“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.