Between the lines

Jane Austen discovery: there’s still much to learn about faith and the clergyman’s daughter

Jane Austen as she will appear on the £10 note from 2017. Laura Lean/PA Wire

Jane Austen never ceases to surprise and fascinate us. From Dr Paula Byrne’s claim to have discovered a new portrait in 2011 to Kelly Clarkson’s unsuccessful bid for Austen’s turquoise and gold ring last year, there seems to be no end to new finds casting fresh light on one of the nation’s most cherished authors. Most recently, the Guardian has reported the discovery of a rare sample of Austen’s handwriting.

Pasted into a first edition of the 1869 biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen, recently bought by the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton, Hampshire, the small scrap was attached to an 1870 letter from Austen’s biographer and nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh, to a friend. It reads as follows:

Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding – certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning.

While he offers this as an example of his aunt’s handwriting, Austen Leigh states that these are not her words. In fact, they’re thought to be those of her brother, James, who took over their father’s position as rector of Steventon church in 1801. And as David Dorning from the books conservation department at West Dean College told the Guardian: “She used to regularly write out sermons for her brother.”

But wouldn’t it have been wonderful if these words could have been attributed to Austen herself? If so, we might have further evidence to support our impression of her as a rebellious writer rather than the modest, spinster daughter her family portrayed. There is, after all, a subtle chime with that feminist forerunner Mary Wollstonecraft here, who, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), criticised the national education system for encouraging boys to treat public worship merely “as a ritual performed by the lips, when the heart and mind are far away”.

Again, if these were Austen’s words, we might also have more to go on in helping us to appreciate her views on religion. Given the sometimes savage portrayals of clergymen in her novels – think of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice and Mr Elton in Emma – it has often seemed as though Austen’s talent for irony and satire superseded her faith.

But scholarship has now overturned this assumption. Irene Collins offered new insight into Austen’s milieu in her book, Jane Austen and the Clergy (1993). And Michael Giffin, in his compelling Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England (2002), impressed upon us that we ought to read Austen as “an Anglican author who writes Christian stories”.

Irrespective of who authored the fragment, we do actually find its sentiments echoed in Austen’s own writing. A prime example is Mansfield Park, a novel published in 1814, the same year from which the fragment appears to date. Here, the lively and irreverent Mary Crawford imagines a gentry family and their servants attending chapel:

Young Mrs Eleanors and Mrs Bridgets – starched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different.

Mary tempts us along with Edmund Bertram, a young man soon to be ordained, into suspecting that Anglicanism is simply a series of empty rituals. Certainly, Georgian Anglicans led a life of regimented prayer and repetition with daily family prayers morning and evening, supplemented by daily private prayer, grace and thanksgiving at mealtimes, and two long church services on a Sunday.

Laura Mooneyham White estimates in Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (2013), for example, that Austen might well have said the Lord’s prayer in excess of 30,000 times in her lifetime. But these habitual prayers themselves don’t appear to be Austen’s target so much as the distraction from true understanding – a reflection of the rational approach to religion that characterised her Anglican belief.

This seems to be confirmed by the fact that in Mansfield Park, Edmund finally rejects Mary’s worldliness for immorality, becomes a clergyman as planned and marries his long-suffering and devoted cousin, Fanny Price. Though perhaps one of Austen’s least exciting heroines, Fanny is, we feel, without doubt the better match. In the end, it is not Mary’s criticism but Fanny’s heartfelt and reasonable assertion that shines through: “A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine.” In Mansfield Park then, we find Austen the Anglican and Austen the social satirist happily married.

What this newly discovered fragment shows us is that however familiar Austen might appear to us, we have more to uncover about this retiring clergyman’s daughter. And this is not least since the writing on the reverse of the fragment has yet to be deciphered. Hopefully, this will be in time for the bicentenary celebrations of Mansfield Park later this year.

In the meantime, we remain conscious that we must guard against reading authors of yesteryear simply according to our own modern, highly secularised worldview. And we wait with anticipation, our interest in this much mythologised and acclaimed British writer still far from satiated.