Thomas Rodham is commending Jane Austen as a brilliant moral philosopher and, more particularly, virtue ethicist. For him as for so many other of her readers, she is 'wise as well as clever'. His case for Austen falls into two parts.
In the first part, though he gives her proper credit for her role in inventing the modern novel, her focus on ordinary lives, indeed her literary genius, Rodham argues that Austen no longer measures up to the demands of the 'subtle psychological realism' of contemporary fiction. Her characters, he thinks, are 'complexes of particular moral dispositions rather than plausible people'; they 'do not have the psychological completeness we would now expect'.
He goes on, in the second part of what he says, to try to show how what is 'timelessly brilliant about Austen’s novels' is their content as 'deeply serious morality plays'. They attempt to educate their readers morally, 'analyse and teach a virtue ethics'; and he illustrates the way they do this with examples from the books themselves.
I have two problems with Rodham's argument. First, I flatly disagree with his judgement that Austen's characters aren't plausible people or that her fiction is lacking by some modern standard of subtle psychological realism. I can't really argue for this other than by saying that, by and large, I haven't found, in reading her novels and those of contemporary writers, that she falls short in psychological acuity or the construction of realistically interesting and complicated people. If I think of the episode on Box Hill when Emma hurts Miss Bates's feelings, or the very particular and surprising way she is made aware of the nature of her own feelings for Mr Knightley; if I think of Mrs Norris who 'disliked Fanny, because she [that is, Mrs Norris] had neglected her'; and of dozens more episodes, thoughts, developments, in the six novels, I am impressed by Austen's richness of perception, as well as by her wit and the beauty of her writing.
Second, while Austen's novels indubitably do carry a freight of moral teaching, were it true that they did so in the way Rodham suggests, she would not be the towering figure of English literature that she is. If it were really the case that her characters are, as he claims, 'moral rather than psychological constructs', or that her novels are so driven by her desire to impart the moral lessons as to fall short in emotional plausibility, they would likely be much more dreary than they are. The trick, which Jane Austen understood as well as anybody, is to embody moral 'commentary' in complex human characters behaving in ways that make sense given the characters they are. Otherwise the effects can be wooden and unconvincing.
Rodham's praise of Austen, though this is not intended by him, is diminishing of her real literary stature.