I have long considered Jane Austen to be one of the better Christian authors. She doesn’t preach conversion, brimstone and damnation, yet she reaffirms Christian doctrine quietly, through her characters and stories. They may be a product of her own beliefs or of the overall Christian tenor of her society, but the messages are there.
She examines humanity from a flawed state, showing faults and failings even as her heroes and heroines strive to improve themselves. Not all are as overtly religious or moral as Fanny Price (who I appreciate more and more as I read and reread Mansfield Park), but they share a respect for morality that, when compared to modern society, looks decidedly Christian.
How many modern damsels would worry about it if their younger sister moved in with a man? Yet Elizabeth Bennet does worry, not just because of the scandal, but because of the thoughtlessness behind the act, the moral flippancy that would allow Lydia to remain wholly unrepentant. And one of her strongest objections to Mr. Darcy is in regards to morality: if he has turned his father’s favorite off without a future, he has behaved very wrongly, betraying another man from envy or caprice.
And, from what I can tell, the other heroines are similarly Christian. I don’t think Emma envies Miss Fairfax merely because she outshines her in accomplishments; as a would-be governess, she would have to posses greater skill, as her one business asset. But I think what wounds Emma most is how it reflects on her, that with her time and opportunities she has continually been a failure, lacking the diligence required to be truly accomplished.
Those who have talent (which she supposedly possesses) and good fortune (which we know she has) were to share their blessings with others through use of both for others enjoyment and earthly comfort. Thus, Mr. Knightley’s chastisements of Emma’s behavior, especially at Box Hill, sting on many levels: she has failed again, which she already knows, but now, one of her dear friends has witnessed a glaring demonstration of her ultimately moral failings. And this time, it isn’t a sin of omission (not doing what she could or should) but a sin of commission (she actively hurt another, namely Miss Bates), which in Christian circles was considered far worse. There are no excuses sufficient to brush away her behavior, and she knows it.
I haven’t read Northanger Abbey recently (it’s on my to-read list) but from what I recall, Catherine is ashamed of having thought poorly of Mr. Tilney’s parents because it would be a horrible sin for his father to have killed his mother. She has confused novels with real life (though nowadays, we would probably feel our suspicions merited and even somewhat commendable if we were in her position). But, from a Christian point if view, she has been guilty of slander, thinking poorly of another rather than suspending judgment in a charitable spirit. She has wronged him and his family from a moral point of view without any justification or authority to do so, and she has done so while being their guest (part of Christian thought at the time was that one was to honor and respect one’s hosts, above and beyond that demanded by ordinary Christian charity).
And the others novels share the same overall viewpoint. The greed and selfishness of Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (who truly commit the sin that Elizabeth believes of Darcy, that of setting aside and dishonoring a deceased parent’s wishes) is mirrored by the acts of Miss Lucy Steele, who marries whichever son has the most money and social prominence at the time. By contrast, Eleanor and Marianne are honorable girls who love freely (not always wisely, perhaps), and seem unmoved by the presence or absence of fortune. They bear their burdens with as much grace as they can, much as Anne Elliot bears hers in Persuasion.
Anne remembers and visits an old friend, even when it is a poor reflection on herself, because it is the right thing to do, morally (Christians were particularly told to visit and care for orphans and widows, like Mrs. Smith). Similarly, she cares for the young lady who is her rival, even though she seems to have eclipsed Anne herself in Captain Wentworth’s opinion.
Like Jane Austen’s other main characters, there is a continual effort to care more for others, to put others interests first and to become a better person, to help those along the way where such help lies within one’s power. The Christianity is subtle, but it’s there, if you look for it. And next time, I shall examine some particularly Christian writings of Jane Austen: her prayers.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by RoganJosh, Creative Commons