How well do Jane Austen lovers really know the motivation of the author who unleashed a burgeoning industry that has moved from the revenues of printing press and movie land to hats, party catering and greeting cards? Apart from re-writes of Pride and Prejudice, prequels, sequels and screen adaptations whose genres start with period drama, spill into horror (thanks to the unleashing of zombies)–and may well yet burst into outer space—all we know is that the limits of Austen commercial fare are constricted by nothing but the creativity of the human spirit.
Yet how much do we understand Jane Austen’s spirit, the one that set her published works on the road to immortality, though she, frail human, died at the age of 41? Paula Hollingsworth, author of The Spirituality of Jane Austen makes a persuasive argument that the beloved British novelist’s motivation was fueled by spiritual considerations, which had the good sense to not be overtly religious.
Using every Austen novel published and some not published, Hollingsworth shows how well the mistress of novel-writing understood her own characters before the action began, building them into a story arc that would keep the reader entertained and guessing while sending the message she intended from the beginning.
For instance, Sense and Sensibility is in many ways a Taoist tract: it is about the balance between emotions and logic. The novel shows how, “when rightly used, sense brought balance and self-control.” Only when used without understanding does sense “lead to callousness and rigidity.”
Jane Austen, Hollingsworth shows us, made her entire novel about staying in the middle, keeping a balance, and what happens when that is not achieved.
Excess of grief, while welcomed by Mrs. Dashwood in regard to her daughter at the death of Mr. Dashwood, seems to bring all considerations to a grinding halt. Austen demonstrates that if Elinor, also suffering, had not “exert[ed] herself” she would not have been able to “consult with her brother” and receive guests with due attention.
A character of excess is Marianne. She is the most difficult of the people with whom Elinor must deal because, unlike their mother, she can never be awakened to the destructive element of her excessive emotions. Though she stays awake all night, refuses to eats, suffers from headaches and shows inability to acknowledge kindness from others, even accusing Elinor of coldness as those given to emotional excess are wont to do, Marianne does not demonstrate beneficial character development until her total embrace of misery drives her to a “near-death experience.”
In the same book, those characters who show no development, resting in materialism, like John and Fanny Dashwood, have no spirituality at all.
The theme of money was recurrent in the Austen books, and Hollingsworth takes on its analysis at the end of her study of Pride and Prejudice. It is not the amount of money but the attitude towards it that demonstrates the happiness level of the various characters. Thus Lydia and Wickham are always in need of it, spending too much because they desire too much. Hollingsworth goes through the character list, explaining how their attitudes about money reflect in their personalities. Austen is so good at characterization that she does not fail in her depiction of a single person to demonstrate the effects of money on ego and sense of self-worth, which, in a negative sense, become crucially isolating.
Hollingsworth’s acknowledgement of Austen’s criticism of the Church and those hypocrites who seek to pretend they represent it takes clear form in the character of Rector Collins, lap dog of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Collins has a skewed sense of “forgiveness,” as can be seen in his recommendation to Mr Bennet, telling him to “throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever.” To Collins, one forgives and damns simultaneously: a peculiar sort of forgiveness, bringing no unity of family. Hollingsworth scores Pride and Prejudice “highly as a spiritual book” and does a stupendous job of proving she is right.
The Spirituality of Jane Austen will cause anyone who reads it to speak knowledgeably of the novels of Austen. Writers will rejoice to drink at this well of inspiration!