The highly talented novelist Jane Austen died 200 years ago, on 18 July 1817. Was she a Christian? Only God knows for sure, but believers reading her novels will ask this question.
Jane Austen wrote brilliantly within her own sphere of life, although there were many matters she did not cover. Carol Shields, in her biography Jane Austen: a life, says: ‘One of the widest areas of absence is the religious life, and this has led some to think that Jane Austen was an unbeliever … She says not a word about the consolation of spiritual life’ (p.67). But Michael Haykin includes Jane Austen in his Eight women of faith and is in no doubt that Jane Austen was a true believer.
Her six novels are still widely read today for the sheer quality of her writing, sparkle and wit and well developed characters, as well as the moral integrity which underlies her work.
Jane Austen will be specially remembered this year. This article is by one who likes reading classic novels, but has no literary qualifications, and who has just attended an informal lecture course on her novels, given by a retired English scholar who read English at Cambridge University in the 1950s, sat at the feet of F. R. Leavis, and attended lectures by C. S. Lewis.
This lecturer recommended Jane Austen – her life by Park Honan as the best biography, so ‘PH’ is quoted extensively in what follows. As we studied Jane Austen’s novels in this lecture class, the one which particularly seemed to display Christian values was Mansfield Park.
This is one of her less popular novels, because the heroine Fanny Price — Jane Austen’s ‘evangelical heroine’ (p.348, PH) — is considered too pious by many. Says PH, ‘Fanny Price scandalises some readers, while being the most inward and sensible of Jane Austen’s creations’ (p.348).
Fanny, aged 10, is informally adopted by her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram and so lives at Mansfield Park with her cousins Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia. As the novel progresses, Fanny grows to be an attractive young woman and is eventually honoured with a ‘coming out’ dance.
Tom, Maria, and Julia are shown to be superficial and selfish, while Edmund is serious and caring and preparing for ordination into the established Church. Fanny secretly falls in love with Edmund, who is affectionate towards her in a brotherly way. Edmund, however, becomes infatuated with Mary Crawford, who with her brother Henry become friends of the Bertram family.
Mary scorns the Church and thinks prayers in a family chapel a waste of time, while Fanny says, ‘A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!’ Mary tries to deflect Edmund from ordination.
Henry meanwhile decides to flirt with Fanny and make a conquest of her. He then seems genuinely to fall in love with her and unsuccessfully proposes marriage. But Henry later shows his true colours by disgracefully eloping with the married Maria. Edmund sadly realises that Mary would not be a suitable clergyman’s wife. He finally sees Fanny as his true soul-mate and they marry.
Henry and Mary Crawford joke about preaching and the Church. Henry reveals his careless, self-centred attitude to spiritual things by saying, ‘I must have a London audience [to preach to]. I could not preach but to the educated, to those who were capable of estimating my composition.
‘And I do not know that I should be fond of preaching often; now and then, perhaps once or twice in the spring, after being anxiously expected for half a dozen Sundays together; but not for a constancy; it would not do for a constancy’.
Edmund defends the Church and shows a true sense of vocation, but twice makes moral misjudgments, while Fanny unfailingly makes the right moral choices and shows spirit and determination in her encounters with Henry, Mary, and others.
The critic David Monahan says, in Jane Austen — structure and social vision 1980: ‘Only Fanny Price, the poor relation who has achieved a better knowledge of what her adopted home stands for, retains a sense of proper values, and it is she who is entirely responsible for the salvation of Mansfield Park’. PH says: ‘Fanny Price in the intensity of her religious nature is oddly disturbing — at once naïve, puerile, perceiving and burning with feeling’ (p.344).
Jane Austen’s other novels are more elusive when searching for a Christian mind. PH says: ‘[Jane’s] power depended on … a refusal to use the novel to prove anything; actions spring from her characters, not from a seeming desire to correct abuses or reform society’ (p.387). But he also says: ‘Persuasion has a strong moral theme’ (p.383) and, in Sense and sensibility, ‘It is Elinor’s religious outlook that Marianne awakens to after her illness. Faith is not discussed in Jane Austen’s novels, because the author felt it too important; it was not to be mixed with jokes, but implicit. Hence her comic work rests on religion without arguing for it’ (p.275).
PH also argues that: ‘Her novels reveal the strength of her art in her religion: a stoical Christian faith underlies all of Jane Austen’s comedies, and gives them their moral confidence, a severity and certainty, which in turn allow her comic talent to flourish lightly. C. S. Lewis has written well of this feature of her art’ (p.275).
Clergymen were very much a part of Jane’s life, as well as featuring in all her novels (who does not laugh at the ridiculous Mr Collins in Pride and prejudice?). Jane’s father, Rev. George Austen, was Rector of Steventon in Hampshire, and two of her brothers became clergymen. She attended church regularly, so would hear many sermons, and gave her approval to one young man, saying, ‘He preaches from the heart’.
Jane Austen composed some prayers, including this one: ‘Father of heaven, whose goodness has brought us safely to the close of this day, dispose our hearts in fervent prayer. Another day is now gone and added to those for which we were accountable. Teach us, almighty Father, to consider this solemn truth, as we should do, that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes, and earnestly strive to make a better use of what thy goodness may yet bestow on us, than we have done of the time past’.
There were many evangelicals in the church during Jane’s lifetime. John Wesley died in 1791 when Jane was 16 and when the evangelical movement was at its height. Jane seems, at first, to have been equivocal about evangelicals, saying in 1809, ‘I do not like the evangelicals’, but then, in 1814, ‘I am by no means convinced that we ought not all be evangelicals’.
Hannah More was an evangelical who campaigned for the moral, religious and educational improvement of the poor. Jane read her works with approval. ‘Hannah More is at the centre of Mansfield Park with her Strictures on the modern system of female education. Jane admired that skilful and vigorous woman, who wanted to train the female intellect’ (p.338). The failure of parents and guardians to educate the Bertram daughters properly, leading to their wasted lives, is a major theme of Mansfield Park.
Jane disliked the enthusiasm of her cousin Edmund Coope, when he was ‘fuller of regeneration and conversion than ever, with the addition of zeal for the cause of the Bible Society’ (p.161), but on the other hand ‘admired the seriousness of evangelical believers when they were not false to the rational, believing mind’ (p.162). It is said that Jane’s favourite brother, Henry, who in later life was ordained, was an evangelical, with a gift for preaching.
Before she finished her last novel, Persuasion, in 1816, Jane began to have symptoms of what was to be her terminal illness and her condition gradually worsened. It is surmised that she suffered from Addison’s disease.
When Jane’s pain returned on the summer evening of 17 July 1817 and her sister asked her if she wanted anything, her reply reflected what was said of Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, ‘Nothing but death’. A little later, she said to her beloved sister Cassandra, ‘God grant me patience. Pray for me, oh pray, for me’.
She died early in the morning of 18 July and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. Her brother Henry wrote in the preface to her two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together in December 1817, that the Cathedral, ‘in the whole catalogue of its mighty dead, does not contain the ashes of a brighter genius or sincerer Christian’.
Heaven will be heaven for us because we shall be forever with the Lord, but we shall surely rejoice in the saints we meet there. There is good hope that Jane Austen will be among them.
Richard Atherton a retired solicitor, is a member of Whitby Evangelical Church