My Journey With Jane: Discovering the Good Life

Jane Austen, the Philosopher

Alison Kjergaard / 11.16.21

Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 201)

Being asked “who’s your favorite philosopher?” is not an unusual question in DC. It’s a city of poli sci and history nerds (I can say this being one of them). In the past, I’ve muttered something about Aristotle or Plato, but now I’m claiming Jane Austen. “She’s not a philosopher,” some might say. Au contraire. If philosophy is about loving wisdom and studying ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life then I’d argue Jane Austen’s novels not only reveal her to be a philosopher but also engages us, her readers, into deeper wisdom and knowledge about our own worlds.

Seneca may be the philosopher of choice for ladder-climbing egotists, Aristotle may lay out the definition of a virtuous life, but Jane Austen might actually make you more kind to others. Those who dismiss her novels as merely chick lit romances probably haven’t actually read her. You can’t read her novels without picking up her “tongue in cheek” observations about the world around her. And when we look up from the book we recognize her own keen observations in our own lives, and see how we can be better. 

I was introduced to Jane Austen at a very young age. Growing up in girl world (I’m one of three sisters) my mom and sisters quickly swept me into the drama, hilarity, and romance of the Bennet sisters in the six hour long Pride and Prejudice. The opening credits to the BBC Pride and Prejudice was the soundtrack to my childhood. Even as a small child I would stop my play to come watch any of the dancing scenes, Elizabeth’s awkward interaction with Darcy at Pemberley (the lake scene); proof that even as a kid Jane Austen was appealing.

It wasn’t just Pride and Prejudice, my sisters and I watched all the classic 90’s adaptations, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma, Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility, and the Ciaran Hinds Persuasion. We’d all go see the 2005 Pride and Prejudice in theaters, we’d sit through Becoming Jane, my mom and I watched all of the Romola Garai Emma miniseries, and I’ve watched the newest Emma six times. 

I read my first Jane Austen novel in eighth grade, Emma. I had initially been drawn into the literature of classmates. The book series was literally called the Clique, talk about Lewis’s inner circle. Sheesh. My mom found it in my room and casually asked if she could read a bit of it and I nodded nervously. She returned it to me later that day, saying she had only read a chapter. She told me the book wasn’t particularly well written, but I could go ahead and read them if I wanted. After a brief pause she finished by saying, “I just wish you’d read good books, formative books, well-written, Jane Austen books,” but she didn’t add anything more. The choice was mine. I returned the books to my friend and found a copy of Emma in my classroom. I haven’t really looked back since. 

Jane Austen was comfort food throughout high school and college; her wit, the familiar happy endings, all of it was soothing to my frenzied soul. When drained by midterms and papers, I’d turn to my pretty copies of Jane Austen. The lobby of my dorm looked like a parlor of Pemberly and I’d curl up by the fire, papers and textbooks shoved to the side so I could taste the familiar words:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

I moved to DC right after college, and it was one of the most stressful seasons of my life so far; jobless, relatively friendless, and I hadn’t spent more than 24 hours in DC before my move. For the first year I spent two hours on the metro every day. When I began that commute I knew I could either spend those two hours phone scrolling (wasting my precious data) or I could read. And read I did. I reread Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics,I tackled Paradise Lost, Camus, The Prince, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics.  I was broke, and the well worn philosophy books at Capitol Hill Books were always cheap so those were what I trended toward, but intermingled amidst the heady philosophy was Jane Austen. Somehow the two blended together for me. She could keep pace with Machiavelli and Plato, but she wove her thoughts into tales and romances, observations of society. And as I continued working as a Capitol Hill staffer I began to see the humor in my own world through the eyes of Austen. 

 

All the happy hours, briefings, and networking evenings felt reminiscent of Jane Austen’s balls, parties, and picnics. A society obsessed with itself, but it’s all a bit humorous when one stops to think about it. Jane Austen taught me to look at my world, not as “the very important seat of power” but as a place filled with interesting people with quirks and quips, and strong notions of how things “ought to be.” Elizabeth Bennet was now an overqualified staff assistant in a bumbling not-to-be-taken-seriously House office and Darcy was the snobbish senior Senate staffer. Emma was a comms director, the whole of Capitol Hill was her oyster, and Anne Elliot had allowed herself to be pigeon holed as a scheduler. (I’m copyrighting these for future use). Jane Austen made me take light a world that demanded I take it seriously. While Elizabeth watched everyone around her clamor for marriage and good prospects, I watched everyone around me clamor up a ladder competing for titles and security clearances. And Jane Austen made me ask, “why?”  

Her perspective on high society, titles, and ranks allowed me to ask similar questions of DC hierarchy. Through all the philosophy I read during that very long commute, it was Jane Austen who gave me a healthy sense of humor about the little role I played in this world. I still enjoy Plato and Aristotle, but Jane Austen flushed out real virtue in my life. Our lives stretch so far beyond our networking abilities or if we’ve made that title switch yet, Mrs. Bennet would have been driven crazy by how much money there was in consulting. But do we want to be Mrs. Bennet? No, give me the spirit of Elizabeth who could delight in the ridiculous, the patience and stamina of Captain Wentworth, the sense of Eleanor, and the passion of Marianne. I’d rather humbly enjoy my little life then clammer my way after a high-up position on the Hill. There is much to be learned from the heroes Austen writes for us. 

The heroine of Emma is not the title character, oddly enough, despite the way she is fawned over and flattered by Harriet, Frank Churchill, well, everyone but Knightley. DC is full of flatterers and fawners, and rereading Dante, I’m reminded that flattery is far from harmless. In Emma it is Miss Bates living her simple, small life that best exemplifies virtue. She is a poor spinster looking after her aged mother, and she prattles on happily about everything, much to Emma’s ire. Miss Bates finds joy in the little things, the delicious meals, the letters from her niece. And Emma finds it all dull and droll. It is when Knightley calls out her cruelty and arrogance towards Miss Bates that she has a crushing realization about herself. Reading Emma’s realization was a check on myself. Was I too focused on climbing a ladder to nowhere? Was I going to be snarky and biting to those who weren’t “of use” to me? Or was I going to be Knightley, looking out for the least of these? Or Miss Bates genuinely happy and content with little daily mercies? 

I could do this for each of the novels, but instead I’ll just recommend A Jane Austen Education, which does exactly that. Alasdair Macintyre’s final chapter in After Virtue, discusses Jane Austen and her works in some depth, analyzing their philosophical merit: “Lewis saw in her an essentially Christian writer. It is her uniting of Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context that makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues which I have tried to identify.” 

Jane Austen, the daughter of a clergyman, emulated what Christ did with his followers, teaching us through stories. He knew our thoughts couldn’t comprehend His thoughts, nor would we understand His ways, so He wove the commands into stories. A Samaritan who gives aid to the hurting, a shepherd chasing down his sheep, a prodigal son who returns to his father. He teaches us about himself, but also about ourselves and who He calls us to be. Jane Austen is not preaching the gospel, but she is calling us to self-examination in how we approach those around us and our society as a whole. Elizabeth must come to terms with her unfair judgement of Darcy, “Until that moment I never knew myself.” I’ve caught myself looking upwards at the “higher-ups” of DC, wanting to be there, only to be brought back to  a humbler reality. I hope that as long as I remain in DC, I never “forget” myself. But reading Jane Austen has helped, and I’ve certainly found myself delighted by my own ridiculous world. 

I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle…. What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. (Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, also my sentiments to Jane Austen and what she has taught me about living in DC )