Why Jane Austen Teaches Bad Morality
At the end of her novel, Persuasion, Jane Austen owns up to the fact that she’s teaching “bad morality,” which she does for the sake of “the truth.” What’s the “bad morality” that Jane Austen is teaching? That the young who are in love and want to marry should do so, even though it would be “imprudent” because they are poor or “little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort.” As Austen wrote: “This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be the truth….” [Persuasion was the last novel Jane Austen completed.]
Good morality counsels prudence, the kind of prudence that Lady Russell used to persuade Anne Eliot to reject Frederick Wentworth, despite the fact that Anne and Frederick were deeply in love. Frederick was poor and had only some future prospects to rely on. Apparently, though, for Jane Austen, being deeply in love trumps or should trump such moral or prudent considerations. Why? Well, perhaps, morality doesn’t “know” love or recognize it for what it is, viz., the source of the best kind of human happiness. Morality may promise certain things – stability, safety, prosperity, even character – but it cannot promise happiness. It is not in the restraint of our passions that we humans find happiness but, rather, in their fulfillment. And romance, the romance of deep, erotic love is the way to happiness because through it, we humans may know, may even dwell in the realm of the beautiful. Such knowledge, such a dwelling is the peak of human happiness. And whatever morality promises us will always fall short of genuine happiness.