In this series, I’ve been examining the works of Jane Austen and finding parallel lessons within the vast teachings of Judaism. I am not a literary scholar or theologian, but I am drawn to the subject and am enjoying my findings. I hope that you, dear reader, feel the same way. As the title suggests, this is the third post of the series. I began by pointing out the long-held Jewish tradition of midrash~ the reworking of sacred text in order to personalize a story or to reimagine a story in a different setting. It is my theory that Jane Austen had mastered this skill. Having been exposed to the sacred text of the Five Books of Moses (A.K.A. the Torah or the Pentateuch) the whole of her life, she would have easily been able to combine her knowledge with her wit and keen sense of observation in the creation of her novels. Ready? Let’s begin!
Lo tov he–yot ha-adam le’vado ~ It is not good for Man to be alone
I realize that the quote mentioned above is from Genesis, but are you familiar with the Book of Ruth? I find even a cursory review of that story—or any story in the Old Testament, for that matter—shares similar socioeconomic truths found in Austen’s settings. Don’t believe me? I offer Sense and Sensibility as an example for comparison. In the biblical story, Naomi (Mrs. Dashwood) has lost her husband. Her sons are out of the picture as well (think Mr. John Dashwood). She is practically penniless and loses her home (Norland Park). Naomi (Mrs. Dashwood) has lost her place in society without the protection of her men. We are then introduced to Ruth, one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law. In my mind, Elinor Dashwood matches Ruth’s stalwart qualities. Ruth is the fearless, faithful, and rational daughter. Ruth (Elinor) strives to maintain some order and to see her family flourish once again. In comes Boaz, a man alone (Mr. Edward Ferrars or Colonel Brandon, if you prefer) to save the day!
Whether we read Torah or an Austen novel, we understand that the marriage state is desirable for the female protagonist. It ensures her financial and physical wellbeing. For the male, marriage obviously allows for the continuity of the family line; an heir to take on the role of provider and protector. Marriage, of course, is a sacred and divine institution. Entering into this holy covenant is a necessity to propagate the human race (Gen. 1:28). But in order for the marriage to be successful, both the biblical author and our Regency author require that the couple have a deeper understanding of the importance of morality and their significant role in preserving the fabric of society. It is evident in both types of stories that happy endings are granted to those of moral character. Elinor exudes this characteristic. When Marianne asks her sister how she could bear her disappointment regarding the loss of Edward, Elinor replies:
By feeling that I was doing my duty. My promise to Lucy, obliged me to be secret. I owed it to her, therefore, to avoid giving any hint of the truth; and I owed it to my family and friends, not to create in them a solicitude about me… I did not love only him; and while the comfort of others was dear to me, I was glad to spare them from knowing how much I felt.”
Elinor Dashwood is held up as a role model. We are meant to admire her qualities, to condole with her when she suffers, and to celebrate her merited happiness. In our biblical story, we know that Boaz admires Ruth’s dignified and modest behavior. He feels protective of her and strives to fulfill his duty— that is, once the scene is set and all obstacles to their union are removed. Likewise, Elinor and Edward find their happiness. But the couple is only rewarded because they adhered to societal rules and remained fixed to their moral compass. The story would not have the same meaning if Edward reneged on his promise to Lucy and ran into Elinor’s waiting arms. Not wanting to leave Colonel Brandon on his own, Austen grants Miss Marianne and the gentleman their H.E.A. as well; but only after the young lady reevaluates her life, and is found deserving of such happiness.
My illness has made me think…My feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. They shall…be regulated, [they] shall be checked by religion, by reason , by constant employment.”
Naturally, Austen does not grant Lucy Steele the same consideration as the other couples. Lucy doesn’t deserve it, neither does her popinjay-of-a-husband, Robert Ferrars. To do so would go against Austen’s philosophy and theology. I’m certain the biblical author would agree.
In my latest novel, Celestial Persuasion, Abigail Isaacs is a young lady with many unique qualities. Charts and instruments and mathematical equations are her forte; but when it comes to matters of the heart, Abigail is at a loss. Having known disappointment at a tender age, she is quite determined not to err again. Don’t misunderstand me, dear reader. She no longer finds fault with the young man of her youth. Oh no. She squarely lays the blame at her own door.
Because of this, Abigail decides she can’t trust her instincts. The intoxicating sensations of her first love are overwhelming, they cloud her judgment and eclipse her path. In the following passage, see how Abigail unburdens her heart to a new friend, Mariquita Sanchez de Thompson.
Mariquita smiled. “I know what it means to live in the shadow of men. But no more of that! All this talk of study and work…what of love? Why have you not married?”
“Ah, here is a frequent and familiar question. You must seek alliance with Mrs. Frankel and join in her enduring campaign.” Abigail thought to make light of it but sensed she would fail. “In truth, it is a painful subject to discuss.”
“If it haunts you so, perhaps you do better to share it with a friend. It will extinguish the power it holds over your heart.”
Abigail arose and began to pace the length of the gallery. She battled with the emotions that raged within and recognized that a transformation was, indeed, under way. The girl she had been in Exeter would not have dreamed of exchanging such intimate history with a relative stranger. But she recalled Mariquita’s candid declaration of her own tribulations and now felt tempted to pronounce her own.
