A Tutelary Austen

As much as I enjoy a sentimental retreat into the milieu of Regency England, there are two great tragedies attendant upon the commercialization of Jane Austen. The first is the epidemic misconception that her novels cater exclusively ‘to girls,’ that they contain little else besides formulaic liaisons between young, economically dependent women and dashing aristocrats. This fallacy afflicts men who can’t be bothered to delve deeper than Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet and feminists who can’t be bothered to account for nuance in their haste to pillory social conventions. The second is the assumption that ‘chivalry’ as it is embodied by her male protagonists should function as a curiosity to be fantasized over rather than a model to be emulated.

I’m not going to spend much time disabusing the former. Suffice it to say you should read Austen and imbibe for yourself her wit, her propensity to create memorable characters, and the moderation with which she treats the dichotomies that are evoked by her titles.

It’s the latter that puts me rather out of sorts. I’m reminded of the football-coach-cum-published-author who visited St. Stephen’s my junior year and talked in chapel about the pitfalls of the imperative ‘Be a man.’ I sympathized with about half of what he said. The barbaric cult of masculinity that associates hackneyed (not to say monosyllabic) paeans to competition with ‘moral development’ amplifies vice more than it propagates virtue. Without confining all football players to the same mold-and I’ve known several who’ve fulfilled the role of ‘student athlete’ with justifiable aplomb-the facility with which some pay voluble lip service to their coaches’ testosterone-fueled philosophy before treating girls with a crass utilitarianism that would make Jack the Ripper blush has hardened me somewhat to their moralistic sloganeering (vero, scio illa de quibus dico).

Nonetheless, I do believe in drawing lines in the sand. I believe in coalescing around norms that all rational and empathetic human beings can agree on. Theoretical statements valorizing hard work and respect are important (if they’re articulated eloquently enough, otherwise they become harmful), but much more vital from a pragmatic, cotidianal perspective is the presentation of exemplars towards which we can all aspire. This is one of the many offices that literature performs.

I concede that some reactionary, unlearned approaches to ‘being a man’ deaden the soul. But for someone who has the specter of Mr. Darcy before his eyes-or Captain Wentworth; or Colonel Brandon-the injunction is perfectly comprehensible. More to the point, it is wholesome and beneficial to society. Such a person will feel reverence for the beautiful, tenderness for the neglected, empathy for the slandered, disdain for the presumptuous, and hatred for the wicked. Why? Because under such circumstances, it is NATURAL to be thus affected. The cord that has bound every chivalrous heart since the Arthurian days of old time will animate the great mass of humankind when again touched by the better angels of our nature.

A people seized by this spirit will not stand idly by, cowed and craven, while female virtue is violated. This is not a commentary upon the intellectual prowess or the independence of women. It is a commentary upon the moral turpitude of untutored young men. Sexual assault and blackguardism would not become the provence of bureaucratized informationals and posters exhorting undergraduates to ‘ask for consent.’ Such initiatives would become utterly superfluous. This is because the mere thought that the converse might occur is sickening and hateful to all right-thinking men. Before any judicial or scholastic punishment were meted out to the perpetrator, ten thousand swords would leap from ten thousand scabbards, and they would as one deliver him.

So, you see? One mustn’t watch the BBC’s production of Pride and Prejudice and fixate on Jennifer Ehle’s bonnet or Colin Firth’s coif. One must read the original. One must feel an instinctual distaste for the Wickhams and the Willoughbies of the world, so that one day they will look behind them and see the vengeful, striking hammer of God. And on that day they will reap it.

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