we can look at— You know, I try hard not to be the curmudgeonly scold pointing the finger at the kids today. But it’s not just the kids. But all we have to do is look at history and look at before we had widespread literacy, which was brought about in large part by the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on the centrality of the word, the centrality of reading the Bible for ourselves rather than having someone else interpret it for us. And, of course, I know there was a counter-reformation, too, and all of that has contributed to this ability that we have to read and to interpret for ourselves. And that has brought about— I mean, that’s a 500-year history that changed the world. And if we are on the other side of that, which I think that we are, where we are returning to kind of an image-based culture and not reading or not reading well— reading other people’s interpretations. I mean, this happens all the time, that we don’t even read the original sources; we read what someone else says about it, whether it’s a blog post or a newspaper article. We really are losing, I think, all of the things that are wrapped up in the idea of the logos, of John 1:1, the Word, the capital ‘W’ word, the small ‘W’ words, the ability to think rationally and logically and argue in abstract terms.
I definitely recommend that the best introduction to these big ideas in the context of this long history is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, an excellent book that’s written for lay readers. It really changed the way I thought about a lot of things early in my academic career. I think I was still in grad school when I read it, and it’s influenced everything that I think now about literature and images and what we lose when we lose the ability to read well. And if we lose it, it will— You know, it’s not like some government came and took this away from us. It’s that we did it ourselves. We’re doing it ourselves.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Thanks, Karen. We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And if you are joining us for the first time, you can not only ask a question in the Q&A feature, but you can also “like” questions, and that helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. And I see there have been quite a few that have come in. Sadly, we’re not going to be able to get through all of them. But there’s two that I’ll combine here that are on a similar theme. So Nancy Austin asks, “How does Austen promote virtue through the different types of romantic love and marriage in Pride and Prejudice?” And similarly, David and Lindsey Haines ask, “How does Jane Austen use Darcy to educate us about moral philosophy as a counterpoint to Elizabeth and how she instructs us about the search to find a true life partner?”
Karen Swallow Prior: Ok, all right. Great questions. It’s almost like I could have planted these, but I didn’t, I promise. So the first question about the marriages: we have several marriages in Pride and Prejudice, five or six, depending on how you count them, among the major and minor characters. And the rubric that I like to use when I teach this novel is drawn from Sense and Sensibility. Again, another concern of Austen’s is kind of this balance between sense and sensibility or reason and passion. And I think what we see in Pride and Prejudice, as we see in Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and then later with Lydia and Wickham, we see a marriage that was drawn based on youthful passion, without any good reason or sense behind it. And so then once that passion, in the case of the elder Bennets, once that passes away, there isn’t much of a foundation there.
And then we see in the marriage of Collins and Charlotte, it’s based purely on reason. There isn’t passion there. Collins is looking for a wife. Any one will do. And Charlotte, you know, she just wants to be married and she doesn’t have many prospects. And so she marries him. And I love this part of the novel. Elizabeth is disappointed in her friend Charlotte for marrying Collins. But when she visits her and realizes that Charlotte is decently happy, Elizabeth has to realize that even though Charlotte is her best friend, they aren’t the same people. And what is a good choice for Charlotte doesn’t mean that would have been a good choice for Elizabeth. We are different people, and that’s another area in which Elizabeth has to grow.
And then we have Elizabeth and Darcy, who have a marriage that is very reasonable. It makes sense in their society; it makes great sense for Elizabeth. But it’s also based on passion; the two very much love one another and are attracted to one another. And again, that’s an example of Austen’s use of virtue. She sees marriage as something that needs to balance these things because it shouldn’t be just about a reasonable match or just about passion, but about both.
