A Note on Austen and Lewis


A Note on Lewis and Austen

C.S. Lewis and Jane Austen are two of the most enduring and delightful authors on my bookshelves. I return to their novels again and again for rest, for inspiration, and for a moral challenge. I believe that these two authors share a sharp clarity on the human nature and this clarity is what makes them and especially the characters in their novels so compelling and enduring. From the many references to Austen in Lewis’s letters and essays it is evident that he read her with delight. Most of his allusions are to some one or other her memorable characters and it seems possible that his own facility with characterization may be rooted in his frequent reading of her novels.


Vice and Virtue

The notion of vice and virtue may need some rehabilitation in our culture but clear description compels some. DeYoung of Calvin College writes in Glittering Vices that merely reading Thomas Aquinas on vice was “like looking at myself in the mirror for the first time” and that it “can be a catalyst for spiritual growth,” Virtues and vices are to be understood as habits that have been cultivated in our character by repeated action that tend us to good or bad actions. Western and Christian understanding of vice and virtue owes much to Aristotle’s development in his Nicomachean Ethics where he describes Justice as the queen of the virtues and describes virtue as the result of natural disposition and repeated action. Lewis is clearly referencing this understanding in Mere Christianity. “In the same way a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of ‘virtue’.”


Alasdair MacIntyre argues that “Jane Austen is in a crucial way . . . the last great representative of the classical tradition of the virtues” which dovetails with C.S. Lewis’s observation of Austen and Scott as the endpoint of a long medieval tradition. Haley Stewart, in a review of MacIntyre’s After Virtue observes that Austen “illuminates matters of virtue so masterfully that a careful modern reader’s understanding of virtue can be reoriented toward the Christian moral tradition under her guidance.”


Characterization in a novel rests on clear observation of human behavior and motivations. For Lewis and Austen, these are to be understood in the classical terms of virtue and vice, and this grounding offers unique strength to both the universality and the specificity of their characters.


The memorability, accessibility, and enduring delight of C.S. Lewis’s writing lies in his ability to draw a human character. Frequently in the pages of his books we meet with quintessential persons. There never was a petulant and selfish boy who was not reflected in Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Puddleglum is the very Platonic ideal of the satisfied pessimist and the woman who “lived for others” in The Great Divorce haunts everyone with an officious self-martyring relative. In a thousand books we might read of selfish mothers but it is Michael’s mother who teaches us exactly how bitter and painful that selfishness is. Likewise Jane Austen’s characters are “are universal types. Miss Bates is the type of all bores, Mrs. Elton the type of all pushing vulgarians, Marianne Dashwood the type of all undisciplined romantics; when Mr. Woodhouse tells us that his grandchildren are ‘all remarkably clever’ he sums up the fatuous fondness of all grandparents.”


Both Lewis and Austen offer the reader unparalleled insight into the human condition. This insight is the product of two parallel and complementary skills: complete, detailed specificity of character and incisive understanding of the virtues and vices that lie underneath and motivate all human action.



Jane Austen “never repeats a single character.”  Elizabeth Bennett is singularly herself just as Anne Eliot is her very self and just as Elinor Dashwood is uniquely Elinor Dashwood. No heroine or villain or background character in all of Austen is a duplicate. Each is a whole human being: three-dimensional and complex. When Elizabeth misjudges Darcy and Wickham it is the misjudgment of an Elizabeth: the failure of insight brought about by a mind focussed on trusting its own judgement in light of the general foolishness which is it’s environment. This specificity makes it possible to note Elizabeth’s misjudgement and appreciate its fine shades of meaning while still despising Mr. Collins’s much greater misjudgement and absurdity. Mr. Collins also trusts his own judgement and it is his folly to not realize how much wiser others are than he. Each character repeats follies of other characters but are still never the same.


Lewis too, though not perhaps quite as perfectly, crafts each character as a hard uncompromising individual. Ransom is a wise and brave and scholarly man but he is not Professor Kirke. Peter and Eustace and Edmund and Caspian are boys on adventure but are most definitely not interchangeable. Even Edmund and Eustace – both whining, both feeling hard-used at points in their careers – are never to be mistaken for one another. The mother in Screwtape and the various mothers in The Great Divorce are very much themselves and very much not each other. Tinidril of Perelandra and Sarah Smith of The Great Divorce are two supremely hospitable, loving, and generous women but they are not each other.



