Reflecting on Virtue and Vice With Jane Austen and Haley Stewart

I preordered Haley Stewart’s new book “Jane Austen’s Genius Guide to Life: On Love, Friendship, and Becoming the Person God Created You to Be,” from Ave Maria Press as soon as it was available. I began it on Saturday and finished it on Sunday.

Don’t read into how quickly I read it, though: This book was not a light, breezy book. It was just short and enjoyable. Stewart has a knack for making profound, thought-provoking points in a very conversational tone. It made reading this book both comfortable and uncomfortable—comfortable because I felt like I was talking about my favorite author with a friend and uncomfortable because it made me reflect on my own virtue and the many places where I have room to grow.

The book devotes a chapter to each of Austen’s novels, highlighting one vice and its corrective virtue. First up was pride and humility and, of course, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy of “Pride and Prejudice.” I’ve been focusing a lot of my own personal and spiritual development lately on identifying pride and cultivating humility, so I was ready for this one. But, with each new chapter, I uncovered aspects of different vices in my own life, realizing anew how far I have to go in my own growth as a Christian.

Fortunately, the book was encouraging, offering the Catholic perspective that there is always mercy, always hope, always opportunity for growth. The beloved characters from Austen’s novels (perhaps most notably my favorite, Emma) show us that even great vice can be overcome with great humility. The more aware I am of my sin, the more humble I become, and the more open to God’s grace I can be. Throughout the book is Stewart’s belief (the Catholic belief) that we were created to be good, and one line in particular struck me:

“As the mother of four children, there are many, many moments when I am inconstant—when I surrender to what will shatter the self. I am called to be a patient, gentle, and loving mother; it is who I am designed by God to be. And yet, I often fall short! I lose my temper, grow frustrated, or make a cutting remark. None of these actions make me feel like I am being true to myself!

In the nine and a half months since my daughter I was born, I, too, have had many moments where I fell short. But, in those moments, I have not often felt that I was being untrue to myself; rather, an anxious, perfectionistic voice inside me says, “See? This is who you are—a failure. Your true self is a bad mother, a bad wife, a bad person.” This is a voice that I need to silence.

This book was enjoyable to read, because diving deep into Jane Austen’s novels is always enjoyable. But, for me, the biggest gift it offered is that moment of clarity: that reminder that while I am fallen, while I am sinful, I was made in the image of God—made to be good—and that the times that I fall are never reflections of who I am as his daughter. They are indications that I am a sinful person who has access to the infinite mercy of God and who can, with his grace (and like Austen’s heroines!), grow more in virtue every day.

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on Virtue and Vice With Jane Austen and Haley Stewart

  1. Thanks for linking to An Open Book! I’ve seen Haley Stewart’s book around, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the premise was, and your review made it clear. I’m not a huge Austen fan, but I do enjoy her work and should return to it again. So many books, so little time! (But I did enjoy an ’80s Pride & Prejudice retelling last month!)

    Like

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