Jane Austen and Religion
Austen is often thought of as a secular author because religion seems absent from her novels, because she satirizes her clerical characters, and because we have only recently re-established contact with her Georgian context. That context is not secular and it takes religion for granted. For much of the twentieth century Austen tended to be read as a Victorian novelist; however, the Victorians were embarrassed by Georgian history, which they dismissed and censored. They read and enjoyed Austen but they did not claim her as one of their own, and they did not regard her as highly or as seriously as we do.
Earlier generations of academic literary critics labored in the shadows of this Victorian dismissal and censorship. Their criticism was overwhelmingly secular, was often hostile to Christianity, and did not seek to establish Austen’s Georgian context. Those who did try to read Austen from a philosophical or theological perspective were accused of either over-reading or misreading because the study of the English novel had become a reaction against high culture, a substitute for the classics and other canonical texts, and a response to the “crisis of belief” of the late nineteenth century.
Since the publication of Marilyn Butler’s influential Jane Austen and the War of Ideas in 1975, academic literary critics have been interpreting Austen in the context of her period. However, that context can still seem remote to us, and its philosophical and theological ideas can be easily overlooked or misunderstood.
Jane Austen and The Long Eighteenth Century
Austen belongs to a “long eighteenth century” that stretched from the Restoration (1660) to the end of the Georgian period (1830). While Austen is often thought of as a secular author, state and church were still an organic unity to the Georgians so it is not possible to separate her literary commentaries into distinct secular and religious spheres. Austen’s novels critique the faults of the human personality and the flaws of human institutions including marriage, society, and the church. She conducts this critique as a devout believer within the established church who accepts mainstream Anglican “truth” as she sees it reflected in the human relationships that make up her family, her community, and her church; and as she sees it reflected in the natural world.
In Austen’s vision of Georgian society, every person and institution lives under the sign of the fall and is in need of salvation. Her novels are about reordering the disordered personality, family, society, and church; and for Austen this reordering depends on finding the right balance between neoclassical reason (sense) and romantic feeling (sensibility). The novels are carefully constructed commentaries that describe and develop Austen’s neoclassical argument against romanticism as a movement that has the potential to disrupt the person, the household, and the community. In conducting this interrogation of the neoclassical and romantic “imaginaries,” Austen’s novels can be read as “condition of England” novels in which the estates and parishes that dominate each story can be understood as microcosms of the state and the church.
Jane Austen and Neoclassical Hermeneutics
Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and the study of human behavior and social institutions. Austen represents the hermeneutics of the neoclassical Enlightenment with its commitment to reason, nature, and Christian humanism. Austen articulates neoclassical “truth” in light of the science and empiricism of the long eighteenth century, with an emphasis on what free will can cause and human agency can effect—both for good and for evil.
Each novel considers the fallen condition of humanity and how humanity can, through reason, participate in its “salvation.” The Greek root of “salvation” is soteria, which has a variety of meanings including: wholeness, health, preservation from disease, and self-knowledge. It is only with Aristotelian metaphysics that the scriptural concept of soteria becomes focused exclusively on the after-life.
While Austen takes for granted the metaphysical sense of soteria, it is the physical (and emotional) senses of soteria that dominates her novels. Each novel is about achieving the physical soteria of its characters and communities; and, for Austen, this physical soteria is analogous with metaphysical soteria. Austen’s primary theme is social being and social becoming, with a focus on the potential of maturity and the consequence of immaturity. For Austen, interpretation is the key to maturity and the soteria that maturity confers. Maturity depends on a character interpreting self, world, and other “correctly”; and on arriving at a “proper” understanding of their dependent and interdependent social context. It is Austen’s preoccupation with the nexus between interpretation and soteria that makes her a neoclassical hermeneut.
Jane Austen and British Empiricism
In Britain, the Enlightenment’s unique form is called British Empiricism; a style of thinking that dominates Austen’s novels, where the ideas of John Locke are recognizable.
Locke believes that humans are not victims of fate. Humans can become agents of free will (and of soteria) provided their mind is properly formed by reason. To Locke, reason is “a matter of reflection on experience and not a development of innate ideas.” Noticing this is important when reading Austen, because the theme of each novel is how a heroine engages, or struggles to engage, or refuses to engage, in the process of reasoning by reflecting on her experience in order to arrive at “correct” knowledge.
Locke rejects absolutist views of government in favor of democracy. In place of the divine right of kings, Locke proposes a social contract based on reason. This social contract is evident in Austen’s attitude towards authority. To Austen, all rulers—whether of kingdoms, estates, parishes, or families—have social responsibilities to live up to. The authority given to them by the social contract is contingent and easily eclipsed by misrule.
Austen uses the Lockean prisms of knowledge and social contract to portray the economic upheaval and social mobility (both upward and downward) between the classes she describes. This portrayal of upheaval and mobility is marked by insecurity and a strong desire for change, which keeps most of her characters on the move—physically or emotionally—in response to a multi-faceted vulnerability that dominated the long eighteenth century.
