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Marianne Dashwood’s Repentance, Willoughby’s “Repentance,” and The Book of Common Prayer

that our Repentance may be sincere

—“Evening Prayer” (Later Manuscripts 573) 

Several of Jane Austen’s heroines (and heroes) come to a point of self-examination that leads them to change.  For example, in Northanger Abbey Henry Tilney confronts Catherine Morland for her “secret sins,” leading to the “self-examination” recommended by Austen’s favorite sermon writer, Thomas Sherlock (Collins, “Tilney” 155).  Catherine recognizes her errors and resolves to do better in the future (NA 204, 206).  Elizabeth Bennet has a similar experience when she reads Darcy’s letter.  She is ashamed of her pride and vanity, and concludes, “‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’” (PP 230).  Her attitudes change, leading to her marriage to Darcy.  Likewise, when Emma Woodhouse realizes she loves Mr. Knightley, she examines herself and sees her “insufferable vanity” and “unpardonable arrogance” (E 449).  She resolves to behave better in the coming year (461).  In each of these examples, the heroine not only understands herself in a new way, but also specifically recognizes what Austen, and the Church of England, would identify as that heroine’s sins.  She then resolves to live differently; in religious terms, each repents of her sins.

In Sense and Sensibility, Austen gives a more complete picture of the process of self-examination and repentance.  Marianne Dashwood has lived selfishly, considering only her own feelings and needs.  Her emotional extremes, uncontrolled by reason or religion, result in despair, and almost death, after Willoughby forsakes her.  The pain, however, finally leads her to repentance and a changed life.  Austen would have expected her readers to recognize Marianne’s repentance easily, as it parallels a prayer that Austen and other Anglicans knew well.  The “general confession,” in both Morning and Evening Prayer in The Book of Common Prayer, reads: 

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.  We have offended against thy holy laws.  We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.  But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.  Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord.  And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name.  Amen. 

This prayer focuses on our errors, our hearts, what we have done and not done, God’s mercy, our penitence, and changes in our lives.  Many of these elements of repentance appear in Marianne’s self-examination; fewer in Willoughby’s. 

Jane Austen was part of the Church of England, which dominated British religious life.  Her Anglican beliefs and practices influenced her writing in multiple ways, though these influences are not always obvious to modern readers (White 4).  Her father and two of her brothers were Anglican clergymen, and clerical characters play important roles in her novels.  The Anglican Church was and is liturgical:  services follow a regular pattern, including oft-repeated prayers and responses; the Bible is also read in a regular, repeated pattern through the year. 

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer prescribes the liturgy (sequence of prayers, readings, and responses) for daily worship services.  According to Laura Mooneyham White in Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, Austen’s family read Morning and Evening Prayers from this book daily.  The family also attended church twice on Sundays, when the same Morning and Evening Prayers were read.  As White points out, “Austen would have heard and herself recited Morning and Evening Prayer countless times in her life” (33).  Such repetition is likely to have affected Austen’s language and ideas deeply (5). 

The Book of Common Prayer clearly influenced the prayers that are believed to have been written by Austen (Stovel).  Her “Evening Prayer” may help explain what she intended to describe in her heroines’ lives when they examined themselves: 

Look with Mercy on the Sins we have this day committed, & in Mercy make us feel them deeply, that our Repentance may be sincere, and our Resolutions stedfast of endeavouring against the commission of such in future.—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. . . . Have we thought irreverently of Thee, have we dis-obeyed thy Commandments, have 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) 

Austen prays “that our Repentance may be sincere.”  A Companion to the Altar, which Austen owned and studied (White 51), explains that true repentance will cause individuals to recognize, be sorry for, and confess their sins and resolve to act differently (Vickers 7).  Austen’s prayer particularly focuses on recognizing sin and being sorry (“make us feel them deeply”).  She highlights pride and vanity, which can prevent recognition of sin, and therefore repentance; her characters Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Marianne Dashwood all had this problem. 

Sunday and daily services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in The Book of Common Prayer begin with repentance.  The clergyman reads a penitential verse such as “Repent ye, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2).  Then he calls for the congregation as a community “to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and weaknesses . . . with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same by his infinite goodness and mercy.”  Thus humility, penitence, and obedience characterize true repentance.  The clergyman and congregation then recite together the prayer of confession and repentance quoted earlier.  Austen must have said that prayer many times in her life; she probably knew it by heart.  It is not surprising that, whether consciously or unconsciously, she has Marianne Dashwood echo some of its patterns. 