“I was but seventeen when I found myself in love,” began Abigail. “I was a pretty young thing then and believed myself quite capable of living a happy, full life as a wife. His name was Mr. Bloom. Gabriel Bloom. He was four-and-twenty when he came to live with us, as an apprentice to my father’s medical practice. I had taken one look at him and fell under his power. His golden hair and light eyes shone like the sun. Everyone who knew him could not help but enjoy being in his presence.” She paused, staring across the garden yet seeing something altogether different in her mind’s eye.
“And was he a good student? Did he hold your father’s favor?”
“No, not at all. In fact, he would fail miserably at his tasks. But such was his affability, that my father granted him leniency time and time again. As time progressed, Papa could no longer disregard the errors or his lack of skill. Gabriel would laugh even as Papa scolded him. The admonishments continued, and yet Gabriel would not be moved. Somehow he believed his patients would heal, and better themselves, simply by his caring heart and tender ministrations. And then one day, Gabriel offered for me and promised a life full of laughter and adoration. I was mesmerized; his conquest was complete, and I willingly accepted.”
“Did your father dismiss Mr. Bloom from his service?”
She shook her head, as a tear made its way down her cheek. “If only that had been the case. Perhaps it would have been Gabriel’s salvation—and mine. What came to pass was altogether more painful. Papa had gone to Uppercross, a village not far from home. There had been a fever spreading around the villagers, but we had not thought it had reached Exeter or the surrounding farms. That evening, we had a knock upon the door. It was one of our neighbors, distraught and concerned for his babe. The child had broken out in a rash and was burning with a fever.”
“Oh, my dear!” cried Mariquita. “Tell me your father returned in time to save the child.”
“He did not. I begged Gabriel not to go in my father’s stead, but he chided my lack of faith. Quoting some witticism, he packed away his potions and powders with no regard to my pleas. Instead he rushed out following in the farmer’s footsteps.”
Abigail returned to her place alongside her friend and took up her now-tepid tea as if it could provide the sustenance necessary to complete her story. “The child did not survive, and when my father returned, he found a shell of a man. Gabriel could not forgive himself, though my father had reviewed the case and found no error had been committed. For weeks he suffered from a merciless depression. He refused to work; and when my father pressed him, one night at my urging, Gabriel became incensed. He railed at us, saying that we were in the wrong. How could he claim any happiness for himself? he demanded. He thought himself unworthy of any such absolution.”
“Indeed, it is a sorrowful tale,” said Mariquita.
“Gabriel left that evening, late at night when we were all abed. He scribbled a note begging my father’s forgiveness—and mine. My father wrote to his home and sought information from his parents. They had not heard from him in months. Then, one day, a patient came to the house. He told my father he had seen Gabriel Bloom in Plymouth. He was penniless—a vagrant, they said. I thought of him, wandering the streets, alone and miserable. Such needless suffering. I was heartbroken, but that sentiment rapidly evolved into something darker. I grew angry and afraid. You see, I had trusted him implicitly. All prudent thoughts were lost when I was with him, his hold over me was absolute. Had I followed Mr. Bloom in his wake of self-destruction, I would have condemned myself.”
“For all his devil-may-care affectations, it seems the poor young man was not strong enough to face life’s trials,” Mariquita replied. “You, my dear friend, are much stronger. Of that there can be no doubt.”
“Yet, sometimes, in the deepest, darkest part of the night,” Abigail murmured, “when the house is silent and still, I feel I understand him completely.”
“How so, querida?”
“I have come to Buenos Aires to start my life anew, but my heart remains heavy. I have lost everyone I have ever loved. My brother’s life was taken mercilessly. My mother and father are gone, long before their time. And I lost my Mr. Bloom—my only love, I fear.”
“Why should that be? You are young yet.”
Abigail’s weary sigh affirmed her resignation. “Like Mr. Bloom, I am not altogether certain that I merit much happiness. No, I will live out my days alone, filling each moment with productivity and, hopefully, in service to others.”
“That is utter foolishness!” cried Mariquita. “Once I have you securely tucked under my wing, you will soon heal your wounds and fly free! And there are many of my acquaintance who are—let us say, they are well situated in society. You will wish to speak to them about your projects.”
The impromptu meeting did much to unite the women, for the bonds of friendship are made stronger when put to the test. Mariquita made her farewells with the understanding that they would meet in two days’ time. As she saw the carriage off, Abigail sent up a prayer of gratitude. She had never spoken of this burden, though she believed Mrs. Frankel had some notion of it, for she was known to recite Deuteronomy chapter and verse whenever she saw Abigail appear downhearted: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, And you shall choose life…
Gabriel Bloom did not do away with his life, but neither did he choose to live it. Did she truly wish to follow in his footsteps? Did she have the courage to live life to its fullest? Her head began to ache, the emotions of the morning wiping away any impetus to work. She found a cozy nook with a comfortable chair. Settling in under a soft coverlet, Abigail closed her eyes and was soon fast asleep.
I mentioned earlier that Abigail is a young lady accustomed to calibrating instruments and taking measurements. She jots down her findings and follows their projected trajectories. But will she follow her internal compass and allow love into her heart, or will she reject all the signs—Heaven sent, or otherwise— and continue to walk alone? You’ll have to read the story and find out for yourself. Next time, we’ll look at Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.
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