We need to beatify Jane Austen. This is not, usually, the Anglican way. But here we should make an exception.
Yes, Austen is a superlative writer of romantic comedy. And the summit of her comedy involves an Anglican priest — the gloriously absurd Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. But Austen’s greatness comes from the fact that she wove many other strands alongside comedy into her work and her life.
Here are four reasons why Anglicans should beatify Jane Austen.
Jane Austen is world famous for her novels, but very few of her fans know that she also wrote prayers. Look them up. Those who think of Austen as 18th century chick-lit will be in for a surprise.
Give us grace, almighty father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our hearts, as with our lips. Thou art everywhere present, from thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this teach us to fix our thoughts on thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain.
One can say prayers and sit light on faith. But people who write prayers are not just dabbling in Christianity.
Child of an Anglican priest, with two brothers who were ordained, Austen was a lifelong churchgoer within the Anglican tradition. Yes, she ruthlessly satirized clerical dolts like Collins. But her novels also celebrate clerical virtue, found (eventually) in characters like Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park and Dr. Shirley in Persuasion.
Devout in worship, Austen applied her faith to her life. William Jarvis has written of Austen’s frequent encounters with grief and those grieving. There is a consistent leaning on faith, as when she asks for the following message to be passed to her bereaved brother Edward: “…tell Edward that we feel for him and pray for him.”
You will look in vain in most modern scholarship on Austen for serious discussion of her faith. But those who have eyes to see will readily perceive that faith undergirds her books. Paula Hollingsworth argues cogently for seeing Mansfield Park as salvation literature, where the plot hinges on Christian faith. The lay woman who is the novel’s heroine enables Edmund, her eventual husband, to fulfil his vocation as a parish priest and to eschew the lifestyle and worldview of the decidedly secular Crawfords, who are the villains of the piece. Faith is less visible, but no less powerful, in Austen’s final masterpiece, Persuasion. Again, the heroine and hero are devout, whereas the superficially attractive but deeply flawed Mr. Elliott is not. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy is to be found not only in church on Sunday but also on occasions such as Good Friday, a sign of serious faith even in Austen’s time. Darcy was not only dashing, he was also devout.
Austen’s family erected a gravestone which focused on her faith and character and gave limited mention to her literary achievements. Modern scholars are wont to pooh-pooh her family for so doing. But, most likely, Jane Austen would have valued their assessment of her.
Austen practiced faith with deep reserve. She was allergic to anything that looked like showing off, especially showing off in matters of belief. Consequently, modern scholars and readers often fail to realize that her faith is there at all. That Austen scorned advertisement of her Christianity is erroneously taken to mean she was secular. In reality, part of her sanctity lies in how she wore faith with modesty.
And the faith Austen espoused was a thoroughly Anglican faith. Her life is, for Anglican Christians in particular, a resource for living out the gospel. She was steeped in the prayer book and day-to-day parochial life. Active compassion was the hallmark of her life and writings. Her discipleship was woven into building up family life. In Austen’s life, intellect and prayer comingled and were wonderfully seasoned by an acute sense of humor. Austen shows the power of lay Anglican women in taking forward the gospel. Almost all Anglican prelates from 200 years ago are now forgotten; she is not.
Jane Austen regularly tops polls as the greatest woman writer in English of all time. She is all the more significant for having arisen at a time when female agency was little appreciated. Austen blazed the trail for the women novelists of today.
In so doing, Austen shows us how art and discipleship can fuse. Faith suffuses her books, and the converse is true, too. Austen enables us to see that artistic creativity — and specifically literary work — is a valid and vital vocation for the Christian.
In showing Christians that they can write for the glory of God, Austen shows, in particular, that Christians can use humor for the glory of God. The fabulously inept courtship of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice enriches life by making us laugh out loud and helps Christians learn the value of laughter, notably learning to laugh at ourselves. That said, we should beware projecting onto Austen the scorn of many modern comedians for faith. Austen laughed at the failings of the faithful, but she took Christian faith itself deeply seriously.
Part of Austen’s genius is the way she could laugh with mercy. The eponymous hero of Emma blunders comically as matchmaker, but through such blunders she ultimately learns – and thereby grows as a person and, eventually, as a spouse. Austen used humor as a path to humility. Sometimes, though not always, when her characters come unstuck, they become better people. Here satire and sanctification find connection. Austen had a serious Christian purpose in her comedy, using it to tell truth in a winsome way.
Quality of Life
Austen lived in a world of largely pre-modern healthcare. Her intellectual gifts can deceive us into thinking her life was akin to that of the modern intellectual. It was far harder. In an age of much illness and tragedy, Austen faced chronic illness and shattering bereavements amongst those she loved and in her parish community. Then, in her early 40s, she herself faced long-term illness and death — and did so with quiet courage. Austen delighted in the marriages and families of her siblings, but herself faced heartache in romance with Christian fortitude. Austen could be waspish in her wit, but most saints have their flaws. She was, for most of her life, deeply obscure. Her artistic greatness was only appreciated after her death.
Consequently, the 21st century’s frequent depiction of her works as light Georgian rom-com is way off the mark. For all the “com,” and even “rom,” in her oeuvre, there is much else. The fluffiness of Bridget Jones misses this aspect of Austen. When, in Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove falls and is severely concussed at Lyme this is not simply a plot device, it is a reflection of how often in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries a momentary slip had life-threatening and life-changing consequences.
This means Austen’s books are not just wonderful escapism (though they are that). They speak into the world of coronavirus. She understood sickness, dying and untimely death. Austen wrote her comedy deeply conscious of the fragility of existence. That is part of what gives it its power.
In Austen’s world, like our own, people were tempted to give in to despair or slide into hedonism. Faith was central to how Austen found meaning in suffering and coped with suffering. She could smile and laugh because she believed that, in Christ, she would depart this life in peace.
A Faith Overlooked
Jane Austen’s face adorns the British ten-pound note. She has never been more famous than today, nor more misunderstood. One of her best-known biographers, Clare Tomalin, effectively airbrushes Austen’s faith from the picture. It is like a biographer of Lenin omitting to mention his Marxism. Such censorship is almost “a truth universally acknowledged” amongst the western intelligentsia. This is a disgrace. And it is the fourth reason for her beatification. Beatifying Jane Austen would help stop such rot.
Yes, formal beatification is not the Anglican way; but informal beatification happens all the time in our tradition. Anglicans lionize the faith of George Herbert, male priest and poet. So why do we, mostly, ignore the faith of Austen, lay-woman and novelist? Jane Austen deserves just as much recognition as Herbert for the way she, like him, lived out her vocation as a writer within her vocation as a follower of Jesus. Herbert’s wonderful poems fuel faith; Austen’s novels, were they better understood, could do the same. Anglicanism currently hides Jane Austen under a bushel. It is time we put that right.
And she deserves at least informal beatification, also, because this would annoy all the right people. Hollywood depictions of her novels ignore the religious framework within which the books were written (ironically, were Hollywood to draw on that faith framework, its films would gain much greater depth). To recognize Austen’s deep faith will appall literary big-wigs who have air-brushed out Austen’s beliefs. And, if they were so appalled, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh.
David Goodhew is a visiting fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University; Vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough; and co-director of the Centre for Church Growth Research, which can be followed on twitter @CCGR_Durham.