“Oh no, dear Lord, not again.” My husband has walked into our bedroom at an inconvenient time. Colin Firth, in his dripping wet shirt, is heading towards Pemberly and Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. When we first married, Ted had never heard of Pride and Prejudice. Now he has seen so many versions, he thinks it deserves its own channel. For what it’s worth, he likes the Anglo-Indian musical version, Bride and Prejudice, the best. The Cobra Dance gets him every time.
As a geeky English major, I am in love with all things Jane Austen. Honestly, I can remember more of her lines than I can remember Bible verses. I am not alone. Many women are caught up in the wit and romance of Jane Austen novels. Lines like “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Pride and Prejudice, Volume 2, chapter XI original, chapter 34 modern) or “You pierce my soul” (Persuasion), definitely get your attention. I know my husband loves me, but I am pretty sure I never pierced anything on him, let alone his soul. As the 200th anniversary of her death came around last week, I had to wonder, what is my fascination?
In part, it’s because I like her style. She got in trouble for her humor, as I do, yet she knew that was her gift, saying, “I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way.” Austen’s sharp wit is so snarky, it’s like you are having a Frappuccino with a friend at Starbucks. I mean lines like “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked.” Come on. On writing to her sister about the birth of their nephew, “I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.” Should be on a Hallmark card. Still, I think there is a deeper base to her wisdom. There is a clear sense of morality in all Austen’s novels and I maintain that her devotion to her faith is one of the major, and most overlooked strengths, of her writing. We can recognize ourselves in her characters’ struggles. When Marianne (Sense and Sensibility) recovers from an illness following a humiliating love affair, she tells her sister about her desire to live “to have time for my atonement to God.” Been there? In Austen, the overtly vain and evil get their comeuppance. Those who learn humility and balance marry into comfortable estates.
Austen was the daughter of a clergyman and two of her brothers were in the church. Her six major novels all feature clergyman characters. Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park (ugh) all have clergy as the romantic lead. So, obviously, this is not a Catholic perspective. Austen was a dyed-in-the-wool Anglican and would have dismissed our religion as Popish nonsense. However, her morality is so universal, that is has become ecumenical. She could poke fun at clergy, too. Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice is a clownish figure, fawning over his patroness, Lady Catherine de Burgh. Mr. Elton of Emma is a complete snob and becomes the caro sposo of another complete snob when he weds the vulgar Augusta Hawkins.
Religion has a major role in my least favorite Austen novel, Mansfield Park. Try as I might, I cannot like the heroine, do-gooder Fanny Price, even if she wears a cool amber cross given to her by her brother in the navy, inspired by the topaz cross Austen’s naval
officer brother gave her. She has no humor and won’t even act in a play because she believes it is immoral. All the wit in this book is given to rival Mary Crawford, who has to be made into a villainess.
Mary has many observations about religion that you could hear on the street today. Hearing that the estate chapel has been closed for prayer, her comment is, “At any rate, it is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Everybody likes to go their own way–to chuse their own time and manner of devotion. The obligation of attendance, the formality, the restraint, the length of time–altogether it is a formidable thing, and what nobody likes…” Sounds like my kids trying to avoid Mass. When she finds out the man she has the hots for is to be ordained, Mary finds it very uncool: “‘But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to chuse before him.” In other words, why would anyone become a clergyman who didn’t have to? To her, it is a purely economic choice of profession, having nothing to do with faith.
You may not know that Jane Austen not only wrote novels but prayers. They are good, too. Three full authenticated examples exist and some believe there are fragments of more. The prayers were written for family worship and contain many of the themes in her novels. For example, “Save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity,” could come right out of Elizabeth Bennett’s mouth at the end of P & P. I think that could be the root of why I like her so much. Not only do Austen’s sensibilities, humor and convictions translate well into modern life, she managed to fully and seamlessly incorporate her Christian faith was fully incorporated into work.
So, my caro amico, I will close with an excerpt from Miss Austen’s Evening Prayer:
Another day is now gone, and added to those, for which we were before accountable. Teach us almighty father, to consider this solemn truth, as we should do, that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes, and earnestly strive to make a better use of what thy goodness may yet bestow on us, than we have done of the time past.