Like any good virtue ethicist, Austen proceeds by giving illustrative examples. This is why her characters are moral rather than psychological constructs. Austen's purpose is not to explore their inner lives, but to expose particular moral pathologies to the attention of the reader. Don't act like this: Don't cut off your relatives without a penny after promising your father you would look after them and justify it with self-serving casuistic rationalisations (as John Dashwood does in Sense and Sensibility). Don't be like this: Morally incontinent like Mrs Bennet; or struck through with a single huge flaw, like Mr Bennet's selfish wish to live a private life while being the head of a family (Pride and Prejudice).
But as well as excoriating such obvious though conventional moral failings of human nature, Austen attends carefully, and with a fine brush, to illustrating the fine detail, and fine-tuning, that true virtue requires. To show us what true amiability should be, she shows us what it isn't quite. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is so excessively amiable as to put her own dignity and interests at risk, so self-effacing that her true love almost doesn't notice her (until... [continues]
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