Searching for Jane Austen

Published on the York University Blog on Feb 23rd, 2009

      It’s not very literary of me but the only experience that I’ve had with Jane Austen novels is through their movie adaptations. I remember Gwyneth’s meddling Emma, Emma Thompson’s sensible Elinor Dashwood and Keira Knightly’s passionate Elisabeth Bennett. 

     These epic tales seem to focus on the spirited and unique heroines who defy convention to ultimately marry the man who would not be expected as their match. Often the women are confined by their family’s economic situation and are being pressured to marry the man who will provide stability and safety for the entire family. But there is always a brooding and devilishly handsome male lead (a Colin Firth type) who is complicated and yet ultimately the passionate choice for the leading lady. 

     These characters and the influence of 18th century society on them is the focus of York Professor Karen Valihora’s upcoming book, Austen’s Oughts: Reflective Judgement after Locke and Sahftesbury. Valihora believes that Austen is very idealistic as she created characters which were the best versions of citizens at that time.  Austen’s hope was that people would look to these characters as role models and that they would morally judge themselves in similar ways. 

     Austen’s writing was innovative for the time as her characters judged themselves using both first and third person narrative. Therefore the character took a personal look at their own lives while also remaining distant as if a friend were giving them information about themselves. So Austen hoped that we would follow a similar path of decision making where we considered what we ought to be not just what everyone told us to be or what was popular at the time.

      Valihora feels that we are missing some of this character idealism in today’s society.  Instead we often look to false idols who are promoting distorted versions of our material appearance centric culture.  She asks if Madonna is really a symbol for female power or is she falling into the Hollywood trap that equates value with a fit body and a 20 year old boyfriend?  She also worries that writing is not promoting the development of our best selves but is instead appealing to our worst sense of gossip and voyeurism. 

     Isn’t there something wrong with the world if Paris Hilton gets oodles of money for showing up at a party and Goldie Hawn has mysteriously looked the same for the past 30 years (She’s really 64!!)?  

     Maybe we have to promote people like Aung San Sui Kyi, who fights for Burmese independence, or Louise Arbour who promotes international human rights. Or maybe children should read about ordinary people that struggle through the hopelessness of an impossible situation to come out on the other side.  I’m not sure if I want my future daughter or my son to look up to Miley Cyrus or the Pussy Cat Dolls.  We need idols of independent spirit and individuality. But is this even possible today? Is there anyone who can help us realize who we ought to be? Maybe we can only find them on the pages of Austen and other great classics. Maybe these characters aren’t destined to be centre of pop culture. Maybe we have to look for our best selves in other discourses.  

     But will young children know to look deeper to discover role models that are not splashed across the gossip pages? I hope so.

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