Tonight I sat in a row of folding chairs in gorgeous little Christ Church Cathedral, where the air felt dusty and holy, and what hit me with full spiritual force in my exhaustion was the grace and goodness of God—that which I've begun to hope for in the everyday circumstances of my life but not entirely expect. I kept hearing those words in my head, and as I looked up at where the stone arches meet in the ceiling, I could imagine this goodness coming down to me. The Evensong prayers and the hymns and the readings and the gorgeously sung psalms—all of them added up to the message that I am not beyond grace and that perhaps I can hope even now, on this trip, for God's abundant blessings, whatever form those might take.
I don't know what Jane would have made of these terribly serious spiritual musings. She was entrenched in the church because of her father and brothers, but she didn't write anything that would hint at any spiritual angst, any struggle to believe or not believe, or even any deep spiritual emotion. Perhaps her faith was just an accepted part of her life, as steady and unquestioned as the Hampshire seasons. She seems to have judged her own Christian life the way she evaluated those around her—not by what she felt about God, but by how she lived, how she treated others.
Her nephew James Edward wrote about her spiritual reserve, about how she was "more inclined to think and act than to talk" about her faith. Her niece Anna remembered that Aunt Jane would enjoy things to the fullest, but that when she was contemplating serious matters, she would feel them the most deeply as well—"when grave she was very grave." So perhaps, at some level, Jane would understand.
What is clear is that Jane operated from a moral foundation. If she knew that others fell short, I believe it was in part because she was aware of her own failings. She crafted stories about lovely, smart, intelligent women—and men—who were blind to their own faults. Pride. Immaturity. Self-centeredness. These were not small, but impurities of character to be worked out with the help of those who loved you enough to tell you the truth.
For Jane, this working out was genuine faith, this mastery of character as much to be celebrated as the excellent romantic conclusions of her novels. Jane is never heavy-handed with this, but I believe the triumph of the books, for her, in the end is not only that the relationships come together but the kind of people who are allowed to come together— two people with characters that have been hammered out a bit, with faults that have been recognized and corrected. They are wise and humble enough to help each other work out their faults and appear guaranteed of some success in that regard.
No one in Jane's stories is spared from this kind of stringent—even in a way harsh—evaluation. "Persuasion's" Captain Wentworth is not allowed to have been motivated solely by hurt feelings, but by "angry pride," allowed to be ridiculous and yielding painful consequences to himself and Anne. Emma (in, of course, "Emma"), whom everyone must agree spoke truthfully when she told old Miss Bates that she must limit the number of "very dull" things she said, is not allowed to just laugh it off as a joke. Until Emma recognizes this meanness and, as a result, her propensity to overlook her own faults and need for correction, she cannot be really worthy in Austen's mind. In "Pride and Prejudice," Darcy as a child "was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit," while Anne in "Persuasion" is nearly perfect and is easily guided by Mrs. Russell. She concedes that this is not a moral failing, but that her own personality needs a bit of firming up. Meanwhile, Marianne in "Sense and Sensibility" allows her emotions to lead her into questionable situations, readily giving offense and ultimately caring only about her own happiness, while Elinor allows her own very strict moral code to stifle any kind of emotional display. (And although Jane was writing in praise of Elinor's self-control, I cannot read it without feeling like she is too rigid.)
The faults of minor characters are on display as well. Mrs. Bennet is silly throughout Pride and Prejudice, while Mr. Bennet does not take enough trouble to discipline his daughters. In "Sense and Sensibility," Mrs. Jennings is a gossip, and Emma's poor Miss Bates cannot stop talking. Mary (Anne's younger sister in "Persuasion") is never satisfied, determined to be the center of attention, always imagining herself ill (which was one of Jane's favorite failings to mock). And even the nearly perfect Jane Fairfax, also in "Emma," entered into a questionable engagement without the knowledge of her family.
C. S. Lewis said that the world of Austen's novels "is exacting in so fat as such obedience is rigidly demanded; neither excuses nor experiments are allowed." At times—especially with Fanny in "Mansfield Park"—she is so particularly moral as to make me a bit weary of it. Yet she is right.
One of her Evening Prayers captures her theology and my own better than I could:
Look with mercy on the sins we have this day committed and in mercy make us feel them deeply, that our repentance may be sincere, and our resolutions steadfast 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 have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own souls. May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing thoughts, words and actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of evil. Have we thought irreverently of thee, have we disobeyed 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.I suppose it makes me feel that she understands the particulars, the derailed specifics of a situation. She understands the value of a tone of voice or a turn of phrase. She aimed at nothing less than the careful truth.
I'm afraid I'll make some people cringe by tying Jane to Christianity in any form. She was not evangelical, though her cousin, clergyman Edward Cooper, was part of the new evangelical movement beginning to sweep the country. Unfortunately, Jane didn't always like his sermons, which she found too full of "Regeneration & Conversion," and he had a habit of sending "Letters of cruel comfort," which seems to hint at Mr. Collins. Jane still found a way to admire the young movement, if she found it too "loud and noisy" for her own tastes. 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." I recognize that Jane's religious experiences must have been far different than mine, but I think in fundamentals of belief we might be much the same.
Jane's books are Christian in that there is a solid Christian moral foundation throughout her writing, but they are not Christian books per se by today's definition. She didn't have to deal with the evangelical culture I was raised in—the one in which Christian things are separate from other normal (or as the church sometimes describes them, "worldly") things.
The Church of England was everywhere in Jane's day, a social norm. Everyone went to church. Everyone believed or feigned belief. Which led to other problems, like rectors who cared more for their incomes than their congregations, and sermons that were perhaps sufficient to entertain or simply endure on a Sunday morning but lacking in spiritual depth. One has only to imagine the torture of being part of Mr. Collins's flock to begin to grasp the weaknesses (evils?) of the church system in Jane's day.
One thing I know Jane and I would agree on is the ridiculousness that the church can bring out, if not encourage, in people. I believe sometimes that as a group, while trying to be good, we do not exert enough effort toward being normal.
Austen understands this. Even in her day, faith was sometimes used as a cloak for ridiculous behavior. She doesn't spare anyone like this. For her, it seems nearly as serious as a moral failing.