The Jane Austen industry continues to move on as television adaptations, movie treatments, biographical fiction and modern spin offs fill our wide and small screens.
Why this interest in an early 19th century writer of virtue and sensibility? Is it because we lack in our age any such thing since liberalism has taught us that anything goes as long as no one gets hurt? Is it because of the romance and the happy endings that have the heroine finally marrying the man of fine sensibility, every woman’s dream, a retreating one in the face of the personality of the modern male? Or is it that all of this happens without resort to the messy and by now unintelligible involvement of God?
It is safe to say that God does not appear as a character in the novels of Jane Austen. The church is certainly present as a respectable profession for second sons, but such sons are not moved by any religious sensibility but by the necessity of obtaining a place in society.
Clergy may be enthralled to worldly prestige and goods like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice or simply solid and noble like Edmund in Persuasion [sic] but they do not appear to be moved by the Spirit of God. Indeed they show little difference in character to any other character in the novels.
It is difficult to do justice to the shallowness of this critique. That Austen was intensely preoccupied by the competing demands of society and the individual (Malcolm Bradley’s ’62 essay is good on this) and on the need to combat selfishness (almost any decent Austen criticism). One might think that life is too short to spend too much time on those that won’t do even the most basic reading before assaulting the public with their bar-room literary criticism, but serious authors have made some similar claims:
I say that Jane Austen the novelist did not believe in God because God is totally absent from her work. A person may remain silent about a deeply held and genuine belief, but not a writer: all that exists in a writer’s work is what he creates.
Laurence Lerner, The Truthtellers: Jane Austen, George Eliot & D. H. Lawrence, pp. 23-4
Any familiar with Austen quite quickly realizes (well inside the first 10 readings of the novels) that religion, like sex, is at once everywhere and nowhere, that the sacred and the profane only get debased by dragging them out into the public view, that they will have far greater power if allowed to pervade the whole.
Everything about her biography points to her taking religion seriously (Collins (1994) is excellent) , her brother reiterated it as the most important thing about her in his biographical notice attached to Northanger Abbey, and Archbishop Whately (1821)—one of her finest critics—said that she was ‘evidently a Christian writer’.
Why is there this great need to see Austen as irreligious? (Something must explain this recurrent theme.) Could it be that some of us have forgotten what authentic religion is, and what it isn’t. I would like to suggest that authentic religion should, among other things, pervade everything, that it shouldn’t be about exhibition and ‘authentic experiences’, that it defends the weak and poor not oppresses them, that it counters selfishness, that it seeks to question rather than serve up pat answers, and that it keeps our relation to God a private and personal matter—you could say the marks of ‘an evidently Christian writer’.