Jane Austen: A Gentle Faith
- Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Many people know little about the life of Jane Austen, one of our most beloved writers.
The movie Becoming Jane got a few things right (though much was fictional): Yes, she lived in the Hampshire countryside. Her father, grandfather, and two of her brothers were ministers. Her sister Cassandra was her closest friend. She did fall in love with Tom Lefroy at twenty, and the details of that relationship are quite murky, though it appears to have been flirtatious and short-lived.
There were other suitors—one who did propose, and others who seem to have considered proposing—but she never married. She died far too early, at forty-one, of what most now believe was Addison’s disease.
More than most writers, Austen inspires readers to feel like they know her, to imagine they know what her life was like. We feel a camaraderie and kinship when we read her stories. She seems close. So sometimes we read into her the things we want to see in ourselves, or our own view of the world.
Jane did not leave behind any journals, and Cassandra burned most of her letters after she died. There are things biographers will never know. But one of the most precious things to me—and something I think a careful reading of her life reveals—is her faith. It would be easy to assume that because everyone went to church then, this was something the Austens did without really meaning it. But there’s more depth here than the casual observer might assume.
The Church of England was largely corrupt. Church positions, or “livings,” as they were called, were traded almost like stock in a business. They often went to the highest bidder, who would hire someone for as little as possible to actually show up and lead the church services. It wasn’t unusual to find men in the pulpit with little faith at all.
Contrarily, Jane’s father George Austen, believed that a country rector was really no good unless he lived among his people, that there was much good to be done just living out love on a day-to-day basis, setting an example of faithfulness. Edmund gives voice to all of these opinions in Mansfield Park, concluding that “as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.” No doubt Jane got many of her ideas about being a country clergyman from her father.
The faith of the Austens was in many ways unusual. It was an age in which being English meant being Christian, and being Christian often meant no more than being English. At the other extreme, there was the new Methodist movement, sincere in their faith and sometimes very severe. Had Jane been at either end of this spectrum, her writing would not be what it is. Had she been in a Methodist family she may have been too serious to enjoy the frivolity of plays and novels. She ended up being very faithful, with a great deal of common sense (not to impugn the Methodists, of course) and an appreciation for humor and joy. I think in many ways she owed that to her father.
For generations, actually—from Jane’s grandfather on her mother’s side, to her father and brothers and several nephews—the Austens were known for being devout and faithful in a time when it would have been very easy to be otherwise.
Jane had no desire to write tracts disguised as fiction, and it seems she was occasionally criticized for not making her faith more overtly part of her writing. But still, it comes through in a very gentle way. Her stories clearly have a moral heart. If she knew that others fell short, I believe it was in part because she was aware of her own failings. She crafted stories about lovely, smart, intelligent women—and men—who were blind to their own faults. Pride. Immaturity. Self-centeredness. These were not small, but impurities of character to be worked out with the help of those who loved you enough to tell you the truth.
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