During the long eighteenth century, benevolence was thought to be the greatest of all virtues. In her later novels especially, Jane Austen emphasized its primacy, showing that benevolence must be taught, practiced, and perfected through rigorous self-analysis and the repudiation of self-indulgence. The heroes of those novels tend to exercise benevolence in accordance with the duties of their profession, especially as described in the courtesy books of the period. Nevertheless, even if adept at helping the needy or extending kindness toward their peers, her central male characters do not find happiness until they discipline themselves to be more benevolent toward people of all ranks. Although the novels do not advocate a political solution for ending poverty, Austen suggests that her readers can improve society through benevolent action.

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