My favorite Christmas stories are about service to others, so I thought today, I’d share about ways that Austen’s characters help the poor and needy. However, as I brainstormed about the various stories, one character stood out as a stellar example–so much so that I couldn’t help comparing him to Dickens’ Mr. Fezziwig. That character is Sir John Middleton.
In the beginning of Sense and Sensibility, Austen illustrates how Fanny Dashwood’s selfish ways can make a miserable family even more miserable. Fanny is rather a Scrooge, don’t you think? She doesn’t want the Dashwoods to have any of the money her husband inherits. But, luckily, as Mrs. Dashwood has reached a point of despair, a letter from Sir John arrives:
“It was the offer of a small house, on very easy terms, belonging to a relation of her own, a gentleman of consequence and property in Devonshire. The letter was from this gentleman himself, and written in the true spirit of friendly accommodation. He understood that she was in need of a dwelling; and though the house he now offered her was merely a cottage, he assured her that everything should be done to it which she might think necessary, if the situation pleased her. He earnestly pressed her, after giving the particulars of the house and garden, to come with her daughters to Barton Park, the place of his own residence, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage, for the houses were in the same parish, could, by any alteration, be made comfortable to her. He seemed really anxious to accommodate them and the whole of his letter was written in so friendly a style as could not fail of giving pleasure to his cousin.”
“His countenance was thoroughly good-humoured; and his manners were as friendly as the style of his letter. Their arrival seemed to afford him real satisfaction, and their comfort to be an object of real solicitude to him. He said much of his earnest desire of their living in the most sociable terms with his family, and pressed them so cordially to dine at Barton Park every day till they were better settled at home, that, though his entreaties were carried to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offence.”
I love that Sir John isn’t a great example of etiquette. The fact that he’s not perfect is comforting, a reminder that even average people like me can bring joy to others.
As the story continues, it’s obvious that Sir John brings much happiness to the Dashwood family. He introduces them to other people, invites them to dinner, takes them on excursions, visits them frequently, and holds balls. Yes, it is painful for Elinor to meet Lucy Steele, and Sir John’s teasing is annoying, but what would the Dashwoods have done without him, that “benevolent, philanthropic man”?