Against this specificity of character we see a universality in both authors. This universality rests on how effectively they both tie character and action to vice and virtue, which anchors the creative structure of personality in these authors’ stories. The psychology of the individual is not under consideration – it is her ability to see and feel and act as she knows to be correct that drives developments. For Lewis it is perhaps the act that is most under consideration while for Austen it is most certainly the feeling, but for both it is always about the hard, clear, classic virtues or their corresponding vices. Misunderstandings are never comments on the nature of knowledge or differences in perspective, failings are never excused as human frailty or confused good intentions, each character’s rise or fall is his or her training in virtue. Mark Studdock’s weak-kneed insecurity, Mary Bennett’s pretentious moralizing, Mr. Knightley’s judicious advice, Puddleglum’s cheerful pessimism are cowardice, vanity, charity, and hope.


Mr. Darcy has pride and he knows it. Better still, he has pride and Austen knows it. She also knows his selfishness though he is oblivious and it is the undeceiving of his self-perception that delights us in his character. Mr. Darcy ought not to be such an enjoyable ch


Uncle Andrew hadn’t a clue that he was a vain man but Lewis knew that the key to a petty London magician would be his vanity. From a terrible and mysterious man in the attic he becomes a flatly evil presence and then a vapid nothingness of self-consuming greed and ambition.



This then, is the enduring clarity of Austen and Lewis: that every person in every story, real or imagined, is defined by her vices and virtues. These are characteristics that both Austen and Lewis clearly understand and characteristics that resonate with our human experiences (we see ourselves in the mirror). This clarity makes Lizzie and Fanny and Edmund and Ransom memorable but it also makes them powerfully three-dimensional. Characterization that rests on a clear articulation of human nature cannot be flat. We return to them again and again, we quote them at length and reference them frequently because nothing speaks quite so precisely to our souls as these living images of what they may become.


A Prayer Journal

Flannery O’Connor’s personal prayer journal was published in 2013. I do tend to feel uncomfortable with the exposure of personal writings but then I also feel ravenous for new words from favorite authors, so I nearly always read them.

A Prayer Journal is a prolonged plea for closeness to God, humble acceptance of her gifts (even if they must be mediocre), and for the literary excellence O’Connor craves. She is impatient with her own weakness and wary of pretense and ego. Often her prayers simply ask for the ability to want what she knows she should but the overriding theme is the twin desires to become both a saint and a genius.

It is a devotional work and the wrenching honesty and grief in it are steep and nearly tragic.

The books two weaknesses are it’s brevity and it’s clearly private nature. Her creative spelling and casual punctuation could be a distraction but only if you lose sight of the intelligence and clarity of her thought.

A few compelling quotations:

“Dear God, I don’t want to have invented my faith to satisfy my weakness. I don’t want to have created God to my own image as they’re so fond of saying. Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.”

“no one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer and he has his reasons.”

“When something is finished, it cannot be possessed. Nothing can be possessed but the struggle.”

“Virtue must be the only vigorous thing in our lives. Sin is large and stale. You can never finish easting it nor ever digest it. It has to be vomited.”

A Year’s Worth

Every year since 2006 I have kept a list of the books I read each year. An interview I did in 2006, in which I claimed to read over 100 books a year (much to my interviewer’s disbelief), prompted me to start keeping track. In 2008 I engaged in a 200 book challenge (and read 201 books), but otherwise I have merely kept track of my “natural” reading progress. I write titles and authors into a journal in the order I read them and “star” new-to-me books (ratings are out of a possible five). Books without stars are re-reads and obviously rate high if I am returning to them. Amazon Affiliate Links for recommended books.

The List of 2016 (with notes):

The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkein

Furies of Calderon  – Jim Butcher **

Gilead – Marilynne Robinson ****

Gourmet Rhapsody – Muriel Barberry **

The Silver Chair – C.S. Lewis

The Theory of Everything – Stephen Hawking *** (A Brief History of Time is more readable)

Juvenescence – Robert Pogue Harrison ***** (A fantastically engaging history of intellectual development)

Louder and Funnier – P.G. Wodehouse ***

Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman ***

Mansfield Park – Jane Austen (A yearly re-read. Deeply moral in a quiet way.)

The Republic – Plato (One I teach each year. )

Realms of Gold – Leland Ryken ***

The Poetics – Aristotle (Another work I teach.)

