The secret of Jane Austen’s genius is that she conceals the most serious of themes within light-hearted tales: true repentance and regret. Our own vanity and egotistical deceptions are revealed, and having been made self-aware, we stop and laugh and realize that our delight has filled us with light.

Along with Granada Television’s Brideshead Revisited, Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility and the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice are film adaptations well worth watching and keeping.

Won over by the BBC Pride and Prejudice, I had not bothered with the 2005 film version directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley. I sniffed at the sexy marketing and was biased against Miss Knightley. She seemed too flighty to play Miss Elizabeth Bennett. Better suited to play silly Lydia, I thought.

Overcoming my pride and prejudice however, I watched the film and was captivated again by Austen’s classic tale. Keira Knightley was indeed too silly in the opening scenes, but she sobered up as the story progressed. Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennett was suitably dour and was balanced by Brenda Blethyn’s hilariously hysterical Mrs. Bennett. The film was beautifully filmed and the other characters well cast and the script professionally compressed into the two-hour feature film convention.

Like both the BBC production and Ang Lee’s film, Joe Wright’s film captures the heart and makes one realize once again the true genius of Jane Austen. Her brilliance lies not in the longings of love, nor in the feminine gushes for dashing lotharios. Her genius is not simply in her famous wit and common sense, nor in her subtle satire and social comment. The true secret of her success is the repentance and regret that correct her hero and heroine’s pride and prejudice.

C.S. Lewis unlocked the secret in his essay, “A Note on Jane Austen,” which can be found in Selected Literary Essays edited by Walter Hooper.

Lewis begins by quoting four passages from Austen. In the first from Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland comes to self-knowledge—facing her foolishness and resolving to behave better in the future. The second quotation is Marianne Dashwood’s bitter self-realization in Sense and Sensibility. The third—from Pride and Prejudice—is Elizabeth Bennett’s brutal enlightenment regarding the true nature of the scoundrel Wickham, and the final quote from Emma concerns Emma’s sudden self-knowledge as she realizes how badly she had behaved concerning her friend Harriet.

Lewis points out that each of the four novels turns on the disillusionment and regret of the heroine, or, in more positive terms, her enlightenment. In each case, the heroine undergoes the transformation of true repentance. The Authorized Version of the Prodigal Son story says that in the pigpen the son “came to himself.” This profound conversion is at the heart of all great literature, and René Girard was convinced that it had also to extend to the novelist himself. He observed, “So the career of the great novelist is dependent upon a conversion, and even if it is not made completely explicit, there are symbolic allusions to it at the end of the novel. These allusions are at least implicitly religious.”

Lewis sees this in Austen. Her own religion was kept under the polite facade of English society, but Lewis sniffs out the religious language she uses especially in the scene of Marianne Dashwood’s disillusionment and enlightenment. Lewis observes, “The vocabulary of the passage strikes a note unfamiliar in Jane Austen’s style. It makes explicit, for once, the religious background of the author’s ethical position. Hence such theological or nearly theological words as penitence, amendment, self-destruction, my God…”

This disillusionment and enlightenment lead to clarity of thought and vision. It is captured in what Lewis recognizes as the “hardness or at least the firmness” of Austen’s thought. He notes her use of abstract nouns: good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude, impropriety, indelicacy, generous candor, blamable distrust, just humiliation, vanity, folly, ignorance, reason. “These are the concepts,” he writes, “by which Jane Austen grasps the world.”

This transformation is called “the character arc” in screenplay writing classes. Beneath the romance or car chases, the shootouts and love scenes, this is what the audience is really interested in. We long to see our hero “come to himself,” shed his illusions, and see the world as it really is. This clarity of vision and painful embrace of reality are the joyful “eucatastrophe” on which Tolkien insisted, and it is the beating heart of all great literature.

The true secret of Austen’s genius is that she conceals the most serious of themes within what might first seem to be nothing more than bosom-heaving romances. Indeed, her stories are comedies, and it is within her light-hearted tales that she embeds the vital turning point of true repentance and regret.

Dostoevsky, writing a generation later, would portray the same repentance in Crime and Punishment with searing realism and heart-rending pathos. Austen pre-empts him by showing equally sincere metanoia not as the result of a callous murder, but a girl’s realization of the harm done to herself and others by the pride and prejudice in the ordinary affairs of courtship and marriage of a gaggle of silly girls and a tribe of arrogant young men.

Austen’s greatest genius is that she does so with a light touch. The humility is conveyed with humor. Her heroines come to themselves and see the world as it truly is, and this pragmatic vision also sheds light on the pride and prejudice of those around them. As that light shines, we also see things as they are.

Our own vanity and egotistical deceptions are revealed, and if we are graced with even a smidgen of self-awareness, we stop and laugh and realize that our delight has filled us with light.

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The featured image is “Darcy and Elizabeth at Charlotte Collins’ house from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice” (1894) by Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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