Category Archives: Jane Austen

The Importance of What-If Questions in Christian Fiction

Nobody can agree on the purpose of Christian fiction. I suspect this is just as true in the arena of the speculative. But I’ll hazard a guess that most speculative authors are asking “what if” questions, meant to ponder the meaning of life, science, philosophy, and humanity’s place in the universe.

When applying these questions to a Christian model, heated debates inevitably ensue. I don’t know the reason for it, but Christians often insist that the answers to these questions are black and white and, furthermore, many Christian writers tell tales as if they already know the answers to these what-ifs. Therefore, how dare an author ask them in the first place and, conversely, how dare a reader venture down those shaky roads of what-if questions that don’t have obvious or clear answers. But maybe, just maybe, those what-if questions are just as important for the Christian message as having all the answers.

For the purpose of my venture into the speculative, I’d like to go all the way back to the British 18th C Gothic. I’m going to quote from two classic works from this time period, Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Gothic literature was an English creation. They created it at the height of the Enlightenment, at the pinnacle of philosophical and scientific thought, and during a turbulent period of history. They used the Gothic as a means of imaginative escape into a world where anything was possible, and, what is more, they used it as a means of balance. They balanced virtue with vice, sublimity with beauty, and, ultimately, science and rational thought with the supernatural, just as current speculative fiction balances the terror of the unknown with reality.

Consider this quote from one of the heroes at the end of Romance: “‘Call [my thoughts on the afterlife] not the illusions of a visionary brain,’ proceeded La Luc: ‘I trust in their reality. Of this I am certain, that whether they are illusions or not, a faith in them ought to be cherished for the comfort it brings to the heart, and reverenced for the dignity it imparts to the mind. Such feelings make a happy and an important part of our belief in future existence: they give energy to virtue, and stability to principle’” (275).

Although La Luc is speaking about his dead wife and his faith in an afterlife, there is a secondary meaning that emerges, here, at the conclusion to the novel. Radcliffe is telling her readers that the incredible events of her story, the depth of evil, and the hints of the supernatural, are not necessarily illusions. Believing that the world is evil also leads to a belief in goodness, which becomes a kind of imaginative faith. This faith leads to happiness, but more than that, it energizes those most important Christian notions of virtue and principle.

Even Jane Austen, in her novel that mocked Radcliffe’s, Northanger Abbey, has her heroine, Catherine, concede that Radcliffe’s type of evil isn’t tolerated in England–and yet, even though there are no purely evil villains, no vampires or monsters, nor any thoroughly pure heroines walking around in “‘[Henry to Catherine] a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such footing;’” even so, Catherine responds this way: “among the English, [Catherine] believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad” (Austen, 157-8).

Perhaps the depth of depravity in Radcliffe’s novels could never have occurred in a rational country–although I would beg to differ with Henry on that one–but evil does exist in the world. Allowing the mind to imagine clearer, stronger notions of these opposites can motivate a person to act more virtuously. That is part of Catherine’s point and, by extension, Austen’s. In imagining horrible scenarios, Catherine may have got her facts wrong, but she didn’t get them wrong in principle. Her imagination helped her understand the true character of her imagined villain. 

The what-if questions of speculative fiction bring balance to Christian fiction because they force us to step out of reality in order to understand it better.

Gothic fiction may not be the beginning of the speculative genre, although Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often considered the first true science fiction novel, but it is integral to understanding the purpose behind Christian supernatural fiction.

But I have one BIG question: why is this genre** not popular in the Christian market? Are we frightened of the questions? Are we afraid the answers won’t line up with our preconceived notions of God and his interactions with mankind?

**Editing to say that I used the term “genre” last night when I was tired. I really meant “spec fic”, which is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple genres–Gothic being one of them.

p.s. I quoted from these editions:
Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey 1818.  Longman Cultural Edition 2005.  Ed. Marilyn Gaull.

Radcliffe, Ann.  The Romance of the Forest 1791.  Oxford University Press 1999.  Ed. Chloe Chard.

p.p.s. painting by Salvator Rosa


Solving One of Literature’s Great Questions With the Enneagram (this time it’s real!)

First of all, I should explain the Enneagram to you. It’s a personality typing system, one I prefer over the Big Five and the MBTI. The MBTI is based off Jungian theory of psychological traits and, while I think the system has merit, the traits seem so black and white when set against each other–are people really introverted or extroverted, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving?  The Big Five is a set of (obviously) five personality domains that its researchers and developers found to be common in all societies. But each domain has its opposite, so soon begins to look much like the MBTI: inventive vs cautious, efficient vs easy-going, etc.

