The Phoenix of Gratitude
By Justin Goodman
In the last novel we’ll ever see by Jane Austen, the posthumously published Northanger Abbey, Henry Tillney falls in love with Catherine Morland out of gratitude. “In other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” Unusually, but not oddly, this is the author from which I developed my cynicism. Because, contrary to what Jane Austen fans know of the stylized Hollywood version, she knew three things: wit, society, and morbidity. After all, so the story goes, Austen lay in bed, dying from Tuberculosis. Likely she was nearly weightless, smelled of unending sweat, and would cough blood into a handkerchief. From the far corner of the room, during one of these coughing fits, Cassandra, her sister, asked if there was anything she wanted. Austen’s last words: “I want nothing but death.” She died shortly after on July 18th, 1817.
In our century, Henry’s sense of gratitude comes across as parochial. Either as wholesome and naive—in a way life prior to WWII can appear—or, as Austen writes in the sentence following the above quoted, “dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity.” These negative connotations to an honest word are pretty clear when, even on the Wikipedia page for parochialism, we are reminded that the word “particularly when used perjoratively” is opposed to universalism. It should remind you of the screaming matches leading up to the Trump Cabinet about Globalism and Nationalism. #MAGA is the cry of either a patriot of the naivest type, or a return to evil; the love of country is equivalent to its contrapositive. Meanwhile, those who live in cities are either dupes or American-hating “commies"; the love of others is equivalent to its contrapositive. If Austen were alive to see this, she’d probably be unsurprised. These conflicts, after all, are the heart of her work.
Take the book everyone knows, Pride & Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett is a village woman of immeasurable worldliness—translated as wit and humor—whose friend, Charlotte Lucas, embodies a parochially practical type. When her cousin, the Reverend William Collins, attempts to woo her, for instance, she sees it as loquacious stupidity and refuses him. Elizabeth, atypically for a woman of her time and place, scorns the well-off. When he makes the same proposal to Charlotte, though, wary of a potential future of spinster poverty, she readily accepts it as a necessary sacrifice. Elizabeth goes on to butt heads with Mr. Darcy who, seduced by her independence and strong will, inevitably falls in love with her. After a series of dramatic plot points involving Darcy racing to London to save Elizabeth’s impetuous youngest sister from a man formerly serving in the military during the French Revolutionary Wars, Elizabeth, overwhelmed by gratitude for his kindness, ultimately falls for him in return and they marry.
Passionate intensity is what drives the fiery-eyed Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in the Hollywood Austen, which is how many remember her writing. Yet clearly, this passionate intensity is all that crosses over between the two—only, in her novels, it is closer to Yeats’ sentiment that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.”
In Sense & Sensibility, to turn to another Austen novel, this behavior isparalleled in Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor is the sensible eldest daughter and Marianne the romantic (read: sensibility-driven) second-oldest. Elinor is often referred to as cold-hearted because of her restraint, while Marianne is driven to spuriousness, at one point fainting from emotional distress. Elinor, caught between duty to family and love for Edward Ferrars, refuses to act. Marianne, incapable of restraint, is entangled in a failed romance with the flirtatious John Willoughby. Once this romance fails and Marianne is taken ill with distress, the ever-patient Colonel Brandon, who had been in love with Marianne from the start, tends to her. Out of deep gratitude for his patience and dedication, she comes to admire and love him. They marry, much like the equally opposed Darcy and Elizabeth, out of human gratitude. Can such division be sewn together in such a way today, in America?
With all the frenzy of this past election cycle, we tend to forget that the federal level of our government is not the centerpiece of our system. I would wager that the increased focus on federal elections has distanced people from their very real, very parochial way of living. Communities, divided into abstractions of red and blue, have lost the feeling of gratitude for one’s neighbor that brought the founding fathers together. Think of it, the love you’d feel for people who committed treason with you. Even the parochial John Adams and internationalist Thomas Jefferson, an Austenian love story of sorts, who each declared the other egocentric and self-serving, have gone down as dedicated friends in American myth. Similar, I may add, to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.
Which is the point. The funny thing about Austen is that neither worldliness or parochialism, globalism or nationalism, lacking conviction or being full of passion, are useful for confronting the ills of the world. There are no heroes and heroines in Austen. There are only heroic bonds built on strong contrasts.
And this is bound to happen in any small community in America because the wisdom of local politics tends toward people, not party, in stark contrast to what we see in Washington. What we see there, what we see spreading to our homes, is an issue that will not be resolved by reasoned or angry debate with strangers (with rare exceptions). Rather, it must be built on conviction and love. Things which, when combined, tend toward a feeling of gratitude.
So, you ask, is it enough? Of all Austen’s characters’ storylines, Marianne Dashwood “was born to an extraordinary fate.” Unlike many of the parallel figures Austen wrote into her novels, Marianne discovered “the falsehood of her own opinions” after marrying Colonel Brandon. No other Austen figure converts at the end of the novel to such an extreme—even sharing the reasoning of mutuality that “her society restored his mind...and [Marianne] found her own happiness in forming his.” Perhaps it is enough. Yet there is a certain morbidity in submission that is “dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity.” In the end, her conversion was Colonel Brandon’s happy ending. And so it seems that the battle, instead of ending in gratitude, merely shifts to a gothic sense of uneasy peace. You can imagine them fighting over servants or the best route to Bath, as you can still hear Austen’s last words resonate in the temperamental joy of their beginnings.
Justin Goodman, Assistant Fiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit, graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. His film, book, and music reviews have been published in Red Carpet Crash, Cleaver Magazine, and InYourSpeakers, respectively. Other work has been published in Italics Mine, Counterexample Poetics, and 352 Degrees. Take a look at his website here.