"Every thing united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world and a warm heart. He had strong feelings of family-attachment and family-honour, without pride or weakness; he lived with the liberality of a man of fortune, without display; he judged for himself in every thing essential, without defying public opinion in any point of worldly decorum. He was steady, observant, moderate, candid; never run away with by spirits or by selfishness which fancied itself strong feeling; and yet, with a sensibility to what was amiable and lovely, and a value for all the felicities of domestic life."
Thus Jane Austen defines an excellent man in her last novel, "Persuasion," and dares us to find his equal in our own public and private spheres: Bill Clinton? Ross Perot? Brad Pitt? Kurt Cobain?
Perhaps the yearning for such an individual inspires the current wave of Austen novels committed to celluloid. It began with the Alicia Silverstone vehicle, "Clueless" (a crypto-Emma), gathered steam with Roger Michell's fine "Persuasion" (now in theaters), and will carry on through the December release of "Sense and Sensibility" (starring Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson) and a new BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice," concluding, fittingly, with a film version of "Emma" more faithful to the original.
Although Austen's novels -- subtle, ironic and confined to the genteel parlors of the British rural middle class of the early 1800's -- hardly scream cinematic potential, the social climate she describes isn't that far from our own. Authority rests in the hands of a dubious elite, prosperity seems precarious and, most of all, parents are just not doing their jobs. Not a single Austen heroine enjoys the influence of a fully functional family. Their mothers and fathers prove negligent, over-indulgent, cynical, shallow, neurotic or simply absent.
And yet, all of these women manage to muddle their way to a sane and satisfying adulthood without recourse to sawed-off shotguns or a court of law. Austen had an idea of how to live in this imperfect world that comprised balance, moderation and consideration -- all sorely undervalued in our sensation-mad society or, for that matter, in her own.
No doubt if Austen were publishing "Sense and Sensibility" today, her agent would urge her to title it "Sense vs. Sensibility," so profound is our confusion of bunkered extremism with integrity, so great is our fascination with the intellectual equivalent of trial by combat. But by the end of Austen's first novel the two Dashwood sisters meet in the middle: the temperamental Marianne becomes more reasonable and considerate, and sensible Elinor warms.
In Marianne Dashwood, Austen satirized the Romantic cult of unrestrained emotional display. Today, that same mentality makes a suicide into a tragic hero -- provided he dies young and pretty. The sufferings of the aging and homely lack glamour.
By contrast, "Persuasion's" heroine, Anne Elliot, has lost her looks, which ought to disqualify her as the subject of any Hollywood movie (and perhaps it does; the film is a British production). In that novel, Austen ventures that true love arises from deep mutual respect rather than an instantaneous seizure of sexual passion.
An unconventional assertion even in Austen's day, to suggest that one's inner landscape might matter more than physical beauty, that plain people can lead wonderful lives. It's a welcome respite in our image-besotted culture.
Finally, Austen's novels display the serene conviction that decency, civility and common sense will be rewarded. Not by the hand of God, but simply because they lead to warm and lasting relationships and lives free of turmoil, dissatisfaction and debt. What would she think of the contemporary pressure to judge by appearances, seek our own advantage at all times, indulge our most childish caprices while conforming slavishly to trends, and equate material wealth with happiness? Probably that it was all too familiar and none too sensible. And perhaps we're beginning to suspect she was right.