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“A More Gentle, Less Dignified, Forgiveness”: Willoughby’s Apology in the Context of Austen’s Religious Beliefs

Jane Austen was certainly a practicing Anglican, and the church was part of the fabric of her world.  Her father and two of her brothers were Anglican ministers, and it can be assumed that she attended church services regularly.  As Irene Collins notes, “Richard Whateley (later Archbishop of Dublin), who was one of the earliest scholars to review Jane Austen’s novels, perceived them at once to be ‘evidently’ the work of ‘a Christian writer’” (238).  Yet when the Anglican Church appears in her novels, it is usually in a social context—as an institution providing employment for impecunious younger sons, for example, and rarely as a spiritual resource.  Characters seldom overtly express religious feelings, or seek advice or absolution from the church’s ministers, and indeed few of the clergy depicted in the novels appear to be equipped to provide that kind of help to their parishioners.

Religious themes are not, however, absent from Austen’s work.  In Sense and Sensibility, the two heroines are both thoughtful, intelligent, and passionate young women, each with a strong moral sense, though with very different ways of confronting the challenges thrown in their way by a society obsessed with wealth and social standing.  John Willoughby, with his expensive and licentious habits, stands in strong contrast to Edward Ferrars, Elinor’s love interest, who wishes only to be allowed to become a parish priest.  But when Willoughby arrives at Cleveland to ask Elinor to intercede on his behalf and seek Marianne’s forgiveness, there are traces of religious language in his secular confession; indeed, Laura Mooneyham White claims that this chapter “is marked by more explicit and sustained religious diction than occurs anywhere in Austen’s fiction” (62). 

In what follows we will attempt to establish whether this particular plea for forgiveness can be seen as an analogy or proxy for a petition to a higher power, whether for Austen these two notions of forgiveness—the religious and the secular—are comparable, or whether for Austen religious expression, for example in the prayers attributed to her, might be a separate mode of thought from her novel-writing.  In Irene Collins’s opinion, “Religion was to her a private matter:  to discuss it in a novel would have been a breach of good taste” (236). 

In Austen’s letters, as in her novels, the church is treated with a characteristic mixture of irony and seriousness.  On the subject of the Evangelical movement, for example, she seems to be undecided.  On 24 January 1809 she wrote to Cassandra, “I do not like the Evangelicals.”  This statement was made in the context of a discussion of Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809), which was clearly the subject of some banter between the sisters, and cannot be taken as an unequivocal expression of her opinion.  Five years later, moreover, she wrote:  “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason & Feeling, must be happiest & safest” (18–20 November 1814).  This statement was part of a discussion with her niece Fanny, who was asking her advice about a marriage proposal she had received.  Along with the approval of Evangelicals she expresses, she implies that she is not herself one of those “who are so from Reason & Feeling.”  A tantalizing passage in her next letter to Fanny on 30 November 1814 reads, “I cannot suppose we differ in our ideas of the Christian Religion.  You have given an excellent description of it.  We only affix a different meaning to the Word Evangelical.”  We can only guess at Fanny’s “excellent description” of Christianity, as her letter does not survive.  Jocelyn Harris has unearthed the suggestive fact that in August 1813 Austen made a significant donation “towards the formation of a District Committee of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, . . . the oldest Anglican mission organization in Britain” (134, 136).  As Harris points out, though, we cannot be sure “which of [the Society’s] many activities,” including education, publication, and outreach to the British Navy, Austen would have especially supported (137). 

Even in her last months, Austen continued to show a mixture of seriousness towards religion and irreverence towards the Church.  In the last of her letters (available only in the fragments published in Henry Austen’s “Biographical Notice”) included in Deirdre Le Faye’s collection, she writes that she should not complain about what Henry describes as some unspecified “domestic disappointment,” because “[i]t has been the appointment of God, however secondary causes may have operated” (28–29 May 1817).  But just a day or two earlier, on 27 May, she had written to her nephew:  “Mr Lyford says he will cure me, & if he fails I shall draw up a Memorial & lay it before the Dean & Chapter, & have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned & disinterested Body.”  This affectionately satirical attitude to the church certainly does not preclude a genuine belief in Christianity but seems to make it unlikely that she could ever have expressed the earnest, public enthusiasm that the Evangelical movement espoused. 

