Character and Refinement

I recently stumbled upon an audiobook which offered me all the novels of Jane Austen. I couldn’t resist buying it. She has long captivated me, with her brilliant depictions of character, motivation and dialogue. I am almost ashamed of how much I love Jane Austen, since she doesn’t address any of the great injustices in the world — she doesn’t spend a lot of time addressing poverty, or social inequality, or racism or sexism. Yet the subject which captivates me in Austen’s work is one whose importance only increases in my estimation as I grow older.

For me, Jane Austen is an artist of refined character.

The upper-class world of 18th-century England, in which her novels take place, was a world of great refinement. The proper word for an educated adult was ‘gentle’, as in ‘gentlewoman’ or ‘gentleman’. Complicated dining rules — three forks, to be used in a specific order — reached their height during that time. Manners were paramount, the names they called each other and the time they left the dinner table and everything else. The first time I read Austen, as a teenager, the rules were baffling and often went over my head. As I read her stories again, the rules are much clearer and I find them fascinating. They are overbearing, but they provide order and structure for social interactions; that often means less awkwardness, less pain, less regret, and sometimes fewer mistakes by hot-headed young people.

Victorian England. From vam.ac.uk

But the refinement was never meant to be the end of social behavior. It was a means to a much more important end, and Austen strives to reveal that point in story after story. Character — virtue — is the real end of refinement, just like it is the end of education and religion. Good manners can help someone with character to be more respectful and gentle, but just as often they hide a lack of character until it is too late. Just consider Austen’s villains, if villains they can be called.

SPOILER ALERT — Skip the next two paragraphs if you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, or Mansfield Park. Or just stop reading and go read them at once.

In Pride and Prejudice, the villain is Wickham. He is well-mannered, gallant, everything a young man should be on the outside. But in the end, he runs off with the heroine’s sister and refuses to marry her. In Sense and Sensibility, the “villain” is Willoughby, a handsome and outgoing young man who lacks self-discipline and ends up breaking a sweet girl’s heart to marry some other, very rich, girl. In Mansfield Park, the villain is Henry Crawford. He is clever, flirtatious, charming — and due to an overly indulgent education, completely given over to the pursuit of pleasure and vanity. He briefly tries to reform for the heroine, but when her married sister falls for him he cannot resist the flattering prospect and he runs away with her.

The lessons learned by Austen’s heroines are equally focused on character. Pride and Prejudice is the story of a girl who learns to see through stiff manners and supposed slights to recognize a truly good heart. Sense and Sensibility depicts a younger sister whose lack of self-discipline leads her into excess and almost into unhappiness until she begins to learn from her kind, prudent older sister. Mansfield Park is the story of a girl who is almost excessively gentle and shy, with good though imperfect manners. Despite those manners, she eventually wins the regard of everyone around her and even the love of the man she adores.

— SPOILERS COMPLETE.

I have been traveling for a few months now, and I have spent time among many cultures and with a variety of people. I have met people whose manners were exceptional. I have met people whose character was sterling, at least as far as I could judge in my brief acquaintance. But I have learned to value most their unification in one individual.

I believe I have Jane Austen’s support on this point. Indeed, Mansfield Park (which I just finished) could be seen as an exploration of this very fact. The heroine grows up with one family whose children are exceedingly wealthy and well educated. Their manners are impeccable; their characters, however, are more variable. Indeed, good manners serve to hide poor characters from the parents for too long. However, the heroine’s own family lives in relative poverty and in total disregard of good manners. When she goes back to live with them after many years, she finds her brothers loud and disrespectful, her sisters spoiled and argumentative, and her father more interested in drink than his family. Whatever good character might have been present in the family is wasted by their lack of effort to become more refined.

Jane Austen. From wikipedia.org

There is danger in focusing too much on refinement. Victorian England — Austen’s England — is often held up as an extraordinary example of such excess. But Jane Austen manages to paint a vivid picture of what happens when we ignore refinement. I will strive to paint another, from my recent travel in China.

For centuries, China was probably overly rigid. The strict teachings of Confucius on filial piety and proper relations between master and servant, ruler and subject, governed most interactions. One might compare Confucian China, at its height, to the rigidity of Victorian England. In the beginning of the twentieth century, several revolutions in China led to the overthrow of that regime and eventually the rule of the Communist Party under Mao Zedong. Mao, in contrast to Confucianism, gloried in his lack of refinement and, according to what I have read, he found it repulsive in other people. To him, good manners were the sign of an intellectual or a capitalist, someone who thought their knowledge or their wealth made them better than other people. He rarely bathed, rarely showed respect to visiting dignitaries, and had no time for manners or education.

Chairman Mao. From chineseposters.net

In my short stay in China, I thought his attitude toward refinement might have partially trickled down to the rest of the country. People are still affectionate toward their family members, but I noticed little of the famed Confucian respect for parents. People were sometimes loud or pushy in public spaces. Clothing or cars seemed more important than one might expect in light of Confucian calls for humility.

All of these observations might be mistaken — might be the product of spending my time mostly in cities, or of my inability to speak Chinese, or a thousand other things. Surely there is gentleness, goodness, and kindness in many hearts throughout the country. But I cannot help thinking that an absolutist dictator’s attitudes toward refinement would affect the country he led, and if that is true, I cannot help mourning the loss for Chinese culture.

That brings me to my own country and culture. Americans are widely known for their dislike of hierarchy and proud rejection of overly restrictive etiquette. But I cannot help thinking that we have gone too far in that dislike. The current political climate seems to me a quintessential example of what happens when we ignore refinement in leaders. Indeed, for many people, the rejection of good manners seems to have proceeded so far that a lack of refinement is seen as a virtue — an indication of good character. I think this is preposterous and wrong. Good character can be present without good manners. But it is exceedingly difficult to govern a varied and partisan electorate without those manners.

I don’t wish to return to the era of three forks at every meal. But I do think that good character — really good character — will be concerned to develop good manners. Speaking softly in a museum, offering help to the elderly or incapacitated, waiting to eat until everyone has food, and a thousand small and insignificant things are included in this. I don’t even think we all need to have the same manners. But the refinement which is manifested in striving to quietly respect the feelings and wishes of other people — we could all use a little more of that.

At the same time, we must — like Austen — remember that good character is paramount. Refinement is useless if there is nothing to refine. Kindness is better than politeness, even if the latter is better for our reputation. Courage is better than gallantry, even if the latter wins more friends. In the end, I would rather have good kids than polite kids. But I cannot help wishing they will have both character and refinement.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’