Austen: Standing Up to Harassers

Wednesday

Two friends, both conservative, alerted me recently to articles in conservative publications about how reading Jane Austen can help women push back against sexual harassment. While we disagree about many political issues, in this instance we are all on the same page.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s WSJ  article is the more straightforward of the articles. What should a lady do when harassed? Behave as Elizabeth does when Mr. Collins refuses to take a hint, which is to be clear and decisive:

“I am very sensible of the honor of your proposals,” pronounces Elizabeth, “but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.” Her refusal might serve as a guide to women on how to answer an unwanted proposition: politely but firmly. In some cases harassment can be stopped by a forceful “no” or a decisive pushing away of a hand.

Cohen also notes how Elizabeth further deters Collins by exuding a sense of power. When her mother calls Elizabeth  “a headstrong foolish girl,” it is enough to send Collins into the arms of the more compliant Charlotte. Cohen writes,

Figuring out how to relay to someone in power that you have the capacity to make his life miserable may be an effective way to stop him in his tracks.

Unfortunately, Cohen doesn’t explore how one develops Elizabeth’s strong sense of self. M. D. Aeschliman’s National Review article takes up this issue, however, in a piece that contrasts Austen with a contemporary, Madame de Stael.

Aeschliman’s article is more elliptical than it need be, but her argument is essentially that Austen can stand strong against systemic sexism because she has a strong religious and moral base. She points to Austen’s debt to Samuel Johnson (whom Anne Elliot recommends to a weepy Captain Benwick in Persuasion), noting that Austen

helps us, and her characters, to “undeceive” ourselves of self-serving and self-flattering illusions, in the interest of real, unostentatious Christian self-understanding and virtue. 

To read Jane Austen, Aeschliman says, is to engage in “moral hygiene,” a process that is perhaps most dramatically seen in Mansfield Park. It’s easy for the reader to say “no” to Collins but how about to Henry Crawford? If one allows oneself to be seduced by this attractive but glib man, if one roots for Fanny to marry him, then one has failed a moral test. That Fanny passes the tests shows that she is strong, both as a Christian and as a woman.

In Austen’s world, the danger is always narcissism. All the villains are self-absorbed (Thorpe, Willoughby, Wickham, Crawford, Mr. Elliot), and the weak women are self-indulgent (Isabel, Lydia, Maria, Anne’s sisters). The most interesting characters are those that feel the pull but have principles that help them self-correct (Marianne, Emma).

Aeschliman believes that Austen is superior to de Stael, who can be guilty of being too soft (“to understand everything is to pardon everything”) and opening the door to a “liberal, relativistic, and desiccated rationalism.” Better to regard the use of one’s “reason, conscience, will, and language” within a framework that acknowledges a higher power and higher principles. Aeschliman cites a Goethe passage that she applies to Austen: “Everything that liberates our minds without at the same time adding to our resources of self-mastery is pernicious.”

Cohen and Aeschliman are right that Austen has an important message for the #MeToo movement: strength of character is key to fighting sexual oppression. Put me down as one liberal who applauds the development of discipline, self-mastery, strong moral values, and service to higher ideals in our young people.

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