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.