Restraint, Exuberance: Small Stories on the Moral Aesthetics of Jane Austen
By Way of Introduction
In Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth realizes she must get to her sister Jane, who is sick in bed at nearby Netherfield Park, she makes a telling decision: she forgoes carriage and horse, and instead walks via the outlying fields. Here, in this rather small decision, we encounter a powerful instance of resource, beauty, and use of energy: Elizabeth is resourceful with a necessary task at hand so that it yields her an experience of natural beauty as well as allows her to decide how she will expend her own energy that morning.
Looking through the lens of moral aesthetics, I think what Austen gives us here, as throughout all her stories, is an incredibly beautiful form of what it means to be wise—especially as this wisdom is situated within the reality of experiencing constraint. For Austen’s heroines, these constraints were often lack of money, limit of entail, familial duty, or even the four walls of a drawing room; for us, it might be need of income, relentless domestic responsibility, very real demands of meaningful relationships, and the four walls of an office. Artful transformation of constraint into empowered existence is a gorgeous and inspiring feat of intellect and courage.
But for me, this moral aesthetic of viable wisdom only starts as resourcefulness. It is more than resourcefulness: it is the mind’s ability to change. Elizabeth Bennet’s habit of traveling far afield—her willingness to walk along the edges of set routes and the set modes of traversing them—signifies a kind of openness of mind that underpins all of Jane Austen’s heroines: the willingness to realize and learn. Umberto Eco writes on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, “We are thus compelled to come to the following conclusion. Aesthetic seeing does not occur before the act of abstraction, nor in the act, nor just after it. It occurs instead at the end of the second operation of the intellect—that is, in the judgment.” Austen's protagonists don’t merely have exuberance, but they earn it or realize it through the process of re-thinking old perceptions and prejudices. This ability of the mind to change, to recognize errors, to see inadequacy of opinion, and even to re-measure one’s own powers—this is the greatest product of restraining one’s myopia. In this way, hard moments of seeming and real constraint become not only ripe climate for the practiced restraint of humble examination of preconceived notions, but this very restraint becomes the climate ripe for the freedom and exuberance of newness of mind. This takes thinking (judgment, as Aquinas calls it), as well as time, work, fortitude, humility, and moral courage.
Is there an aesthetic to this moral courage of realizing and learning? To me, it is the aesthetic of the windowsill, the threshold, the horizon line, the human face of another. It is framing one’s own perception to experience the expanse beyond it. The expanse, indeed, of the far fields.
But I think philosophizing about the moral aesthetics of Jane Austen only yields so much. I want to tell stories. What follows is a collection of small stories—some memoir, some fiction, some referencing Austen’s novels themselves—that play with this dynamo-capacity of the human heart, these special movements of constraint, restraint, and exuberance.
The two women decided it would not do, the way between horn blasts they ate their lunch, scarfing it down with hurried bites in painful gulps. It wasn’t just the indigestion, either, as the woman with the green babushka told the slightly younger, whose facial bones made slopes and hallows. “It’s not how we were taught to eat.”
So the older saved a few extra pennies (even fewer grams of meat per week); and the younger became a pro at gleaning just after the market left the square. When the older arrived to the workroom on Monday, she unfolded wax paper to offer a molasses brown, shiny and fragrant square, made from mother’s mother’s recipe for gingerbread. The younger set out two pears that glistened when cut with iridescent juice. A Thermos of coffee, and slow bites: the women smiled at each other over the table made theirs, made good.
“Now Emma was obliged to think of the pianoforte; and the remembrance of all her former fanciful and unfair conjectures was so little pleasing, that she soon allowed herself to believe her visit had been long enough.”
—Jane Austen, Emma
Jane Fairfax took solace in the music, in the clean lines of polished wood and ivory keys. She tried to take solace in Frank’s thinking of her—but seeing him again with that witty, wealthy girl ripped her small circle of solace in half—so again, she took solace in the music. These bare, lonely days could hold some beauty: the lilting of notes, the order of chords. This lilt and order rose in the stuffy room like leaves tousled off the ground by a breeze—or, maybe the music was the breeze, and she the curled leaves.
