Amy Smith is the Register’s associate editor who edits features for the “Culture of Life” section. Fueled by prayer and coffee, she enjoys writing about everything from Jane Austen to saints for the Register. She is the author of The Plans God Has for You: Hopeful Lessons for Young Women (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in various other Catholic publications. She has a master’s degree in journalism and a B.A. in English. Find her online at Instagram.com/hopefulwordsmith/ and Twitter.com/hope_wordsmith.
The beloved novelist died July 18, 1817 — and her moral lessons and lovely characters live on in her wonderful words 200 years later.
Why does Austen endure?
I think, at their core, Miss Austen’s boy-meets-girl stories stand the test of time because they show us the substance of relationship and what love is.
“Love is patient; love is kind. It is not jealous; [love] is not pompous; it is not inflated; it is not rude; it does not seek its own interests; it is not quick-tempered; it does not brood over injury; it does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” ~1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Sometimes love is illustrated in what it is not (think of Wickham and Lydia in Pride and Prejudice or Willoughby’s commitment issues in Sense and Sensibility).
Sometimes love is seen in swoon-worthy speeches from gentlemanly heroes.
But, overall, Austen’s principal couples show what true love really means.
Love is patient; love is kind — as illustrated in Capt. Wentworth’s letter to his beloved Anne Elliot in Persuasion:
“I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. … For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? … Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F.W.”
Anne’s response is perfectly perfect because real love offers real happiness:
“It was an overpowering happiness.”
It is not jealous; [love] is not pompous; it is not inflated; it is not rude; it does not seek its own interests; it is not quick-tempered; it does not brood over injury; it does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth — as found in how Lizzy and Darcy overcome their pride and prejudice and find love together. Miss Austen relates this in Darcy’s better proposal. He explains why he assisted the Bennet family with the marriage of Wickham and Lydia and shows that love is an action:
“If you will thank me,” he replied, “let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.”
Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.”
Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he alluded as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before … and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things — think of Edward and Elinor in Sense and Sensibility:
But Elinor — how are her feelings to be described? — From the moment of learning that Lucy was married to another, that Edward was free, to the moment of his justifying the hopes which had so instantly followed, she was everything by turns but tranquil. But when the second moment had passed, when she found every doubt, every solicitude removed, compared her situation with what so lately it had been — saw him honourably released from his former engagement, saw him instantly profiting by the release, to address herself and declare an affection as tender, as constant as she had ever supposed it to be … she was overcome by her own felicity …
Love never fails — as seen in my favorite Austen hero, Mr. Knightley, and his relationship with Emma. (Note: He is my favorite because he exemplifies what a true gentleman is via chivalry and proper conduct — and extends it further still: He encourages himself and others, especially Emma, to be their best selves.)
“I cannot make speeches, Emma. If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it. Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. … Yes, you see, you understand my feelings — and will return them if you can. ...”
… Mr. Knightley could not impute to Emma a more relenting heart than she possessed, or a heart more disposed to accept of his. … She was his own Emma, by hand and word.
The affection, which he had been asking to be allowed to create, if he could, was already his! — Within half an hour, he had passed from a thoroughly distressed state of mind to something so like perfect happiness that it could bear no other name.
Her change was equal. — This one half-hour had given to each the same precious certainty of being beloved ...
Emma, of course, has — finally — come to understand that his love for her has indeed been constant:
She had herself been first with him for many years past. She had not deserved it; she had often been negligent or perverse, slighting his advice, or even willfully opposing him, insensible of half his merits, and quarrelling with him because he would not acknowledge her false and insolent estimate of her own — but still, from family attachment and habit, and thorough excellence of mind, he had loved her, and watched over her from a girl, with an endeavour to improve her, and an anxiety for her doing right, which no other creature had at all shared. In spite of all her faults, she knew she was dear to him.
And, later, she recognizes that love in its fullness will see them through whatever is to come in married life:
This proposal of his, this plan of marrying and continuing at Hartfield — the more she contemplated it the more pleasing it became. ... Such a companion for herself in the periods of anxiety and cheerlessness before her! Such a partner in all those duties and cares to which time must be giving increase of melancholy!
This is exactly what 1 Corinthians 13 is about. Thanks, Miss Austen, for 200 years of love-filled good reading!