The Theology of Jane Austen-Part I

church cross

Of course, there is no such theology. No such thing if the title above means to cite a book or treatise written by Jane Austen herself entitled something like, “My Theology, By A Lady.”

There were other working, tentative titles, not chosen, for this discussion – including “Jane’s Faith,” “J. Austen’s Creed,”  “A Lady’s Gospel,” “Jane’s Beliefs,”  and “J. NMI Austen’s Catechism” – but they were discarded with the realization that there are no, what a scholar would call, ”primary sources” for such subjects because Jane Austen (henceforth “Jane”) never wrote any such thing.

The Evidence, The Sources

Any discussion of any supposed theology, faith, good news, beliefs, etc. of Jane’s must be based, if at all, on what we have of what she wrote – published and unpublished, fiction and nonfiction, and letters  – and what others who knew her or of her wrote about her. These include some descriptions by her contemporaries, family, and friends, of how she lived, her actions, her choices, and how she treated those in her life – all of which can provide some indication of what a person like her believed.

This means, of course  – looking to these writings and little else – that any conclusions about this subject can be utterly misguided or totally in error; and, most probably, any such conclusions will be tinged or tainted with what their author (this one included) wants them to be.

To avoid all the tinges, taints, the errors of such conclusions, and the perhaps mistaken guesses mentioned below, one should simply stop now, delete this article, and go read Jane’s novels, even the unpublished, unfinished ones, and her letters, prayers,  poems, and other writings. Reading the various writings that do exist, and learning about her life from what sources there are, may provide some  insights, foggy or not,  into her  beliefs and may hint at an  implicit “Jane’s Theology.”

The World of Jane Austen

Jane’s writings and writings of others provide some clues about Jane’s beliefs because her religion was part of her.  David Cecil puts it this way:

Jane Austen’s religion, so her biographer discovers as he studies her, is an element in her life of the highest significance and importance. The Austen reticence kept her from ever talking much about it. But the little she did say, and what her intimates said about her, show that she grew up to be deeply religious. She actively practiced her faith, and her moral views were wholly, if unobtrusively, determined by the dictates of the Christian religion as interpreted by her church. (Cecil,  David; A Portrait of Jane Austen, Penguin Books, 1978; p. 50)

Why? Because everything Jane Austen wrote was written against the subtle background of her religion. It was the canvas on which she pictured life and the base of the paints and pastels she used; it was the waters of the sea in which her masterpiece ships sailed; the unspoken calm amidst storms which often tossed her characters about; and it was the life-giving spirit-inspiring air breathed by her wholly real characters. Her religion was at the core of her reality, and it was the source of the way according to which she lived her life.

By law in England (The Test Act of 1673) during the time of Jane Austen to hold a government office, to be a military officer, to attend Oxford or Cambridge, a person had to be an Anglican. In her lifetime, almost all aristocrats and all of the gentry, the members of the elite professions, and the wealthier folks in commerce, manufacturing, and trade were all Anglicans.

To say religion pervaded Jane’s life or was a factor in her writing merely hint at what religion was to her.  For Jane religion was daily religion, weekly religion, and more,  religion from the year’s beginning to its end. Numerous holidays throughout the year were “holy days,” and their celebration  – by not only family but by the entire community – could extend well beyond a single day.

Priests

That she had many priests in her life from the day she was born until the day she died – rectors, vicars, curates – those both in her immediate and in her extended family alone,  provides an indication of religion’s omnipresent effect on her.

These are all ordained clergymen related to Jane Austen: father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, two brothers, two nephews, and several cousins. It is no wonder that so many of her fictional men are clergymen – and clergymen of all sorts and of all characters, including three heroes: Henry Tilney, Edward Ferrars, and Edmund Bertram.  And, yes, she created some not-so-saintly clergymen; e.g. Dr. Grant, Mr. Collins, and Mr. Elton. She knew these priests – real and fictional – and their lives as she knew her own family.

One man with whom she developed an incipient romantic relationship was a young clergyman, Samuel Bicknall.  For whatever reasons, the truth is unclear based on available information, this love never blossomed.  Harris Bigg-Wither whom she agreed to marry if for only a few hours, was also ordained.

Prayer

She prayed on average at least six times a day, morning, evening, before meals and after meals. On Sundays, she attended two separate services, each two to three hours long, with sermons and singing and prayers. The prayer book she and all good Anglicans used regularly was the Book Of Common Prayer

In Shakespeare’s time, the “groundlings” paid a penny to stand on the ground before the stage to hear the Bard’s plays. No doubt most of them had never read Holy Scripture and they were unlearned in Roman and Greek mythology. This meant that, although the plays were written with several layers of meaning, those who did not know Holy Scripture and mythology simply did not understand much of the import and meaning of what they were hearing. Similarly, if one does not know the Anglican Book Of Common Prayer, 1662  (available online;  referred to herein as “The Book 1662”) as it was in use during Jane’s life, there is much that will go unnoticed to one reading her novels and so much whose complete context is unknown. Put another way, familiarity with the Book Of Common Prayer makes possible a fuller understanding of Jane’s writing and of her life itself.

Book Of Common Prayer – Matrimony

Matrimony provides a good example. On many occasions, Jane would have been present for and would have heard “The Form Of Solemnization Of Matrimony” from the Book Of Common Prayer.

The following excerpt from this somewhat extended ceremony, as it was then, will instantly bring to mind various scenes, plot events, and characters in Jane’s writing, and provide some insight into her beliefs about marriage, why marriage is a primary theme in her writing,  why family is a primary paradigm for her, and why her novels focus on  marriages.

At the day and time appointed for solemnization of Matrimony, the persons to be married shall come into the body of the Church with their friends and neighbours: and there standing together, the Man on the right hand, and the Woman on the left, the Priest shall say

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.

After the goal of procreation, and as a “remedy against sin,” the ceremony continues with the final aim of matrimony: “Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”

Jane’s view of marriage, evident in all her novels, that goes beyond mere status, wealth, and position, is an embodiment of this ceremony’s statement that marriage is for providing “comfort,” “mutual society,” and “help.”

Part II of this discussion goes further into the effects of the Book Of Common Prayer on Jane’s life.

 

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on google
Google+
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.