Marianne’s repentance 

In Sense and Sensibility, Austen shows Marianne Dashwood repenting of her sins, according to the criteria Austen and her readers knew.  Marianne’s self-examination occurs after Willoughby rejects her and she neglects her health until she nearly dies.  Her explanation to her sister Elinor of what she thinks and feels follows the pattern of the prayer of repentance in The Book of Common Prayer.  Willoughby’s “repentance” during Marianne’s illness also includes elements of that prayer but is not as complete as Marianne’s. 

From what sins does Marianne need to repent?  Essentially, she has acted selfishly, without loving her neighbour as she loves herself, as her religion requires.  Márta Pellérdi, in “Idleness and Melancholy in Sense and Sensibility,” argues, 

Marianne’s selfish absorption in her individual concerns has led to the neglect and disregard of others.  Instead of following Elinor’s example she has “‘turn[ed] away from every exertion of duty or friendship’” (392)—an unchristian attitude that both Austen and other conservative writers of the period condemn.  Marianne has placed herself in danger; her carelessness for her own health might have led to madness or indirect suicide.  She has failed in her Christian duty. 

Pellérdi later says, however, that Marianne experiences a “spiritual transformation.”  Marianne’s “‘desire . . . for atonement to [her] God’” (SS 391) prompts her recovery and her repentance.  She tells Elinor, “‘My illness has made me think—It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection.  Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect’” (391).  What is “serious recollection”?  Austen sometimes uses the word “serious” to signify “religious,” and serious reflection or meditation indicates prayer (Tave 112; White 59–60).  Thus what Marianne goes on to describe parallels a prayer, the morning and evening “general confession” in The Book of Common Prayer. 

Both Marianne’s confession and The Book of Common Prayer’s confession begin with recognition of having gone astray.  The prayer begins, “Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”  Marianne likewise recognizes that she has gone far astray from the way she should have behaved.  She says, “‘I considered the past; I saw in my own behaviour . . . nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others’” (391).  She has “strayed” from the kindness and prudence she should have practiced. 

The results of Marianne’s repentance are also implied in this line of the prayer.  “Like lost sheep” in The Book of Common Prayer’s text refers to the biblical parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:1–7, which Austen probably read three times a year as she followed the liturgical calendar of Bible readings.  In the parable, the shepherd goes after his lost sheep, brings it back, and rejoices with his friends.  It concludes, “joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:7).  Similarly, Austen specifically says that Marianne’s “serious reflection,” or repentant prayer, results in joy.  Travelling back to Barton Cottage, Elinor saw with “joy . . . an apparent composure of mind, which, in being the result as she trusted of serious reflection, must eventually lead her [Marianne] to contentment and cheerfulness” (387, italics added).  Like the return of a lost sheep, Austen implies, Marianne’s repentance and return bring joy. 

Marianne, always following her feelings and her heart, finds they have been a false guide.  The Book of Common Prayer traces sin to following our hearts rather than following God’s laws:  “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.  We have offended against thy holy laws.”  Marianne recognizes the flaws in her own heart: 

“I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings. . . . My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself by such 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 [i.e., suicide, condemned by the church]. . . . [I]n what peculiar misery should I have left you [Elinor], . . . who had seen all the fretful selfishness of my latter days; who had known all the murmurings of my heart!”  (391–92, italics added) 

Marianne confesses that her feelings have led her astray and hurt those she loves as well as herself. Her “fretful selfishness” came from her “murmuring,” or grumbling, heart.  (The King James Bible of Austen’s day uses “murmur” to mean complain or grumble.)  As in the prayer, she has followed her heart’s “devices and desires” rather than doing what was right. 

The prayer book and Marianne recognize both doing wrong things and not doing right things as sin.  The Book of Common Prayer continues, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done: And there is no health in us.”  Marianne also confesses both:  “‘I cannot express my own abhorrence of myself.  Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged.  Every body seemed injured by me’” (392).  She lists people whom she has injured in various ways, especially her sister Elinor.  Marianne has turned “‘away from every exertion of duty or friendship’” despite Elinor’s example (392).  The Book of Common Prayer’s general confession first recognizes failures to do what one should have done, and Marianne confesses such failures:  duties she neglected, exertions she should have made.  “Exertion” and “duty” here refer to religious efforts and requirements (Tave 98–115).  Second, as in the prayer, Marianne confesses things she should not have done.  She indulged failings (perhaps sins or weaknesses, improper behavior), and she injured people.  The prayer’s statement “There is no health in us” may be reflected in Marianne’s using the word “injured” and in her own loss of health due to her failures. 

