Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Emma and the Problem of Advice

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Emma and the Problem of Advice

Article excerpt

THE ATTENTION GIVEN recently to the study of ethics in literature has shifted the locus of interest in Austen's fiction. Scholars argue that her novels are structured not by their acceptance or rejection of prevailing ideologies and cultural conventions, but by their investigation into what constitutes a virtuous life: in other words, characters' struggle to comprehend and enact moral ideals is the primary force shaping Austen's work. [1] Denying that the novels assert a dichotomy between self and society, or set the need for autonomy against the demands of inherited traditions, Ann Ruderman claims that for Austen, happiness emerges only from the practice of virtue--devotion to principles that have "a permanent, objective content" (4) because they benefit the individual and the human community as a whole. Sarah Emsley agrees that Austen "engages with the classical and theological virtues" while recognizing "both the value of tradition and authority, and the necessity of independent critical judgment" (5). For Karen Valihora, this concern with correct judgment and actions-or "the appeal to the ought"--provides the thematic foundation for Austen's novels, where characters, particularly young women, face the challenge of bringing "third-person principle" and "first-person feeling" (or moral imperatives and individual desires) into some type of harmonious union (15).

But how do these inexperienced characters--most of them just beyond the period of adolescence--learn to navigate moral dilemmas and determine what they ought to do? To whom, or what, do they turn for assistance? Conduct books reached the zenith of their popularity during Austen's lifetime, and expressed a version of ideal femininity directed toward readers of the middling and upper ranks, which included Austen's own family. As Penelope Joan Fritzer notes, "the virtues defined by the courtesy books parallel Austen's moral universe" (7), since like these books, her novels propose that fortitude, charity, and the cultivation of good judgment are indispensible qualities for women. Yet despite this similarity, conduct literature remains virtually unmentioned in Austen's fiction, except for the wide yawn that James Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women (1766) elicits from Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Real-life mentors appear infrequently as well. Although Deborah Kaplan emphasizes that in Austen's culture, female friends and relations offered crucial advice to young women regarding the attitudes and behavior proper to their sex, this feature of a distinctive "women's culture" (4-5) is nearly nonexistent in Austen's novels. David Morse observes that despite being situated in the midst of family and community life, the heroines appear isolated, having "no one they can really turn to for advice or encouragement" (161).

But such isolation may be a deliberate feature of the novels: I argue that throughout Austen's fiction, Emma offers the only extended portrayal of advice being given and received, and its treatment of this relationship questions the faith that Austen's contemporaries placed in the value and usefulness of women mentoring women. Emma exposes the weaknesses in contemporary rationales for advice by disputing the idea that a shared sensibility enables women to be useful to each other; instead, the narrative suggests the wide gulf between neatly articulated conduct-book prescriptions for giving and receiving advice, and the untidy enactment of such relationships. While Emma endorses the possibility of its characters' moral education and in fact shows the necessity for expanding their self-knowledge, it remains skeptical about how easily the right choice of conduct can be identified and pursued.

Conduct literature of Austen's time regarded advice as an expression of female usefulness, and usefulness was the key quality in distinguishing properly domestic women from the supposedly frivolous and pleasure-loving women of the aristocracy. …

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