Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jane Austen's Christianity?

Steventon Church
Where Austen Worshipped
(Image from Wikipedia)

Even though Jane Austen wears her Christian beliefs rather lightly in her novels, she seems to have taken Christianity seriously, as perhaps befits the daughter of a rector. According to Jane Stabler in "'Perswasion' in Persuasion" (Master Narratives, by Richard Gravil), "Jane Austen's Christianity important to her":
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 & Feeling, must be happiest & safest. (page 83)
Stabler cites Jane Austen's Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, page 280). Precisely how important her Christianity was could be subject to some debate, for one might want to look more closely at this letter. According to Oliver MacDonagh, "The Church in Mansfield Park: a Serious Call?" (Sydney Studies in English, 1986-1987, 12, 36-55):
[This] letter of 18 November 1814 to her niece, Fanny Knight, discussing Fanny's suitor, James Plumtre, contains the clearest and perhaps the best known of all the religious comments in the correspondence. "And as to there being any objection from his Goodness", Jane writes,
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)
These four religious references of 1813-14 [i.e., this one above and three others] seem to carry, however faintly, these particular implications: that Jane Austen's Christianity was Christocentric in the orthodox pious-protestant sense; that she conceived of religion as also national in character; that her anglicanism and her chauvinism were mutually supportive and interpenetrating; that she rejoiced in what seemed to her the increasing religiosity and advance in public morality in her homeland; that she was -- or at any rate believed one ought to be --seriously devout; and that, while she herself eschewed, she also respected and even envied the evangelical school in the Church of England, whose salvation was the more secure for the totality of their conversion. (MacDonagh, "The Church in Mansfield Park," pages 42-43, pdf)
MacDonagh appears to think that Austen had a rather conventional if serious Anglican piety. Reportedly -- according to Michael Wheeler ("Religion," in Janet M. Todd, Jane Austen in Context) -- Austen used a devotional:
One of the few books that we know was owned by Jane Austen herself, and not simply borrowed from her father's library of 500 volumes or from a circulating library, was William Vickers's A Companion to the Altar, later referred to by a great-niece, Miss Florence Austen, as a "book of devotions always used by Jane Austen.' (Wheeler, "Religion," Jane Austen in Context, page 410)
Todd notes that this book was intended for preparing the Christian for holy communion and that it emphasized the national significance of this sacrament.

Given her Anglican faith, Austen would undoubtedly be familiar with readings from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, such as this one from the 1778 edition to be recited on "the next Sunday before Lent":
O Lord, who hath taught us, that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace, and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee: Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.
This collective prayer is immediately followed by St. Paul's famous hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, which included lines that we've already looked at in a previous blog entry:
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)
The word "charity" sounds odd to our contemporary ears, but Austen would have understood it to mean an active, generous, giving and forgiving love. Neither in these two lines nor in the larger context of 1 Corinthians 13 are either "pride" or "resentment" explicitly mentioned, for this is the Authorized Version that we've already analyzed, but a strong warning against pride can easily be read in such expressions as "vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up" . . . though a warning against "resentment" is less readily found in "thinketh no evil."

Against pride and related vices, the Litany from this same Book of Common Prayer also warns:
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vain glory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness, Good Lord, deliver us.
The regular Christian reader of such a prayer book would readily connect this with the Lent reading above.

What this all adds up to in Jane Austen's views on love, pride, and resentment is not entirely clear to me yet. I'm simply locating that dots to be connected later.

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At 6:01 PM, Blogger Qutubuddin said...

Islam is ultimate truth, Accept Islam for you salvation

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Islam is ultimate truth, Accept Islam for you (sic) salvation (sic)"

I suspected some such comment when I saw the pseudonym "Qutub." Since you have chosen such a handle, then I suppose that you also identify with the real Qutub's Islamist views and would wish to impose Sharia upon all who submit . . . and also upon those who do not. I have no wish to cower in the shade of Qutub's Islamistly interpreted Qur'an.

By the way, your comment is entirely irrelevant to this post.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:05 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

"she seems to have taken Christianity seriously, as perhaps befits the daughter of a rector."

Unlike, Emily Bronte whose "WH" is a terrifying subversion. It doesn't always follow that a daughter will follow the Father, but that is probably true in the case of Austen who remains a "truth teller" and moralist. You unfold some interesting perspectives ever.

At 6:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, good to hear from you again.

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.

I wonder what she would think of present-day American Evangelicals.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:40 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

Present day Evangelicals?
Not much, I'd fancy.

At 5:31 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Probably not, given their emphasis upon "feeling" . . . which she would have termed "sensibility."

I confess to mixed 'emotions.'

Albeit . . . the word "Evangelical" doubtless had a different meaning in Austen's time.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:50 AM, Blogger Chic Magnolia's said...

This was so interesting to me. I agree that she would have looked at today's evangelical's differently than in her time. I think her prayers are beautiful,and very sincere.

At 4:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, E.D., for visiting. I'm glad that you found this entry interesting. I enjoyed looking into the issue of Austen and her beliefs (though I'm still not sure of what, exactly, she believed).

Jeffery Hodges

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