Jan 2, 2013

The Consolation of Austen

We have had cable television in La Caramuca since 2007 (the same year they paved the streets in our barrio). The service is provided by a local company with access to satellite. It is well worth the investment for us because of the availability of quality educational programming for the preschool (via Discovery Kids, Animal Planet, National Geographic and Disney channels). Jorge el Curioso (Curious George) is a favorite with the children.

This holiday season we grownups received a Christmas present from the BBC: Late-night showings of the critically acclaimed 1995 miniseries presentation of Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice”, perhaps in anticipation of the bicentennial anniversary of the novel's publication.

Luz Maria and I several times have watched the 2005 feature film adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”. There is something of a debate among Austen fans. Which is better, the 2005 movie or the 1995 miniseries? It depends on your expectations. If you want the gist of “Pride and Prejudice” distilled down to two hours, the 2005 movie is the best effort that has been made along that line. The five-hour miniseries provides more of the characterdevelopment which was one of the strengths of Jane Austen's writing.

Jane Austen (1775-1815) is the country parson's daughter who has become recognized as one of the towering figures of English literature (she has been favorably compared with Charles Dickens and even William Shakespeare). Following an old writer's rule, she wrote about what she knew best: The everyday livesof the landed gentry during Britain's transition from the 18th to the 19th centuries. This was an era of sweeping political, economic and cultural changes. Significant events included the Industrial Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. Nevertheless, Jane Austen's novels take place in rural England, where the old ways died hard and life proceeded at a slower pace than in the bustling cities.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Richard Whately, an Oxford University professor who would later become the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, wrote one of the first reviews of Jane Austen's work in 1821. He said, “Miss Austen has the merit (in our judgment most essential) of being evidently a Christian writer: a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste, and of practical utility, by her religion being not at all obtrusive....The moral lessons also of this lady's novels, though clearly and impressively conveyed, are not offensively put forward, but spring incidentally from the circumstances of the story; they are not forced upon the reader, but he is left to collect them (though without any difficulty) for himself: hers is that unpretending kind of instruction which is furnished by real life; and certainly no author has ever conformed more closely to real life, as well in the incidents, as in the characters and descriptions. Her fables appear to us to be, in their own way, nearly faultless ... the story proceeds without the aid of extraordinary accidents; the events which take place are the necessary or natural consequences of what has preceded; and yet ... the final catastrophe is scarcely ever clearly foreseen from the beginning, and very often comes, upon the the generality of readers at least, quite unexpected.”

Although Austen's books may be described and enjoyed as romantic comedies, she also has been praised for her wry, dry, razor-sharp wit which she used to skewer the hypocrisy and shallow materialism of her day. She especially called attention to the unjust treatment of women, who often were forced to choose between a lives of poverty and degradation or marriages of convenience to men they did not particularly like or respect. C.S. Lewis wrote of her, “These are the concepts by which Jane Austen grasps the world. ... All is hard, clear, definable; by some modern standards, even naively so ... Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen's is at once less soft and less cruel. ... It remains to defend what I have been saying against a possible charge. Have I been treating the novels as though I had forgotten that they are, after all, comedies? I trust not. The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible. 'Principles' or 'seriousness' are essential to Jane Austen's art. Where there is no norm, nothing can be ridiculous, except for a brief moment of unbalanced provincialism in which we may laugh at the merely unfamiliar. Unless there is something about which the author is never ironical, there can be no true irony in the work.” (C.S. Lewis, A Note On Jane Austen, Essays in Criticism, Oct. 1954).

Jane Austen's works assume a moral order from human beings in their imperfection often deviate to their sorrow. But there is not only a reflection of the Law, but also of the Gospel. As Lewis and others have pointed out, Austen's characters, both male and female, often undergo a redemptive experience in which they recognize and acknowledge their false beliefs about themselves and others, and in doing so find reconcilation and happiness waiting for them as undeserved gifts.

This dimension of Austen's novels was reaffirmed by the discovery of three prayers written by Jane Austen, apparently for Austen family devotions. The novels show, in subtle way, the influence of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible on Jane Austen's thoughts and manner of expression. This influence is even more obvious in her prayers. To me, this reinforces the principle of “lex orandi, lex credendi”, that is the form of worship and prayer, even the vocabulary that we use, influences what we believe and, in turn, how we express it.

Here is one of Jane Austen's prayers:

Father of Heaven! whose goodness has brought us in safety to the close of this day, dispose our hearts in fervent prayer.
Another day is now gone, and added to those, for which we were before accountable.
Teach us almighty father, to consider this solemn truth, as we should do, that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes, and earnestly strive to make a better use of what thy goodness may yet bestow on us, than we have done of the time past.
Give us grace to endeavour after a truly Christian spirit to seek to attain that temper of forbearance and patience of which our blessed saviour has set us the highest example; and which, while it prepares us for the spiritual happiness of the life to come, will secure to us the best enjoyment of what this world can give.
Incline us oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.
We thank thee with all our hearts for every gracious dispensation, for all the blessings that have attended our lives, for every hour of safety, health and peace, of domestic comfort and innocent enjoyment. We feel that we have been blessed far beyond any thing that we have deserved; and though we cannot but pray for a continuance of all these mercies, we acknowledge our unworthiness of them and implore thee to pardon the presumption of our desires.
Keep us oh! Heavenly Father from evil this night. Bring us in safety to the beginning of another day and grant that we may rise again with every serious and religious feeling which now directs us.
May thy mercy be extended over all mankind, bringing the ignorant to the knowledge of thy truth, awakening the impenitent, touching the hardened.
Look with compassion upon the afflicted of every condition, assuage the pangs of disease, comfort the broken in spirit.
More particularly do we pray for the safety and welfare of our own family and friends
wheresoever dispersed, beseeching thee to avert from them all material and lasting evil of body or mind; and may we by the assistance of thy holy spirit so conduct ourselves on earth as to secure an eternity of happiness with each other in thy heavenly kingdom.
Grant this most merciful Father, for the sake of our blessed saviour in whose holy name and words we further address thee.

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

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