And the question about Darcy: I mean, it’s just so brilliant because Austen as narrator leads us into this distaste of Darcy and we make all the wrong judgments against him, just like Elizabeth does. And then we find out the truth. We find out the rest of the story, in the words of Paul Harvey. And so we understand that Darcy is proud and he is hesitant to marry, he’s embarrassed by Elizabeth’s family and he thinks it would be a bad match for him to be connected to such a silly, ridiculous family. And the thing is, he’s actually right. That’s not completely wrong for him to think that. But he has to overcome that in favor of other things. And so I think what happens to us as readers is we come to understand Darcy’s mistaken point of view, but also how that was a right concern for him to have, because you really do marry into a family. And any of you out there who don’t know that already, let this be sort of a free lesson that goes along with the lecture today: You do marry a family. So if you’re out there and you’re thinking of marrying someone, do remember that you marry the family as well. Darcy was right about that. And so I think we have to sort of learn to, in reading it, to see Darcy’s point of view and where his concerns were legitimate as well. But he grows. He grows, too. And he grows to realize that he doesn’t have to identify himself completely with this family, that one shouldn’t probably.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So we have an interesting question from Elisey Barnett. And Elisey says, “Being the daughter of a clergyman, Austen has a clergyman in all but one of her books. Her portrayals of the clergy are often not flattering. What does this say about her view of the church and about her faith?”
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, I hear that a lot. And actually— I think because Collins gets so much attention and he’s certainly a satirical portrayal of a clergyman. But we have, in Sense and Sensibility, we have Edward Ferrars who genuinely wants to be a clergyman, and he’s being prevented from being one by his mother and eventually is able to be one. And we have Mr. Knightley, there’s another one. So there are actually some positive portrayals of clergymen in the novels. It’s just the comical ones get all the attention. So I think what we can say from that, even with the comical ones, is Austen is doing through the clergymen that she depicts satirically what she’s doing with all satire. She is upholding a norm and saying this is how it should not be, and that implies how it should be. So she is rightly judging those clergymen who are in it for the money or in it because they couldn’t find any other work to do, who are corrupt or lazy. Austen satirizes those kinds of clergymen because she believes in the institution of the church. Her father was a good clergyman, and so we know that she had a model to look up to and we know that she knows what it looks like when it’s not done well.
Cherie Harder: So I want to, again, combine a couple of sort of thematically related questions. Yulia Rich asks, “Do you think the contemporary habit of reading aloud had a profound effect on Austen’s style?” And somewhat relatedly, Melodie Richardson, asks, “Karen, how do you feel about audiobooks as opposed to physically holding and reading a book? Also, I see a culture of listening on faster speeds to get through more books. What are your thoughts about this for us as readers?”
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, so I will again refer to Neil Postman and his description of what he talks about in terms of print culture. And so I think, before print culture and widespread literacy existed, there was an oral culture. We know that, and we know great works of literature like The Iliad and The Odyssey come from an oral culture. But a print culture produces very different kinds of works, that are written with complicated sentences and they’re longer, all of these things. And so even if we’re reading those out loud or hearing them read on Audible, we’re still immersing ourselves in the kind of language that reflects literacy and a print culture. So we’re still being immersed in it. And there is some research that I’ve just sort of dipped into that shows that when we are listening to books on audio books, we’re actually using the same part, deep recesses of the brain, that we use when we’re reading a book. But when you read something on a screen, we’re using the front area of the brain, which is shallower and more superficial. I’m not a cognitive scientist and I’m just sort of learning about these things in the different parts of the brain that we use. But I think the important thing is that we are being immersed in the kind of use of language that still reflects print culture.
Cherie Harder: So we have a couple of questions about satire and sarcasm. Ross Bassingthwaighte—and Ross, apologies if I mangled your name—Ross asks, “At what point does satire cross the line into sarcasm?” And then somewhat similarly, Sammy Wood asks, “I wonder, as you said, we need shared expectations for irony to work and Austen satirized upper middle class folk. Do her insights cut across cultures in a way that translates to where we seem to be heading in the US?” And he adds, “I ask this as a priest considering whether to double down on Austen in this cultural moment.”
