The following was a presentation I gave to a Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML) Zone Rally hosted at Village Lutheran Church in Ladue, Missouri, on March 25, 2023.
Good morning! Thank you so much for inviting me to talk to you today at the Zone Rally. It’s a real pleasure to get to spend this time with so many new and familiar faces while talking about a subject very near and dear to my heart.
I want to give a brief “spoiler warning”: there is really no way to talk coherently about Jane Austen and her novels without discussing their plots. Also, the books have been out for over two hundred years. So, apologies in advance if I reveal a pivotal plot point of a book of hers you have not yet read.
When you think of Jane Austen, of whom do you next think? There are many fine persons, to be sure: Elizabeth and Darcy, Anne and Captain Wentworth; Elinor and Edward; Marianne and Colonel Brandon; Emma and Knightley; Catherine and Tilney; maybe even shy Fanny and Edmund. There’s also Wickham, Willoughby, and Frank Churchill; Mrs. Bennet; Mr. Woodhouse; Sir Elliot. Perhaps you think instead of Kiera Knightley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matthew MacFadyen, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, or, if you’re like my husband, “Severus Snape” and “Hans Gruber,” also known as the late Alan Rickman.
My guess, though, is that you do not associate Jesus with Jane Austen. Austen is generally not conceived of as a “Christian author” by her readers or by literary scholars. In fact, many English literature academics cast aspersions on the seriousness of her faith altogether. Her work, praised for its incisive and hilarious realism, is not moralizing, or at least not as moralizing as the unapologetically didactic Little Women, for example. Nor does her work ever really deal with theological topics: we get no sense of Anglican teachings on the Sacraments or Jane Austen’s views on the liturgy, say, within the pages of her works.
This morning, I am going to try to convince you that Jane Austen is, nevertheless, best understood as a Christian author—really, I think, only fully understood as a Christian author. We’ll begin with a very brief survey of Jane’s life, then move to a discussion of the major Christian themes in her works, and end with a reflection on why those themes might be particularly helpful, comforting, and edifying today.
Jane Austen was born to George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen in 1775. She was the sixth of eight children, the second of two daughters. Jane’s origins were not nearly as dreamy and idealized as her later novels; life was harsh. Jane had an older brother who was special needs of some kind—we don’t know for sure what his diagnosis would be today, but he never lived with the family and was more-or-less forgotten by them. The family, like most middle-class English families at the time, sent their babies to be raised by poor women in town until they were old enough to talk and be more independent. Jane’s father was a country parson and farmer in the Anglican church, and was rather poor, though this did not stop two of her brothers following him into the ministry. It is likely, therefore, that Jane’s life was punctuated by the rhythms and rites of the church year. In fact, Jane Austen wrote several very nice prayers, one of which is included in at least one contemporary edition of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. Jane’s parents ran a boys’ school from their home, which, together with her many brothers, meant she grew up surrounded by young men and their society. Her juvenile writing also attests to this fact: some of her earliest works feature a boyish interest in gore, alcohol, and dark humor, though she seemed to grow out of this and turn her pen towards more domestic tales.
Jane had one sister, Cassandra, who was two years her senior. Both Jane and Cassandra were, sadly, “unlucky in love.” Cassandra was engaged for a six years to a young man named Tom Fowle who tragically died in 1797 while, in an attempt to save up enough money to marry her, he pursued his fortune in the West Indies. The twenty-four-year-old elder Miss Austen never recovered from the loss. Scarcely two years earlier, Jane herself had a whirlwind romance with the twenty-year-old Irish law student Tom Lefroy. At eighteen, she was the age Cassandra had been when she became engaged. It seems that Jane—and others in the neighborhood—expected a similar dénouement to the flirtation. But, tragically, it was not to be: though there is ample evidence that the two loved one another (though, to be fair, this entire episode was elapsed in the course of a few weeks), after the Christmas of 1795, Tom and Jane never saw each other again. Tom would go on to marry a much wealthier young woman, with whom he had seven children. Jane, along with her sister Cassandra, experienced something of an “early-onset spinsterhood,” losing all interest in courtship and adopting rather “mature” ways of acting and dressing. The pair seem to have confused their immediate and extended family: plenty of women are jilted in love in their late teens or early twenties, but most of them (both in Jane Austen’s England and today) recover and move on to a more successful romance and marriage. But Jane never did, and perhaps it was this brief but intense experience of lost love that brought such poignancy and insight to her writing. She remained a spinster, living with family, until she died in 1817 at the far-too-young age of forty-one.