On a hillside of County Tipperary, my brother-in-law took us through fields of bracken that scratched our legs with black marks. He had led us off the road, through this sloping field, and now we were walking into a narrow, sharp-edged path between high walls of dark, glittering rock.
Into a small quarry we walked. The walls rose up around a grassy room of a deep black pond and falcon nests.
Four adults and all the nieces were still for a half-second, before falling into exclamations over such beauty, over such abundant blueberry bushes.
While eating my handful of blueberries, I asked myself, What would it be like if I had come here alone? Surely more terrible, more piercing, more terrifying: for it would be this steep rock, and me; this dark sky, and me; this deep pond, and me; and I would feel it overwhelming me, and would tremble and even gasp at my own finite smallness, and I would rejoice in being overwhelmed by such grandeur. And for a moment, I longed for solitude.
But a little niece clamored into my lap and explained that she had collected some bog wool for me to put into a tiny jam jar and take back with me to Los Angeles. Is this at all the sublime too? The sublime alive and together?
“We are helpless and dependent . . . ”
— Jane Austen, “A Second Prayer”
There was a man named Henry who taught geography at a primary school in Woodstock, just outside of Oxford. He was a member of the men and boys’ choir that sang Evensong at Christ Church on Thursday nights.
On the weekends Henry worked at a shoe store on High Street, and every quid from this second job went into a travel fund, though in his mind it was TRAVEL FUND in a silvery, movie-title font because this was the well of water from which he would one day draw, from which he would be able to see areas on the many maps he had learned while earning his First. Sri Lanka. Santorini. Georgia. Cairo. Memphis. The words filled him with a desire that almost overwhelmed him, though of course it was not the words—though, he considered one morning while bicycling to school, words were place-names of imagination’s splendor: tea fields in the wind, white curves of a monastery, rose-water at a banquet, dusty and extravagant streets, the steel guitar. But the real desire was for imagination to become real, like when one dreams of an old, Gothic building and then when visiting one for the first time, feels the haunt and horror and stormy nights . . .
A man on the edge of a field, the long grass blowing before him like green waves . . . this is what he was waiting for . . .
A Teenager’s Prayer After Finishing the Story of Elizabeth Bennett
Oh—let me be like that.
“Emma thought first of herself, and then of Harriet.”
— Jane Austen, Emma
You can primp and prod me, dress me up and tell me exactly what you think, but don’t confuse me with your garden bushes or the arrangements of gems on your neck. You can think you own me because you befriended and helped me, but I’m neither foliage nor jewel. And you should have seen the look on your face when I told you my plans to travel to Paris! Right across your face, it all splashed, jealousy and surprise and a kind of bizarre look of desperate longing.
I decided not for Paris in the end, but Orlando, FL, and Disney, etc. It was my first choice all along, though you nearly talked me out of it, trying to convince me how a “standard of travel must be in refined taste.” What can I say? I am partial to amusement parks and big skies of magenta with those ravishing flowers to match.
“And she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless. ”
— Jane Austen, Persuasion
Old perspectives got in the way for a long time. They became fixtures in the yard of his mind—a broken slide, a blue tarp hiding rubble from the renovated patio, a warped humming-bird feeder—at first repelling but over time blending in. Furthermore, the man read all of her actions through this pattern of the messy yard. He did not see the rows of cucumber and strawberry plants, or the corner by the willow where tea roses bloomed. He thought her quiet ways a timid approach to the world, which requires boldness if we are to live truly.
But a storm came, and in its fury the slide fell over, the tarp blew away, and the bird-feeder split in half. But her countenance in the storm was splendid—
—and he glimpsed her inner, quiet resolve in a new way, and saw its beauty, and said, I see. I was wrong.
The man—having left wife and daughters in domestic civilization for the weekend—landed on the unnamed island far off the Clare coast at about three in the afternoon. He couldn’t say the time exactly, for he had left his watch and phone back home, and the sun was hidden by the moving mist and the low bank of purple clouds.
Into the night, after camp was set and a peat stack made ready for flame, he walked the perimeter of the island, as close to the edge as he dared.
Upon returning to the interior of the island, within rubbles of old buildings and tall grass, he encountered a stone cross whose edges had long worn down. The horizontal axis had become nubs, worn by centuries of wet and rain and wind and salt.
