At the beginning of Advent, just when nights are getting long, cold, and perfect for fiction, I decided that I wanted to read something classic and I found a collection of Jane Austen’s work for cheap in half-price books.
I began reading Pride and Prejudice. I had never read it before even though I had seen the Colin Firth movie version multiple times, which is great, and the Kiera Knightly movie version, which is lousy.
Once I picked it up, I read it daily as much as I could. I never wanted to put it down. I finished it on Christmas day in front of a cheery fire knowing that I had a new book in my top ten list. Austen’s writing is bright and makes me feel clean and hopeful.
The whole time I read it, I thought a lot about virtue and, specifically, I thought about the fruit of the spirit. For Advent, Jonathan and I gave up cursing. It’s not that I really think cursing is bad thing. A well-placed cuss word can be just right at times. But for people like us who are rich in words and poor in kindness, cursing is a gateway drug to over-anger. A dashed out curse word can take a little argument or a little annoyance and make it rage, like fuel on a small bit of kindling. Trying to give up bad tempers altogether was more than we could tackle, but we could give up cursing. Since we cuss enough that we both do it without noticing even, having to simply slow down and think about what to say in situations of stress, conflict, or tiredness, helped us to be calmer and kinder. Because of this Advent “fast,” December was full of thoughts and conversations about gentleness, kindness, patience, peace, and self-control.I come from a long line of bickerers. I have grandparents that through their decades of marriage honed bickering into a near art-form. I have come to realize that knowing how to speak politely to family members, isn’t really something that comes naturally to me or that I’ve had much training in. Texans call a damn spade, a spade, which is a great thing that I don’t want to give up, but I wondered how to hold onto this kind of truth-telling and learn gentleness as well. I really feel like, as embarrassing as this is, I need a tutor in basic civility and kindness in my home. I found this in Austen’s characters.Elizabeth Bennett (and even Jane) are not at all simpering mealy-mouthed saccharine dolls. They are strong and opinionated. They understand themselves and the world around them. Elizabeth has this way of telling people around her that they are idiotic or obnoxious while remaining careful, respectful, and even polite. She is honest and authentic and yet kind and gentle.
Virtue, in Austen’s writing, is not bland, legalistic, or passive. It is powerful, bold, and charming. Restraint does not diminish the honesty of a conversation, but allows hard truths to be spoken (about too much pride and too much prejudice) in a way that doesn’t belittle a person.
Austen knows that politeness and manners can be empty and shallow and a veneer for all kinds of vice. See Mr. Collins and his obsequious, over the top formality. But she points to another kind of disciplined civility in her characters that gives them, well, character.
I’m not about to start speaking to Jonathan in Victorian English, but a little bit more Miss Bennet (and Mr.Darcy) in our manner would certainly make the Warren Manor a more peaceful place. I’m grateful for the tutorial in, as Austen would say, “domestic felicity.”