In Part I of this discussion, the point was made that a fuller and deeper understanding of and appreciation of the works of Jane Austen (“Jane”) is possible if one learns about her Anglican religion and its effects on all of the society during her lifetime (1775 A.D. to 1817 A.D.). In addition to the Bible itself, the Anglican Book Of Common Prayer (1662 A.D. version; “the Book 1662”) was a primary religious influence on Jane.
This Part II continues the discussion of this prayer book and its role in Jane’s religion.
Book Of Common Prayer – Catechism & Articles of Religion
The Book 1662 contains two forms of summaries of the beliefs of the Anglican religion of Jane Austen, “A Catechism,” and the”Articles of Religion.” It can be fairly assumed that Jane knew and accepted these beliefs as they are stated in The Book 1662. She was fully familiar with them and she never questioned, or denied, these beliefs.
The Catechism was “to be Learned of Every Person Before he is Brought to be Confirmed by the Bishop.” Typically children were taught by the priest or his appointed catechist, and the children were expected to learn the answers to all the questions of the Catechism. No doubt Jane, with her prodigious memory, knew the answers as a very young child.
For example, the Catechist asks this question after a child recites the Lord’s Prayer, and the child responds with the answer below:
Question. What desirest thou of God in this Prayer?
Answer. I desire my Lord God our heavenly Father, who is the giver of all goodness, to send his grace unto me, and to all people: that we may worship him, serve him, and obey him, as we ought to do. And I pray unto God, that he will send us all things that be needful both for our souls and bodies; and that be that he will be merciful unto us, and forgive us our sins; and that it will please him to save and defend us in all dangers ghostly and bodily; and that he will keep us from all sin and wickedness, and from our ghostly enemy, and from everlasting death. And this I trust he will do of his mercy and goodness, through our Lord Jesus Christ. And therefore I say, Amen, So be it.
These same thoughts and sentiments are echoed in the prayers Jane herself wrote, as discussed below.
It is suggested that any lover of Jane’s works, upon reviewing the ceremonies and other parts of the Book Of Common Prayer, will have a deeper understanding of why her novels deal with matrimony why they end in marriages, and why they are happy marriages.
Jane Austen The Playful
As an aside, it is – at least to this author – very interesting to note that a teenage Jane, with access to the marriage register in her father’s church at Steventon (the marriage register for 1755-1812), appears, based on her own handwriting in this register, to have been married three times: once to “Henry Frederick Howard Fitzwilliam of London;” once to “Edmund Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool; and, finally, to “Jack Smith.” So many of these names ring a bell, and it is easy to see this mischievous teen later writing the spoken words of the likes of Lizzie Bennet.
Jane’s Prayers – Her Own Words To & About God
Jane herself wrote prayers that were probably used by her family for evening prayer. They are available online and are discussed in “Jane Austen Prays,” at http://www.catholicstand.com/jane-austen-prays/
As much as anything she wrote, these prayers of hers say what she believed about God, life, love, family, contrition, death, judgment, heaven and hell. They are modeled on various prayers contained in the Book Of Common Prayer.
She Was No Radical Progressive Religious Subversive
Logically dangerous as it may be to make inferences from what is not there, there are many things lacking in Jane’s writings that would have indicated that she rejected or questioned the teachings, doctrines, and beliefs or her Anglican religion. There is in her works: no endorsement of the current “enthusiasm” or “evangelical” approach to religion; no demeaning of true piety; no skepticism about God or Christianity; no denial of life after death; and no ridicule of truly-held religious beliefs. She does, however, echo Jesus in her treatment of hypocrisy.
Jane had no conversion from her faith to something else and she never rejected what she always believed:
“Jane Austen was noted all her life for not changing her opinions; and this was true of her religious opinions. Always she remained a steady supporter of Anglican Christianity . . .” (Cecil, 193).
Jane Alive Today Would Be One Of Us?
It is interesting how in our time so many individuals and groups try to claim Jane as one of their own – she was intelligent, sensitive, independent, witty, funny, generous, loving, and gifted; and, by almost all accounts, a literary genius. Therefore, most certainly, were she alive today – so the thinking of some goes – she would be one of those who see themselves as similarly smart, sensitive, elite, and talented.
Even groups claim her whose avowed beliefs and aims are not only diametrically opposed to hers, but for whom even a cursory reading of Jane’s writing itself would establish that she would have had nothing to do with them. She, perhaps, would subject them to her pillorying, gentle irony and comedic dissection of hypocrisy, of which she was so capable. Jane’s religion would be her primary reason for disowning, and perhaps discrediting, many of these groups.
One final happening from her life provides a profound insight into Jane and what her religion meant to her. Shortly before she died in the summer of 1817, Jane asked to receive Holy Communion when she was still able to appreciate the significance of “the Sacrament.” Again, the text of the introduction for “The Communion Of The Sick,” from the Book Of Common Prayer, makes clear what this sacrament meant to Jane and why she wanted to receive when she still could think clearly:
Forasmuch as all mortal men be subject to many sudden perils, diseases, and sicknesses, and ever uncertain what time they shall depart out of this life; therefore, to the intent they may always be in a readiness to die, whensoever it shall please Almighty God to call them, the Curates shall diligently from time to time (but especially in the time of pestilence, or other infectious sickness) exhort their Parishioners to the often receiving of the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, . . . . But if the sick person be not able to come to the Church, and yet is desirous to receive the Communion in his house; then he must give timely notice to the Curate, . . . , that the Curate may reverently minister, he shall there celebrate the holy Communion . . .
Her two priest brothers came and administered Holy Communion to her.
It may not be that one must learn about her religion and how it permeated her life and her works to understand Jane’s writing or to enjoy it; but at least it can be said that learning this can provide new insights into her writing, insights and understandings not otherwise evident or possible. To ignore her religion, to denigrate it, or, worse, to deny it is an injustice to the genius we know as Jane.
One of the most concise, clear, and enjoyable discussions of Jane Austen’s Anglican religion can be found in Chapter 13 of the very readable Jane Austen For Dummies, by Professor Joan Klingel Ray, Ph.D. More detailed books dealing with this subject are: Jane Austen and the Clergy, by Irene Collins; and Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, by Laura Mooneyham White.