As he lay on his thin fleece sleeping bag, staring up at the dark night sky, the adventurous man could not help thinking of the set table, the many meals, the waiting beds, those soft cushions of his wife’s upper-arm muscles.
A woman told me this tale at a party when we were swapping foreign-living tales. Recently finished with her degree in computer graphics, she had moved from Holland to Milan for work. Her company would soon make payment “mistakes,” and her landlord would make failed housing “promises”: her shared “studio” was a small kitchen with a bunk-bed against the wall.
Her roommate was an older English woman, recently divorced, also stepping out into the world for the first time as a single adult.
“What should we do?” they asked each other, faces not that far apart as they sat at their small, recently bought table, kettle steam on one side and brick wall on the other.
“What did you do?” I asked the girl at the party.
“We didn’t want to give in—it was our first time out, you know? So we made it nice and cooked sometimes and ate out sometimes, and really she was like an older sister.”
“It wasn’t cramped?”
“We put a curtain around the bottom bunk, and when we wanted space we could go in there, and the other one would get it.” The girl smiled. “It was a great year.”
And the girl at the party looked out from the balcony where we were standing with our fancy drinks. Perhaps she was thinking of her old room, or her old roommate, or some conversation they had shared in their small room.
“Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.”
— Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Georgiana heard the delivery man toss the package up the stairs to her apartment landing. She tiptoed to the door, peeked out—it was the box with the book she had been waiting for. She brought it into her house the way Francis of Assisi might have brought in an animal.
There it was. The book through the mail, the mirror in the package. For though this mirror is made of paper, it reflects all the same. The cheekbones, eyes, temples, are all there, shining back, reflected and formed at once, the way a woman glances into a mirror and the reflection forms a gesture, grimace, smile, or dare—but a book ever more so, for it is more than two-dimensions, more even than three, for time leaps in books and folds back in on itself, and when it offers its formative glance, it offers too a way of seeing the reflection.
Will Georgiana tiptoe to the door when the next package arrives? Or will she walk as if the small apartment was the far field, and she unembarrassed by soiled hems?
The first time her Marine husband went overseas, she put her two kids on the bus each morning and each morning walked into the abyss of a dark valley. It was no good.
The second time her husband went overseas, she said, Right, that’s it, and piled herself, kids, a small stove, schoolbooks, bedding, and tents into their minivan. The three traveled cross-country, setting up home and school in national parks.
I met this woman it in the shadowy, damp sublime beauty of the Big Sur woods on the morning of her fortieth birthday. She and her kids made more noise than you could imagine, pulling down their wet tents and cramming their van full of vital supplies. On the dashboard earlier that week I had seen a collection of curiosities gathered along the road—rocks, pinecones, a bone, flowers dried in the car-caught sun.
“ . . . Graciously preserve us.”
— Jane Austen, “A Second Prayer”
There was a woman named Catherine, and when the opportunity came to spend a summer in Oxford, she took it, and, when walking in the meadows of Christ Church, thought, It is not at all how I imagined it. It is softer, and there is a dream here I had not known existed.
So far that summer she had learned two things: the beauty of Evensong and the wonder of reality infusing imagination. She also learned in mid-July that one should pack better walking shoes, and she planned that Saturday to go to the shoe store on High Street.
When I was a child, I saw stained glass. And I could not make sense of those globs of color or the strange heavy lines that ruined the delicacy and light.
Visiting my parents’ church on an odd Sunday, I see how the colors form a person, which tells a story, which only makes sense with the lines, so thick as they are.
“The room had then become useless, and for some time was quite deserted, except by Fanny.”
— Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
There was once a woman named Fanny Price, and in her world was an East Room. It had windows and plants and books. The way some medieval paintings are both unadorned and exuberant, the way black type on an ivory page becomes flight, this is the way the room became space for tendrils of her mind’s lily-root to unfurl.
The East Room to the woman was rather like an extra wing to her building, an excess, however exemplary, of space. But during a long, cold winter when she had to endure being misunderstood, she came to see the East Room differently. Not a refuge was it, but the very means by which she could resist the temptation of being constructed by others, the ground that held her roots firm to be herself whatever accusation or proposal came her way.