Austen’s Anglicanism

My review of Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (2011), first published in Credenda Agenda about a year ago.

“She was thoroughly religious and devout,” wrote Rev. Henry Austen soon after the death of his beloved sister. Brother James, also an Anglican minister and a poet, added “Hers, Fancy quick, and clear good sense/And wit which never gave offence.”

These encomiums are offered to a woman who confided in a letter to her sister Cassandra that she tolerated visitors “as civilly as their bad breath would allow me,” who wrote meanly in a published novel ( Persuasion ) about one character’s “large fat sighings” for her dead son, who as a teenager wrote of the sodomite James I, “His majesty was of that amiable disposition which inclines to Freindship, & in such points was possessed of keener penetration in Discovering Merit than many other people.”

Here is the problem of Austen’s Anglicanism in a nutshell: How can a professedly devout and decorous eighteenth-century Englishwoman be so full of malicious wit? Laura Mooneyham White of the University of Nebraska provides a thorough, and utterly compelling, answer to that apparent dilemma.

Austen’s orthodox Anglicanism is beyond doubt. Daughter of an earnest Anglican minister, she grew up with morning and evening prayers, which means that she recited the Lord’s Prayer, by White’s estimate, some 30,000 times in her life. She read sermons for pleasure and composed three extant prayers. Her expressed views on moral issues, death, nature, and the established church were fully in keeping with the Anglicanism of her time.

So much is obvious, if oddly neglected, on the surface of her life, but White deepens this point in several ways. She begins with a sketch of the structures and atmosphere of Eighteenth-century Anglicanism. Exhausted by the fervor of Puritanism, which in the minds of many English was responsible for a bloody civil war, Anglicanism settled into a moderate, rational, undogmatic form of Christianity. Austen exhibits many of the tendencies of the time. Her treatment of religious themes in the novels is subdued in keeping with Anglican standards of decorum. She fully supports the Establishment, and endorses Edmund Betram’s ( Mansfield Park ) claim that the clergy shapes English manners and morals.

To today’s readers, Austen’s characters rarely pray or engage in overt religious activities, but that is partly an illusion. Because of her thorough knowledge of eighteenth-century Anglicanism, White is attuned to the religious overtones of Austen’s language. From the time of William Law’s Serious Call to the Devout Life (1729), the word “serious” had religious connotations. When she records that Emma Woodhouse is “very serious in her thankfulness” for Harriet Smith’s engagement to Robert Martin, Austen is telling us that Emma offered prayers of thanks. Similarly, apparently general words like “exertion,” “principle,” and “duty” are all religious terms in Austen’s world. Plus, more obvious religious ideas like sin, evil, atonement, fall, temptation, repentance, and contrition are present throughout her work. Even Austen’s restrained unmetaphorical style reflects the theologically-grounded neo-classicism of her time. Add to this the pervasive evidence that Austen shared common Anglican convictions about nature and the “chain of being,” it becomes clear that her novels are “imprinted” everywhere with her religious values.

Though not an Evangelical, Austen shares some Evangelicalism instincts. Like most scholars, White notes that Austen’s three prayers reflect the “Latinate vocabulary, sonorous cadences, and parallelisms” characteristic of the Book of Common Prayer . But she adds that “there is more direct emotion in Austen’s invocations of God than in the prayerbook, for repeatedly the prayers are punctuated with an ‘Oh God!’” (pp. 70-71). She also shared Evangelicalism’s zeal for charity and suspicion of hierarchy. She observes that the “focus on the ‘low’” encouraged by Evangelicals like Hannah More and William Wilberforce “interfered with hierarchical models of society” (p. 108). Though Austen often endorses social ranking, she nearly as often lampoons “social climbing, general buffoonery, or unearned sense of merit” among the higher classes. In Persuasion , she chucks decadent traditional aristocracy entirely, replacing it with the meritocracy of the Royal Navy.

All this is very good, but White’s book is even better in the second part, where she demonstrates that wit is a recurring moral problem in Austen’s life and work. As Austen’s letters reveal, she is often catty, but she knows it and confesses it as an evil. Wit can puncture pretention, and Austen’s novels demonstrate this and other moral uses of wit. But they also show the dangers of wit unrestrained. In the picnic scene in Emma , White observes that witty “word-games have occasioned only disharmony, competition, and intrigue,” and adds, “not until Ulysses will word-games carry such world-altering weight” (p. 143). Pride and Prejudice traces Elizabeth Bennet’s growth from teasing, plaguing, punishing wit to wise wit evident in her “lively, sportive manner” and “open pleasantry.”

Austen’s standard for the proper use of wit is “candor.” White shows that the word has undergone a radical change since Austen’s time. For us, candor means open honesty that is heedless of what offense it can cause. For Austen, candor includes generosity and sympathy, “free from malice; not desiring to find fault,” in Dr. Johnson’s definition. Naïve Jane Bennet is the model of candor: “her mild and steady candour always pleaded for allowances, and urged the possibility of mistake.”

Jane Austen’s Anglicanism is not only the best book on Austen’s Christianity, but it is more than a biographical sketch. It is a rewarding analysis of Austen and her novels.

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