The particulars of her private faith are even harder to fathom.  As White notes, this difficulty is complicated for modern readers because of the differences between the church of Austen’s day and the present day:  White explains that, at that time, “Anglicans felt they had every reason to trust in the truth claims of Christianity; their dilemmas were not doctrinal but rather social and cultural” (7).  Three manuscript prayers have been attributed to Austen.  Examining the evidence as to whether any or all of these prayers were composed by Austen, in their introduction to the Later Manuscripts, Janet Todd and Linda Bree conclude that it cannot be definitely established that Austen composed them but that there is one that has a better claim than the others (cxviii–cxxvi).  This prayer—the first one, headed “Evening Prayer”—is especially interesting in that, rather than passively asking for pardon, it petitions for the capacity to “understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts,” “ask our Hearts” a series of searching questions, “and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity” (LM 573).  According to White, the prayers follow the pattern of the collect for morning and evening prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, although they are longer and include “a sustained confession of sin and request for forgiveness, a central part of evening prayer.”  The Book of Common Prayer’s “Latinate vocabulary, sonorous cadences, and parallelisms heavily influenced Austen’s diction and style” in the prayers attributed to her (70). 

These manuscript prayers ask only for self-knowledge and a heightened “sense of thy Mercy in the redemption of the World, of the Value of that Holy Religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not, by our own neglect, throw away the Salvation Thou hast given us” (574).  The prayers are all “followed by the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, so that worshippers are to continue” by reciting it (LM cxxiii).  White estimates that, like most Anglicans of her time, “Austen would have said the Lord’s Prayer over 30,000 times in her life.  All that repetition must have made a signal mark on her consciousness” (5). 

The Lord’s Prayer contains perhaps the best-known plea for forgiveness in Anglican Christianity.  The version Austen would have recited during Evening Prayer includes the passage, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.”  There is more than one interpretation of this passage on forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer.  George Arthur Buttrick points out that it seems to be a warning to the effect that the forgiveness of God is contingent upon human forgiveness of others.  For the proponent of repentance, “Jesus here refers to a failure in duty.  There is no escape from the basic fact of obligation or from awareness of our [human] short comings.”  From this theological view, the underpinning lesson is that “he who sins is under special obligation to make amends and is not free until he has fulfilled that obligation” (313).  Thomas Sheridan (1719–1788), an actor and educationist concerned with the importance of elocution in conveying what he saw as the correct meaning, has this to say on this passage of the Lord’s Prayer: 

“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them who trespass against us.”  I must here . . . shew the necessity there is, for laying a strong emphasis on the little word, as, which is always slurred over; because that particle, implies the very condition on which we expect forgiveness ourselves, that is, in like manner as we grant it to others.  (141) 

Both Buttrick and Sheridan seem to reject the idea of unconditional forgiveness, a position perhaps endorsed by Austen’s own implication that we could fail to gain salvation “by our own neglect” (LM 574). 

Whether Austen believed that God’s forgiveness was unconditional or depended upon the believer’s forgiveness of others, the prayers attributed to her recognize “moral behaviour as the visible part of a human being’s duty to God” (Collins 237).  Roger E. Moore writes that “the novels criticize authority figures of all kinds, . . . and Austen maintains a Protestant focus on the individual’s solitary, unmediated journey to grace, enlightenment, and understanding” (317).  Similarly, Gary Kelly sees Austen’s narrative structures as a “secularised homology for the Anglican position” that salvation was the responsibility of the individual:  “the protagonist is responsible for her ‘worldly’ salvation, or moral condition and social destiny, guided by a sympathetic yet critical narrator” (161).  We rarely see characters referring to authority figures for moral guidance or even advice as to how to behave:  whether or not their judgment is sound, they tend to think for themselves (see Dooley).  Sometimes, however, characters ask one another for forgiveness.  One extraordinary example is the episode in Sense and Sensibility when Willoughby visits Elinor to ask her to forgive him for his behaviour to her sister Marianne. 

