Jane Austen’s faith may not call attention to itself, but it is present—just like the love of God.
- Posted on Apr 24, 2013
Beth Pattillo is the author of the novels Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart and The Dashwood Sisters Tell All, fictional accounts of how Austen’s work helped shape the lives of four contemporary young women.
What kind of Christian was Jane Austen?
We know that she was the daughter and sister of clergymen. She grew up in a family that practiced their faith through regular worship and by helping people in need. From her surviving letters, we know that she and her sister often sewed or provided clothing for her father’s parishioners.
She left behind one prayer that she penned; we don’t know if there might have been others. Upon her early death, at 41, she was afforded the honor of a cathedral burial not because of her fame as a novelist—her authorship was still anonymous at the time—but because of her exemplary life among the clergy in her little corner of the world.
As I have studied Jane Austen and her novels, I have wondered why she didn’t write more about her faith. Clearly, her Christian beliefs motivated her. But to try and identify what her faith might have meant to her, we have to look at her novels. In her stories, we find the key to the faith of Jane Austen.
Austen’s characters are capable of great change. Their journey from a narrow understanding to self-awareness is what makes her stories so fascinating and so enduring. Whether it’s Elizabeth Bennet overcoming her prejudice of Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), Emma Woodhouse coming to terms with her self-delusion (Emma) or Marianne Dashwood finally recognizing what makes a man a hero (Sense and Sensibility), Austen’s characters are good people who become better ones.
Austen values integrity, humility and understanding, and such qualities are rarely cultivated without some hard lessons. Her main characters begin with good hearts and end their stories with more capacity to love and to accept others because of what they’ve learned. Her heroes and heroines are transformed by love, an idea central to Christianity.
In her surviving prayer, Austen writes, “Thou art everywhere present, from thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this, teach us to fix our thoughts on thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain.”
Austen’s faith may not call attention to itself in her novels, but it is “everywhere present” in her work, just like the love of God.
Beth Pattillo’s love for Jane Austen was born when she studied at the University of London. She lives in Nashville with her husband and two children.