Jane Austen was Low Church but she had high religious ideals

This year marks the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, at the age of 41. What sort of Christian was this imaginative and highly intelligent woman? Jane was both the daughter and sister of clergymen. Her father, George Austen – “the handsome Proctor” – was vicar of the 12th-century church at Steventon in Hampshire.

At a time of Deism, near unbelief, notorious laxity, latitudinarianism and absentee parish clergy, George was a devout and faithful country parson who lived among his people and cared for them.

Jane and her sisters sewed and provided clothes for the local poor. It’s worth noting that she was granted burial in the north aisle in Winchester Cathedral not on account of her undoubted literary stature – for she published her novels anonymously – but because of her charitable work in the local churches.

While George Eliot flirted with the sensual “enthusiasm” of the Wesleyan revival – we think of Dinah, the exotic young woman preacher in Adam Bede – Austen was altogether quieter. She was not remotely doctrinal or sacramental. She does not have anything in common with Dickens’s sentimentalisation of Christianity. She was not the sort of Protestant who protests against anything. She was Low Church: the common sense and very English version of Christianity summed up by the words “Do as you would be done by.”

As a satirist, Austen is up there with Jonathan Swift and Evelyn Waugh. She mocked the worldly clergy – but then she lampooned everybody in her renowned tone of kindly acerbity. Among her most memorable creations is the odious and obsequious parson William Collins in Pride and Prejudice. But throughout the novels she shows a benign affection for the Church of England, which in her day was the dominant presence in the countryside.

Her first biographers referred to her as “good, quiet Aunt Jane”. She had little understanding of how hard it was to be a Catholic in England in her day, and she died 12 years before the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Austen wrote: “The soul is of no sect, no party: it is our passions and our prejudices, which give rise to our religious distinctions.”

Her metaphysics is not set out in any sort of manifesto or formula – as in George Eliot – but it is there nonetheless: the steady, unemphatic understanding that Christian morality provides the best means of attaining to the life worth living. Her novels do not preach or teach Christianity. Rather, they take for granted the basic Christian assumptions, beginning with the Fall and flawed human nature.

Austen’s characters are capable of repentance and, in that Low Church temper of moral effort, the best of them achieve a genuine redemption. Their development from a petulant and often childish self-interest to an understanding that other people’s feelings are real – to the achievement of love, in fact – is a profoundly Christian journey.

We think of Elizabeth Bennet overcoming her prejudice against Mr Darcy, or Emma Woodhouse learning to cast off her delusory fantasies bordering on narcissism, and Marianne Dashwood banishing her adolescent misconceptions of what makes a man attractive, and her coming to understand what constitutes the truly heroic, manly character.

Austen’s characters have genuine transformative experiences, very much like Christian conversions. The most impressive of these figures come to a painful and fought-for understanding of their frailty and faults: Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Marianne in Sense and Sensibility and, of course, Emma. Perhaps not quite on that grand scale, we see similar transformations in Anne Elliot in Persuasion, Catherine in Northanger Abbey and Edmund in Mansfield Park.

Jane practised her religion diligently but not ostentatiously. She went to church every week and, though she owned few books, among them was a well-thumbed copy of William Vickers’s A Companion to the Altar, which she used for her devotions. She composed several heartfelt prayers which reveal her as a woman who understood what it is to meditate: “Thou art everywhere present, from Thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this teach us to fix our thoughts on Thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain.” By directing the attention towards the being of God, this carries echoes of St Augustine himself.

RG Collingwood pays her the most beautiful tribute: “Compared to Miss Austen, Dickens and Arnold Bennett are snobs and sentimentalists who describe their subject through a mist of distorting emotions. Those who say that her scene is no wider than a middle-class parlour are partly right: her scene is even narrower than that – it is simply the human heart.”

Dr Peter Mullen is a retired Anglican priest

This article first appeared in the January 27 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here