Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

 

 

Hey, summer comes along and you switch gears and – in accordance with much protestant tradition – head for the Old Testament to slow things down a bit for the vacation season.  I’ve gone straight for the Book of Ruth.  I am perhaps more of a literary type than lots of Baptist Sunday School teachers.  I am a sucker for Jane Austen and I always keep one of her novels on my nightstand to dip into as I fade off into sleep mode.

You would think that after the first few ( twenty?) times through a Jane Austen novel the reading would be all relaxation and pleasure.  You know – all the real meat of the story already long understood and digested.  No surprises left.

But that’s not my experience.   To steal a phrase from John Sebastian, “the more I see, the more I see there is to see.” In just the last few evenings I’ve been reading middle chapters in Emma.  Chapters where Emma is infatuated with Frank Churchill and is weighing his every word and action as she considers whether she’s in love with him or not.  About this same time, Emma is working to bring poor old Harriet Smith back to her right mind after her ill-fated romantic attachment to the perfidious Mr. Elton.

Austen gives the reader all kinds of clues as she goes along about what’s really going on in Frank Churchill’s mind as he dallies with Emma; clues I missed in the first (and second and on and on) readings.  This book is psychologically dense and sophisticated.

But it is also shot through with standards.  You know – those things that nobody seems to agree about today and that the righteous marchers are now claiming are the remnants of patriarchal oppression, etc.

Here is what Emma finally tells her little friend Harriet to encourage her to stop moping and pining for the lost Mr. Elton who has gone his way and married another (monied) woman:

I have not said, exert yourself Harriet for my sake; think less, talk less of Mr. Elton for my sake; because for your own sake rather, I would wish it to be done, for the sake of what is more important than my comfort, a habit of self-command in you, a consideration of what is your duty, an attention to propriety, an endeavor to avoid the suspicions of others, to save your health and credit, and restore your tranquility.

Oh, yeah.  All of that stuff.  Who can doubt the importance of any of it?  And is this not what the rising generation ought to learn?  A bit of an aside here, but how much of the world’s problems are due in the final analysis to a failure to mature sexually?  I am out of school here, I know, but it sure looks to me like a lot of this terrorist business is fomented among men who, you know, can’t make it work with a woman.  This guy Q’tub or whatever his name was – the guy who was the philosophical inspiration for Bin Laden, et al – his life story (as told in the great book, The Looming Tower) shows that the turning point in his life , the beginning of his radicalization, was when he was rejected by the young woman who was his childhood infatuation.  In popular American culture, we would think of Teen Angel, the black-jacketed, duck-tailed youngster who rebels (motorcycle and all) because “Betty Lou done me wrong. . . .”

Teen Angel ends up with an arrest record or dies one midnight in a railroad crossing accident.  But in the case of the Islamists, all that frustration and rage fits rather squarely into their religion and the result is something like this:  If I have failed to get what I wanted and if I am unhappy, it can’t be my fault.  It must be the world!  It must be that the prevailing system gives women too much freedom – freedom to tempt and to reject men, for example.  Better start blowing stuff up until we can put them all under burkas, where they belong, so we can be pure and happy as men.

Okay, that’s off of my chest.  Now back to Jane Austen.  Look at how Emma considers the action of Frank Churchill in deciding to travel some thirty miles round trip to get his haircut.  Doesn’t really sound like something anyone should get their noses out of joint about, even though thirty miles (by horseback at that time) was much more of an extravagance then than it is now.  But look at the complexity and subtlety of Emma’s analysis:

It [the journey for the haircut] did not accord with the rationality of plan, the moderation in expense, or even the unselfish warmth of heart, which she had believed herself to discern in him yesterday.  Vanity, extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad; heedlessness as to the pleasure of his father and Mrs. Weston, indifferent to how his conduct might appear in general . . . .

In the story, of course, the trip for a haircut was really a cover for Frank’s trip to London to buy a piano for his secret love, Jane Fairfax.  So, his real motives were more complex than Emma knew or could judge.   But that takes nothing away from the validity and perspicuity of Emma’s initial reactions based on what she then believed.

Given such sensibilities, such standards, who among us can stand?   Who could please and satisfy such a woman?  Well, someone who is educated, maybe.  Someone who has learned (been taught) a thing or two about selfishness and the fall of man.  Someone who has read Jane Austen, even.

And all of that points to just those things that the righteous marchers now tell us are the problem.  The education that Frank Churchill – and every man – ought to have is right there in the books and culture that it is now vogue to reject.  The Bible.  The church.  The classics.  In the extended and natural family.  And nowhere else.

And, speaking of the Bible, back to the Book of Ruth in the next post – coming soon.

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