The family biographers and the gravestone also emphasize her Christian faith. Henry, who became a clergyman himself, wrote that “her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church."
Dr. Helena Kelly, however, knows better. In Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, she writes: "What we can say, with confidence, is that [Austen]'s opinion didn't really accord anything like as strictly 'with those of our Established Church,' as Henry claims." For one thing, Austen is "scornful" of the clergy. (Kelly includes Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram along with Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton in her list of bad clergymen.)
As it happens, Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford actually discuss whether clergyman are good people in Mansfield Park. I explore that discussion in the next post. For now, consider the fact that showing unquestioning reverence to clergymen is not required in the Church of England. The 39 Articles, a list of official church doctrines, includes article 26, which acknowledges that some clergymen are unworthy of their calling, but this does not affect the truth of the sacraments.
Mr. Bennet scoffs at Mr. Collins when he writes to advise him to never let Lydia darken his door again: He reads a portion of Collins letter: ""You ought certainly to forgive them, as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.'" Then adds, "That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!"
Mr. Collins' take does not shake Mr. Bennet's understanding of what Christian forgiveness is.
If Henry Austen is correct, if his sister's beliefs accorded "strictly with those of our Established Church," then she subscribed to the 39 articles. For example, article 19 states that "the Church of England is the one true Church, and its teachings are necessary for salvation," which has implications when we come to talk about savages and heathens down the line.
I think Paula Byrne's biography Jane Austen, a Life in Small Things, makes a convincing case that Austen was a devout Anglican because it draws on examples from her private correspondence. Byrne mentions a letter Austen wrote to her sister, concerning a local woman who had run away with a lover. Austen comments that the Sunday before the woman eloped, she "staid the Sacrament," that is, she took Holy Communion at church.
This looks like a reference to Article 29: "The Wicked who Partake of the Last Supper Do Not Eat the Body of Christ." Mrs. Powlett was unfaithful to her husband and was planning to leave him when she took her wafer and wine.
Austen distinguishes between actually calling upon one's Creator ("Oh God, her father and mother!") and profane cursing. When Fanny Price's father says, "by God," Austen spells it "by G—!" Article 39 of the 39 Articles specifies no "rash swearing."
Austen's characters refer to divine intervention in human affairs by using using the terms "Providence" and "providential" or "Heaven." (This is by no means unique to Austen, however, many people did the same.)
When Edmund Bertram finally (!) realizes what a cad Henry Crawford is, he is relieved to know that Fanny Price did not fall for him. “Thank God,” said he. “We were all disposed to wonder, but it seems to have been the merciful appointment of Providence that the heart which knew no guile should not suffer."
Mrs. Musgrove sighs, "Ah! Miss Anne, if it had pleased Heaven to spare my poor son, I dare say he would have been just such another [as Captain Wentworth] by this time."
When Mary Musgrove discovers that the stranger who just left the inn at Lyme is her cousin, Captain Wentworth flippantly says: "Putting all these very extraordinary circumstances together, we must consider it to be the arrangement of Providence, that you should not be introduced to your cousin."
When Louisa Musgrove survives the fall from the Cobb, "the rejoicing, deep and silent, after a few fervent ejaculations of gratitude to Heaven had been offered, may be conceived."
God (usually as in "Thank God" and "Oh, God!") is mentioned nine times in Persuasion, five times in Pride & Prejudice, three times in Mansfield Park, and so forth. Mrs. Bennet and Lydia are apt to exclaim, "Good Lord!" and "O, Lord!"
Scholar Lance Wilcox says of Johnson: "He presents the Church of England as a bulwark against 'infidelity, superstition, and enthusiasm': eighteenth-century code words for deism, Catholicism, and dissenting Protestantism, respectively."
So Austen's favourite moral author was opposed to dissenters, those who worshipped independently of the official state church. He was not alone. In The Club, a joint biography of Dr. Johnson, Boswell, and other men in their circle in 18th century London, historian Leo Damrosch explains, "Throughout the seventeenth century it was taken for granted that religious commitment depended upon faith, an interior conviction of divinely revealed truth. But in the eighteenth century that premise seemed increasingly suspect to many people, because it smacked of the 'enthusiasm' --from a Greek word meaning 'possessed by a god' -- that had energized the Puritan revolution and turned Britain upside down.'
The Puritans, we remember, executed King Charles the First and established a Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Life in Britain under Cromwell was rather like living under the Taliban. People must have wondered if no music, no fashion, no sports, no Christmas, no theatre, no pubs, was really what God wanted for His people.
The Republic was overthrown and the Monarchy was restored in 1660, but civil wars are not easily forgotten and people remained suspicious of religious zeal.
Then there were the dissenting ministers, such as the raving Methodist minister and the non-conformist minister in the "Clerical Alphabet." [Click on the picture to see the entire alphabet which makes fun of Anglican clergymen of all ranks as well.] The Church of England controlled all the parishes, so the dissenters set up their own meeting-houses, or else held their services in the open air.
In respect of female knowledge, at least, we know that More and Austen saw eye to eye! But recall the explanation about the meaning of "enthusiasm." Hannah More is saying that openly pious women were thought of as enthusiasts, and enthusiasts were thought of as dissenters.
Jane Austen wasn’t comfortable with the Evangelical movement, a dislike that appears be more about modes of worship than doctrinal disputes. One gets the feeling that Austen (and probably her father and her family) thought overt, emotional displays were vulgar, or perhaps that those who protested their religious faith the loudest, were the least to be trusted.
However, Dr. Kelly argues that Austen was a dissenter. She thinks the words "humble Christian" in Austen's obituary are "problematic" and revealing. She points out that the "words 'humble Christian' had been strongly associated with writers who questioned Church of England orthodoxy," such as Methodists and Evangelicals.
Frankly, I cannot roll my eyes hard enough at this assertion, which has to do with Kelly's contention that Mansfield Park has symbolic references to the sugar plantations in the West Indies owned by the Church of England. These are references which I think Kelly has projected into the book.
It is interesting, and possibly significant, that Austen's gravestone does not mention her novels, but an obituary sent to the newspapers reveals her authorship. I might return to that later.
"I wonder at my recovery,—wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once."
Here, "wonder" means she is surprised that her passionate desire to live didn't kill her. She wants to atone, a more serious and profound word than mere apology. Marianne's love for Willoughby can never be overcome but vows it will be "regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment." Religion goes hand-in-hand with reason, as it did for Dr. Johnson.
Finally, Austen was not the only person to criticize the clergy. It was not illegal to criticize the clergy. It was not even socially unacceptable to criticize the clergy. We know this because Mary Crawford, a sophisticated Londoner, shows open disdain for the profession. In Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram tells Mary Crawford that her criticisms of the clergy were "commonplace." If criticizing the clergy was commonplace, then it was hardly radical for Jane Austen to do so. I will expand on the topic of these commonplace censures in the next post.