Jane Austen wrote romantic comedy, but she also wrote theology. And it has much to say to us in these dark, often hysterical, days of COVID-19.
It remains a truth almost universally acknowledged by scholars and filmmakers that the message of Jane Austen’s books is secular. With a zeal of which Stalin would have been proud, they have airbrushed Christianity from Austen’s novels. But when read, these superb books turn out to be full-on about Christian faith. This can be seen from her novel, Mansfield Park. It has a plot so intertwined with Christian ministry that it can reasonably be seen as Austen’s version of the Anglican ordinal. And it speaks to each of us, ordained or lay.
Mansfield Park is a love quadrilateral set in a stately English home. There is Fanny Price, poor relation of Mansfield Park’s owner, Sir Thomas Bertram. Fanny is in love with Edmund Bertram, younger son of Sir Thomas and soon to be ordained. The house’s tranquility is upset by the arrival in the village of urban sophisticates, Henry and Mary Crawford, who are brother and sister. Henry decides to court Fanny. Mary has her eyes on Edmund.
Mary despises Edmund’s desire to be ordained, but hopes he might be persuaded to take up more lucrative and prestigious pursuits. Fanny rebuffs Henry Crawford, so Henry commits adultery with Edmund Bertram’s married sister, Maria Rushworth. The novel ends with the Crawfords’ shallowness exposed, Fanny and Edmund married, and Edmund settled in parochial ministry.
Mansfield Park is romance, set within the context of vocation to ordination. The novel is a rich text. In Austen, diverse voices and themes co-exist. Within Mansfield Park can be heard both piety and skepticism, the charm of the flirt and the priggish reserve of the upright. But Austen’s voicing of varying standpoints does not mean that she is content with mere dissonance. She takes a clear stance on virtue.
Strikingly, it is the laywoman, Fanny, who is the heroine here. Her refusal to marry Henry Crawford whom she does not love, despite huge pressure to do so, means others face their own failings and, in some cases, learn to live out a Christian calling. Her integrity is notably greater than that of the ordinand, Edmund.
Christian vocation, within the Anglican tradition, is thus fundamental to the plot of Mansfield Park. Vocation is explored through a series of debates within the novel. These lay bare Austen’s own views on how ordained ministry (and Christian discipleship in general) should be done.
The Centrality of Prayer
The visit to the large, stately home of Sotherton is key to Mansfield Park. The characters enter the private chapel and perceive immediately that it is unused. This leads to a debate. On one side, Edmund and Fanny urge the renewal of prayer at Sotherton. On the other side, Mary Crawford sees the neglect of prayer as no bad thing.
Mary strikingly comments that, instead of corporate prayers, “It is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Every body likes to go their own way.” Corporate worship, to her, is constraint on people who, often as not, are thinking anything but worshipful thoughts. Mary voices modern individualism. Edmund responds that the person who spurns collective devotion is likely to spurn any constraint of their behavior — a judgement that later events in the book (and, arguably, modernity as a whole) prove correct.
Austen sees the practice of prayer in a great stately home as that home’s animating force and the neglect of prayer as deadening the life of a great house. Irene Collins comments that Sotherton Court’s chapel is “the heart of the building.” Neglect of prayers in its chapel means the house losing its soul.
Jane Austen, a lifelong Anglican, habitually attended church twice on Sundays and saw Sunday morning worship as essential to life, to be foregone only in extreme circumstances. If unable to attend on Sunday evenings, Austen insisted that a modified form of evening prayer was to be said at home. Austen’s books are world-famous, but few realize that she also wrote moving prayers. In Mansfield Park she sets the practice of prayer at the heart of every Christian’s calling, lay or ordained.
And careful reading of her other novels shows her prioritization of prayer. The heroes of Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice are committed to regular worship, whilst the dubious Mr. Elliot and Wickham are not. Indeed Wickham, the shallow ladies’ man in Pride and Prejudice, is prevented from being ordained by Darcy, since Wickham’s motive for taking orders is simply to obtain a rich living. Darcy, famed as a lover, here acts like a conscientious canon to the ordinary, weeding out those unsuited to ordained ministry.
