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From Phyllida's Desk

Passion and Religion and Jane Austen

The discussion at the last meeting of the Jane Austen book group was on Jane Austen and the clergy. Wait! No, honestly, it's not as dreary as it sounds. Or if it is, I can't help it—I thought it was interesting

One of the new members, an intelligent and articulate young woman named Allie, said that Austen treats religion the way she treats clothing and people's physical appearance. That is, she doesn't describe it or discuss it in depth—or at all. Allie thought, since nothing Austen does as a writer is accidental, that this was significant, and wondered what it might indicate about Austen's religious belief, or perhaps lack of it. She contrasted Austen's cool, detached version of religion with Charlotte Bronte's depiction of the character of St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre: passionate, fiery Christianity that burns with missionary zeal. Whereas even the clergymen-heroes in Austen's novels—Henry Tilney, Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram—don't really seem to have a vocation or a calling. It's just another job, the third of the respectable, gentlemanly occupations, along with the military and the law.

People in the discussion group pointed out that the Church of England was the state religion and that everyone was required to attend church on Sunday. There was no need to discuss the fact of going to church or to describe the church service, just as there was no need to describe ladies' gowns or contemporary hairstyles. Readers wouldn't learn anything they didn't already know.

I offered up the other standard argument: Austen was a product of the late 18th century; her religion was rational, understated, but no less deeply felt. The educated ladies and gentlemen of the Enlightenment, Austen's society, distrusted one thing above all others: what they called enthusiasm. In the religious sense, it meant what we might call evangelicalism; in more general matters it might be called passion. Enthusiasm—uncontrolled passion—led to all that was worst in human nature. In private life, lust, rape and abuse, abandoned women and unwanted, “illegitimate” children; in public areas, war and its devastation. In England, a hundred years earlier, a brutal civil war had been fought over freedom of religion and absolute monarchy. In fact, the 17th century in Europe can be seen as a cautionary tale of what happens when entire countries give way to their passions. No one, in the relative peace of 18th century England, wanted to go back to that, just as our own founding fathers here made certain not to have an “established” (state) church.

We're so used, in modern times, to valuing “passion” that we forget its dark side. We seek out passion not only in our love affairs and marriage, but in our work. We believe that a life without some passion of creativity, of art or craft, or of profession, is necessary for a fulfilled happy life. I certainly believe this myself. Too messed up emotionally to have ever enjoyed a successful long-term relationship, it was only in my forties, when I discovered my “passion” for writing and now, in my fifties, having made a qualified success of it, that I feel like a full human being. Until I found this “passion” I felt I was a failure and worse, that my life was worthless, my existence a mistake. Zen Buddhism may teach us the value of not wanting—but it was my desire to write and to succeed at it, to be published, to have readers, that has ultimately given me some happiness, and emotional peace.

But what of Austen herself? My guess is that, just as many readers question whether Austen's novels are really romances because they don't have today's “passionate” sexual undertone, so her religious beliefs, necessarily kept private, don't register with modern sensibilities that equate the loud, ranting mood of evangelicalism with Christian faith. But there's no reason to suppose Austen wasn't a Christian or that her belief was unimportant to her. One has only to look at her accounts notebook, on view at the Morgan Library, to see how, on a very restricted income she nevertheless set aside a substantial portion for charity.

Austen's father and eventually two of her brothers were clergymen, ministers in the Church of England. Anyone who grew up, as I did, in the liberal Episcopal church of mid-twentieth-century New York City, will recognize this specific manifestation of religion. We sneer nowadays at a religion that is practiced only on Sunday, at a faith that disdains close readings of Old Testament stories, and at sermons light on fire and brimstone but full of classical allusions. It's all or nothing for us: either extreme religion, or atheism. But I remember a world where churchgoing was a fashion statement, an assertion of social class (Episcopalian is the WASP religion, after all) and a genuine, heartfelt spiritual connection. One expressed it publicly, openly, once at week at church on Sunday; it was understood that one lived it, or tried to, the other six days of the week. Tortured interpretations of contradictory Biblical injunctions or dark, emotional accounts of faith and belief were...vulgar. And yet, most of these people, clergy and congregation, were some of the most Christian people I have known: kind, tolerant, generous; people who did their flawed human best to love their neighbors as themselves.

St. John Rivers of Jane Eyre is not actually a “true” Christian; his human passions are repressed and his desire is all directed toward fame and glory. He has forced himself to be cold, and has none of that compassion for others that is the real Christian spirit. Surely Bronte was showing us the difference between false religion and genuine Christianity, just as Austen contrasted a virtuous man like Henry Tilney with a degenerate one like George Wickham, whose foster father, old Mr. Darcy, had intended him for the church. Tilney doesn't have to be a prude, or a dull, plodding bore to be a good man, any more than Wickham's charm and good looks make him virtuous.

Anyone who reads Austen's books carefully doesn't doubt for a minute that she felt passion. It's clear she knew from an early age she was a gifted writer, that it was her passion, although she probably would have been horrified to have it described as such. The Enlightenment is often called the Age of Reason, and there was no one more reasonable than Austen. Her passion is real, but it is controlled. Enthusiasm is bad not because it is deeply felt, but because if unchecked it leads to unreasonable behavior. By all means, love deeply, feel desire and inspiration, but then take a deep breath—or ten—and reconsider.

Eighteenth century people were not cold or passionless. If anything, they gave way more frequently, and more violently, to their passions than we do. They drank, gambled, had affairs, wrote and published scurrilous rumors about their literary rivals and political opponents, quarreled publicly, fought duels, and paid the price, like Alexander Hamilton, with early death. Perhaps because of this, they valued control, in principle, if not always in practice.

Austen doesn't discuss her religious beliefs in her novels, any more than she shows her lovers kissing. Her romances are as rational as her narrative style, as restrained as her religious faith, but not shallow or empty. We modern people have been irrevocably marked by the Romantic period that followed the Augustan Age of Austen's youth and was in force at the time of her death, and the long Victorian era that came after. We simply can't go back to a world that believes cool, rational thought is always better than unrestrained passion, in marriage—or religion. Many people today express a desire for “spirituality,” even as attendance at mainstream churches, the ordered, rational Protestant denominations that are the inheritors of Enlightenment faith, has declined.

Why have I written this essay? Because, as an atheist, and a writer who passionately admires Jane Austen, I would very much like Allie's assertion to be true. It would bolster my own sense of intellectual superiority if a genius like Austen had the good sense to be a closet unbeliever as well as a great artist. But as an unabashed adherent of the Age of Reason with its espousal of the scientific method and empiricism, I can't do it. All the evidence, of Austen's novels and surviving letters, and of her life, points to a religious faith that was sincere and deeply held. In Austen, as in her character Elizabeth Bennet, I see “ a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart”--and a Christian.
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