Neither the Big Five nor the MBTI addresses motivational underpinnings of why people act as they do. What makes an INTJ prefer to be introverted and unemotional, for example? You could give me a nature vs nurture argument, but it seems clear that we are who we are despite how we are nurtured. Environment easily explains why some people are healthier than others, and fails to explain the essence of personality. Why does one abused child grow up to be a perfectionist, and another grow up to be a creative individualist?  What is driving the perfectionism and the individualism? The Enneagram typing is different than the others because it looks at the underlying fear and basic desire of each of its nine personality types.

To me, this is liberating. I haven’t studied the Enneagram long enough to know whether it has been peer-reviewed or whether it has credibility within the circles of behavioral scientists because, frankly, I’m not certified (or certifiable!). I’m a fiction writer, as well as a lifelong student of people and their habits, and, from the perspective of a natural (that is, not formally educated) social scientist, the Enneagram makes sense.

For my own experimentation, I decided to put the nine Enneagram personality types to the test of an author known for her characterization. Who better than Jane Austen? I’ve read her books numerous times, plus I have movie versions of each one. The benefit of using both the books and the movies is in seeing how well Jane’s characters translate in modern works of art. If the Enneagram theory is correct, and there really are nine basic personality types, they should be evident in classic books that don’t rely solely on archetypes. And–this is very important, as well–the characters should translate with little difficulty into modern adaptations.

My purpose is not to teach the entire Enneagram. Instead, look it up if you’re interested. Here’s a rundown of the nine types with only a basic explanation:

1: The Reformer. Fears being corrupt. Desires to be good.
2: The Helper. Fears being unwanted. Desires to feel loved.
3: The Achiever. Fears being worthless. Desires to feel worthwhile.
4: The Individualist. Fears not having an identity. Desires to create an identity.
5: The Investigator. Fears being incapable. Desires to be competent.
6: The Loyalist. Fears not having support. Desires security.
7: The Enthusiast. Fears being deprived or in pain. Desires to have their needs fulfilled.
8: The Challenger. Fears being controlled by others. Desires to be in control of self, or to protect self.
9: The Peacemaker. Fears loss or separation. Desires to be at peace. 

Did I find correlations in Jane Austen’s characters? Yes, I did. Or, as an android would say, “Affirmative!” I’ve attempted to type all the main characters in her six novels, but for today, I’ll give you my rundown of her six protagonists:

Catherine Morland is a type 4 individualist. Her story goal is to discover her identity as a heroine.

Elinor Dashwood is a type 1 reformer. She desires to do what is right all the time.

Elizabeth Bennet is a type 8 challenger. She doesn’t appreciate losing control of any situation, least of all to Mr. Darcy.

Emma Woodhouse is a type 3 achiever. She needs others to look up to her in order to feel worthwhile.

Anne Elliot is a type 4 individualist. She attempts to be herself, despite her meddlesome family and friends.

Fanny Price is a type 5 investigator because she feels capable through study. Doesn’t she? It’s been a while since I’ve read Mansfield Park.

What great literature question did I solve? Well, it was simple, really. I was busy watching Pride and Prejudice, and it suddenly struck me that Elizabeth’s basic fear was of losing control of her destiny. By contrast, Mr. Darcy’s biggest fear was in doing wrong according to the standard of morality he had set. Therefore, the great question of who represents pride, who prejudice became clear to me. Elizabeth is prideful because she must be in control; Darcy is prejudiced because others can’t meet his strict standards of behavior.

Sometimes, it’s good to laugh. Really, that was a whimsical exercise–because, who cares? All humans are prideful at times, and all suffer from prejudice. But it’s a relief to oversimplify the world on occasion, rather than the opposite, which is what I’m most apt at doing. Because I’m an Enneagram type 5, INTJ, with a predominance of Inquisitiveness on the Big 5. Go figure.


Do You Have Any Favorite First Sentences? Send Them My Way in the Comments!

In my attempt to improve the first few pages of one novel, today, I had a fun foray with first sentences.  Instead of tearing my hair out and screaming madly because first sentences and pages are so difficult, I looked through numerous books on my shelves and read their first sentences.  I was shocked at how many books, both old and new, begin with the weather.  None of them were bad, mind you, but they weren’t particularly compelling, either.  Here is the one I thought was best (by a modern author):  “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu” (Waiting, by Ha Jin).  The book, itself, depressed the heck out of me when I read it, but the first sentence is perfect because it sets the tone and subject and characters and creates a conundrum. 

Jane Austen, of course, always wrote hooks into her first sentences or first pages; she may have been the first master of the hook, so I have to mention her in this discussion.  And then I have to giggle at one of my favorite authors, John Mortimer, because the first sentence in my Rumpole Omnibus is an entire paragraph long–and I’m talking about an old-fashioned length paragraph that is dense with words.  Oh, my, what splendid clauses Mortimer is capable of.  Hats off to the man who created Rumpole and She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed!