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Naughty Jane: The Seven Deadly Sins, According to Jane Austen
In ongoing defense
of Jane Austen's reputation as a boring author and old maid, I have discovered the existence of seven deadly sins in her writing. Now, these aren't just any old sins, these are the seven deadliest offenses according to Jane Austen. Though some of the sins are similar in name to the original seven proposed by a 4th century monk, their 'sinful' nature is unique to the situations and people in Austen's writing. Herein, I will try, ever so humbly, to describe Austen's sinful seven:
I am sure you heard 'Pride' and 'Prejudice' coming around the corner and down the street, but they are two of Austen's cardinal sins! So much so, she dedicated an entire book to the follies and vices of the prideful and prejudiced.
Austen's 'Pride' comes from the greek term 'hubris', meaning excessive self-confidence. In Greek mythology, hubris is the fatal flaw of the tragic hero and in some ways, P&P's Fitzwilliam Darcy is on the path to tragedy.
Consider this: a man in possession of great wealth during the British Regency must have an heir in order for his estate to continue to flourish. As far as Austen lets on, Darcy hasn't had so much as a dance with a high-society coquette (excepting Caroline Bingley, who, as far as I'm concerned, was always destined for spinsterhood). The bottom line is, Darcy has no heir to his fortune at Pemberley. In spite of being the richest man anybody's ever heard of this side of Meryton, his prickly demeanor is less than attractive to any woman of real taste who doesn't wish to spend her days married to a cold statue. This aside, Darcy's pride prevents him from securing any kind of long-lasting amour that might produce him an heir. If Pemberley is turned over to the next male in his family, it is highly possible that his sister Georgiana would be cast into obscurity upon his death, and this is the greatest tragedy of all. In a clinical reading of P&P, one might even interpret that his initial interest in Elizabeth is sparked because of his concern for his sister's future (and let's get real: he's certainly not going to marry his Aunt's sickly daughter Anne because her chances for surviving childbirth are extremely low, let alone carrying a male heir to term).
One could speculate from here to Derbyshire about Darcy's fate had he not met Elizabeth Bennett, but the facts are these: he did. And he fell in love with her to boot! Using Austen's text only, one could surmise that love is the cure for pride. Elizabeth makes him introspective and unsure about everything (I like to imagine him standing in front of a mirror trying on vests that might match her "fine eyes"). Elizabeth makes him see the road that his pride is leading him down and ultimately saves him from a tragic end.
At the same time, Elizabeth Bennett is cured of her extreme prejudice against the wealthy by the realization that Darcy's riches are a burden of inheritance. Lizzie doesn't realize this in the book, I'm planting epiphanies in her head, but consider the train of thought she likely went through: Here's a bachelor who lives essentially alone in a giant estate. He doesn't throw his money away on prostitutes or fine carriages; instead he is landlord to most of Derbyshire and is expected to hobnob with the elite, and one day marry one of them and produce an heir. By dissecting the realities of his situation, Elizabeth must reconcile with the idea that Darcy is a regular human being, just like her. Coming from a middle-class family, she can't have experienced the burden of wealth and therefore holds an unfounded grudge against him. When she falls in love with him, Elizabeth loses all sight of her prejudices against his wealth, not because she wishes to share in it, but because she realizes that Darcy is not his money. Elizabeth's love for Darcy strips away all his faults and shortcomings to reveal the intelligent, well-meaning man beneath.
Speaking of stripping
(how's that for a transition), Austen loathes the lusty. In Mansfield Park, Austen warns against the dangers of Lust by introducing five inherently lusty characters: Sir Thomas, Tom Bertram, Mary Crawford, Maria Bertram, and Henry Crawford (on the defensive is the book's heroine Fanny and her cousin Edmund, both pure of heart and intent). Because of his age and increasing devotion to the good of his family, Sir Thomas is at the end of his lusty days. This however doesn't make up for the fact that Sir Thomas (it is hinted) has been involved in the slave trade. It is speculation at best to assume that Sir Thomas lived up to the lusty stereotype of the White Slave-master, but this is likely the only knowledge Austen had of the Master-Slave relationship. She would not have been subject to the hierarchical workings of a plantation and therefore would only be able to relate the knowledge she had read or invented herself.
Tom Bertram, on the other hand, prefers cavorting in the London underbelly, specifically the theatre scene. During the British Regency, theatre was not the prostitute's paradise it had been considered in the early days (think of the Bard), but the manner in which Tom comports himself in theatrical society would have surely attracted Sin. I will venture the idea that Tom very much enjoyed lavishing the family jewels upon a number of ladies of the evening.
Mary and Henry Crawford both exhibit a wholly instinctual lust for danger, even where it does not exist. Edmund Bertram is drawn in by Mary from the first, in spite of Miss Crawford's lecherous behavior during the proposed production of a scandalous play Tom has brought home. Mary tempts him, lusts to control him and does very little to hide it. Henry alternatively seeks Fanny at first, but is ultimately consumed by his lust for a passionately carnal woman and he finds her in Maria Bertram. Fanny considers accepting Henry's advances at first, in order to forget her love for Edmund, but ultimately cannot betray her own feelings. Henry persuades Maria to leave her husband and run off with him, leaving her family to pick up the pieces. It is only when Mary's lust for power comes to a head (at the insistance that the Bertrams forget about the scandal) that Edmund comes to realize the extent of her lust and asks her to leave Mansfield Park. It is the strength of character in Fanny and Edmund that defeats the Crawfordian lust.
