Book Review: The Spirituality of Jane Austen by Paula Hollingsworth

Paula Hollingsworth piqued my interest with this title. I have read and loved Austen for a large part of my life but didn’t perceive a Christian view in them. She outlines her task in her study of the spirituality of Jane Austen as follows:

“I do not venture to speak of her religious principles: that is a subject on which she herself was more inclined to think and act than to talk, and I shall imitate her reserve; satisfied to have shown how much of Christian love and humility abounded in her heart, without presuming to lay bare the roots whence those graces grew.”

This is elegantly achieved with a systematic, and intense, study of both Austen’s life and her works. Much of the argument is built on the biographical knowledge of the author drawn from those who knew her best and from her own letters. The way in which Austen loved both friends and family reflects her commitment to living out her faith. Each novel she wrote, including those unfinished, is dissected for religion threads as not one is Christian focused rather, in commending good behaviour and highlighting bad, Austen suggests the way in which we should all live.

“What Catherine is criticized for is reading without thought or reflection, reading with too much sensibility and not enough sense, and imposing the values of such novels on her life and the lives of those around her. She needs to learn to read with more detachment and criticism, and to balance the reading of such novels with more serious books, especially on history. For, in life and in literature, imagination must be ruled by judgment; and other people’s natures are to be critiqued with a grounded realism.”

“So the biblical story of death and resurrection is again mirrored in Persuasion, all the more strongly, for as the loss is greater so the hope and joy of new life at the end of the novel is greater…”

Being surrounded by and raised by clergy, Austen creates her commentary on the responsibilities of the church and their representatives through her novels.

““How should you have liked making sermons?” Wickham’s response is about the duty and exertion of writing sermons, and about the quiet and retirement of the life of the clergy, but the implication of Elizabeth’s question is that sermons give a moral lead to others, something she recognizes Wickham is incapable of doing. In terms of our three criteria of spirituality, Pride and Prejudice scores highly as a spiritual book. Jane Austen has a lot to say about values as she stresses the importance of inner character as opposed to outward appearance. The virtues that are particularly commended throughout the book are civility, responsibility, generosity, and goodness. An important part of responsibility is moral influence. Those in a position to influence others –such as Darcy as a landowner, Mr Collins as a clergyman, Lady Catherine as a patron, and Mr and Mrs Bennet as parents –should recognize their responsibility to others and be an example by their words and actions, though not all of them manage to do it.”

The following three quotes indicate how her brother Henry, a biographer who studied her,  David Cecil, and a contemporary reviewer all find a tale of faith and an encouragement to the Christian life in her work and I think they say it best:

“Henry believed that Jane was seeking to reflect her Christian faith in her novels, but that she did not believe that a didactic approach would be either popular or beneficial.”

“For example, David Cecil, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford from 1948 to 1970, wrote in A Portrait of Jane Austen, published in 1978: Jane Austen’s religion, so her biographer discovers as he studies her, is an element in her life of the highest significance and importance.”

“Miss Austen has the merit (in our judgement most essential) of being evidently a Christian writer: a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste, and of practical utility, by her religion not being at all obtrusive… The moral lessons… spring incidentally from the circumstances of the story; they are not forced upon the reader.” – Richard Whately of Quarterly Review

The author sums her journey up with the following:

“Jane’s spirituality was the outworking of the quiet and measured Anglican faith of her father, which is expressed implicitly rather than explicitly in her novels.”

I believe, from what I discovered through this book, Jane Austen’s spirituality exceeds beyond the faith of her father but rather it comes from her relationship, developed from that foundation, with God and her own walk in faith. She endured many trials but endured each with a commended exhibition of Christian virtues. Her wilderness years refined her. My personal favourite, Persuasion, is born of the years after her wilderness and during her illness. I wonder if part of my connection to the lead character Anne is owing to her author’s understanding of human suffering and pain. I enjoyed The Spirituality of Jane Austen thoroughly even though in parts it is a little dry and give it an en-JOY-ment rating of three. It is definitely for the Austen fanatic.

My favourite element of the whole book was finding the prayers written by Austen at the end. Beautifully crafted and so on point for today, I have shared one here:

Father of heaven! whose goodness has brought us in safety to the close of this day, dispose our hearts in fervent 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.

Give us grace to endeavour after a truly Christian spirit to seek to attain that temper of forbearance and patience of which our blessed saviour has set us the highest example; and which, while it prepares us for the spiritual happiness of the life to come, will secure to us the best enjoyment of what this world can give. Incline us Oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.

We thank thee with all our hearts for every gracious dispensation, for all the blessings that have attended our lives, for every hour of safety, health and peace, of domestic comfort and innocent enjoyment. We feel that we have been blessed far beyond any thing that we have deserved; and though we cannot but pray for a continuance of all these mercies, we acknowledge our unworthiness of them and implore thee to pardon the presumption of our desires.

Keep us oh! Heavenly Father from evil this night. Bring us in safety to the beginning of another day and grant that we may rise again with every serious and religious feeling which now directs us. May thy mercy be extended over all mankind, bringing the ignorant to the knowledge of thy truth, awakening the impenitent, touching the hardened. Look with compassion upon the afflicted of every condition, assuage the pangs of disease, comfort the broken in spirit. More particularly we do pray for the safety and welfare of our own family and friends wheresoever dispersed, beseeching thee to avert from them all material and lasting evil of body and mind; and may we by the assistance of thy holy spirit so conduct ourselves on earth as to secure an eternity of happiness with each other in thy heavenly kingdom. Grant this most merciful Father, for the sake of our blessed saviour in whose holy name and words we further address thee. Out Father which art in heaven &c.

From the back cover:

Best known for her novels Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma, published anonymously, Jane Austen commented, critiqued, and illuminated the life of the British gentry at the end of the 18th century. But did Jane’s writings highlight anything about her own spirituality?  In this celebratory book, Paula Hollingsworth explores Jane Austen’s gentle but strong faith and the effect it had both on her life and her writing. Drawing on Jane’s life story, her letters, her friendships, her books, and the characters portrayed, Paula shows the depth of Jane Austin’s spirituality. Many people take the superficial view that because she made fun of some individual clergymen—Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice being the most obvious example—therefore she must have made fun of faith itself. In fact, one has only to read Mansfield Park and to see the commitment of Fanny and Edmund Bertram to realize that this was far from the case. Her letters, the memoirs of her family, and her epitaph in Winchester Cathedral give a much clearer idea of her faith.

https://www.amazon.com/Spirituality-Jane-Austen-Paula-Hollingsworth/dp/0745968600

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