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The ethical and social parameters of Jane Austen’s society are firmly set. The primary demand of Austen’s society is that each person should be a good human being within the boundaries of his or her class. Morality is exercised in acting respectfully to those above one in the social scale and charitably, within limits, to the poor, with appropriately quantified compassion to those on the intervening social steps. Honesty is a primary value at every class level. Almost equally important is diffidence, or modesty. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, for example, has everything in his favor, wealth, breeding, good looks—but these would be much less valuable than they are if Elizabeth did not in the course of the novel discover in him inherent modesty, even shyness. And Mr. Knightley in Emma would not be nearly as attractive to Austen or her reader if he were pompous or indifferent to his equals or his social inferiors.
KeywordsSocial Scale General Duty Primary Demand Social Compact Civic Structure
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- 1.A significant collection of such documents, however, is available, especially in the first and third volumes, of the superb Narratives of the Poor in Eighteenth-Century Britain, ed. Alysa Levene. 5 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2006).Google Scholar