Jane Austen and the Longing for Fidelity and Honor

51IDqyyYbhL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

We discussed the novels of Jane Austen recently in Sunday School class at my church (studying this book by Jerome Barrs), and we particularly focused on the reason for Austen’s burst in popularity in the past 20 years or so. Of course, movie and TV mini-series versions of Austen’s novels fueled the resurgence in her popularity, and Jane Austen never has really gone out of fashion. However, why do these novels, and their screen adaptations, resonate with so many readers and watchers?

Mr Barrs writes:

“Why this popularity? Is it simply the beautiful dresses that the women wear? Is it a bizarre nostalgia for romanticism? (Austen was certainly not a romantic in the technical sense of this term; in fact she attacks romanticism with great passion in Sense and Sensibility.) Is it simply an escape from the cynicism of our post-modern age? Is it a longing for manners and courtesy, for a kinder, gentler way of relating to one another in an age of culture wars? Is it a secret interest in genuine romance to replace the cultural norm of instant coupling and gratification? I mention these various options because each of them has been expressed in movie reviews and in articles about the Jane Austen ‘craze.'”

Mr. Barrs goes to suggest that the humor and character development in the books serves to make us tolerate, if not embrace, the profound moral lessons that they contain. All of these things are at least part of the truth. Some people watch the 1995 TV mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice for the costumes and the courtly manners. Others love the idea of romance in the novels, ignoring the common sense and decidedly unromantic way Austen looks at courtship and marriage in general. However, I think there’s something deeper going on in our cultural embrace of the pre-Romantic, eighteenth century norms embodied in the novels of Jane Austen.

It’s similar to what is going on in our love for The Lord of the Rings. We’ve lost the concept of “honor” in our society, yet we long for it because God made us to be honorable men and women and to attribute honor to goodness and faithfulness in both men and women. When we watch or read LOTR, we are confronted with men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits who are above all, honorable, or at least trying to be virtuous, and we recognize the dearth of honor and virtue in our own culture.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his book The Abolition of Man, ““We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” He could have added that we devalue and distort the institution of marriage and the relations between men and women, and we are surprised that many young people no longer see any reason to get married or any value in the marriage relationship. However, we were made, male and female, to give ourselves in a faithful, monogamous marriage relationship, and when we see or read about a society (eighteenth century England) in which that is the norm, even if the marriages themselves and the courtship preceding them are flawed and imperfect, the word picture touches something deep within us. Women want to find an honorable man like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley, who also honors and cherishes his Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Wodehouse. Men, although not as likely to read and re-read the works of Jane Austen, can also appreciate the characters of sensible, intelligent women in Austen’s novels who are nevertheless willing and even eager to enter into a lifelong commitment to one imperfect but honorable man.

I think it is because marriage is so endangered and devalued in our culture that we embrace the stories Jane Austen told. When I read The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides a couple of years ago, I wrote of that novel’s themes, “Perhaps the idea is that we’ve reduced marriage to sexual attraction and sexual athletics, and we’ve reduced knowing God to going through the forms and expressions of religion and being good.” I wasn’t really sure what I thought about Eugenides’ novel when I read it, but his central premise that we’ve lost, or nearly lost, something valuable in our approach to love and marriage has stuck with me. Jane Austen’s novels give a glimpse of what we’ve lost, and it’s attractive and soul-satisfying, even if we don’t know exactly how to recapture the reality of the “marriage plot” we’ve lost.

The 12th Gift of Christmas in England, 1647

“Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.”
Puritan legislation in the British Parliament, abolishing the festival celebration of Christmas and other holidays (June 1647); as quoted in The History of the Puritans (1837) by Daniel Neal.

Today’s Gifts:
A song: Handel’s (and Charles Jennens’) Messiah.

A birthday: Gustave Flaubert, b.1821, Tracy Kidder, b.1925,

A poem: Christmas Greeting by Lewis Carroll.

Lady, dear, if Fairies may
For a moment lay aside
Cunning tricks and elfish play,
‘Tis at happy Christmas-tide.

We have heard the children say –
Gentle children, whom we love –
Long ago on Christmas Day,
Came a message from above,

Still, as Christmas-tide comes round,
They remember it again –
Echo still the joyful sound
“Peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Yet the hearts must childlike be
Where such heavenly guests abide;
Unto children, in their glee,
All the year is Christmas-tide!

Thus, forgetting tricks and play
For a moment, Lady dear,
We would wish you, if we may,
Merry Christmas, Glad New Year!

The 8th Gift of Christmas on Prince Edward Island, c.1877

Christmas morning broke on a beautiful white world. It had been a very mild December and people had looked forward to a green Christmas; but just enough snow fell softly in the night to transfigure Avonlea. Anne peeped out from her frosted gable window with delighted eyes. The firs in the Haunted Wood were all feathery and wonderful; the birches and wild cherry trees were outlined in pearl; the plowed fields were stretches of snowy dimples; and there was a crisp tang in the air that was glorious. Anne ran downstairs singing until her voice reechoed through Green Gables.
“Merry Christmas, Marilla! Merry Christmas, Matthew! Isn’t it a lovely Christmas? I’m so glad it’s white. Any other kind of Christmas doesn’t seem real, does it? I don’t like green Christmases. They’re not green– they’re just nasty faded browns and grays. What makes people call them green? Why–why–Matthew, is that for me? Oh, Matthew!”
Matthew had sheepishly unfolded the dress from its paper swathings and held it out with a deprecatory glance at Marilla, who feigned to be contemptuously filling the teapot, but nevertheless watched the scene out of the corner of her eye with a rather interested air.
Anne took the dress and looked at it in reverent silence. Oh, how pretty it was–a lovely soft brown gloria with all the gloss of silk; a skirt with dainty frills and shirrings; a waist elaborately pintucked in the most fashionable way, with a little ruffle of filmy lace at the neck. But the sleeves–they were the crowning glory! Long elbow cuffs, and above them two beautiful puffs divided by rows of shirring and bows of brown-silk ribbon.
“That’s a Christmas present for you, Anne,” said Matthew shyly. “Why–why–Anne, don’t you like it? Well now–well now.”
For Anne’s eyes had suddenly filled with tears.
~Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Today’s Gifts from Semicolon:
A song: Be Still My Soul, music by Jean Sibelius.

