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
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