willoughby eleanorIn volume 3, chapter 8 of Sense and Sensibility, John Willoughby, who has jilted Marianne and married the rich Miss Grey, makes a dramatic appearance at Cleveland, the country house where the Dashwood sisters are staying, and insists on speaking to Marianne’s sister Elinor.  Elinor has been nursing Marianne through a life-threatening illness brought on by his rejection.  Willoughby comes on a mission: 

“I mean”—said he, with serious energy—“if I can, to make you hate me one degree less than you do now.  I mean to offer some kind of explanation, some kind of apology, for the past; to open my whole heart to you, and by convincing you, that though I have been always a blockhead, I have not been always a rascal, to obtain something like forgiveness from Ma—from your sister.”  (361) 

Elinor, at first angry and obdurate, is softened by Willoughby’s “serious energy,” his honesty, and, as she later admits to herself, “by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess.”  The “tenderness” and “regret” she feels for him are “rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself—to his wishes than to his merits” (377). 

This remarkable chapter could be omitted from the novel with no effect on the plot.  It has a function, however, in showing Elinor in a new light, as a woman susceptible to sexual attraction despite herself.  It also complicates the portrayal of Willoughby, who can now be seen as erring but not irredeemable, and it absolves Marianne from the shame of unrequited love. 

Despite Willoughby’s frequent invocations of the deity—“God be praised!,” “For God’s sake,” “Oh, God,” “Thank Heaven!,” and so on (360, 367, 368)—there are only the merest hints in the text to encourage a theological reading of the passage.  One of these is the use of the phrase “serious energy.”  In the late eighteenth century, as Stuart Tave indicates, “some of [Austen’s] words at certain times were capable of a religious force that is not now immediately felt” (112), and the word “serious” could mean “earnestly religious,” a meaning which is now rare (“Serious”).  The word (in adjectival or adverbial form) is used thirty times in Sense and Sensibility, and in most of these cases our current meaning is intended:  for example, Mrs. Ferrars is described as “serious, even to sourness, in her aspect” when she is first introduced (264), and John Dashwood visits Elinor “with a most serious aspect” to discuss the discovery of Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele (300).  Neither of these characters could be interpreted as having the slightest tendency to be “earnestly religious.” 

However, the word “serious” is also used twice of Marianne to describe the way her illness has changed her.  Firstly, Elinor notices “an apparent composure of mind, which, in being the result as she trusted of serious reflection, must eventually lead her to contentment and cheerfulness” (387).  Secondly, Marianne uses it of herself in her own confession to Elinor, and in a passage of dialog in which she explicitly introduces religion: 

“My illness has made me think—It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. . . . [W]ith such feelings as these reflections gave me, I wonder at my recovery,—wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once.”  (391) 

The link between Willoughby’s “serious energy” and Marianne’s “serious reflection” implies that, despite everything, in many important ways—including in religion—they think alike and could have been happy together; Elinor’s perception of the seriousness of each of them adds weight to her regret at the way Willoughby has squandered his hopes of happiness, while contributing to the “joy, which no other could equally share” at Marianne’s recovery not only from illness but also from her obsession with him (387). 

In addition to the clues provided by the use of the word “serious” in these contexts, it is interesting to look outside the novel to the texts of Austen’s prayers.  Reading the chapter focusing on Willoughby’s confession alongside her prayers, it is possible to see some parallels in the notion of forgiveness sought by Willoughby and that for which Austen petitions in her first prayer.  All the prayers are evening prayers, reflecting on the day that has passed:  “Look with Mercy on the Sins we have this day committed” (LM 573).  The view, like that in the chapter of Sense and Sensibility, is a retrospective one. 

