What Jane Austen teaches us about virtue

We’ve all heard St. Paul’s famous verse from 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind.” He takes care to equate love with patience because they are both virtues and therefore inextricably linked to each other. Love, i.e., charity, is the one virtue that infuses and animates all the others, including patience, and, although it’s true that love takes time to grow, it’s the growth of virtue in the lover that simultaneously allows his or her love to increase or deepen. Few storytellers portray this reality as well as Jane Austen.

Reverence toward the lover

Jane Austen never belittles us, her readers, by presuming we don’t know the meaning of true love. She seems to understand that we want to hear love perpetually professed, to see it relentlessly enacted between the characters in her books as well as in our lives. Writing in the early 1800s, she understood her demographic to be a Christian audience who believed in God’s love.

For Catholics, the saints have always provided us with examples of true love, through the lives they lead and, at times, with their mystical descriptions of love’s ongoingness. St. Thérèse de Lisieux’s “Offering to God,” written 78 years after Jane Austen’s death (in 1817), reads like a love letter: “I want, O my Beloved, at each beat of my heart to renew this offering to You an infinite number of times, until the shadows having disappeared [and] I may be able to tell You of my Love in an Eternal Face to Face!”

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In “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth Bennet’s feelings for Mr. Darcy don’t happen immediately. Instead, her heart slowly becomes ignited as she reads a heartfelt letter she received from him. She spends the entire day — and the entire chapter — pouring over his words. With each review, Lizzie’s heart becomes more and more invested in the possibility of a union with Mr. Darcy. There is even a sense of reverence about the number of times she reads his letter. By seeing the virtue of his character previously hidden to her, Lizzie comes to respect him and undergoes a conversion of heart.

From her Christian background, Jane Austen understood the relationship between reverence and repetition, with repetition being one of the main features that religions use to deepen holy reverence. Indeed, the more one loves and reveres God, the more his or her heart is converted, and vice versa. A Catholic example is the repetition in the readings at Mass, which allows us to hear many of the same Bible passages over and over throughout our lives, or the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet

Austen shows us that out of the patience and silence of the heart comes the first act of love — a glance, a word, a note, a movement or motion — that must always be repeated and renewed if it is true. Taken to its furthermost conclusion, love is renewed infinitely.

Clinging to hope

The Catholic literary critic Joseph Pearce calls Jane Austen a “giant of the heart,” an epithet she can share with St. Paul. Like Austen, the apostle never belittles us, trusting that we want to grow in holiness and knowing we can with God’s unfailing assistance.

In “Sense and Sensibility,” another tour-de force by Austen, Marianne Dashwood is mourning her father who has just died. When Colonel Brandon hears her playing the piano and singing to express her sorrow, it’s this therapeutic, musical way of handling her deep grief that causes Brandon to see her virtue and her heart all at once. But Marianne, in all her youthfulness, lacks patience, and he must wait for her. Brandon figures this out all on his own and wisely spends the bulk of his time tending to other parts of his life. Amid those responsibilities, he comes to visit Marianne again and again, patiently waiting for her to return his love while doing his best to be of service to her in the meantime. There is a beautiful kindness depicted in the unfolding of their love, wherein the Holy Spirit seems to be guiding the action that will save both these secondary characters in the novel from their grief and sorrow.

The spiritual nature of true love, depicted fictionally in “Sense and Sensibility,” is captured perfectly by St. Teresa of Avila, when she wrote: “Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.”

Lessons learned and not learned

St. John Chrysostom says: “You cannot call the God of all kindness your Father if you preserve a cruel and inhuman heart; for in this case you no longer have in you the marks of the heavenly Father’s kindness.”

While many of Austen’s characters grow in virtue, others are too focused on themselves. When Lady Catherine de Bourgh shows up at the Bennet home to try to prevent Lizzie Bennet from marrying Mr. Darcy, she’s only masquerading as perfectly virtuous. Like Mrs. Bennet, Lizzie’s mother, Lady Catherine is trying to marry off her charges and suffering because of it. Lady Catherine’s decision to interfere seems to be an exercise in calculated sympathy-seeking for her own benefit, and she’ll do almost anything to force her preferred outcome. St. John Chrysostom could have predicted the results: her mean dealings in “love” and relationships come to nothing. On the other hand, Mrs. Bennet, though a silly woman, is always trying to marry her daughters off for their own good.

To practice kindness and patience, a person must be humble, and humility is the virtue that also seems to describe Jane Austen the most, as it would describe any “giant of the heart.” It was so important to her that she wrote this prayer:

“Incline us, O 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. Grant this most merciful Father, for the sake of our blessed Savior, who has set us an example of such a temper of forbearance and patience, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honor and glory, world without end.” Amen.

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