Jane Austen and Unregulated Capitalism
British Empiricism gave Austen a theoretical basis, but her practical basis was the unregulated capitalism of the long eighteenth century. Austen witnessed the upheaval of the transition from agrarian capitalism to global capitalism; recognized destabilizing events on the Continent; and understood that Britain was involved in a colonial experience that was presenting strategic, economic, and moral difficulties.
Austen describes the high degree of mobility that capital conveys on those who can produce wealth in a market economy, and the disadvantage created by insufficient capital. The best prospects for soteria are to be found in a successful marriage and effective husbandry; but these are not easy to achieve, which is why Austen’s novels contrast the reality of family life with its ideal.
The Georgians had no protection from the consequences of unregulated capitalism. Everything depended on private capital to provide for the family and its posterity, which is why the creation and protection of capital was necessary for the soteria of the individual, the family, and the community. In the novels, families are dedicated to furthering their advantage, according to the codes of a social contract, in a process that meets with Austen’s approval because it mediates soteria. Austen is not nostalgic about the passing of an “old order,” and she is pragmatic about the necessity of social and economic change within a capitalist context. To manage this change effectively, Austen believes in reforming the estate and the parish, as microcosms of the state and the church, wherever reform is necessary.
Jane Austen and Georgian Anglicanism
Austen is committed to the via media (or “middle way”) of Georgian Anglicanism. In her novels, Austen considers the dilemmas confronting the church caused by pluralism, absentee livings, sinecures, secularization, dissension, and the worldly temperament of the clergy, all of which can inhibit effective pastoral care (that is, the “cure of souls”).
Austen takes the mainstream Anglican position that humanity and divinity must co-operate with each other (that is, nature must be perfected by grace) before evil can be overshadowed by good and produce soteria. Austen uses the term “evil” to describe the absence of a good, never to describe a supernatural force; and the evil that some of her characters and situations represent is a combination of nature and nurture that creates human evil. To effect soteria, this evil must be quarantined and its effect must be mitigated by maturity.
Austen’s estates and parishes all live under the sign of the fall. However, she believes they should be actively participating in as much soteria as they can, according to the logic of Christian humanism. To achieve this hard won soteria, Austen uses a complementary neoclassical and scriptural logic to represent an “economy of salvation” as the best way of assisting the fallen person, and the fallen community. Within Austen’s “economy of salvation” there is a trinity of complementary marriages: between state and church, between estate and parish, and between man and woman. Each marriage is “ordained” to fulfill a particular human necessity according to what Austen recognizes to be a divine plan.
Jane Austen and The Economy of Salvation
In scripture, the human management (oikonomia = economy) of the household (oikia) is a metaphor for the divine management of the natural and supranatural orders. In Austen’s novels, the oikonomia of the estate is a microcosm of the state and the oikonomia of the parish is a microcosm of the church. This domestic oikonomia, and the soteria it can effect in both estate and parish, depends on husbands and wives working together as equal partners exercising a complementary headship within their households. Marriage—and through marriage, parenthood—is the primary source of bad oikonomia in an Austen novel. Noticing this explains why the action of an Austen novel revolves around a disordered household, and why the action of the novel is concerned to establish effective marriages in her estates and parishes as a means of good oikonomia and as mediators of soteria.
The ending of an Austen novel is usually a vision of unity that includes one or both of the two classes that predominate in her novels—the class she firmly belonged to, the clergy; and the class she was strongly associated with by marriage and social intercourse, the gentry. Both gentry and clergy marriages are significant in Austen’s economy of salvation because, in the long eighteenth century, the gentry couple and the clergy couple are the two most predominant and influential social units that have the potential to affect an entire community, for better or for worse, in a period of great social and economic and moral change.
I read Jane Austen’s novels against a “long eighteenth century” in which Austen firmly stood; against the intellectual prisms that dominated the period—neoclassical hermeneutics, British Empiricism, and Georgian Anglicanism; and against the pervasive and unrelenting reality of unregulated capitalism.1 My reading does not seek to make theological that which is not theology; but it does seek to make religious that which, for too long, has been misunderstood as secular. In Austen’s world, religious issues are indivisible from secular issues; and religious observance still has a public importance and is not a matter of private observance or psychological journey as it is now considered to be.
If we have become so dedicated to understanding Austen’s novels in the context of their period, then recognizing the unity of Austen’s social and religious vision, whether we choose to believe in it or not, is an urgent critical task. Austen is a Christian humanist who belongs to the neoclassical Enlightenment. She is not a secular humanist whose work can be appropriated to validate the post-Enlightenment critique of the traditional western and Christian world-view. Austen may be a feminist and a capitalist but she is also an Anglican who writes Christian stories. If we—her readers, biographers, and literary critics—fail to grasp the centrality of that fact, and do not rise to the challenge that it presents to reading, biography, criticism, then we will misunderstand her life and misread her novels at their most profound level of interpretation.
1. Michael Giffin, Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).