As to her writing: in the course of Jane’s life, she wrote six complete novels. Several works of juvenile fiction and two unfinished novels also exist, perhaps most famously Sanditon, which has been “completed” by several authors and is now a BBC miniseries airing on PBS. She wrote Pride and Prejudice first in 1797 at age twenty, although it did not appear in print for another sixteen years, in 1813, when she was thirty-seven. It had been extensively edited in-between, as she likewise did with Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, which she also wrote early in life but published later. Sense and Sensibility was the first to be published, in 1811; Northanger Abbey was published in 1814. Her other three novels came afterward: Emma (1815), and Mansfield Park and Persuasion (both 1817), posthumously.
Also, just as an aside, I think that some Austen scholars see Jane as being irreligious, or at least not very interested in church, in part because of some of the things she says in her correspondence with her sister. I’ll be honest with you: she can be pretty mean. She makes jokes that are harsh, unkind, or just downright inappropriate. In fact, Cassandra destroyed most of her letters, and it is likely that she did this to hide her younger sister’s acid pen. She definitely did not always put the best construction on her neighbor’s actions. (In fairness, I hope that I will not be judged after my death by my text messages or emails—a sentiment to which I’m sure most, if not all, of us could agree.)
Jane Austen is credited with more-or-less inventing the genre of romantic comedy. (The comedy element does not always come through in the film adaptations, in my opinion, and it is subtle, a comedy of manners, and so a good annotated copy can help with really understanding all the ins-and-out of why everyone finds Mrs. Bennet so embarrassing, or why it’s so important whether or not Lydia and Wickham are actually going to Scotland.) The romances in them are decently predictable: the story follows the heroine along with her male love interest, his rival, her rival, and usually an ensemble of funny, rude, and/or embarrassing friends, neighbors, and family members. There is usually a clergyman or someone training to become one; sometimes he is pious and moral, or else he is self-righteous and scheming. Money and status figure prominently. There is little, if anything, outlandish or fanciful. The plot typically involves, to greater or lesser degrees of complexity, the heroine meeting her love interest and his rival, experiencing some kind of conflict or confusion, facing some sort of trial or scandal, growing and maturing as a person, and, finally, ending up with the hero, while the immoral or selfish characters get, more or less, their just desserts. To quote Oscar Wilde, “The good end happily, and that bad unhappily; that is what fiction means.” Jane Austen’s six completed novels fit into this broad overview well, though they are each unique, highlighting some different element of the dangers of love, the importance of family, friends, and neighbors, and the virtues (and vices) of women.
There are a number of Christian themes in Jane Austen’s work. To go through them all in a systematic way would be the work of a dissertation, not an LWML Zone Rally talk. But for our purposes, I think there are two really important Christian themes in Jane’s novels: repentance and sanctification. I think that these are two of the most important markers of the Christian life, and so it makes sense that Jane Austen would in her writing spend so much time on these two aspects of life in Christ.
The first of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” I believe that Jane Austen would heartily agree with this thesis: her books are all people repenting—identifying sin and seeking repentance. Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the most obvious (The title of the book is, after all, the two sins of which the two main characters must repent!). Emma also underscores the importance of repentance, as Emma is perhaps the Austen heroine who embarrasses herself the most and whose repentant visit to Miss Bates is (deservedly!) humiliating. Sense and Sensibility is a little more nuanced: the repentant Willoughby coming to Marianne’s sickbed is, to my knowledge, either omitted or glanced over by every film and television adaptation of the novel that I know of—likely because the screenwriters don’t really know what to do with that pivotal and challenging—even uncomfortable—part of the story.
