In his 1943 work, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis famously wrote about the crisis he saw among young men. He lamented the younger generation’s apparent loss of affection for goodness and beauty:
I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite [skeptical] about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers…
As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
Long before Lewis mourned the prevalence of “men without chests,” Jane Austen may have noticed the same problem during the turn of the nineteenth century. She rebuked it by writing of men with chests. Where Lewis wielded apologetics, Austen crafted stories to extol the virtues of a true gentleman. Her novels may focus on women, but they also examine the actions and hearts of honorable or dastardly men. She upheld a particular kind of man as commendable, worth emulating, and deserving of a good woman.
A Good Man Does His Duty
Austen lived in a world ruled by social hierarchies with men at the top. She appreciated the philosopher Edmund Burke, who argued that England’s hierarchical social system could only function peacefully if virtuous people inhabited it. For him and his admirers like Austen, greater social standing came with greater responsibility. Many of Austen’s fictional heroes occupy high and privileged positions in the English aristocracy. Those she upholds as good and worthy consistently carry themselves with decency and goodwill.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper warmly praises him for his generosity as a master and landlord. Her respect plays a noted role in opening Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes and heart to his best qualities. Similarly, Mr. Knightley of Emma has the reputation of a trusted landlord and benevolent neighbor, always ready to give friendly advice to his tenants and to open his home to the wider community. Knightley provides a sharp contrast to Frank Churchill, who lives extravagantly by all accounts but cannot be bothered to pay his father proper notice. When heroine Emma Woodhouse argues with Knightley about Churchill’s motives, saying that there could be good reason for his behavior, Knightley remains undeterred, saying:
There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigor and resolution.
For his part, Mr. Knightley admirably strives to do his duty to everyone around him, and Austen’s story esteems and rewards him for it.
A Good Man Defends the Vulnerable
In Austen’s novels, a gentleman’s duty nearly always includes protecting those who could be easily misused. In Emma, the town’s middle-aged spinster Miss Bates has lost position, fortune, and much respectability besides. As a result, she, her mother, and her niece Jane Fairfax remain dependent on the goodwill of others. Here again, Mr. Knightley sets an example with his particular kindness and generosity towards them.
Similarly, the gallant Captain Wentworth of Persuasion advocates for the poor widow Miss Smith to help her regain lost property, thereby assisting her return to independent living. Moreover, who could forget Mr. Darcy’s arduous efforts to locate wayward Lydia Bennet and facilitate her marriage to Mr. Wickham, all to save the Bennet family from disgrace? Before this, he talked eloquently of his love for Elizabeth Bennet, but these sacrificial actions from him seal the reader’s confidence in his declarations.
Among all Austen’s heroes, Sense and Sensibility’s noble Colonel Brandon defends the vulnerable in his charge the most devotedly. For much of the novel, Colonel Brandon is a bit of an enigma till readers learn that his quiet nature covers a painful past. They discover that the woman he once loved was not only separated from him, but also cast out of respectable society and left to die in a poorhouse. Many of Austen’s time would consider such a woman beneath notice or help. In reproach of this common attitude, Colonel Brandon cares for his lost love during her final illness and takes her illegitimate daughter as his ward. Sense and Sensibility sees that daughter face misfortune similar to that of her mother, and the colonel’s name and protection once again save an ill-fortuned girl from certain poverty and ruin.
In light of Colonel Brandon’s past, his attentiveness and selfless care for the Dashwood family suddenly have new layers of meaning. His love for Marianne Dashwood gains a context of fierce protectiveness and self-denial, while his gentle and patient pursuit of her only increases his worthiness in the end.
A Good Man Loves Ardently
What Austen enthusiast hasn’t sighed at Mr. Darcy’s declaration of ardent admiration and love for Elizabeth, or shed a tear as Mr. Knightley tells Emma, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more”?
Jane Austen wrote of men of great action who also loved deeply. For her, true virtue could not be divorced from ardent affections. Her most admirable fictional heroes simultaneously embrace their responsibilities and their zealous loves. Though Darcy and Knightley’s proposals draw the most popular attention, Captain Wentworth’s passionate heart stands out even more. He bravely leads men into war and takes his social duties seriously, yet he also freely pours out his heart to Anne Elliot in perhaps the most romantic declaration of love in English literature:
You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.
Friends teasingly remind me that real life isn’t a Jane Austen novel. I generally laugh along with them and roll my eyes. Despite this, I credit Austen with training me to expect true gentlemanly behavior from the men in my life. If C.S. Lewis saw a crisis of “men without chests” in 1943, then we can safely claim the same crisis in 2023. May stories like Austen’s—those that uphold strong, dutiful, protective, ardent men—encourage the making of more good men in real life.