“But to be candid . . . —to take the good of everybody’s character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad—belongs to you alone.”—Elizabeth Bennet to her sister Jane in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Is candor taking the good and ignoring the bad?? Many words used by Jane Austen have changed meaning since her time, but we tend not to notice if the word is still in use.
I think of candor as being full of light, like “candle” or “incandescent.” In Divergent, the house of “Candor” always tells the truth. But this candor has a dark side—it reveals dark secrets, and it encourages people to say whatever they think, even if it hurts others. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh speaks with modern candor: uncensored speech and forthrightness. But, she did not practice what Jane Austen knew as “candour” (the British spelling).
“Candour” was a Christian virtue, a way of showing love. It meant seeing the best in people, generously making excuses for anything that looked bad, kindly forgiving human weaknesses, “assuming right motives,” as a marriage counselor once told my husband and myself to do.
Blair’s Sermon “On Candour” and Jane Bennet
Hugh Blair wrote a sermon “On Candour” that Austen probably read. She refers to Blair twice in her novels: In Mansfield Park Mary Crawford says clergy should preach from Blair’s Sermons, and in Northanger Abbey Henry Tilney uses Blair, who also wrote a book on rhetoric, as an authority on word usage.
Blair’s sermon is based on I Corinthians 13:5, which in the King James Version says Charity . . . “thinketh no evil.” A more modern translation, the NIV, says Love . . . “is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” According to Blair, this does not mean that we never judge anything as wrong; clearly we are to abhor and condemn evil. But we are not to be quick to judge and condemn people.
Blair says many people appear on the outside to be smiling and kind, but on the inside are thinking evil of others. However, Jane Bennet’s candour comes from her heart.
Her sister Elizabeth tells her, “Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes. I never heard you speak ill of a human being in your life.”
Jane responds, “I would not wish to be hasty in censuring anyone; but I always speak what I think.”
“I know you do; and it is that which makes the wonder. With your good sense, to be so honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation [pretense] of candour is common enough—one meets with it everywhere. But to be candid without ostentation or design—to take the good of everybody’s character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad—belongs to you alone.”
Blair says the person of candour recognizes that there is good and bad in everyone, and even one’s enemies have some virtues. (Shades of Luke Skywalker, who sees good even in Darth Vader!) When the candid person sees the speck in his brother’s eye, he is aware of the log in his own eye (Luke 6:41)—he remembers his own faults and so does not judge the other person’s faults harshly.
When Bingley leaves and doesn’t return, Elizabeth is quick to blame him, but Jane refuses to judge him. She sees her own vanity, the log in her own eye, as a bigger problem than Bingley’s neglect, saying, “We must not be so ready to fancy ourselves intentionally injured. We must not expect a lively young man to be always so guarded and circumspect. It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us. Women fancy [imagine] admiration means more than it does.”
“And men take care that they should,” responds Elizabeth.
Jane, however, assumes the best, that Bingley did not hurt her on purpose. She says, “If it is designedly done, they cannot be justified; but I have no idea of there being so much design in the world as some persons imagine.”
According to Blair, the candid person needs a lot of evidence before condemning someone, and if there is any room for doubt, any possible good motives, he will suspend judgment. He listens calmly to apologies, and is open to extenuating circumstances.
When Jane hears Wickham’s slanders about Darcy, she seeks to justify them both. “’They have both,‘ said she, ‘been deceived, I dare say, in some way or other, of which we can form no idea. Interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other. It is, in short, impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side.’”
Jane keeps an open mind even when her whole community is condemning Darcy. She “was the only creature who could suppose there might be any extenuating circumstances in the case, unknown to the society of Hertfordshire; her mild and steady candour always pleaded for allowances, and urged the possibility of mistakes . . .” And she was right.
The Opposite of Candour: Elizabeth Bennet
The opposite of candour, the tendency to judge quickly and severely, is based on . . . pride, and prejudice! Prejudice classifies people in groups, us versus them, rather than seeing them as individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses. Pride considers our own strengths best, and focuses on the weaknesses in others to reinforce our idea of ourselves.
Elizabeth believes Wickham and ridicules Darcy at every turn. When she discovers the truth that Wickham is a liar and Darcy is a man of integrity, she recognizes her own pride and prejudice. She realizes she has been “blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd. ‘How despicably I have acted!’ she cried; ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment. . . . who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery!’”
Blair tells us the candid person “enjoys his situation, whatever it is, with cheerfulness and peace.” When Elizabeth tries to convince Jane of the selfishness of Bingley’s sisters (in which she turns out to be correct), Jane responds, “you make everybody acting unnaturally and wrong, and me most unhappy. . . . Let me take it in the best light, in the light in which it may be understood.” Some of Jane’s peaceful serenity comes from her ability to think the best of people. She does recognize Wickham’s deceit and Bingley’s sisters’ selfishness, once it has been “proved against them”; she is not a fool, but she thinks well of people as long as possible.
Finally, Blair warns that we will be judged in the way that we judge others (Matt. 7:1-2), and forgiven as we forgive others (Lk. 11:4). In accepting God’s forgiveness and mercy, we need to extend that forgiveness and mercy to others.
Other Austen heroines also learn the value of candour. Marianne Dashwood, who has judged everyone around her, comes to see her own faults and treat others with more charity. Emma Woodhouse learns that she has assumed wrong motives for Jane Fairfax, when she should have practiced candour towards her.
Candour is a form of love, of being patient and kind, forgiving, slow to judge, believing all things and hoping all things. Jane Bennet is our model. I want to be more like her, assuming the best and not the worst.
I can pray with Jane Austen, in one of the Prayers she wrote, “Incline us oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.”
Is there anyone you need to show candour to today, giving them the benefit of the doubt?
Austen, Jane. The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Palmera Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Blair, Hugh. Sermons. New edition. London: Cadell and others, 1827. Sermon XXV “On Candour,” pages 226-235.
Tave, Stuart M. Some Words of Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, pages 87-90.