Jane Austen, Jane Austen and Christianity, Jane Austen giveaway, Lady Susan, Love and Friendship, Peter Leithart
“Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls.” – excerpt from a prayer by Jane Austen
Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have difficulty believing Jane Austen really was a Christian because matters of faith are so understated in her works. Evangelical Christians today are accustomed to Christian novels in which character, plot and basically everything else of aesthetic value function merely as a platform for bold gospel declarations, and assume Austen must be a nominal Christian only because her faith is not similarly brazen in her fiction. Secular academics and biographers, on the other hand, are eager to place Austen within a feminist tradition because of her success and influence. They easily disregard subtle elements of faith in her novels, downplaying her beliefs as the inevitable product of growing up with a 19th century Anglican clergyman father.
Peter Leithart’s biography Jane Austen, an installment in the biographical series “Christian Encounters,” vindicates Austen’s Christian faith by bringing to light excerpts from Austen’s letters and other personal writings that testify to its authenticity. Leithart also explains that while Christianity may appear, to modern day readers especially, subdued in Austen’s works, it nonetheless serves as the foundational premise of her convictions on social behaviour. For Austen, manners and Christian morals are intertwined, as exemplified in the above quote, and causing “the discomfort of our fellow-creatures” is an “evil” and a “sin,” in her own words. Humans are not solitary creatures for whom the pursuit of personal freedom and choice are the ultimate right or moral good; rather, good and evil manifest themselves in our treatment of others, and our moral duty is to make others as “comfortable” as possible (see Luke 6:31, Mark 12:31, Romans 12:18).
For Austen, “loving thy neighbour” means good manners – friendliness, politeness, cheerfulness, helpfulness, putting others before one’s self (this is the defining trait of a gentleman in Austen’s books), and “good sense” (Austen’s favourite). In Austen’s world, those characters who exhibit embarrassing or deplorable manners are vain, conceited, selfish, stupid and irrational. How could such traits describe a Christian? The Bible clearly states how people ought to behave, from proverbs about the importance of cheerfulness to New Testament descriptions of how disciples of Christ must live peaceably with one another. This is no trifling matter; we mistreat others to “the danger of our own souls,” Austen believed, echoing the warning of James 2:17: “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Our salvation is indeed bound up in our manners. When viewed in such a light, it is hard to perceive Austen’s novels as anything but Christian.
Read about Lady Susan, one of only two of Austen’s works to be published during the Victorian Era.
MoMo @ Remnants of Wit said:
I’ve often wondered about Austen’s faith, since her books never preach but rather have, as you said, fundamental Christian assumptions (i.e. virtue, vice) at their cores. Thanks for the book recommendation!
Taking up the thought in your opening paragraph: “Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have difficulty believing Jane Austen really was a Christian because matters of faith are so understated in her works. Evangelical Christians today are accustomed to Christian novels in which character, plot and basically everything else of aesthetic value function merely as a platform for bold gospel declarations….”
This makes me reflect that the same could be said about most of the classic 19th-century novelists. Most of them had a strong distaste for big public displays of piety (Matthew 6:1-10: “the hypocrites… love to pray standing… in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men”). So, for example, a year or two before his death, Dickens wrote privately to one of his children: “The more we are in earnest as to feeling it” [“the Christian Religion”], “the less disposed we are to hold forth about it” (Forster, Life of Charles Dickens, vol. 3, p. 446).
I don’t feel that this is always a disadvantage. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). The greater the amount of explicit religious teaching in a novel, the greater the risk of error (see, e.g., this post: https://christianvictorianliterature.com/2013/08/22/marriage-divorce-and-universal-salvation-in-the-tenant-of-wildfell-hall-by-anne-bronte/). When I read the private thoughts & speculations of the great writers (e.g. in their letters), I’m often grateful that they had the wisdom to keep those things out of their novels! (Dickens’s Life of Our Lord is full of errors–he says that Judaism observes Sunday as the Sabbath, etc., etc. But he intended that manuscript only as private reading for his children, to encourage them to follow Christ; he explicitly told them that it wasn’t for publication. In his published work, he was much more careful.)
Jeff Thiessen (@Greeningdon) said:
Jane Austen slightly predates the Victorian era but an interesting read.
Two of her lesser known works, “Lady Susan” and “The Watsons,” were published posthumously during the 1870’s. That’s how I snuck her in my blog.
Looks like an interesting read!