Thursday, July 14, 2011

Relating to Jane Austen

My 88-year-old grandmother is staying with us this week. It’s lovely to have her, but represents something of a challenge in that she has next to no short-term memory. (Long term’s okay, so she knows who we are and all that.) One of our strategies in entertaining her was to get hold of a clutch of Jane Austen DVDs to watch – she enjoys them and can follow them pretty well because she knows the storylines from of old.

Lizzie and DarcyThus it was that I found myself watching Pride and Prejudice this week.

Bit of background: I was put off Austen when I had to study Mansfield Park for A-Level (not her best novel). When I picked up Pride and Prejudice, only a few years ago, out of a sense of duty (I was an English teacher, after all, and it is supposed to be one of the greatest novels in the canon of English literature). But it was a wonderful surprise. Laugh-out-loud funny, bitingly ironic, penetrating in its insights into human nature. A great, great read. (I know, I know, I should have known. They were right.)

Quite apart from any literary/artistic pleasure in watching the film, however, I found myself freshly struck by the utterly different approach to courtship and marriage that society took, in those days.

In our post-sexual revolution era, Austen’s society may seem unutterably quaint. Here are some of the rules: Speak to the opposite sex only either in the watchful presence of others or in the formal and safe intimacy of a ballroom dance. Absolutely no physical contact, except the proffering of a hand to help a lady into a carriage or suchlike; to greet the opposite sex, a slight bow is quite enough. Approach not a young lady with any romantic proposals; approach rather her father or guardian to ask his permission. And so on.

Quaint? Charming? Or repressed? Perhaps all three. But it got me thinking.

One of the things we have had to work carefully on over the years, as we have worked out our Christian community lifestyle, is how to handle relationships between the sexes. A community like ours could all too easily be littered with “gone wrong” relationships or mired with sexual looseness and flirtation. Nevertheless, men and women will inevitably be (ahem) interested in each other and, as the Prayer Book has it, “marriage is an honourable estate”.

So how can we provide a safe, holy, yet human framework for such relationships to begin, flourish, maybe end (cleanly), maybe advance (matrimonially)?

In our community, we have developed a procedure we call “relating”, which helps with just these issues. We uphold a basic segregation between sexes; physical contact is kept within appropriate bounds; pastoral advice and involvement is encouraged before embarking upon initiating a “special” relationship with the opposite sex. Should a couple “relate”, there is guidance in how to proceed in a mature manner: a married couple will be involved to provide support and advice; time together is limited to an amount appropriate given the seriousness of the relationship at that stage. Physical contact and sexual desires are kept under control. And (unlike Austen’s society), we don’t rate the suitability of a match upon how many thousands of “pahnds” they stand to inherit, but by encouraging careful consideration of the couple’s compatibility and mutual vision.

Perhaps it all sounds rather quaint. Charming? Maybe repressed. But I dare to say it keeps us from a great deal of harm as a community, and has built some strong and superb marriages over the years, too. Indeed, we have a young man living with us who is advancing towards such a quality marriage right now. Statistics on divorce, broken families, teenage pregnancies, and the whole sorry state of the “broken society” incline me to thank God very much for the wisdom of such an approach.

I think Jane Austen might just have agreed.

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