Like most rugged and red-blooded American men I have long enjoyed the work of Jane Austen. My mother (a women with excellent literary credentials) once described Austen to me as the Mozart of fiction. What she provides, so says my mother, is perfection. In Mozart you hear each note and think “Ah yes. That is exactly the right note for there.” Mozart does not shock or surprise. Mozart does not produce works of dark brooding genius (no Beethoven he). Rather, he is a master of working within and tweaking conventions to produce wonderful, rational, and elegant pieces that are simply perfect. That is Austen.
I first encountered Austen in my teens. Through a complex series of events, I found myself on a hideously long bus ride from the south-west corner of Turkey up what used to be called the Ionian coast to Istanbul. The bus was filled with noisy, smoking Turks, the road we traveled was long on traffic jams and short on scenery and I had exhausted my reading material. In extremis, I turned to the one book that was available to me: Pride and Prejudice. I threw a jacket over my head to filter out some of the smoke (the windows as a cruel fate would have it, did not open) and read about the Miss Bennetts and Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Bingley. I was entranced. Needless to say, I fell a little in love with Elizabeth Bennett, although even at the end of the book I couldn’t really figure out what she saw in Mr. Darcy. I can’t think it accidental that in the fullness of time, I did in fact end up marrying a Miss Bennett.
Austen, so I am told, has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the last ten or fifteen years, although, needless to say, there has always been a solid core of rugged manly fans like myself. The argument I have heard is that in the romantic chaos of the second or third generation after the sexual revolution, there is a powerful nostalgia for a world like Austen’s where sexual interaction proceeded according to well-defined patterns with well-defined goals, and where participants in the game had a rich vocabulary of social custom with which to negotiate. I can’t help but thinking that there is some truth to this.
My wife’s roommates in college expressed shock that she dated. For them a world in which a young man would ask a young woman out seemed almost as foreign as Netherfield Park and worries about scandal and good society. For myself, I observed the same chaotic social dynamic among my non-Mormon friends. There were periods of hanging out which would then lead to hooking up. In the best case scenario, hooking up resulted in “a relationship,” which imposed some duties of loyalty and order. Since “intimacy” has replaced “fornication” as the description of pre-marital sex my friends seem to find themselves in a world that is both too informal and too formal. They have the undifferentiated situation of “hanging out” or the odd proto-marital (or perhaps sub-marital would be a better term) status of “a serious relationship.” What they lack is a clear system for testing and trying out the possibility of being a couple with others. The decline of dating has destroyed the intermediate phase between friendship and acquaintance on one hand and commitment (of some kind) on the other. This portrait is, of course, overdrawn, but I think there is some truth to the caricature.
The Mormon dating culture is not without its own pathologies, and I have the scars to prove it. Still, I can’t help but feeling that I was in some sense well-served by it. It provided me with a set of social templates that had enough independent content to supplement my own meager social resources. I was able to venture into the jungle despite intense romantic insecurities because the date provided a kind of limited liability, and I knew that what ever train wrecks might come, provided that I stayed within the rules of the convention the damage would be limited. Furthermore, I could place some hope in the institution even if I didn’t place much hope in myself. I had some half-articulated faith in the ability of a tried and true process to carry me through. In a sense, I suppose, that my faith was somewhat misplaced, as the wooing of my Miss Bennett ultimately forced me out of the safety of the conventions. Nevertheless, I think that on the whole they served me well.
It seems to me that we tend to think of chastity in crassly biological terms. Our goal is for the unmarried to avoid unauthorized copulation and undue stimulation of the reptilian bits of our brain where the completely inarticulate instinct to do so lurks with a single-minded determination to insure the survival its genes. Yet it seems to me that chastity should be a social as well as a simply hygienic exercise. It is not simply a matter of suppressing certain glandular tendencies but also of providing a social vocabulary in which they are channeled, endowed with meaning, and properly celebrated. At the end of the day, Austen’s England — even in its hearty, unaffected, country-side instantiation — would have driven me nuts. On the other hand, I do think that the Mozart of her stories provides us with an important insight into a certain aspect of what makes chastity a virtue.