Karen Swallow Prior: Ok, so satire and sarcasm. So satire is, correctly understood—and it’s not always correctly understood out there in the world—but satire is mocking vice or folly for the purpose of correction. So it always has a moral purpose. For it to be satire, it actually has to be trying to correct something that should be corrected. Sarcasm is verbal irony with the intent to belittle. So sarcasm is always belittling. So if we’re belittling a person or something that’s important, that’s not good. But it’s perfectly fine to be sarcastic and like saying, you know—to belittle something like yourself. Like, oh, that was a dumb move. That’s a sarcastic comment, belittling yourself. So it just depends on the object that you’re belittling. There are things that we can belittle that are OK to belittle, but not people or important values. So they’re related but difference. So sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, and satire depends on various kinds of irony, including verbal irony. If I did a Venn diagram, it would be interesting.
And then the question about Austen. So like the literature of many dead white people, Austen is coming under reconsideration in current times; I’m not sure if this is where the question was coming from. There’s actually been a lot of buzz lately about how her home in England that’s a museum is starting to acknowledge the context of slavery in which she lived, which she did not write a lot about. Again, it was sort of assumed and she does mention it briefly in Mansfield Park. And I think all works of literature, Austen included, are wonderful opportunities to talk about not only what’s there, but what’s missing, why it’s missing. And so I would never want to see any of these great writers canceled or not included in a curriculum. But I certainly would want to see the kinds of questions that we now know to ask. And maybe we had moral blind spots in previous ages and we didn’t address these things. I think they’re wonderful opportunities to talk about, you know, how did this world operate and who’s not included in these novels? Who’s not included in this world and why? All great literature touches on all of these questions. We just haven’t always thought to ask them or wanted to ask them. And I think that they still provide an opportunity to open the door to those questions. And I’m not sure if I am getting at the heart of what this question was.
Cherie Harder: We have a bunch of questions coming in asking for your recommendations on different books, so I’m sure I’ll be missing some of these, but I’ll just ask a few. Dave Sexton asks, “Are there contemporary novelists who fill a similar role to Austen?” Very closely related to that, Ruth Castle asks, “I’d love to know of any contemporary authors Karen would recommend that continue the literary tradition of Austen.” Emma Schram asks, “Are there any good resources or books you would recommend to learn more about Jane’s faith and spiritual life?” And Emma Jones asks if there is a particular Jane Austen biography that you would recommend. So lots of different reading recommendation solicitations there.
Karen Swallow Prior: Ok, yeah, so I might not remember them all. Actually in my closing note, I’m going to read from this book, this is Praying with Jane. It’s a great book by Rachel Dodge about the three extant prayers that Jane wrote. And this is sort of a devotional to go along with them. And so that’s a great sort of way to introduce yourself to Jane’s Christianity. The biography that I’m most familiar with of Austen is the one by Claire Tomalin. It’s kind of an old classic. And then there are lots and lots of books that kind of analyze her Christian worldview. There’s one by—his name is escaping me now—but he’s with a Theopolis Institute, and he’s written an interesting book on her Christian worldview.
And in terms of works today: the works that I read today by modern writers—and this isn’t my area of expertise; I have to kind of look and make judgments and guess like the rest of you; my specialty is 18th and 19th century. But I recommend the people who are still writing satire, like social satire, and also writing in a way—and these are seldom disconnected for me—writing in a way where they are capturing the voice or perspective of people different from them. And so this might seem like a stretch for some of you, and these are works that a lot of people would probably find too dark to enjoy, but I like dark literature. But George Saunders would be one. And I just read a book, a satire on a cannibalistic society in the future called Tender is the Flesh. It’s one of the most shocking and amazing books I’ve read recently. And it’s satire. So you have to understand it’s making a point. And A Children’s Bible, which is a sort of a satirical allegorical portrayal of young people like those today who are raised by parents who aren’t really concerned about the young people and just kind of lost in their own social lives. And it’s written in the voice of one of the teenagers. So those are just the few things I’ve read recently. I don’t think that my taste in literature is what most people have. So I make those recommendations with great reservations, but they are what they are.