Willoughby seems to blame himself for his predicament.  He confesses that at first his “‘vanity only was elevated,’” and he talks of his “‘meanness, selfishness, cruelty’” (362, 363) in trifling with Marianne’s feelings when they first met.  In the manuscript prayer, there is a similar plea for God to 

Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we may have indulged to the dis-comfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls. . . . [H]ave we neglected any known Duty, or willingly given pain to any human Being?  Incline us to ask our Hearts these questions Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.  (LM 573)

Willoughby brings to his interview with Elinor some of these impulses—which perhaps strengthens the case that Austen might have composed this prayer.  With characteristic hyperbole and self-dramatization, however, he tells Elinor not only how “‘torture[d]’” he was in taking leave of Marianne and her mother but how pleased his misery made him:  “‘Miss Dashwood, you cannot have an idea of the comfort it gives me to look back on my own misery.  I owe such a grudge to myself for the stupid, rascally folly of my own heart, that all my past sufferings under it are only triumph and exultation to me now’” (368).  Here he may have in mind something akin to the prayer’s request to “make us feel [our sins] deeply, that our Repentance may be sincere” (LM 573), although it could certainly be said that his impulse towards self-punishment is excessive. 

Perhaps more significant are the part he elects for Elinor in his drama of repentance and her reaction.  He comes offering to confess and abase himself before her, and to ask her to intercede on his behalf with her sister.  She resists, softens, resists, and relents again as the tale unfolds.  When he comes to his seduction of Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza, Elinor “harden[s] her heart anew against any compassion for him” (364).  He does say, “‘I do not mean to justify myself. . . . I do not mean . . . to defend myself’” (365), although he proceeds to give excuses for his behavior:  Eliza led him on by “‘the violence of her passions,’” and then he “‘did not recollect that I had omitted to give her my direction’” (365).  It seems that in this case he had not been able to save himself “from deceiving [himself] by pride or vanity,” in the words of the prayer. 

Elinor forgives him:  he specifically asks her whether she thinks “‘something better of me than you did?’” (376).  She “assured him . . . that she forgave, pitied, wished him well—was even interested in his happiness—and added some gentle counsel as to the behaviour most likely to promote it.”  She here seems to be taking on an almost priestly role:  receiving the confession and giving advice to the penitent, although “[h]is answer was not very encouraging” (376). 

Nevertheless, Elinor does not have the detachment required for the priestly role:  “she would not but have heard his vindication for the world, and now blamed, now acquitted herself for having judged him so harshly before” (379).  The injunction in the Lord’s Prayer is to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It cannot be said that Elinor has much of a sense of herself as a sinner.  It is true that she does examine her own behavior in relation to Willoughby’s confession.  She feels that she is influenced towards forgiveness by factors which should be irrelevant and, on the other hand, blames herself “for having judged him so harshly before” (379).  But these self-criticisms are represented as factors which weigh on her feelings and cause confusion, rather than as genuine moral failings.  Elinor forgives Willoughby not so much in the Christian spirit of forgiving unreservedly in the way that God forgives but in a way that is conditioned by her emotions—her rather unruly attraction to Willoughby and her deep love for her sister. 

