Quiet Virtue

JAN / FEB 2013: BY CHRISTY McDOUGALL

sense

Recently I read an article about Jane Austen in which Edward Ferrars was remarked upon as unintelligent and uninteresting.

It’s all the rage these days to denigrate the quiet, virtuous character of Edward, along with the similarly quiet and virtuous character of Edmund Bertram (who was called a “dull parson” in the article). They are rarely dealt with kindly in pop culture essays. Apparently, an interesting character (and especially an interesting lover) must be as proud and handsome as Mr. Darcy, as vivacious and popular as Henry Crawford, and as wronged and attractive as Captain Wentworth to be considered “interesting” in our culture. Never mind that Mr. Darcy’s pride gave great pain to the woman he loved, Henry Crawford’s vivacity couldn’t keep him from being deeply distressing to the woman he pretended to love, and Captain Wentworth’s wrongs made him resentful and hurtful to the woman who loved him. At least they’re “interesting.”

I find the same responses to Austen’s female characters. Elizabeth Bennet’s mistakes in judgment are acceptable because she’s charming, funny, and intelligent; Mary Crawford is forgiven for being a source of temptation to a good man because she is so vivacious and amusing; and Marianne Dashwood is one of Austen’s most attractive characters despite being self-centered and lacking in self-control. Meanwhile, the quiet, restrained, giving, humble characters like Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, and Fanny Price are often called dull, priggish, or uninteresting. Those are the very characters I tend to be most attracted to, and their love stories are the ones I love to return to. While I marginally prefer Edmund Bertram as a character to Edward Ferrars, Elinor Dashwood ranks among my all-time favorite fictional heroines and their quietly angst-ridden, fairly unromantic romance is one of my favorites because the characters are quiet, restrained, and virtuous.

I identify very much with Elinor, but still wish to be more like her. Sensible (in a modern understanding of the word: having common sense) and intelligent, she has a great capacity for self-control. She wants above all to keep from giving pain to her family in the midst of an already painful situation, so she keeps her own pain to herself. Unlike her sister Marianne, she can look outside her situation and see that other people have a right not to be distressed by her behavior. Constantly denigrated by her sister for a lack of feeling, constantly forced to show kindness to her rival, her true depth is only revealed to her family after she has passed through fire for it. No other Austen character deserves a happy ending as much as she does, unless it is the man she loves.

I think no other Austen character is as Christ-like as Edward, despite his youthful errors in judgment. He is heir to wealth and an estate, but it has not made him proud. He has an unworthy family that he treats with respect. In the face of every inducement to indulge himself and fulfill his desires, when he can get nothing out of his selflessness for his own immediate happiness, he refuses to break a promise to a poor, foolish, vain girl. Though he could gratify his feelings with Elinor, he could remain wealthy and on good terms with his powerful mother, he could live a life of ease and happiness, if he only does what his flesh urges him to do and break off his engagement with Lucy Steele, he refuses to let down the person depending on him. He puts the happiness and future of an unworthy, rather stupid girl above his own and chooses to walk through fire for her sake and for the sake of doing what is right.

Elinor and Edward’s entire romance is conducted in silence, emptiness, pain, and virtue. They don’t passionately insult each other like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy; they don’t indulge every sensation like Marianne and Willoughby; they don’t do what is merely convenient, like Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins; and they don’t console themselves for foolish, youthful choices by becoming sarcastic, indolent, and meddlesome, like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. They quietly try to do what is best for everyone around them except themselves. Their virtue is a quiet, deep thing, like the submarine currents of the ocean, not a tumultuous, showy thing, like a storm at sea.

As in all good romances, fairy tales, and theology, Edward and Elinor are ultimately rewarded. I believe they deserve each other. Elinor deserves a man who is good and not merely attractive; Edward deserves a woman who is thoughtful and not merely vivacious. The virtues of both make them a blessing to each other, and so they will be happy in their marriage. That is a far more lasting and true romance than one that is all fire and no substance.

Jane Austen understood the substance that is required for a true love story, which is why she wrote transformation for her faulty protagonists, steadiness and resolve for her virtuous characters, and happy endings for all who deserved it. Elinor and Edward are a picture of the greater reality, that virtue ultimately ends in reward, whether in this life or the next, and of the greatest Romance, between Jesus and His Bride. ■

janfeb2013

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