Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. When I say "my take," I very much doubt that I could find anything new or different to say about Austen, not after her admirers have written so much. But I am not trying to be new, rather I am pushing back at post-modern portrayals of Austen as a radical feminist. Click here for the first in the series.
The family biographers and the gravestone also emphasize Austen's 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. She wrote satirical and critical portraits of clergymen. (Kelly includes Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram along with Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton in her list of bad clergymen.)
Do Austen's writings shed light on whether she held non-conformist religious beliefs? Let's see...
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. For example, 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!" while Mrs. Jennings exclaims "Lord bless me!"
Outside of Mansfield Park, there are few mentions of church services and sermons. We aren't told that Catherine Morland, Anne Elliot, and the Dashwood sisters, etc, go to church regularly but of course they do. This is so obviously a part of their lives that Austen has to send a snowstorm to give Emma an excuse for missing church for a few weeks after Mr. Elton proposes to her. "The weather was most favourable for her; though Christmas Day, she could not go to church. Mr. Woodhouse would have been miserable had his daughter attempted it."
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.
Under the Puritan regime, Emma Woodhouse would have stayed home from church on Christmas Day because observing Christmas was banned!
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.]
(To the left: detail of "A Clerical Alphabet" (1795) with a Methodist Parson "stark mad!" and a Non-conformist Minister, "nearly as bad")
"I am at a loss to know why a young female is instructed to exhibit… her skill in music, her singing, dancing, [and her] taste in dress… while her piety is to be anxiously concealed and her knowledge affectedly disavowed, lest the former should draw on her the appellation of an enthusiast, or the latter that of a pedant.”
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.
Kelly believes that Mansfield Park is so anti- Church of England that mentioning Mansfield Park on her gravestone would have been Austen's way of thumbing her nose at the Anglican church for so long as her gravestone and the Cathedral exists.
In other words, she wanted to be buried there out of spite, as a private joke. But it was "a joke that failed" because her relatives did not mention her radical novels on her gravestone inscription.
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 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.
We think of the previous age as being one in which religion played a larger role in daily life and in social and government institutions than it does today. For example, you could not attend Oxford or Cambridge unless you were a member of the Church of England and proclaimed your belief in the 39 Articles. I refer to this requirement in my novel A Marriage of Attachment when Lord Lynnon talks about his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet in support of atheism. Click here for more about my novels.