Jane Austen as moral educator

A copy of the revised Canterbury Classics edition of Jane Austen’s novels, in which my Introduction appears, arrived in the mailbox yesterday afternoon. I was surprised to see that one of the last words in the Introduction was “lifework.”

When you read something you’ve written months or years before, you can’t quite see how the words were ever yours. By now, they’ve been lost to you, but in their return they come as a gift from strange but gentle hands.

Here’s a short excerpt from the final section entitled “Austen’s Legacy”:

Of those novelists whose works have become modern classics, perhaps no one apart from Charles Dickens seems to have attracted or delighted general readers more than Austen. This is likely because her novels contribute something of lasting value to our self-understanding. But what exactly might that be? The answer lies with Austen’s optimism about the capacity of human beings to adapt to their surroundings, reflect on the general shape of their lives, and refashion themselves according to high-minded ethical ideals. Under Austen’s tutelage, we discover that moral progress is possible, self-examination indispensable, good judgment desirable, and love intrinsically valuable. (xv)