The repentant actions of Jane Austen’s characters are, truly, always uncomfortable. Repentance is uncomfortable. And Jane Austen always makes her characters repent to one another: they pursue reconciliation, the restoration of relationships. The morally immature characters—the Mrs. Bennets and the Mr. Woodhouses, the Lydias, Miss Grays, and Sir Elliots—are the ones who never repent, who never try to restore equanimity to their relationships by admitting wrong and seeking forgiveness. Perhaps because this repentance is usually interpersonal, rather than expressly in prayer or between the character and his or her pastor, this repentant “turn” that Austen’s characters make in the course of her works is viewed more in the vein of general character development versus a distinctly Christian moral element in her writing. Nevertheless, the way the characters speak about repentance is explicitly, undeniably Christian: the self-effacing, humble humor, the willingness to forgive. Additionally, Austen very often places forgiveness at the heart of matrimony, most especially with Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice and Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. These marriages only occur because of great, two-sided repentance, and I don’t think that’s an accident.
Along with repentance, Jane Austen also often features the role of sanctification in the life of the Christian. Sanctification can be a tricky topic for us Lutherans, but I think it’s an important one. Sanctification is simply that process that all Christians experience, whereby we become more aware of our sins and, enlivened by Christ dwelling in us and by His Holy Spirit, we strive (imperfectly) to curb our sinful tendencies. Unlike justification, which happens at the cross and is delivered through the means of grace and, therefore, is unchanging, constant, and the same for all Christians, sanctification is a bit different. Sanctification happens in different ways for different people, even at different times in our lives. We may struggle with one set of sins, learn one set of hard lessons, and strive towards one set of virtues as young people, and find a whole different set of sins, lessons, and virtues as young adults or in middle age; or as single women versus married women, women without children and women with children, and so on. Men and women themselves usually struggle with and strive towards different things—something I would like to return to at the end of our time today.
My husband, Jonathan, really likes the late Roman Catholic bishop, radio and television personality, and theologian Fulton Sheen. I think he has some interesting thoughts on sanctification. Here’s what he has to say (and those of you present for Wednesday’s midweek service may notice some familiar points):
“There’s a cross that’s at the very center human life. No man is ever really happy on the inside until he is at war with himself—at war with that which is base and would destroy his Godward tendencies, as our Lord said, ‘I came not to bring peace but the sword.’ Not the sword that points and thrusts outward to destroy the neighbor, but the sword that thrusts inward to destroy one’s egotism and one’s lust and one’s avarice, and all the things that destroy also a peace of mind.”
As Christians, we take the sword Christ spoke of and turn it inward—not to condemn our neighbor, but with it identifying and rooting out sin. This is a never-ending process. We will never, of course, stop sinning—but we should try to sin less, or at least hurt other people with our sins less. Consider the great heroines of Jane Austen: they all repent of their sins, ask forgiveness, and turn from the sin. Elizabeth is very shamed by the revelations of Darcy’s real sufferings and character, so much so that she resolves to never pre-judge or fall prey to nasty rumors again. Emma is so disgusted with herself after humiliating Miss Bates in front of all of their friends that she resolves to never again allow herself to be egged on to low meanness and disdain for someone less fortunate or less socially successful ever again. After losing Wentworth the first time, Anne Elliot strives to be master of her own heart, instead of allowing the selfishness and schemes (even those at least in part well-meant) to sway her judgment. Marianne and Elinor learn, in their own ways, to temper the excesses in their natures. Catherine Morland learns to live in the real world, not fantastic books, and even shy Fanny Price musters the courage to stand up for what her conscience tells her to be right, even in the face of extreme social pressure.
So, with all this in mind, how can people think that Jane Austen isn’t a Christian author? To be sure, Jane Austen doesn’t come out and say any of this. You might not get this from watching most film adaptations, eithers, since so much has been simplified or cut, or, frankly, not fully understood by the filmmakers. Jane Austen is not theological, as I said earlier: in her novels, Austen doesn’t wax lyrical on the eucharist or the efficacy of baptism. She is very pragmatic: her lessons are about heartache, not heresy; unhappy marriages, not incorrect doctrine. These themes, too, are practical: repentance and sanctification are always presented within a social context, apologizing to the person whom you harmed; striving to be better to the people to whom you have previously been bad. Jane’s treatment of Christianity is certainly on the more “horizontal,” man-to-man or woman-to-woman level, but that doesn’t make her any less Christian of an author.