The next section is not as clearly parallel.  The Book of Common Prayer continues with a prayer for mercy:  “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.  Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.  Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord.”  Marianne’s only explicit mention of God comes earlier:  “‘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).  As usual, Austen is reticent and indirect in her religious references.  White explains that Austen did not think extensive discussions of religion appropriate for novels (4, 39–40, 84).  But Marianne does see that her restoration must come from God and that she has a responsibility toward God, not just to her family.  Always eager in everything she does, Marianne is now eager “to have time for atonement” to God.  The Book of Common Prayer mentions “atonement” in only one prayer, under “Prayers and Thanksgivings upon several occasions,” for use “In the time of any common Plague or Sickness.”  That prayer refers specifically to a Bible story in I Chronicles 21 in which King David sacrifices burnt offerings, which the prayer book calls an “atonement,” to stop a plague.  Austen may have had this reference in mind, connecting Marianne’s desire for atonement with her recovery from illness.  Since atonement here means a sacrifice, Marianne’s planned atonement may be the sacrifice of her previous habits and selfishness. 

The final step in repentance, according to both the Companion to the Altar and Austen’s prayer above, is resolving to live differently.  The Book of Common Prayer general confession ends:  “And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.”  This closing asks for change in the person’s life.  Marianne also intends to make radical changes: 

“The future must be my proof. . . . My feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. . . . I shall now live solely for my family. . . . [I]f I do mix in other society it will be only to shew that my spirit is humbled, my heart amended, and that I can practise the civilities, the lesser duties of life, with gentleness, and forbearance.  As for Willoughby—. . . . His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions.  But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment.”  (393) 

Marianne hopes to live a “godly, righteous, and sober life,” as the prayer says, with the help of “religion, reason, and constant employment.”  Religion would obviously contribute to a godly and righteous life.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sober” as “characterized by temperance, moderation, or seriousness.”  Marianne’s plan to use reason, to govern her feelings, and to improve her temper would lead to a more “sober” life.  Marianne’s final item, “constant employment,” means engaging in beneficial activities or pursuits, counteracting “idleness,” which Austen deplores (Collins, Clergy 187).  Willoughby’s “habits of idleness,” according to Elinor, are one of the causes of his failures (375).  Marianne’s “constant employment,” then, will also help her live the righteous life prayed for in The Book of Common Prayer.  Marianne will keep busy with a rigorous program of self-improvement, including six hours a day of “‘serious study’” (388).  According to White, “Austen’s audience would, of course, have known that ‘serious study’ means religious study, not secular education.  Marianne intends to read sermons, not works of history or philosophy” (62).  Sermons were popular reading material in Austen’s day.  Many books of sermons were published, and in Austen’s letters she mentions reading sermons (Collins, Clergy 96–97, 184).  The reader isn’t told how fully Marianne follows through on her plans, and Elinor smiles at her “excess” of enthusiasm even for “rational employment and virtuous self-control” (389).  Marianne, however, certainly chooses to make changes and try to live a better life—the last step in repentance. 

The next section of The Book of Common Prayer’s morning and evening services, “the Absolution or Remission of sins,” is for all who “truly repent” and believe the “holy Gospel.”  This idea is often repeated in The Book of Common Prayer; several other services include similar prayers of confession and absolution, on the same basis of true repentance and faith.  Did Austen intend her readers to see Marianne’s experience as “true repentance”?  The call to repentance beginning the service requires a “humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart.”  Marianne meets all these requirements:  she is humble and lowly (“‘it will only be to show that my spirit is humbled’”), penitent (she is clearly sorry for her failings), and obedient (she is determined to change and live in a better way).  The absolution then promises that God will forgive her sins and grant his Holy Spirit to help her live a more holy life, leading ultimately to the joy of heaven.  Austen’s novel gives Marianne a new role and responsibilities, with love and happiness, which perhaps is intended to be a foretaste of her final reward. 

Willoughby’s repentance 

But what about Willoughby?  Does Austen also represent him as experiencing what The Book of Common Prayer calls “true repentance”?  He comes to Cleveland late at night, thinking Marianne is dying, and insists that Elinor hear his side of the story.  He says he wants to explain, to apologize, and to obtain Marianne’s forgiveness, though Elinor tells him he already has it (361).  He begins well, with a detailed list of his sins.  His confession mentions vanity, carelessness of Marianne’s happiness, thinking only of his own amusement, desiring to attach her without returning her affections, meanness, selfishness, and cruelty (362–63).  He calls himself “‘expensive’” (363) though it’s not clear that he sees his financial irresponsibility as something he needs to confess or could change.  Sheryl Craig points out that, as Mrs. Jennings says, Willoughby could easily have sold his horses and other possessions and made a thorough reform; but he never considers that (25). 