Jane Austen’s fiction is famously understated in its emotions. The flick of a fan and flex of an eyebrow convey volumes. But in Mansfield Park she adopts a far franker style with Edmund Bertram’s heated confrontation with Mary Crawford over her brother Henry’s adultery with Edmund’s sister, Maria Rushworth.
Mary Crawford is bothered, not about the adultery itself, but by the fact that it has been made public. Edmund condemns Mary’s pragmatism. Mary retorts that Edmund is “Methodist” and “missionary” in his passionate criticism of her. Austen was no fan of Methodists and missionaries, but Mansfield Park shows she preferred her hero to be condemned for a seriousness of faith akin to “enthusiasts” than slip into the individualistic hedonism of the Crawfords.
Currently many in the media and some in academia on both sides of the Atlantic have been driven to hysteria by COVID-19. Christians have a duty to God and to our society not to follow them into this downward vortex. Only disciplined prayer will keep us from such gyrations.
The Importance of Living Where You Minister
Austen was adamant that incumbents live in the area where they minister. In Mansfield Park, Edmund the ordinand and his father (patron of several livings) voice her insistence on this principle.
Sir Thomas Bertram declares:
…a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman continually resident and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent….human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey… [If a priest] does not live among his parishioners and prove himself by constant attention their well-wisher and friend, he does very little for their good or his own.
Knowing and being known by the parish was as important as a priest’s sermons, but that did not mean Austen was indifferent to the latter. She valued preaching highly, taking care to receive regularly such ministry both in church and through reading published sermons. William Jarvis reports that Austen, upon hearing a new preacher, commented, “He gave us an excellent Sermon — a little too eager sometimes in his delivery, but that is to me a better extreme than want of animation.”
Austen’s notion of ministry centered on small, rural communities. It was in such a place, Steventon, that her father ministered for over 30 years and where Jane spent the first 25 years of her life. If such ministry was unspectacular, it was, she held, to be done with great seriousness. Austen’s clergy were expected to vow stability in their lengthy concern for their parishioners and be steadfast in seeking their people’s good.
In Austen’s times, this was a contentious point. In her day the majority of parishes lacked a resident incumbent. Often some impecunious curate was hired to “do duty” in their place. So, in speaking as she did in Mansfield Park, Austen stood against the upper classes and the church hierarchy of her day.
In our day, it is so easy to pontificate about that which we do not ourselves directly know. Until we have walked the streets, literally, perhaps we should keep silence.
Family Life as Central to Faith
Mansfield Park is a portrayal of how family life should, and should not, happen. Austen advocates Christian norms of fidelity and tenderness in marriage and attacks infidelity, apathy and hard-heartedness.
Strikingly, it is the laywoman, Fanny, who holds the line. In the dramatic center of the novel, she is pressured by all to give in to the endless proposals from Henry Crawford, a man she rightly despises (he soon wearies of pursuing her and commits adultery instead). Edmund, the ordinand, is guilty of pressuring Fanny towards such a marriage and is himself blind to the shallowness of Mary Crawford, the woman with whom he himself is then infatuated. Eventually, realizing the true character of the Crawfords, he realizes his own love for Fanny.
It is Fanny’s steadfast familial discipleship that enables Edmund ultimately to be devout in terms of family life. In Mansfield Park those who are socially the least save the day. Those who socially have the most imperil the whole household. Expensive educations, copious charm, and good looks stand for nothing.
Living in an age when the Prince Regent (later King George IV) was a notorious womanizer, Austen had no time for those who saw adultery as unimportant. The affair between Mrs. Rushworth and Henry Crawford is called by Austen “guilt and infamy.” Austen ferociously attacks those who see the affair merely as “folly,” seeing this as a glib side-stepping of the evil that adultery brings. The culture of the 21st century which tends to see affairs as lifestyle choices would be anathema to Austen. For her, fidelity in marriage comes before all other vocations, lay or ordained.
