What Jane Austen Could Teach Washington

It should be a truth universally acknowledged that novels of manners — and even of murder — have larger lessons for our leaders

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P. D. James, perhaps the greatest living writer of mysteries in the world, is a courageous woman. Now Baroness James of Holland Park, she has done something that makes the writing of the sequel to Gone With the Wind (remember that? Much sound and fury…) seem like just another day at the keyboard. James has had the great audacity to set a murder case at Pemberley, now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, in 1803, some six years after the events chronicled in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

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I am an admirer of James’s novels, and I try to re-read an Austen novel every Christmas. (I don’t know yet whether I’ll be able to count James’s just published Death Comes to Pemberley; I have not yet searched my conscience on the question to sufficient depths.)

What I do know is that whatever one thinks of Austen’s work (she has unflinching acolytes and ferocious foes), the tone and deep social insight that characterized Austen’s books — and which James mimics with skill — offers a kind of aphoristic comfort in troubled times. As Chief Justice John Marshall once wrote of Austen, “Her flights are not lofty, she does not soar on an eagle’s wings, but she is pleasing, interesting, equable, yet amusing.”

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Given where we are politically, “pleasing, interesting, [and] equable” have much to recommend them. So here are a few lines from James’s Austen — not Austen herself — that might give our own politicians (and all of us, for that matter) some useful guidance.

  1. But perhaps we should not discuss this matter further. Gossip about the feelings of others when we cannot fully understand them, and they may not understand them themselves, can be a cause of distress.” Of course, if American politicians followed this counsel, there would be a sudden silence across the land. So it’s worth considering.
  2. “Here we are at the beginning of a new century, citizens of the most civilized country in Europe, surrounded by the splendor of its craftsmanship, its art and the books which enshrine its literature, while outside there is another world which wealth and education and privilege can keep from us, a world in which men are as violent and destructive as is the animal world. Perhaps even the most fortunate of us will not be able to ignore it and keep it at bay forever.” In the dramatic terms of James’s novel, this is Elizabeth Bennet Darcy reflecting on the possibility of dark forces breaching the walls of her carefully wrought domestic universe. There is universal insight here, though: no amount of “wealth and education and privilege” can finally excuse the haves from ignoring the needs of the have-nots. Politics is about people, about the inhabitants of the city of man. Not just one class of people, but all people. And when one class is overlooked or taken advantage of for the benefit of the higher class, then chaos ensues. For revolution is often the unexpected fruit of injustice. With rising inequality, Washington would do well to focus on Mrs. Darcy’s point.
  3. “…[I]t is always easy to question the judgment of others in matters of which we may be imperfectly informed.” Is it ever. Candidates do it, writers do it, commentators do it — everybody does it. But if we think about our own lives, and if we keep in mind the ancient exhortation to treat others as we would wish to be treated, then we realize how very little we actually know of one another, and how simple grace demands a measure of forbearance. Not an easy thing to do in the maelstrom of a campaign, but perhaps such a recognition could help us once the ballots are cast and we turn — however briefly — to the business of governing before returning again to the pursuit of votes.

And now back to Baroness James.