For Jane Austen, happiness in general is the goal of human action done according to morality, a code of conduct according to which every person has value; and happiness in marriage is the result of each spouse valuing and pursuing the other’s happiness above all else…

In our time, according to one of several divergent moralities, an act is a heinous hell-damning sin, while another morality will validate that same act as a heaven-winning act of virtue. This was not so in Jane Austen’s world. There was a generally accepted familial, communal, and societal code of conduct—a morality—which embodied universally acknowledged moral truths. Its basis was the intrinsic value of all persons.

Jane Austen did not explicitly proclaim moral truths in a scriptural tome or etch them on stone tablets; but her words and her stories—according to many some of the best stories and greatest novels in the English language—were ensouled and quickened with the vocabulary, the grammar, the syntax, and the meaning of her morality.

Observations About Her Writing

Much has been written about Jane Austen’s morality and its role in her works. James Collins says this: “In their essence, Austen’s books are moral works. They each have a hard moral core. Indeed, the real story in each of the novels is the story of how the characters deviate from or act in accordance with Austen’s morality.”[1]

According to Carol Shields, a Jane Austen biographer:

Each of the Austen heroines possesses an implicit moral system…” [2]

Jane Austen is a dramatic rather than descriptive writer, concerned with morality and using speech as her medium.[3]

Still, although morality is for her an overarching, if non-explicit influence, she (henceforth, with gratitude and respect, “Jane”) does not preach fire and brimstone sermons in her writing:

She was against novels pointing a moral: ‘Example, not direct approach,’ she said, ‘is all a novelist can possibly afford to exhibit.’ She practiced what she preached. Her stories do exemplify her moral point of view. For this was so much part of her that her every imaginative concept is related to it. But she very seldom moralized openly.[4]

 Other-Value Morality

Most codes of conduct that are called a “morality” are based on the “other-value” principle: Each human being has intrinsic value which is always to be recognized, taken into account, and honored by others in their decisions and in their actions. The other-value principle is the basis of the Golden Rule and at the core of Jesus’ statement of the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)

History is replete with the denial of the value of certain human beings—often stated in terms of their not being “legal persons”—and with what has then been done to them– and justified—because they were alleged not to have this value.

Applying the other-value principle, it follows that there are human actions that are moral—in the doing of such actions the other person’s value is recognized and honored, the happiness of others is considered, valued, and promoted; and there are human actions that are immoral—the other’s value is ignored, denied or dishonored, and the happiness of others does not matter, nor is it nurtured or pursued. Humans can act so as to be selfless, moral; or to be selfish, immoral.

Other-Value Morality in Jane Austen’s Prayers

Prayers written by Jane Austen herself reflect the other-value principle. All of her prayers are made in terms of “us,” “thy servants,” “our hearts,” “our lives,” and “we.” There is no selfishness in these prayers, no “I;” and there is the recognition that good can be done when valuing others and evil can result when the value of others is ignored. Below are a few examples.

We are conscious of many frailties; we remember with shame and contrition, many evil thoughts and neglected duties; and we have perhaps sinned against thee and against our fellow-creatures in many instances of which we have no remembrance….May the comforts of every day, be thankfully felt by us, may they prompt a willing obedience of thy commandments and a benevolent spirit toward every fellow-creature… (from Prayer 2)

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. (from Prayer 3)

Jane’s Other-Value Morality

With her paradigm of family with families as the basis of home, community, and society, for Jane it is no surprise that morality is the loving glue that binds people together; binds them to act so as to value and further the happiness of others. David Cecil provides a summary of Jane’s view of morality and how virtue was for her, other-directed:

Indeed Jane Austen’s understanding of the moral nature of man is, within the limits of her experience, complete…. So searching an insight into character give Jane Austen’s portraits a timeless quality. They are universal types… these universal characters are presented in a universal context: they are related to universal standards of conduct. There are three of these: virtue, sense, and taste. Easily first in importance is virtue. Christian virtue as Jane Austen understood it. She held that it was people’s first duty to be unselfish, charitable, hones, disinterested, and faithful.[5]

Drilling down further into this moral glue for families, for Jane the bedrock and capstone of a family is the marriage of a man and woman (and, over time, the marriages of generations of women and men) from whom the family flows. This is not simply a marriage of romance, a marriage of money, a marriage of expediency, a marriage for status, a no-other-options marriage, or a marriage of “sensibility.” Jane implicitly finds fault with all such marriages. The ideal of marriage is the joining of two unselfish people whose goal is the happiness of the other. The husband’s goal and raison d’etre is the wife’s happiness, and vice-versa.

No Focus On Unselfishness

Jane does not like to focus on distasteful subjects. In Mansfield Park she says:

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.[6]

However, she does in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle detail, reveal a number of persons who, because of their intentional failure to value others, because of their selfishness, are unfit to be a proper spouse in marriage. It seems that the best example in Jane’s work for such a person, due to her unparalleled artistry, is the selfish suitor one happens to be reading about at the time.

Selfish/Immoral Suitors

Although there are several such people in Jane’s work, Willoughby comes instantly to mind. According to Jane’s other-value morality, he is one of the worst potential mates. If any chapter in all of Jane’s writing approaches explicitly “pointing a moral” with the message not to marry a selfish—immoral—person, it is Chapter 47 of Sense and Sensibility. In an extended speech, Elinor describes for Marianne the selfishness of Willoughby and that, for him, “self-denial is hardly a word understood.” She ends calling him “selfish.” Marianne’s eyes are opened:

Marianne’s lips quivered, and she repeated the word ‘selfish’ in a tone that implied, ‘Do you really think him selfish?’