Practical Compassion as the Hallmark of Faith
As in all Austen’s other works, it is small acts of compassion that she sees as being of most value. Care for the poor is lauded. Likewise, Austen mentions and approves those who respond to distress and attacks those who simply talk.
Austen portrays Edmund and Fanny as consistently seeking the welfare of those they meet with day to day. Henry and Mary Crawford rise to occasional acts of compassion, but this is not the settled orientation of their lives.
And active compassion has a social dimension. Austen’s fiction notoriously focuses on a small stage, occupied by three or four households. In Mansfield Park Austen departs from this format to critique the slave trade. Again, it is Fanny, the laywoman, who alone has the gumption to question slavery. The rest of the family are silent on the matter.
The Danger of Materialism
Mansfield Park contains, in Dr. Grant, the embodiment of what good parish ministry is not. Vicar of the parish in which Mansfield Park stands, Grant is eloquent as a preacher and pleasant enough in person. But his real passion is fine food.
Grant’s god is his stomach. And gourmand Grant has little impact on his parishioners. Towards the end of the novel he moves to the regency health resort of Bath, then obtains the plumb canonry of Westminster Abbey. But he dies soon after, from “apoplexy” brought on by over-eating. If that sounds a bizarre twist in the plot, it is worth noting that Parson Woodforde and other Anglican clergy of this epoch were well known for gluttony, which clearly shortened their life spans.
Mary Crawford rightly castigates Grant. Later Mary and Edmund Bertram debate whether clergy are corrupt. Mary declares that the motivation for ordination is “indolence and love of ease… A Clergyman has nothing to do but to be slovenly and selfish — read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His Curate does all the work and the business of his own life is to dine.”
But she is guilty of the same failing. Asked if she wishes to be rich, she replies “To be sure. Do not you? — Do not we all?” Having previously poured scorn on Edmund for pursuing an ordained vocation, Mary then warms to Edmund because she believes that he may inherit wealth.
Edmund accepts Mary’s point that some clergy are corrupt, but shows you can still perform the role with integrity. Fanny, likewise, is sent away from Mansfield Park to poorer family members in the hope that experiencing material hardship will make her accept the affluent Henry Crawford’s proposal. But Fanny’s refusal to be swayed is Austen’s rebuttal of Mary Crawford’s assumption that money is the ultimate motivator.
As economic slump moves into view worldwide, Austen presents Anglicans with a challenge as to whether our oft-mouthed assertions that money is not our master and that we “care for the poor” hold true in practice.
Mansfield Park as Jane Austen’s Ordinal
The most recent adaptation of Mansfield Park adds a lesbian sub-plot and cuts out altogether Dr. Grant, the primary ordained character. Thus do the powers of this age remake Jane Austen in their own image.
When we actually read Austen, it turns out that she was deeply concerned about Christian faith, which she expressed within the Anglican tradition.
In her novels, Austen eviscerated corrupt clergy, but she had much more than this to say about clergy and had a deep respect for priestly vocation. Learning to be a priest is the center of Mansfield Park. This novel is Austen’s ordinal.
The narrative shows us how to approach ordained ministry. Like all of Austen, it treats this theme with wit and irony (not least in the way it is the laywoman, Fanny, who rescues the vocation of the male ordinand, Edmund). But the theme of ordination is at Mansfield Park’s heart. To ignore ordination in Mansfield Park is like ignoring class struggle in Das Kapital.
In Mansfield Park she argues that clergy should be centered on prayer, live in (and sink deep roots into) the place in which they minister, love their families, live lives of practical compassion, and spurn the lure of wealth. Thus, Austen’s understanding of vocation, though rooted in the Georgian church, has much to say to all Anglicans and all Christians today — whether we be lay or ordained, male or female.
It is high time that Jane Austen’s faith is properly recognized, inside and outside of the Church. Not only did Austen write superlative comedy, she also wrote theology.
David Goodhew is a Visiting Fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, Vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough, England and co-director of the Centre for Church Growth Research, which can be followed on twitter @CCGR_Durham