Jane Austen and Ethical Life IV

For Hegel, ethical life which is his equivalent to civil society, as a form of social cohesion rests on and implies a greater isolation of families from an integrating social order of the type known in earlier periods. The question of how far that connects with the social history of family life over time may be open, but clearly literature of this era features the topic of choosing a suitable marriage partner more than previously. That is the focus of Austen’s novels and what we also find in Austen is the strong brother-sister relation as in Fitzwilliam Darcy and his sister Georgina Darcy or the related theme of love between cousins brought up together as in Mansfield Park. The brother-sister relation does not have the fundamental role in Austen it has in Hegel, but it is there, and is evidence of a common interest in the interior of family life. The love between sisters is maybe a bigger issue in Austen and the idea of a family life in which sisters can maintain their love for each other after marriage, through marriage to men connected in some way is a very much desired situation, which connects with the role Hegel gives to the family in ethical life. The relation between erotic love and family love is an issue which divides love but can also become a way in which different forms of love are combined, in both Austen and Hegel.

The importance of remaining within the sphere of the property owning classes and within some related areas of propriety is very strong in Austen and can be seen in the context of recognition in Hegel. There is none of the drama of the struggle to the death and the relationship of master and slave, as described by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit in Austen, but the idea of having a master status of some kind is very strong in Austen as is the trauma of losing such a status. A number of female characters hover at the limits of respectability defined by private income, sufficient to avoid paid employment, and membership of the property owning classes. This is a strong theme from the beginning of the first two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and can be found very strongly present in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. The female characters are in a particularly sad place with regard to this issue because they are not in a position to act in the economic sphere to improve their economic fortunes and are subject to extreme discrimination in inheritance laws, a big issue in Pride and Prejudice. Persuasion does show Anne Elliott pushing at the limits of these kinds of prohibition though.

The fear of an economic fall destroying the kind of social recognition and life style that includes the leisure to read and enjoy nature, is an anxiety running through Austen’s novels and has as its accompaniment a horror of joining the labouring and serving classes, who are suitable objects of charity and kindly concern, but are never equals. Recognition of the lower end of the property owning classes as equals by he upper end, or in British terms recognition by the aristocracy of the equal status of the gentry, is a theme particularly associated with Elizabeth Bennett’s marriage to Fitzwilliam Darcy against the misgivings of his aunt and social circle. This equal recognition involves a joint disdain for creating commercial wealth as opposed to enjoying its proceeds. Austen deals with the transition from the former to the latter in Pride and Prejudice in a humorous way in the history of the Lucas family who abandon ‘trade’ after award of a knighthood and through the aversion of Charles Bingley’s sister for living near a place of trade.

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