“Why we love Jane Austen” is a book, not a blog. Chapters can, and have been, written about her prose style, her humor, her perceptiveness, her memorable characters, and her scintillating dialogue. We admire her ability to create a world that rarely touches upon her contemporary world, but is nonetheless “real”, to produce romantic matches formed at a time when few men and women “can afford to marry without some attention to money,” and to conclude each work with irony, affection and reconciliation. But we especially love Austen as the foremost writer of the novel of manners.
When we were planning our recently-launched web site, we decided that there would be no category placed on the content, but rather, it would be a gathering place – a salon - designed not around a subject, but a tone. We wanted to stake out an outpost of civility where whatever is discussed – whether it’s film, books, humor, trends, whether we’re blogging reviews, interviews or simply views – would be free of the “snark” that seems to permeate the online universe, as a poor substitute for what we admire about Austen’s writing: substance, style, grace and genuine wit.
We decided to call our site ‘Janetility’, because ‘gentility’ – an emphasis on manners - is one aspect of Jane Austen’s that we find especially appealing. In Austen’s novels, manners were more than a code of socially acceptable behavior - they were an exponent of moral character. As Edmund Bertram expresses it: “The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps; the result of good principles.” By this definition, Austen’s writing is mannerly – her assessments are keen but never crude, exercising Elizabeth Bennet’s tact in uniting “civility and truth in a few short sentences;” there is no “Mr. Collins is a jerk” – instead, he is “… not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society.” Nor is Mrs. Allen dim-witted, but rather “one of that numerous class of females whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.” A person of good character may harbor coarseness of sentiment, as Austen observed by way of Elizabeth Bennet, but coarseness of expression invariably suggests foolishness, ignorance, vulgarity or vice, and in turn, that “pert pretension and under-bred finery,” as Emma expresses it, is always accompanied by a failure of manners.
In her novels, where one character might have the goodness (manners) and another the appearance of it (a pleasing manner), Austen exposes her characters’ propensity, and our own, to fall for the glib and the good-looking, whether it is Walter Elliot, Wickham or Henry Crawford, or a commercial pitch-man or a film star. Our twenty-first century understanding of predatory behavior gives us an appreciation bordering on astonishment at Austen’s skillful portrait of Willoughby, whose manner reveals his amorality, and yet who engages our skepticism, aversion and sympathy.
In the case of Willoughby and Marianne, we see the importance of manners-as-character; Marianne’s emotional self-indulgence is expressed in her thoughtless manner – to Colonel Brandon, to Mrs. Jennings, and even to Elinor, but Willoughby’s failure of manners (conduct) is worse. A woman might flirt and flatter, but a gentleman whose manners toward a woman were so encouraging as to raise the very real expectation of marriage – and indeed, even Marianne’s family and friends believe, on the strength of his conduct, that an engagement has been formed – is a sign of real maliciousness and a lack of principle. His conduct has persuaded Marianne that they are virtually engaged, though he has no intention of marrying her; in contrast, when Edward, succumbing to his own idleness and Lucy’s appearance of amiability, has behaved in an encouraging manner, his sense of what is right and her due prompts him not only to propose marriage, but to defend his choice even when he understands that it is at the cost of family, fortune and happiness. Darcy, on the other hand, neither encouraged Elizabeth, nor sought encouragement from her– he regards his manners as irrelevant, and assumes that she will accept him because of his wealth and connections, and only afterward, regrets “my conduct, my manners, my expressions.”
In an era of “snark chic” and the internet’s ever-expanding venues for indulging in it, we continue to be impressed with Jane Austen’s ability to be penetrating, ironic and droll without ever sinking to coarseness of expression. Austen leaves those without manners and morals to each other – Lydia and Wickham, Lucy and Robert, Mrs. Norris and Maria Rushworth – but reserves genuine happiness as a reward of good character for those like Darcy, who, “in a cause of compassion and honor…had been able to get the better of himself.”