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.
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