What Jane Austen Can Teach Us about Modesty
We live in a sexually saturated age. Anyone can see that. From deodorant advertisements to children’s clothing, our culture has become shockingly sexualized. Even people who have fully embraced the Sexual Revolution express concern that we may have gone too far. Not surprisingly, Christians have observed this frightening trend and tried to respond to it. Often at the heart of this response is a conversation about modesty.
Some of that conversation is a no brainer. There’s general agreement that children should look like children and not miniature adults in a night club. But what about teenagers and adult women? Here’s where the conversation gets sticky. When you are talking about hem lines, one or two inches can become a hill to die on.
I have observed a tendency among some Christians to equate “Christian” and “biblical” with “old-fashioned.” I once attended a very conservative Christian conference that had such an extreme view of modesty that many young women dressed like characters in a Jane Austen novel. In their homemade empire-waist Regency dresses, they were all quite modestly attired by today's standards. But the irony was not lost on me: to the young men of the Regency period, those dresses were hardly quaint and certainly not without the ability to inspire desire and lust.
Those prim and proper heroines of the Austen era were just as capable of pushing the limits of modesty as any modern girl.
Because while principles of modesty may be unchanging, practically speaking, what behavior and attire titillate is quite culturally relative. Compared to the stiff, structured dresses of the previous generation, the free-flowing dresses of the Regency period were alluring because they clung to a woman’s form. When a woman moved in one of those dresses, there was much to attract the eye of a man. In fact, women of this period dampened their dresses before a night out so that their clothes clung to their forms even more alluringly. That’s right. Those prim and proper heroines of the Austen era were just as capable of pushing the limits of modesty as any modern girl.
But there has never been a time when women did not want to attract the attention of men. And there has never been a time when there wasn’t conversation about where the line of propriety lies. There was no golden age of history when everyone agreed on what constituted appropriate, modest behavior and dress. Even an old fashioned dress can be alluring and inspire lust in the right circumstances.
Modesty is an issue of the heart, which is not to say that it is not also an issue of the eyes, hips, and shoulders. But if we fail to get to the heart of the matter, we will forever be arguing with Scarlet O’Hara about the appropriate placement of sleeves before noon. And we will get nowhere.
While I disagree that Austen-era clothing is the key to unraveling this mess, I do think that Jane Austen herself can offer some guidance about how to think about modesty. That might seem a strange statement since Austen never directly deals with issues of sexual modesty. In fact, many critics have observed that most of Austen’s characters are almost bodiless. That is, she rarely offers any detailed descriptions of the bodies of her characters. However, she is a very keen observer of human behavior. And it is to the question of modest behavior that she directs her attention. But it is not difficult to imagine that those characters who behave immodestly also push the limits of physical modesty as well. If anyone was dampening her dress, it was Lydia Bennett.
Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice can be read as a cautionary tale against the Lydias of the world. Superficial, flirtatious, boy-crazy girls desperate for attention very often end up in some dangerous and foolish situations. But if Lydia is the model for how a woman ought not to behave, who is the model of proper Christian modest behavior?
The obvious answer would seem to be Jane, Lydia’s opposite in almost every way. She is the eldest, to Lydia’s youngest; she is reserved, guarded, cautious—the very embodiment of a modest demeanor. While she enjoys the attention of Mr. Bingley, she is certainly not desperate or forward. In fact, she is determined to remain in control of her feelings and her behavior. Where Lydia is all passion run amok, Jane is the soul of modest reserve and self-control. But is Jane Austen presenting Jane Bennett as our model of appropriate behavior? Is she saying, don’t be like Lydia; be like Jane?
Consider the consequences of the behavior of both women. A superficial reading suggests that Jane is rewarded for her modest behavior with a good marriage, her happiness assured, while Lydia is punished for hers with a bad marriage and a great deal of future unhappiness. But a closer reading reveals a different picture.
Sure, Lydia makes a mess of things. A disaster. Her immodest behavior is set to ruin her life and bring her family down with her. Luckily for her, Darcy intervenes and rescues her, forcing Wickham to do the honorable thing and turning a potentially life-destroying situation into the best possible outcome—an unhappy marriage.
But Jane’s behavior makes a mess of things too. Jane’s ultra guarded behavior, her attempt to hide her interest in Mr. Bingley, creates a problem. Charlotte Lucas worries that “it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him.”
In contrast to Lydia, who throws herself shamelessly at men, trying to attract the attention of all them, Jane behaves in such an extreme, modest way that she gives no indication of her attraction to—and affection for—Bingley, and she never overtly encourages his interest in her. She is so successful in concealing her feelings that Darcy advises Bingley to give up his affection for Jane because he honestly believes that Jane does not reciprocate those feelings. That breakup destroys Jane’s happiness, launches her into a depression, and negatively affects the family—which was going to benefit from the social advantage of her marriage to Bingley.
In the character of Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Austen reveals that the real issue is wisdom, not rules.
Even Elizabeth, who is initially enraged at Darcy’s interference, comes to see that Darcy was not to blame, that he acted in good faith based on what he saw, and that the real problem was Jane’s extreme modesty. She even forgives him before she has any idea that he will ultimately restore Jane and Bingley. In the end, Darcy has to rescue both Lydia and Jane. He undoes the effects of the behavior of both women and establishes two marriages—one by bribing Wickham and the other by encouraging Bingley.
But then, if not Jane, who is our model for appropriate female behavior? The answer is Elizabeth. She is the ideal. She is neither a mindless, vain, flirt, nor someone extraordinarily guarded. At times, she is very concerned with propriety and reputation. She is embarrassed by the behavior of Lydia and is rightly concerned that her behavior will harm her and the family. And yet at other times, she rejects social conventions.
When her sisterly duty calls, she defies the current definition of modest female behavior when she walks to Netherfield Park alone despite the fact that being alone and taking long walks were considered immodest behavior for women. And when Caroline Bingley makes a catty remark about Elizabeth’s shocking behavior, Darcy claims that it makes her attractive. Don’t miss the significance of that response. Darcy finds Elizabeth's rejection of social convention/modest behavior attractive. In the end, Elizabeth is rewarded for this act of daring.
And yet, Elizabeth is no Lydia. Lydia rebels because she believes that any conversation about modesty and propriety is tyrannical and oppressive. But Elizabeth is principled. At times, she vigorously defends convention and propriety, like when she begs Mr. Collins not to introduce himself to Darcy, and at other times she refuses to play the game and says and does things designed to shock, like when she defends all of her sisters being “out” at once.
In the character of Elizabeth, Jane Austen reveals that the real issue is wisdom, not rules. It’s easy to get caught up in hard and fast rules to ensure virtue (and happy outcomes), but life is never that simple and neither is Christian living.
Sometimes rules of proper behavior are there to protect us; others are completely arbitrary and harmful. It takes wisdom to know the difference. A simple list of dos and don'ts will not suffice. And we will sometimes find ourselves in disagreement over where the line lies. And that’s okay. Those conversations are necessary as we seek to grow in wisdom.
Jane Austen offers no easy answers. All of life’s complexity is in her novels and characters. Too much concern about modesty can harm; and so can too little. The answer is not in rigid rules of modest behavior, but in the cultivation of virtue.