*** DEBUG END ***

The Spirituality of Jane Austen by Paula Hollingsworth

24 November 2017

Margaret Duggan on a putting together of the biographical clues


JANE AUSTEN always said that she would write about only “two or three families in a country village”, as that was the world she knew. And by those families she meant the landed gentry, including the country parsons with whom she was surrounded.

Because of her mother’s aristocratic connections, she occasionally edged upwards into the baronetage and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and, in Emma, her heroine eventually acknowledged that it would be possible to “know” the respectable yeoman farmer Robert Martin, once he had married her friend Harriet.

It was a narrow slice of society. Some shopkeepers were “known”, but the servants, on whom the daily lives of both her characters and her family were dependent, were rarely mentioned, and never given a name.

This was Austen both in her novels, and — from her letters — in real life. In both her worlds, her picture of the Church was equally limited. Although her father and two of her brothers became clergy, and clergy featured strongly in almost all her novels, she never mentions anyone going to church (although we know it was her own habit to go twice most Sundays).

Paula Hollingsworth, in her book on Austen’s religious life, makes the most of all the hints that can be gleaned, and analyses the strong morals that come across in each novel. Austen writes in Sense and Sensibility of the contrast between Elinor’s good sense in her “respect for order, logic, and rational control” and self-denying care for others, in contrast with Marianne’s excessive emotion, which prevents her even being civil to those around her.

In Austen’s most popular novel, Darcy’s pride in his social status contrasts with his prejudice towards Elizabeth’s family, while Elizabeth has both her own pride and prejudice towards him. Her need brings out his compassion, and the result is forgiveness.

Most of the novels are shown to be about similar moral contrasts, although the later ones grow more complex. Churchgoing, prayer, and religious practice are not specifically mentioned, just the presence of clergy: comic, deplorable, and good. Curiously, Hollingsworth does not even mention that the attractive, charming, and sensitive Henry Tilney, in Northanger Abbey, is a vicar.

We know from Jane’s last letters (and her sister Cassandra’s) how deep Jane’s own faith was, as she called on God to see her through her suffering. Hollingsworth includes three long evening prayers that Jane wrote, very much in Prayer Book language, which are deeply revealing.

We know Jane’s unassuming kindness, and it is clear that, for her, the gospel was about repentance, and the desire to do good in the world, and to care for others. It was unpretentious Christianity, and thoroughly Anglican.


The Spirituality of Jane Austen
Paula Hollingsworth
Lion £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events


Church Times Month

March 2024

For the whole of March, Church Times is offering completely FREE online access, so you can share stories without a paywall.

We are also asking our readers to spread the news of the Church Times among their friends, acquaintances, and fellow churchgoers (and non-churchgoers).

Find out more


Keeping faith in Journalism: a Church Times Webinar

11 March 2024 | 6pm GMT

An expert panel discusses trust between the media and the public

Online Tickets available


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)