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Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Jane Austen's Views of the Church and Clergy

One of Jane Austen's lovable qualities is that she reminds us to beware of judging others, lest we be ourselves judged. If you see people as they really are, can you love them? This is the task set to Christians - to love even enemies. Jane Austen, who grew up in the church, knew this. As a person of insight, she met many people who, while not enemies, were not the sort she wanted as friends.

Times favoured a sort of rational Christianity - mind over emotions. It was the Romantics who later put the emphasis on the heart and emotions. It could be said that Jane Austen considers aspects of this argument and where the emphasis should lie: what she recommends by implication is politeness to all, while preferring the head to the heart.

In the inescapable position as the reader's mentor, Jane Austen teaches not by straightforward precept but by instance, exploring the way in which principles work out when applied to particular situations, characters, or times, giving full weight to the ambiguities of experience.

The Revd. Austen's precepts underpin his daughter's mature fiction. Conduct we are invited to admire in Jane's novels displays politeness, altruism, restraint and good humour. Characters are censured if they boast and seek to impose their views without consideration for others.

However, though Jane came from a family of clergymen and was a God-fearing woman, she does not proselytize. Her novels are didactic only in a delectable way: they define good and evil more subtly than any novelist had yet attempted. Right is distinguished from wrong in the exercise of inner principles. Good manners are the code of practice that outwardly governs conduct. Jane Austen's religion belongs to the end of the Eighteenth Century, when duty, responsibility and good sense were tempered by realism. Passions were controlled. Actions were judged by their effect on others. This suited her perfectly.

One of the three prayers she herself wrote includes the words:

Induce 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.

The defence of the Church as a profession put up by Edmund in Mansfield Park, Chapter 9, is similar in tone and rhythm to the defence of Novel-Writing as a profession put up by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. A novel is a work

in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

The clergyman

has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally – which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.

Jane was a pious person surrounded by clergymen whom she loved; yet she toiled away as a novelist – a novelist who frequently made fun of clergymen. Perhaps she instinctively knew a novelist such as herself could ultimately have a greater influence on people than any clergyman (however well-intentioned) because her novels showed (rather than told) everything a clergyman ought to say. What is more, she knew she was doing so in a highly entertaining way, with ‘wit and humour’ and ‘in the best chosen language’.

The Revd. Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s cousin, liked to publish his sermons and send them to her. She did not care for them (Letter 145) and the contrast between his view of Christianity and hers is enlightening. In her eyes, most human failings were due to a faulty upbringing; to his, they were the result of the ‘radical and entire depravity’ of human nature. Cooper was the kind of man who believed there should be no indulgence in any form of worldly pleasure on the Sabbath, whereas Jane’s family was quite happy – after attending church – to play games.

Possibly Mr. Collins is loosely based on the Revd. Cooper and Jane Austen was making a private joke for her family in creating this character, especially at the point when Mr. Collins sends his famous letter to Mr. Bennet following Lydia’s scandalous behaviour. From hints in the correspondence of Jane Austen herself and of other members of her family, it seems to have been just the sort of letter the Revd. Cooper was accustomed to write.