Ode to Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s writing is amazing. That is a pretty blatant opinion, and I realize I may think that simply because I love all things classic, but what I love about Austen’s writing the most is her ability to capture the historical past in such a way to make it feel like a modern plot.

I just finished reading her book Northanger Abbey again, and I noticed something that I hadn’t really paid attention to before. Her characters are held to such a high social and moral standard that at times, I must admit, I find myself rolling my eyes.

A big part behind these standards is the cultural norms at that time. The fact that these norms make me roll my eyes is not that surprising, considering 1) I don’t live in that time and 2) my personality tends to not follow today’s norms let alone norms of that day.

The example from Northanger Abbey that stood out to me goes as follows. Catherine Morland, the protagonist, is asked to leave the abbey with almost no warning. She takes huge offense, and then she is told she will have to…prepare yourself…travel by herself, without a servant.

Why this malicious offense? She did not have enough money, and as she was falling in love with the son of the very rich estate owner, Mr. Tilney tried to put a quick end to any possible chance of an engagement.

Despite how embarrassingly obvious these offenses were, I love Mrs. Morland’s response (Catherine’s mother). I’m paraphrasing, but basically she tells Catherine to look at the bright side. Everyone had always assumed Catherine was air headed, and now Catherine had proved herself quite a capable, well traveled, and independent individual.

Cultural norms are unforgiving beasts. They create more problems than I think they fix, and yet they still play a huge role in the way we relate with people.

There are the little norms that I quite enjoy to enforce on people around me, like saying “excuse me” when you burp. There are also bigger social norms, like wearing black to funerals or lying to your kids about Santa’s existence.

Many social norms like these are relatively harmless, except for maybe creating cliques based on opinions of how to practice these social norms, or of course convincing your kids by age 10 that they can never trust you again when they find out the truth about Santa. But what about the norms that are destroying peoples and cultures?

Sex trafficking, racism, abusive male dominance, and cultural brainwashing are just a few “norms” in modern countries that are horrible. For example in the 1820’s it became a “norm” to hate and therefore hunt down the aboriginal Tasmanians by the European settlers, leading to a genocide that nearly wiped the people group from the face of the planet. People can never see it in the moment because they are blinded, but the evilness of the human heart left to its own devices is much darker than many people would like to admit.

Similar to how Mrs. Morland handled the insult against her daughter in Northanger Abbey, most people do nothing about these norms except for acknowledging their disdain and then trying to forget. It is hard to know what to do or where to start.

The best way to avoid marrying someone that is abusive is to make abuse an open and continuing conversation with the person of interest, shedding light into areas that should be checked before choosing to marry someone. Similarly, the best way to fight these issues is to shed light on them and open up conversations about what has happened and is still happening. Darkness and secrecy are breeding grounds for evil.

Bob Goff is one of my favorite examples of how to fight these social norms. His book Love Does is not only hilarious, but it steps out of all social norms in order to point out that love is a verb, an action. You should read his book, but his way of winning his wife over and getting into law school are the most perfect examples of forgoing social norms. For him, he has shown his love for people by founding and working with Restore International, a non-profit fighting social injustices against children in Uganda and India.

Drilling wells, delivering food, breaking up brothels, building schools, starting safe houses, and all the other amazing things that this group works to do may never be things that we personally can be a part. If you can that’s great, but why is it that so many people think that those cultures are the only ones that need help?

Our culture has so many norms that need to be broken, and I encounter them daily in my work place, on the news, and during my ongoing transition into adulthood. Christian culture also has so many norms that simply are not biblically based. Hopefully some are coming to mind as you read this, giving you an opportunity to bring light to those areas.

Jane Austen showed a level of social normalcy in her writing that was filled with lovely ladies and grand gentlemen, but the real best part of the story in Northanger Abbey is when Henry Tilney decides to break social norms and marry the girl he loves, even if it did mean that he would lose his father’s monetary support. She ends the book with a zinger quote or perhaps even a cliffhanger, saying, “I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.” I’m pretty sure Jane Austen was a secretive norm breaker, hiding behind the guise of diminutive social norms, but again, that is a blatant opinion.


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