A booklist: Feels Like Home: 101 Chapter Books to Read Before You Grow Up.

A birthday: Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, b.1865.

A poem: Jest ‘Fore Christmas by Eugene Field.

The 1st Gift of Christmas: The Christmas Cat by Maryann Macdonald

“This perfect Christmas read-aloud was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of La Madonna del Gatto, which show Mary cuddling both the baby Jesus and a cat.” ~inside blurb of The Christmas Cat

What ever happened to “the Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes?” Well, like all idealized portraits, the image of a Jesus, even as a baby, who never cried, never expressed any emotions at all, and certainly never made any trouble or expressed a preference, has become inadequate, and we’ve come around and circled back to a Renaissance view of a Jesus who laughed and cried and pooped and even maybe, had a pet cat.

The Christmas Cat tells the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable where a tiny kitten comforted him with it purrs. The story continues with Jesus’ early childhood, and then the flight to Egypt, during which the cat again saves the day, and Mary’s frayed nerves. “The rhythmic rumbling, as always, soothed the baby, and Jesus fell sound asleep.”

I’m not all that fond of cats (or dogs), but The Christmas Cat is a story that will captivate the imagination of young animal lovers everywhere and give them an image of the baby Jesus with whom they can identify. Of course, I would tell my children that The Christmas Cat is an imaginary story, that we don’t really know if Jesus had a pet. But we can be sure that according to Scripture, Jesus was “fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17). Why not a pet cat for the boy who would grow up to preach that not even a sparrow falls without the Lord’s notice and care?

The illustrations in this Christmas picture book are by Amy June Bates, who has several children’s boos to her credit, including the easy reader Martin’s Dream by Jane Kurtz. The illustrations in The Christmas Cat a soft and colorful bringing the animals and people and first-century travels of the Holy family to life.

If you want to add a Christmas picture book to your collection this year, The Christmas Cat is a good, solid choice.

Today’s Gifts from Semicolon
A song: Mark Steyn on White Christmas by Irving Berlin.

A movie: Semicolon family’s favorite Christmas movie is White Christmas, corny jokes and all.

Phil Davis: When what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left.
Phil Davis: I want you to get married. I want you to have nine children. And if you only spend five minutes a day with each kid, that’s forty-five minutes, and I’d at least have time to go out and get a massage or something.
Phil Davis: How can a guy that ugly have the nerve to have sisters?
Bob Wallace: Very brave parenting.
Bob Wallace: Miss Haynes, if you’re ever under a falling building and someone offers to pick you up and carry you to safety, don’t think, don’t pause, don’t hesitate for a moment, just spit in his eye.
Betty Haynes: What did that mean?
Bob Wallace: It means we’re going to Vermont.

A birthday and a book(list): Rex Stout, b.1886.
A verse: Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare and Lines for a Christmas Card by Hillaire Belloc.
A Christmas idea: Let Us Keep the Feast: A Book Recommendation for the beginning of Advent (today)

Poetry Friday: David McCord

Children’s poet David McCord was born on November 15 (or December 15 or 17), 1897 in New York City. (Most internet sources say December 15th or just 1897.) He grew up in New Jersey and Oregon, and went to school at Harvard, where he later worked as a fundraiser for the Harvard College Fund.

He once said about writing poetry for children:

“Whatever may be said about this small but graceful art, three things should be remembered: good poems for children are never trivial; they are never written without the characteristic chills and fever of a dedicated man at work; they must never bear the stigma of I am adult, you are a child.”

“McCord said he developed a love of words and a fine sense of rhythm from reading aloud the Bible to his elderly grandmother.” (Obituary, Harvard Gazette, April 17, 1997)

This poem is the one by Mr. McCord I remember reading over and over again until I practically had it memorized. I used to read my library books while perched in the mulberry tree next to my house, so I suppose this poem was something close to my own experience.

51VY32VQ2hL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Every time I climb a tree
Every time I climb a tree
Every time I climb a tree
I scrape a leg
Or skin a knee
And every time I climb a tree
I find some ants
Or dodge a bee
And get the ants
All over me.

And every time I climb a tree
Where have you been?
They say to me
But don’t they know that I am free
Every time I climb a tree?

I like it best
To spot a nest
That has an egg
Or maybe three.

And then I skin
The other leg
But every time I climb a tree
I see a lot of things to see
Swallows rooftops and TV
And all the fields and farms there be
Every time I climb a tree
Though climbing may be good for ants
It isn’t awfully good for pants
But still it’s pretty good for me
Every time I climb a tree

Lee Bennett Hopkins discusses David McCord and his poetry.

Poetry Friday Roundup this week is at Jama’s Alphabet Soup. I can’t think of a more poetical place to visit on a crisp November day.