- Resources for Solitude:Proper Self-Sufficiency in Jane Austen
Despite their comic endings and Aristotelian fascination with character, Jane Austen's novels paint a troubling picture of the relationship between virtue and suffering.1 Aristotelian virtue theory insists that the virtues are necessary (though not sufficient) for flourishing. Yet the virtues—broadly conceived as human excellences—of Austen's heroines seem to exacerbate threats to their well-being. If virtues are traits that are characteristic of good human beings, they ought to, it seems, benefit their possessors. Because virtue theory acknowledges the contingency in human life, the occasional case of a miserable virtuous person does not threaten the viability of virtue theory. But the relationship between serious threats to well-being and the virtues of Austen's heroines is not one of mere chance and is therefore more problematic. If the virtues not only fail to promote human flourishing but actually tend to destroy it, then it becomes difficult to see how they are the traits that fulfill human nature.
Austen's novels reflect an overriding concern with a particular set of threats—isolation, ennui, decline, and depression—that endanger the happiness of those persons in whom she was most interested: the gentry of a relatively confined society, especially women, whose activities were limited and independence compromised by the structures of late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century country life. Despite the differences between such a society and our own, however, these perils do not threaten only those living in "elegant but confined houses."2 They are threats associated with comfortable lives—such as our own.
I will consider how isolation in particular threatens the well-being of three of Austen's heroines: Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot (Persuasion), [End Page 323] and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility).3 Like all of Austen's characters, these are complex people, not exemplars of perfection. But each possesses her peculiar excellences or virtues. That these virtues seem to increase the threat of isolation may lead us to question the virtues in two related ways. As philosophers, we may wonder if the traits usually considered virtuous really are virtues, and as parents or moral educators, we may hesitate to inculcate these traits in children.4 The answer to these questions, I will argue, lies in a different virtue—proper self-sufficiency—which enables Austen's heroines both to endure isolation and to overcome it. Possessors of this virtue will not be able to convince vicious people that virtue is superior despite its association with isolation, but they will have reason to be grateful that they have the virtues, insofar as they make goods available to them that are not available to the vicious. Because of these goods, and because proper self-sufficiency enables people to overcome the evils of isolation that may be faced by virtuous and vicious alike, this virtue mitigates the philosopher's concern about the harm that might be caused by the set of traits traditionally considered virtues as well as the parent's concern about inculcating these virtues. In the final section, I argue that attention to virtues like proper self-sufficiency, which belong in the category of the suffering virtues, is essential for a compelling conception of eudaimonia and its relation to the virtues in the concrete circumstances of life.
The notion that Austen's characters are isolated may seem absurd; they seem always surrounded by family and friends. Take, for instance, Persuasion's Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove, "of consequence at home, and favourites abroad," who "were now, like thousands of other young ladies, living to be fashionable, happy, and merry."5 With thousands of such young ladies running about, how could any of them be isolated? Nonetheless, some of Austen's characters feel the threat of isolation, since no necessary connection holds between being isolated and being physically alone. My concern is with characters who might feel lonely for good reason—meaning that they are in some sense truly isolated.
Consider Austen's most privileged heroine, Emma: the novel opens with a description of her fortunate circumstances and a light-hearted portrait of the suffering she is likely to experience from the loss of her...