What does Jane Austen, then, have to say to us today? There are certainly many issues that Austen treats that are familiar to us: bickering families, selfish, scheming people, and pre- or extra-marital sex all appear in her pages and in our lives. We will probably have far more incidents in our lives that remind us of a scene from a Jane Austen novel than we will from, say, Jurassic Park or Game of Thrones. But I think there’s something more than just her knack for understanding awkward social interactions or slightly-dysfunctional family life. There is a great deal of confusion in our contemporary world: sex, marriage, friendship, and family are all a good bit more complicated today than they were in Austen’s time. We can’t expect her to write about circumstances she could never have experienced or predicted—but she can help answer the perennial questions surrounding the role and vocation of women in marriage, family, and society. In short, while some people in this world are asking “What is a woman?”, there are a great number of women—especially within our own families and churches—asking “What is a good woman—and how can I be one?”, and Jane Austen does help us answer that question.
In retrospect, I think this is what drew me to Jane Austen. I first read an Austen novel at age fifteen, during the summer between ninth and tenth grade. Up until this point I had been a tomboy par excellence—the girl with the very short cropped hair who only wore jeans and t-shirts, hated anything romantic, read “boy” books, listened to “boy” music, did well at “boy” subjects in school. I wasn’t a tree climbing tomboy, I was an art class tomboy, but even my drawing interests were, for the most part, boyish. I was a “late bloomer,” profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin, and felt like a freak alongside other girls for very silly reasons. And, of course, at fifteen, I didn’t realize that most other girls also felt about like I did; no, I was convinced that there was something aberrant, unlikable, and unfeminine about me because I was lanky, goofy, good at math, and a fan of British alternative rock.
I read Pride and Prejudice after catching about 45 seconds of the 2005 movie adaptation on television one night. I remember walking out of the room suddenly and explaining to my mother, “I can’t watch any more of this movie—I need to read the book first.” I spent an otherwise confusing teenage summer immersed in Jane Austen’s picturesque towns and the stunning Lake District—“What are men to rocks and mountains?” It launched a series of changes in me that I can still scarcely begin to explain: the action figures and aggressively-bright decorations in my bedroom came down in one afternoon and were gradually replaced with florals, antique store art prints, and miniature silhouettes. I grew out my hair for the first time in my life. Most importantly, I made my peace with myself after reading about characters that I liked, recognized, or admired; I saw good women, even if they were from 200 years ago, and I wanted to be like them.
I think this is so much of what Jane Austen has to offer contemporary Christian readers. We really don’t spend enough time explaining, let alone showing and celebrating, good women, women worthy of being role models—of being friends. We either become legalists, with strange and overly-stringent rules about what bars you from The Good Woman Club, or we become so lax as to become unhelpful, failing to acknowledge that, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor 6:12). But as St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). Jane Austen offers us something that is “good” and “lovely” and “commendable” upon which to think, especially as it pertains to our lives as Christian women. And this is something that we desperately need, whether we’re sixteen or sixty, and, in Jane Austen, it is presented in a way that is universally appealing to women, the gangly pubescent and the achy octogenarian alike: as a love story.
In closing, I’d like to pray with you all the portion of the prayer than Jane Austen wrote that appears now in the international edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
“Incline us, O God, to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves. Grant this most merciful Father, for the sake of our blessed Saviour, who hast set us an example of such a temper of forbearance and patience, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.”
 Martin Luther, “The 95 Theses,” Luther.de, https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html.
 Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, “How to Psychoanalyze Yourself,” approx. 24:35–25:30, https://youtu.be/k3rhPa7h4ro?t=1461.
One thought on “Jesus and Jane Austen: The Faith and Witness of the Greatest Romantic Novelist”
I love this!! Thank you for sharing and for making me think. I have recently decided to read all 6 novels, some for the first time and some for a second, or even third.