Where there is Lust, there is Greed
holding a match and lighter fluid. Persuasion's Elliot family affords one very good apple in Anne Elliot, and three rather greedy rotten ones in her father (Sir Walter) and two sisters (Elizabeth and Mary). Mary has married into a family she feels is beneath her and is greedy for the attention that married life has not afforded her. Sir Walter and Elizabeth are greedy for an income that exceeds their means, opening the family to prospective bankruptcy. At the opening of the novel, the Elliots are forced to retrench and lease their family estate of Kellynch hall to a wealthy Admiral and his wife in order to prevent the total loss of their dwindling funds. Even after removing to Bath, Sir Walter and Elizabeth occupy their time with extravagant parties and opera performances, mingling with the upper crust. When the greedy Elliot heir (Mr. William Elliot) comes to Sir Walter to make amends for a long-standing feud, Elizabeth tries to win his favour in order to secure his hand and purse (which she supposes to be quite impressive). Mr. Elliot turns his sights on Anne, so Elizabeth attempts to make herself known to Colonel Wentworth (Anne's teenage beau and love of her life) who made a fortune in the Napoleanic War. Before Elizabeth can even get near him with her money-hungry claws, Anne and Wentworth realize their love for each other and become engaged. Anne never aspires to great wealth, but attains it because she never lets her determination waver. It seems as if Austen is trying to teach the reader that great and true wealth can only be accomplished through humility, not through Greed and Vanity.
Emma Woodhouse is just the sort of vain little thing that Austen teaches a valuable lesson. In Emma, Miss Woodhouse's vanity provokes her to revel in her own accomplishments. She flatters herself to be a great matchmaker after arranging the attachment of her former governess Miss Taylor, and a widowed wealthy man, Mr. Weston. Matchmaking is her soul occupation, attempting to match nearly every single person in her acquaintance with one another. Emma nearly sabotages herself when it comes to Mr. Knightley, the man who loves her, by vainly throwing out the feelings of others and making matches based on her own misguided biases. Wrapped up in the momentary pleasure of being gay and mischievous with Frank Churchill, Emma insults a chatty neighbor, Miss Bates. Mr. Knightley chides Emma for not considering how she might have embarrassed Miss Bates, causing Emma to realize how her vanity has clouded her judgement. Once the clouds clear, Emma realizes that she wants to make one last match: a life-long one, between herself and Mr. Knightley.
In Austen's works,
were it not for Inheritance, many good men might have remained so. It is Inheritance that is at the heart of every story, catalyzing a once-noble man to desperate measures, simply for a male heir. Had the Bennetts of Pride and Prejudice produced a male son, Longbourn would have been passed to him. But alas, Mr. Bennett only sewed a garden of ladies, so the house passes to his cousin, Mr. William Collins. Thinking it to be in the best interest of the entire family, Collins seeks one of the Bennett girls to marry so that the house might remain in the immediate family. It might be said that none of the girls are smart enough to marry the man that could prevent the eventual poverty of her sisters, but they all seek a love match. Likewise, Collins seeks the approval of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, under whose thumb he curates a small parish at Rosings Park. Unless Lady Catherine approves of the lady, Collins cannot wed, even should he persuade a Bennett girl. Inheritance sends the world into a tizzy and it's very presence turns fine men desperate. As we see in Darcy's case, the most spectacularly annoying albeit important issue is the inheritance of his estate. Else-wise, Poverty creeps in like Mr. Collins in wool socks (I have no excuse for that sentence; Mr. Collins is the creepiest man to haunt the pages of literature).
It is the sin of Poverty that seems to trouble Jane Austen the most throughout her opus and it is evident in Sense & Sensibility. The reader can draw significant parallels from the book to Austen's own life; in spite of a few short-lived beaus, Jane Austen lived out her days in a small cottage with her mother and sister, just like the characters are in danger of in S&S. Upon the death of their father, the Misses Dashwood (Mrs., Elinor, Marianne and Margaret) must abandon the family estate of Norland to make room for their brother and his family (who inherited).
Because of their sudden poverty, Mrs. Dashwood's cousin puts them up in Barton Cottage for a significantly small lease. The most the Dashwoods can afford is a housekeeper and a few servants (incredibly poor by the standards of the day, though my middle class American family could never afford a monthly maid, let alone two servants and a housekeeper). It seems as if this was particularly painful to Austen, as it was written after she herself moved to a small cottage without lavish amenities. A woman with no dowry could likely (as Austen did) die a maid, unmarried and poor. There is no greater tragedy for an unmarried woman than falling even deeper into poverty. In this sense, I may have misnamed Poverty as a Sin, for it is not within the control of the Misses Dashwoods, any more than it was for the Misses Austen. Poverty remained Austen's greatest enemy until her death in 1817, but she fought against it by marrying poor girls to rich gentleman in her novels. Lizzie Bennett to Darcy, Anne Elliot to Wentworth, Catherine Moreland to Tilney, Marianne Dashwood to Colonel Brandon... the list goes on. Austen gives her ladies what she could never have: a life without want for comfort or companionship. A life with love.
The seven deadliest sins of Jane Austen aren't conventional, but they are all an insight into Austen's biggest concerns as a lady in the British Regency. Take it from Jane Austen and think before you sin.