Cherie Harder: One more kind of paring of questions. Harvey Solganick asks, “In this time of questions on gender identity, many men view Jane Austen’s works as chick flicks. How would you encourage males to read Austen from their perspective?” And then Michelle Crouch, responding to that and asking a question of her own, says, “Along the same lines, how do you understand Jane Austen to provide an engaging understanding of the besetting sins peculiar to men and women in a way that still resonates with our cultural situation?”
Karen Swallow Prior: Those are good questions. So I hesitate to say this, but what I can’t help myself: I think in a lot of ways, the movies have ruined Jane Austen. Many people’s exposure to Jane Austen is just through the films, and I say this— So many men have been put off of Jane Austen because the films, except for the Sense and Sensibility one; that is actually an excellent adaptation. The others are fine. Some of the others are fine. The new Emma is really good. I keep correcting myself here. But the films have given—as a body—have given the view that these are just romantic stories, and they are not. So I think any man who is not interested in that—or woman who is not interested in that—just needs to read the books and read them with the understanding that this is satire, and you’re not supposed to just sort of absorb the narrative perspective as though it’s earnest and straightforward. It’s satire. If you think something’s funny, it most likely is, so laugh.
And in terms of the besetting sins of men and women, I think that’s, again, one of the great gifts that Austen can offer us, because those relationships between the sexes in her world are subtle enough that I think they translate well to our time today, because there are some things and some dynamics that really in many ways haven’t changed. And so her portrayals are not always—some of the characters are—but the main characters are not ever over the top. Especially Persuasion is a novel where Anne Elliot, a more mature woman who’s single and does desire to get married, but has kind of settled on the fact that she probably won’t. She is independent and mature. She gives advice to the men in her lives. The men can be just as needy as the women. That is a very rich novel that I think displays both sort of the equality of the sexes, but also the differences and also transcends the stereotypes.
Cherie Harder: We’ll take one more question. And we’ve had a couple of questions about a novel we haven’t really talked about that much, which is Northanger Abbey. Elizabeth Coburn asked for you to talk about it, which is one that she hasn’t connected with. And we have an anonymous attendee who says, “I think Fanny Price is a terribly underappreciated Austen character. How does Karen read Mansfield Park and Fanny’s character?” So we’ll end with Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.
Karen Swallow Prior: So Northanger Abbey is one of Austen’s most youthful works. So if you read her juvenilia, she writes satire that’s just really over-the-top, really silly, really funny. And you can see what she’s making fun of from her world. She’s making fun of these like crazy romantic stories of, you know, that are just over-the-top. And so Northanger Abbey is satirizing romances and Gothic novels. And so if you read it understanding it’s actually her least subtle satire. So she’s really making fun of the genre. Her art is so developed that you actually do—I mean it actually is a good story with good characterization and good character development. But you still have to understand she’s satirizing romanticism and Gothicism.
Karen Swallow Prior: Mansfield Park I would put that in the category of one of her most mature works along with, I would say, Persuasion and Mansfield Park, and the least satirical in the sense that whatever satire there is is very subtle and we are to identify more with the characters. Mansfield Park has also been called Austen’s most evangelical novel, and I mentioned earlier how she sort of had this friction against evangelicalism, but eventually became won over, at least in some regard. And so, yes, I agree. There’s a lot going on in Mansfield Park that is more, you know— We see much more social criticism in that novel than just sort of the criticism of men and women and their relationships.
Cherie Harder: Lastly, as promised, Karen, the last word is yours.
Karen Swallow Prior: So I wanted to read—someone just asked me to show this again—Praying with Jane. It’s a devotional based on Jane’s prayers by Rachel Dodge. And I was going to read from a couple of lines from one of Jane Austen’s prayers that she wrote. This is from the middle of the prayer: “Give us grace to endeavor after a truly Christian spirit, to seek to attain that temper of forbearance and patience of which our blessed Savior has set us the highest example, and which, while it prepares us for the spiritual happiness of the life to come, will secure to us the best enjoyment of what this world can give. Incline us, O God, to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.”
Cherie Harder: Karen, thank you so much.
Karen Swallow Prior: It’s been great to talk.