Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth about Darcy, on the title page of the first illustrated edition. This is the other of the first two illustrations of the novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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.