‘The whole of his behaviour,’ replied Elinor, ‘from the beginning to the end of the affair, has been grounded on selfishness. It was selfishness which first made him sport with your affections; which afterwards, when his own were engaged, made him delay the confession of it, and which finally carried him from Barton. His own enjoyment, or his own ease, was, in every particular, his ruling principle.’

‘It is very true. My happiness never was his object.’

‘At present,’ continued Elinor, ‘he regrets what he has done. And why does he regret it? Because he finds it has not answered towards himself. It has not made him happy.’

Willoughby does not change. Jane lets us know, on the last page of the novel: “He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself.”[7]

In Jane’s works, there are numerous other selfish people, spread across all of her six completed published novels, who either are not suitable as potential spouses or, if already married, are not happily married due to their selfishness, in violation of Jane’s other-valuing morality. Often this selfishness is evident from such a person’s focus on material goods, wealth, and status; or in their intentionally hurting others by their actions.

Loving Suitors & Spouses—Your Happiness Is My Happiness

For Jane, marriages, ideally, are dual-person embodiments of an other-valuing morality. “A marriage of love was almost always out of reach in real life, though all of Austen’s heroines…achieve just that.”[8]

Henry Crawford: In a consummate display of irony, Jane has the selfish Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park), once he has been captivated by the goodness, and morality, of Fanny Price, proclaim Jane’s other-value morality for marriage. Telling his sister, Mary, about his love for Fanny Price, Henry says: “I will make her very happy, Mary; happier than she has ever yet been herself, or ever seen anybody else.”[9]

Henry goes on, at length, to describe his love for Fanny. Jane’s comment on this—as the narrator of Mansfield Park—is a summary of what a suitor or spouse is supposed to do in an other-value marriage: “The impossibility of not doing everything in the world to make Fanny Price happy, or of ceasing to love Fanny Price, was of course the groundwork of his eloquent answer.”[10]

Henry goes on to put into words how he will make Fanny happy: “Yes, Mary, my Fanny will feel a difference indeed: a daily, hourly difference, in the behavior of every being who approaches her; and it will be the completion of my happiness to know that I am the doer of it, that I am the person to give the consequence so justly her due.”[11]

When he speaks to Fanny herself, to reveal his role in helping her brother get a promotion in the navy, he again acknowledges that it is her happiness that will be his concern: “I will not talk of my own happiness,” said he, “great as it is, for I think only of yours. Compared with you, who has a right to be happy?”[12]

With slight rewording, some of Henry’s declarations could easily be used as marriage vows for two people truly concerned with the other’s happiness. We will never know why Jane, in all her genius, chose to have Henry be the one to speak so plainly, and more explicitly than any of her other characters, about what truly is a marriage of “affection” in which each party’s main goal is the happiness of the other.

Jane’s Own Words

Jane had a beloved niece, Fanny Knight, who was a young lady old enough to be “out” and seeking a husband. They exchanged letters about her various prospects; and it is in these letters from Jane that she herself tells her niece what a marriage should be. She speaks of “love” and “affection.” Considering Jane’s clear rejection of marriages based on shallow romance or selfish sensibility, these words must be interpreted in terms of her other-valuing morality.

She tells Fanny: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.”[13]

In another letter Jane says: “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love.”[14]

When another of Fanny’s suitors shows some interest in another young lady, Jane warns: “By your description he cannot be in love with you, however he may try at it, and I could not wish the match unless there was a great deal of love on his side.”[15]


Jane’s six novels end in marriage, happy marriages, summed up in the final words of Emma describing Fanny’s marriage to George Knightley: “perfect happiness of the union.” This “happiness,” however, is not the emotional high of a successful fling in a “chick lit” story. As each novel shows, this happiness is the happiness of those who inhabit Jane’s world: “Jane Austen imitates a moral world—a world to whose conduct and virtue, manners, and morals, she and her sister and her family and her neighborhood were bred.”[16]

For Jane, happiness in general is the goal of human action done according to morality, a code of conduct according to which every person has value; and happiness in marriage is the result of each spouse valuing and pursuing the other’s happiness above all else.

This essay was originally published in Catholic Stand (March 2017) and is republished with gracious permission from the author. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] James Collins, “Fanny Was Right: Jane Austen As Moral Guide,” p. 146, A Truth Universally Acknowledged, edited by S. Carson (Random House, 2009).
[2] Carol Shields, Jane Austen A Life, (Penguin Books, 2005), p. 25.
[3] Id. At 179
[4] David Cecil, A Portrait Of Jane Austen (Penguin Books, 1978), p. 151.
[5] XX (Cecil pp 148-149).
[6] Chap. 48, Mansfield Park.
[7] Chap. 47, Sense and Sensibility.
[8] Shields, p. 113.
[9] Chap. 31, Mansfield Park.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Cecil, p. 170.
[14] Id., p. 171.
[15] Id., p. 172.
[16] Eva Brann, “The Perfections of Jane Austen,” p. 205, in Carson, see note 1.

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