Friday 25 January 2013

Universally Acknowledged Truths?

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

This Sunday sees the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Besides selling over 20 million copies worldwide, it has been brought to life in many adaptations, including a Bollywood cinema version, an Israeli TV series, and a zombie mash-up which follows Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters as they battle the undead in a quiet English village.

From its oft-cited opening sentence to its (spoiler alert) cheery outcome, something about the tale has an enduring and wide-ranging appeal. Indeed, in the just-published Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Susannah Fullerton explores why Elizabeth Bennet is ‘the most charming heroine in literature’, why Mr Darcy has been voted ‘the most romantic hero of all time’, and why the book is regularly found in polls on favourite novels.

Those still tempted to suppose all this is a sentimental relic of a bygone age may pause to reflect on shadow health minister Diane Abbott’s warnings earlier this week about the damage caused by the hypersexualisation of society, where we’re seeing ‘an alien, warped view of sex normalised into our culture, engrained by the invisible hand of the market’. By contrast, while it is always possible to make an idol out of romantic love, we’re able to recognise something good and true and beautiful in the story Austen weaves – the flourishing that results from relationships based on genuine intimacy rather than social transactions or financial gain. For Christians, of course, the yearning for relationship points to our being made in the image of the triune God, and speaks of a higher need met fully in Christ.

But Pride and Prejudice does more than celebrate love. The two main characters undergo a transformation in which they see that their failures – the faults referred to in the title – must be overcome. The story is not just about the triumph of true love but the formation of good character.

Austen doesn’t deny the importance of passion, but believes, as Alasdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue, that ‘morality is... meant to educate the passions’. Some currents in contemporary culture assume that virtue stifles passion, that nothing should stop us from ‘following our heart’. Austen paints a different picture – in line with Scripture – where humility, self-knowledge, and a willingness to act for the good of others deepens the emotional strength of relationships, where virtuous lovers are also the most passionate ones.


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