Was Jane Austen profoundly moral, with reference to Pride and Prejudice?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an interesting question and relates, I'm supposing, to the Peter Smith argument of Austen as a moralist that appeared in the Oxford Review in 1966 and that has gained ground since then. Smith's well argued contention is that, since Austen's language often mirrors that of philosopher and moralist Anthony Shaftesbury, Austen is presenting carefully thought out moral arguments in her works, beginning with Pride and Prejudice. Smith asserts evidence in her texts for his arguments in her reliance on descriptors such as esteem, admire, manners, agreeable, disagreeable, proud, forbidding, etc.

These are terms, Smith, of Oxford University, explains, that form the core of Shaftesbury's moral philosophy as espoused in his extensive writings. Smith suggests that Austen was an ardent reader of Shaftesbury and an adherent of his morality. Shaftesbury's moral teaching was different from others of his time because he favored Aristotle over Plato and eschewed the "Calvanistic" binaries of good/evil, right/wrong etc and advocated specific moral qualities that individuals presented along a continuum of demonstrability.

So I now put forward the historical hypothesis that Jane Austen’s specific moral ideas derived, directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly, from Shaftesbury. Certainly she never mentions him by name; but nor is any moralist mentioned by name,... [without] the ... various modifications and mitigations [of] that Black–White, Saint-Sinner ethic that I have crudely dubbed ‘Calvinistic’. (Peter Smith, "Jane Austen and the Moralists")

So, "was Jane Austen profoundly moral?" Well, if you mean "profound" as in "intense"--was she intensely, fanatically moral?--well, no. There is absolutely no evidence in Austen's texts, juvenilia, or letters that suggests anything like intense morality. If, on the other hand, you mean "profound" as in knowledgeable and insightful, I think it is fair to answer, yes, in this sense, Jane Austen had moral knowledge and insight. This is one of her intellectual traits that makes her works so very readable.

[Darcy's] manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend [Bingley].