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (Another annual re-read. A demonstration of the necessity of mutual respect and friendship in marriage.)

Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen (There is a pattern here… This one is light and funny, especially if you’ve enjoyed any Gothic romances.)

The Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle (Still teaching.)

C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid – A.T. Reyes *** (Worthwhile only for the student of The Aeneid or the Lewis scholar.)

Emma – Jane Austen

The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. LeGuin ***

American Nations – Colin Woodard **** (A fascinating alternate view of American history that privileges understanding the differences in American culture rather than the commonalities. I found it enlightening.)

Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis ** (Amusing but light.)

Scipio Africanus – B.H. Liddel Hart **** (A history of the greatest general the world has ever seen – according to Liddel Hart who is a noted expert.)

Livy’s Early History of Rome (Another work I teach.)

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

Gratitude – Oliver Sacks ***

The Zombie Survival Guide – Max Brooks ** (Greatly inferior to World War Z – also by Max Brooks.)

Persuasion – Jane Austen

The Aeneid – Virgil (One of the greatest of the greats of Western Civilization and a book I’m privileged to teach.)

The Enchiridion – Epictetus (We could all use more Stoic Philosophy.)

On the Shoulders of Hobbits – Louis Markos ** (Fine, but pretty basic for any devotee of Tolkien.)

When I Was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson ***

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson ** (I’ve enjoyed other Bryson much more.)

A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller Jr.

Gumption – Nick Offerman*

Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – Jack Weatherford ***

African American Religion (Very Short Introductions) – Eddie S. Glude Jr. **** (This was the first Very Short Introduction that I read. This series from Oxford is absolutely fantastic and includes over 500 volumes. The six I’ve read were each intriguing in their own way. Those about things with which I am unfamiliar have stimulated my interest. Those about things with with I am familiar have shown themselves to be original and reliable.)

Better Living Through Criticism – A.O. Scott ** (It did not live up to its title.)

Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves – Roy Maynard **** (This is a nicely annotated edition of the first book of Spencer’s Faerie Queene. Occasionally the annotator is a little to full of his own cleverness.)

Innumeracy – John Allen Paulos **** (Ought to be required reading for Elementary Educators for its urgent call for teaching mathematic literacy to young people.)

Storm Front – Jim Butcher ***

The Life of Elves – Muriel Barberry ***

Ben-Hur – Lew Wallace (I’ve been reading this one over and over for 25 years.)

The Roman Empire (Very Short Introductions) – Christopher Kelly ***

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (Another favorite from childhood.)

The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis

The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu *** (Worth reading if you like your science fiction to be physics-y and odd.)

Meditations – Marcus Aurelius (The Philosopher-Emperor’s reminders to himself. Again, Stoic Philosophy is a helpful antidote to the modern world.)

The Riddle Master of Hed – Patricia McKillip **

The Last Battle – C.S. Lewis

The Magician’s Nephew – C.S. Lewis

Infectious Disease (Very Short Introduction) – Wayne & Bolker **** (Another great Intro.)

Xenocide – Orson Scott Card ***

Fool Moon – Jim Butcher **

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

Letters to Malcolm – C.S. Lewis

Villette – Charlotte Bronte ** (Disappointing for one who loves Jane Eyre.)

The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis

Half a King – Joe Abercrombie ***

The Place of the Lion – Charles Williams ***

Kullervo – J.R.R. Tolkien **** (A charming, but short, retelling of a Finnish legend.)

Silence – Shusako Endo (Well worth frequent re-reading.)

You Are What You Love – James K.A. Smith ***** (Fantastic examination of how our unspoken, unconsidered habits shape us.)

How to Grow Old – Cicero **** (Thoughtful, meditative, and challenging.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy – James B. South **** (An enjoyable combo of pop-culture and philosophy.)

Making All Things New – Henri Nouwen *****

Are Women Human – Dorothy Sayers (A witty and thoughtful examination of how women had been regarded and how they might be better understood.)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Fault in our Stars – John Green (Ugh.)

Tehanu – Ursula K. LeGuin **** (Original and provocative in wonderful ways.)

The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie ***

The Way of the Heart – Henri Nouwen *****

Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis

The Last Unicorn (Graphic Novel) – Peter S. Beagle **** (I couldn’t find the graphic novel to link, so this just goes to the paperback novel.)

