What made me who I am? I know my family, my culture and my temperament all played a part. But I need to acknowledge that my friends have influenced me. From my childhood and teenage friends to my adult friends they have helped to sculpt who I am today. They are the ones figuratively sitting around the kitchen table right now, encouraging me in this very venture; editing and advising and encouraging and reading. How rich is my life to have such individuals? Jane Austen had just such a coterie around her, consisting of friends and family who helped her and encouraged her to live out her dream. And I would suggest that that is why friendship figures as it does in her novels. Friendship can sometimes be missing in modern media but in the Austen Six, friendship is there and it does bring happiness. Alongside important lessons in love, are important lessons in friendship.
The need to have good friends is a philosophical principle that has comedown through the ages from antiquity. From Aristotle to Epicurus and the modern day Alain de Botton friendship is one of the secrets to a happy and fulfilled life. And perhaps because friendship is so commonplace we often take it for granted. Sometimes we think the home renovation that we aspire to will make us happy, when in actual fact, it is the friends that we will fill it with that are the crucial element. Yet Austen does not take it for granted. As we progress through life it is our friendships that track where we have been and how we have acted. Aristotle spent much philosophical time defining friendship. Interestingly he believed that it is only possible to have true virtuous friendship with a small number of people. A virtuous friendship takes time and commitment and so it is not for everyone. This might appear to be an anathema to those who think they are popular because they have collected hundreds of “friends” on Facebook. What Aristotle tells us, Austen shows us. In each of her worlds of the Austen Six, friendship makes the lives of the characters worth living. A strong friendship is what shows us the nature of the character. Valuing your friends, giving them eminence in your life, is what will bring happiness over and above the riches and trappings of “success”. (Maybe this is why our celebrities can be so unhappy. They have fame and success but unless particularly well grounded, they may confuse what matters in life.) And friendships are more likely to blossom and bring about happiness than success in your day job. In the Austen Six, friendship is clearly one of the themes that weaves its magic throughout the six worlds. Romance may be the leading actor but friendship is the crucial support role.
Life may be full of worries and wrong turns but with friends who are happy to come part of the way there is indeed a consolation. Real friends, not people who you cultivate to get somewhere, but friends that can travel with you through adversities and joys. Aristotle said, “It is necessary that friends bear good will to each other and wish good things for each other”. It seems so innocuous and basic. But it shows that competition and jealousies have no place. And my theory here is that Jane Austen’s novels have this Aristotelian principle. Austen crafts her novels with clues to the characters that are sometimes not noticed until several re readings. Given this week’s 200 year anniversary into the publication of Pride and Prejudice, it is interesting to note that one such clue came early: Mr Darcy could not be all bad as he had a good friend in Mr Bingly. Elizabeth’s sister, our dear optimistic Jane says, “How can Mr Bingly, who seems good humour itself, and is, I believe, truly amiable be in friendship with such a man?” Austen clearly values friendship.