Willoughby has a particular goal in mind when he pleads his case to Elinor:  “‘Let me be able to fancy that a better knowledge of my heart, and of my present feelings, will draw from [Marianne] a more spontaneous, more natural, more gentle, less dignified, forgiveness’” (373–74).  In a subsequent conversation with Elinor, before Elinor has given her Willoughby’s message, Marianne tells Elinor, “‘Oh! how gladly would I suppose him, only fickle, very, very fickle,’” and “‘I wish his secret reflections may be no more unpleasant than my own.  He will suffer enough in them.’”  She blames herself for “‘negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong.  Had I died,—it would have been self-destruction’” (391).  Here religion becomes explicit, and Marianne talks of her wish “‘to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all’” (391).  As Collins points out, there is an alignment between Marianne’s reflections on her “duty neglected, or . . . failing indulged” (159) and the words of the manuscript prayer, “[H]ave we neglected any known Duty, or willingly given pain to any human Being?” (LM 573).  Soon afterwards, Marianne says her memory of Willoughby “‘shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment’” (393).  Willoughby wants to soften this kind of dignified forgiveness.  But Marianne adds, “in a lower voice, ‘If I could but know his heart, everything would become easy’” (393).  Elinor can resist no longer and tells her “simply and honestly the chief points on which Willoughby grounded his apology; did justice to his repentance, and softened only his protestations of present regard” (393).  In response, 

Marianne said not a word.—She trembled, her eyes were fixed on the ground, and her lips became whiter than even sickness had left them. . . . She caught every syllable with panting eagerness; her hand, unknowingly to herself, closely pressed her sister’s, and tears covered her cheeks.  (393–94) 

This is indeed the kind of spontaneous, less dignified forgiveness that Willoughby wished.  But it is surely a very human forgiveness:  it eases Marianne’s mind to be able to forgive him.  It has none of the kind of difficulty implied in the manuscript prayer.  Marianne has a “self-reproving spirit”:  she can blame herself for giving pain to Elinor by “‘regretting only that heart which had deserted and wronged me, and leaving you . . . to be miserable for my sake’” (392).  But even this altruism is characteristic of Marianne’s passionate nature, which has earlier led, in Elinor’s view, to her “introducing excess into a scheme of . . . rational employment and virtuous self-controul” (389). 

Are these two notions of forgiveness, the human and the divine, compatible, or are Austen’s prayers a separate mode of thought from her novel-writing?  Brian Wilkie claims that, although Austen “does address inherently moral issues, she characteristically veers away from their distinctively moral dimension, often using them instead as frames or lenses through which we are to confront the recesses and dynamics of human personality” (72).  Austen would have been familiar with Alexander Pope’s famous words, “To err is human – to forgive, divine” (82).  In Sense and Sensibility, however, forgiveness between human beings is largely a secular affair, involving a mixture of motives including pity, self-respect, involuntary attraction, and genuine love.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005–2008.
  • _____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  4th ed.  Oxford: OUP, 2011.
  • Buttrick, George Arthur.  The Interpreter’s Bible in Twelve Volumes.  Volume 8: The Gospel According to St. Luke; The Gospel According to St. John.  New York: Abingdon P, 1952.
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  • Dooley, Gillian.  “Friday Essay: The Revolutionary Vision of Jane Austen.”  The Conversation 24 Feb. 2017.  Online.  https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-revolutionary-vision-of-jane-austen-71000
  • Harris, Jocelyn.  “Jane Austen and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.”  Persuasions 34 (2012): 134–39.
  • Kelly, Gary.  “Religion and Politics.”  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.  Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster.  Cambridge: CUP, 1997.  149–69.
  • Moore, Roger E.  “Religion.”  A Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite.  Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.  314–22.
  • Pope, Alexander.  “An Essay on Criticism.”  Selected Poetry and Prose.  Ed. William K. Wimsatt.  2nd ed.  New York: Holt, 1972.  67–88.
  • “Serious” [definition no. 6].  The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.  3rd ed.  Vol. 2.  Oxford: OUP, 1993.  2785.
  • Sheridan, Thomas.  Lectures on the Art of Reading: Part I. The Art of Reading Prose.  3rd ed.  London, 1787.
  • Tave, Stuart M.  Some Words of Jane Austen.  Chicago: UCP, 1973.
  • White, Laura Mooneyham.  Jane Austen’s Anglicanism.  Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.
  • Wilkie, Brian.  “Jane Austen: Amor and Amoralism.”  Jane Austen.  Ed. Harold Bloom.  Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.  71–98.
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