Gifts – Ursula K. LeGuin ***

The Mongols (Very Short Introduction) – Morris Rossabi ***

Surprised by Hope – N.T. Wright ****

The Telling – Ursula K. LeGuin ***

Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis (A longtime favorite that I now get to teach!)

Earth Abides – George R. Stewart **** (A unique post-apocalyptic novel that realistically examines the fate of a minority of humans surviving.)

Grave Peril – Jim Butcher **

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Another book I teach.)

The Book of the Dun Cow – Walter Wangerin ***** (The great modern beast fable.)

The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley **

The Metamorphoses – Ovid (Look at all these cool books I get to teach!)

The Real American Dream – Andrew Delbanco ***

Silence and Beauty – Makota Fujimura ***** (An artist’s appreciation of Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Absolutely exquisite.)

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson **** (The president read it this year too!)

The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe  (Re-reading The Book of the New Sun tetralogy for book club. Very challenging but very good.)

Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson

White Trash – Nancy Isenberg ****

Antigone – Sophocles (Teaching again.)

Oedipus Tyrranus – Sophocles (Yup. Teaching.)

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

Ancient Philosophy (Very Short Introduction) – Julia Annas **** (Annas makes excellent use of her limited space and gives a very engaging intro to the major schools of ancient philosophical thought.)

The Claw of the Conciliator – Gene Wolfe (More Book of the New Sun.)

The Wave in the Mind – Ursula K. LeGuin *** (An uneven collection with some excellent essays in it.)

The Physics of Superheroes – James Kakalios *** (What else do you read when you’re staying with your friend and her husband: the experimental physicist?)

On Friendship – Alexander Nehamas ***

Lexicon Urthus – Michael Andre-Driussi (A companion to The Book of the New Sun.)

The Art of Loving – Erich Fromm ***

The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (Yes. Again. I can’t help it. Austen is perfection, especially on cold winter nights.)

Total: 102 books read, 63 new and 39 re-read. Of course, my to be read pile is still happily extensive.

Go Read Mansfield Park

Here are ample reasons.


“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

“I should have thought,’ said Fanny after a pause of recollection and exertion, ‘that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by someone of her sex, at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.”

“Human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey.”


Fanny Price is often accused of insipidity, and I do prefer a femininity less retiring, yet the power of seeing the truth so very clearly is perhaps most safely granted to a quiet character; Elizabeth Bennett benefits from being wrong on occasion.

How Should We Then Live

Francis Schaeffer

I finally read the Francis Schaeffer classic. It has been on the “to-read” list for quite some time. Schaeffer is very highly regarded in some of the circles I travel in and I’d never read anything of his. Sadly, I’m a bit disappointed.

How Should We Then Live? is a whirlwind tour through Western History featuring frequent generalizations, authoritative pronouncements on the goodness or badness of things, and appeals to authority. While I agree with at least half of Dr. Schaeffer’s assessment, I can’t appreciate his book. Where I was looking for reasoned arguments and thoughtful insights I got appeals to authority, unargued conclusions, and simplistic summaries. I wouldn’t pass much of this writing in a freshman composition class because of the failure to properly support assertions.

Again, I do agree with many of his conclusion. However, I fear that much of his popularity comes from readers hearing what they already believe or hearing what they want to be true. He argues that Christianity is good for the world and Christians are likely to already think that or to want it to be true. In such a short book, how could an author give a fair description, much less a fair analysis, of all of Western art, philosophy, and science? Without questioning or even acknowledging his own presuppositions how could Dr. Schaeffer hope to give his readers a reasonable basis for further study? I fear that reading this kind of work would tend to leave the Christian reader complacent rather than challenged: complacent in the essential goodness of the Evangelical worldview and without any answer to the title question other than living with the assumption that Evangelicals have it right and the Secularists have it wrong and with no clear understanding of why or how and, thus, no way forward.





Fellow readers, I am often asked for book recommendations. It can be difficult to make specific recommendations to another reader without long standing reading intimacy. Other than the great books everyone should read, I have a few I recommend often.

I first read The Elegance of the Hedgehog a few years ago. Its alternating stories of the rich inner lives of a 50-something concierge in an elegant Parisian apartment building and a 12-year-old resident of the same are delicate and inspiring. Renee’s story of her autodidactic education alongside young Paloma’s existential despair make for an elegant philosophical and emotional exploration.