Austen’s books have sadly been relegated to the modern abyss of “chick lit”. In his book, Miniatures and Morals, Peter Liethart contends that Austen’s novels function on many other levels. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by his subtitle, “The Christian novels of Jane Austen.” Obviously her books are “moral” in the sense that the heroes and heroines are rewarded for gallantry and the scoundrels punished for their misdeeds. But are the novels “Christian” in the sense that they present truths derived from New Testament teachings? Leithart makes a strong case for his premise.
In his chapter titled “Real Men Read Austen”, he writes, “All of Austen’s great heroes – Darcy, Wentworth, Edmund Bertram, Knightley – are men who hold positions of authority and use those positions for good. Each of them is a Christlike lover who sacrifices, often at some cost to his reputation, to win his bride. They are servant-heroes, not macho-heroes. (p.19) Later he calls Austen’s novels “allegories of redemption”. (p. 32)
In addition to his expert analysis of each novel, Leithart offers insights into Austen as "craftsman". Over and over he points out specific scenes in each book that are perfect counterbalances to other scenes. One example comes from the book Persuasion. In the final pages Anne Elliot and Captain Harville are discussing whether men or more constant in love than women. Harville says all great literature is on his side and Anne counters that all the great literature has been written by men. Just at that moment the eavesdropping Wentworth drops his pen. I always thought he did that out of embarrassment, but Leithart contends that Austen purposely “takes the pen out of male hands” and puts the final word in the mouth of a woman. Those kinds of insights are sprinkled throughout the book and caused me to holler with sheer glee.
I majored in English Lit and did my post graduate work in theology so this book was a perfect combination of subjects. It may be a bit didactic for the average reader and it presupposes familiarity with all six novels, BUT if you like literature because it gives you a deeper understanding into what it means to be human, you will appreciate this fine book. I wish I had enough room to give Leithart’s explanation of the complex meanings of the words, sense and sensibility. Or of his declaration that Emma is the “most Christian” novel of them all. Or to reiterate why “boring” Fanny Price is one the best heroines ever. But this post is already way too long.
(An explanation of the title, Miniatures and Morals: “Instead of a thin description of large events, [Austen] gives us a thick description of small events.” - p. 30)