Does Willoughby recognize the wrong “devices and desires” of his heart?  He calls himself a “‘hard-hearted rascal’” and confesses his selfish motivations for winning Marianne’s heart.  He also sees his heart’s false values in putting money before honor and love.  He looks back on the point where he could have chosen to do right and did not, telling Elinor he is glad to have been miserable at the “‘folly of [his] own heart’” (367–68). 

Willoughby continues to follow The Book of Common Prayer pattern as he acknowledges that he left things undone that he should have done by not asking Marianne to marry him.  He did things he should not have done in the way he treated Eliza.  The weakest part of his confession, however, is in his treatment of Eliza:  he seduced her, abandoned her, says he wished he had not done it, but throws most of the blame on her.  Thus, his most serious sin is treated most lightly (364–65).  As Gillian Dooley and Charles Dufour point out, “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 [Austen’s] prayer.” 

Does he ask for mercy from God?  He begs for forgiveness from Elinor and Marianne.  But he still justifies and excuses himself more than he asks for mercy.  Elinor says he has only explained away a small part of his guilt (373).  Willoughby does mention God and heaven several times, as in “‘Oh, God!—what a hard-hearted rascal I was!’” and “‘Thank Heaven! it did torture me’” (367–68).  These may be habitual exclamations or, because he feels so strongly, actual appeals to God. 

Does Willoughby desire “to live a godly, righteous, and sober life,” as the next part of the general confession requires?  On the contrary, he says he will always love Marianne, which is in itself a sin, as he is now married to someone else.  Elinor tells him he is “‘very wrong, . . . very blameable’” in this declaration (373), but he doesn’t show any inclination to follow Elinor’s recommendations (376).  Lack of forgiveness is also an issue for Willoughby.  His visit begins with Elinor saying Marianne has forgiven him (361).  It ends with his refusal to forgive Colonel Brandon:  he says that where he has most injured, he can least forgive (376).  Austen and her original readers would connect forgiveness with the Lord’s Prayer, another part of the Morning and Evening Prayer services, which requires forgiving others as part of receiving God’s forgiveness:  “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.”  The Lord’s Prayer is recited twice in each daily service, and White estimates that Austen would have said it about 30,000 times during her life, making it extremely familiar to her (5).  By framing the beginning and ending of Willoughby’s confession with Marianne’s forgiveness and Willoughby’s lack of it, Austen may expect readers to conclude that Marianne is more likely to receive God’s forgiveness than Willoughby is. 

Willoughby does not quite have the “humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart” The Book of Common Prayer calls for.  While he is sorry for what he has done, Elinor notices that even that sorrow is rooted in selfishness:  his actions have not made him happy (398).  He says little about Marianne’s happiness, or Eliza’s, or any plans to support his child.  His self-justification does not express much humility; it is concerned with making himself look better to the Dashwoods.  He also gives no evidence of obedience, no intention to change. 

The last chapter of Sense and Sensibility states that Willoughby’s “repentance of misconduct, which thus brought its own punishment, was sincere” and that he “lived to exert . . . himself” (430).  White points out that for Austen, “exertion” generally means “struggling to do the right thing out of a sense of religious duty” (60).  This conclusion seems to open the possibility that Willoughby did truly repent.  Austen, however, uses the mild, vague word “misconduct” rather than a more serious word like “sin.”  She gives no evidence of real change in Willoughby’s life, which is still devoted to his previous pursuits and enjoyments.  It seems likely, therefore, that this “repentance” means not true religious repentance but simply being sincerely sorry that he has behaved badly and has had to suffer the consequences. 

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The “self-examination” Austen’s characters experience is more than that, at least for Marianne and Willoughby.  Austen describes a process of recognizing sins, repenting of them, and determining to change.  From Austen’s Anglican perspective, Marianne Dashwood’s repentance appears to be true repentance, following the prayer of confession in The Book of Common Prayer and leading to a changed life.  Willoughby’s “repentance” contrasts with Marianne’s.  It is less thorough and does not seem to have resulted in much change. 

Sense and Sensibility is a story with two intertwined strands.  Elinor Dashwood exemplifies the use of sense and religious exertion to do her duty as she faces trials.  Marianne illustrates excessive sensibility and the failure to do her duty during her trials.  For Marianne, Willoughby’s rejection and her near-fatal illness lead to a climax:  her repentance, which turns her life around and leads to new exertions to do what is right, following her sister’s example.  That repentance is the key to Marianne Dashwood’s personal growth.

Works Cited


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