C. S. Lewis on Jane Austen’s Six Novels

I read an interesting essay by C. S. Lewis recently, called ‘A Note on Jane Austen’. The essay begins by putting four passages from Jane Austen’s novels together:

Catherine Morland discovered General Tilney was not a monster and a murderer and she’s been an embarrassing fool. Marianne Dashwood realised she has been completely self-absorbed and saw her own behaviours as self-destructing. Lizzy Bennett reflected on the real Mr Darcy and the real Wickham, and realised how she was completely blind in her judgement. Emma Woodhouse discovered she has misunderstood the situation and misguided poor Harriet.

If you put them on a line between comedy and tragedy, Catherine is at the comedy end, Marianne near the tragedy end and Lizzy and Emma are in between. All four heroines “discover that they have been making mistakes both about themselves and about the world in which they live… All realise that the cause of the deception lay within”. There are self-hatred or self-contempt.

This common theme of ‘undeception’ stands out as important because, Austen only published six novels, and four out of six have this theme at the pivotal moment of the stories. This is the common pattern of these four novels.

These moments of ‘undeception’ or ‘awakening’ show us the ‘firmness’ of Jane Austen’s thought. There are a lot of moral words:

The great abstract nouns of the classical English moralists are unblushingly and uncompromisingly used: good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude, ‘some duty neglected, some failing indulged’, impropriety, indelicacy, generous candour, blameable distrust, just humiliation, vanity, folly, ignorance, reason… All is hard, clear, definable; by some modern standards, even naively so. These benchmarks are how Austen measures the world and oneself.

Two novels remain. The heroines of ‘Mansfield Park’ and ‘Persuasion’ experience no self-deception and therefore no process of ‘undeception’ or ‘awakening’.

Their common pattern is the solitary heroines. The heroines of the first four novels have families and friends, among whom their existence matters. But Fanny Price and Anne Elliot do not matter much to the people they live with. They are lowly and alone physically and socially. Lewis compares these two novels to Shakespeare’s ‘dark’ comedies.

Lewis believes Austen gives full approval to Anne and Catherine. They are observers of their world. The self-deception happens in the world, in other characters. They see it and disapprove.

However between Anne and Catherine, Catherine is less successful. People think of her as a self-righteous moralist. But if you think about it, she’s not; she judges people with the same standard as Lizzy Bennet does, not higher. So why is she less successful as a heroine? Lewis suggests two reasons.

She’s too ordinary and insignificant, there’s nothing that attracts us to her. Contrast her to Anne, Anne’s attractive with her character, her intelligence, her actions and perseverance. Fanny only has morals.

Fanny’s love for Edward is a fan girl love. And Lewis judges Edward to be the least attractive of all Austen’s heroes, and Captain Wentworth ‘almost the best’. He says, “In real life, no doubt, we continue to respect interesting women despite the preposterous men they sometimes marry. But in fiction it is usually fatal. Who can forgive Dorothea for marrying such a sugarstick as Ladislaw…”

Both Fanny and Anne are observers. Fanny sometimes thinks it fun to watch people messing around and making a fool of themselves. Anne’s watchfulness is nearly always painful.

And Lewis points out the real reason for Fanny and Anne passing judgements as spectators is that they have “delicacy which must be pained” by various things they see or hear. Lewis compares this to “the musician’s involuntary shudder at a false note”.

How does Austen achieve her comedies? By being serious when it needs to be serious, so the irony shows through. How does Austen stay away from being too serious? Lewis suggests two reasons: She sees few great sacrifices and takes pleasure in small things.

That’s a quick summary of Lewis’ essay on Jane Austen’s novels. Happy reading!

Categories NON-FICTION, READINGTags , ,
%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close