Thursday, July 23, 2009

Austen's hedged Christianity?

Steventon Rectory
(Image from Wikipedia)

The image above of the Steventon rectory where Jane Austen was born and grew up (till her 25th year) is from the first chapter of her 1869 biography A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. I'll return to the biography in a moment, but I first want to note my second thoughts about a quote that I posted yesterday from a letter written by Austen on November 18, 1814 to her niece Fanny Knight offering her views on the Christian commitments of Ms. Knight's suitor James Plumtre:
And as to there being any objection from his Goodness . . . from the danger of his becoming even Evangelical, I cannot admit that. I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest & safest. Do not be frightened from the connection by your Brothers having most wit. Wisdom is better than Wit, & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side; & don't be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others. (Jane Austen to Fanny Knight, 18 November 1814, Chapman, p. 410)
Austen praises 'Evangelicals' but does not appear to be one herself, and even her praise of them is hedged a bit, as I noted in a comment:
Austen is certainly a Christian . . . but figuring out precisely what sort is less simple than I had imagined. Even her letter containing praise of British 'Evangelicals' is hedged a bit. She admires those "who are . . . [Evangelical] from Reason and Feeling" -- or might one say 'Sense and Sensibility'.

We all know what she thinks of an exaggerated 'sensibility', so those who are Evangelical from 'Feeling' alone might not receive much praise.
By "sensibility" -- which I've borrowed from the title of Austen''s novel Sense and Sensibility -- is meant "sentiment," an emotion of strong feeling that Austen satirizes, though she's not entirely opposed to that feeling if kept within proper bounds by good sense. She might think the balance of "Reason and Feeling" to be rare, however. At any rate, she seems not to have spoken much about her own religious beliefs, for her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh writes:
I do not venture to speak of her religious principles: that is a subject on which she herself was more inclined to think and act than to talk, and I shall imitate her reserve; satisfied to have shown how much of Christian love and humility abounded in her heart, without presuming to lay bare the roots whence those graces grew. Some little insight, however, into these deeper recesses of the heart must be given, when we come to speak of her death. (Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, page 100)
When he does come to speak of her death, however, he has little of significance to say:
Two of her brothers, who were clergymen, lived near enough to Winchester to be in frequent attendance, and to administer the services suitable for a Christian’s death-bed . . . . She was a humble, believing Christian. (Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, page 175)
Perhaps so, but we're still left wondering precisely what sort.

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