Over on Twitter, Austen expert, Paula Byrne, recently asked why Jane Austen serves so well as a comfort read in troubled times.
Prof. Byrne’s question produced many excellent answers, and I’d like to expand on my comment from that Twitter thread.
The world seems full of George Wickhams and Fanny Dashwoods right now. Political leaders and others with little integrity who possess empathy only for themselves. Few appear willing to accept criticism, responsibility, and any kind of accountability for their mistakes and selfishness. (Yeah, don’t get me started.)
Reading Jane Austen’s novels provides an escape into another world, but not one where unpleasant characters get their comeuppance in the classic fairytale sense. Life is not that simple in her books.
There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.(Elizabeth Bennet to her sister, Jane)
But…”good” morals, integrity, and empathy do tend to get their reward. That is where the enduring solace of hope comes in. I think of Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot, for example. For every Willoughby, there’s a Wentworth. (Which is not to say they’re all perfect.)
And then there’s Mr Darcy.
Here’s why I’m a Darcy fan, especially as portrayed by…no, not going there.
(None of the below is revelationary, but it seems worth repeating.)
Here we have a man with a set of beliefs, confident in his own superiority and righteousness. Which sounds familiar.
And then along comes Elizabeth Bennet:
“From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
What I appreciate about Darcy is his eventual reaction once the initial umbrage wears off. He takes a long hard look at himself in the mirror, analyses and accepts much of the criticism of this young woman, and then does something about the flaws so identified. He endeavours to become a better person.
Such a response ought to be normal. But, as we know, it really isn’t.
We all (well, most of us) want to become “better” people. But Darcy actually does it. Not only that, but he takes responsibility for his previous failings and holds himself accountable for his mistaken actions.
Where Darcy once dissuaded Bingley from pursuing a match with Jane Bennet, he now encourages it.
“On the evening before my going to London,” said he, “I made a confession to him, which I believe I ought to have made long ago. I told him of all that had occurred to make my former interference in his affairs absurd and impertinent. His surprise was great. He had never had the slightest suspicion. I told him, moreover, that I believed myself mistaken in supposing, as I had done, that your sister was indifferent to him; and as I could easily perceive that his attachment to her was unabated, I felt no doubt of their happiness together.”
And he takes care of the Wickham/Lydia problem.
He generously imputed the whole to his mistaken pride, and confessed that he had before thought it beneath him to lay his private actions open to the world. His character was to speak for itself. He called it, therefore, his duty to step forward, and endeavour to remedy an evil which had been brought on by himself.(Letter from Mrs Gardiner to Elizabeth Bennet)
The crowning glory of this transformation (in my opinion; I’m no Austen scholar) is that he does all this without expectation of any real reward. He does it largely because it is simply the right thing to do.
And possibly with a little glimmer of hope in there, too.
I hoped to obtain your forgiveness, to lessen your ill opinion, by letting you see that your reproofs had been attended to. How soon any other wishes introduced themselves I can hardly tell, but I believe in about half an hour after I had seen you.(Darcy explains his behaviour at Pemberley to Elizabeth)
So we have a man who listens, accepts the well-founded criticism, and changes to address the problems. And in doing so, he (re)discovers the importance of integrity and empathy for its own sake.
Seems like a hopeful model and message for the times we live in.