The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo – A Review

The Marriage of Faith Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, by Laura Dabundo (2012)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP: 

“What I want to examine in this study is how the poet Wordsworth and the novelist Austen represent a marriage of interests, an economy of literary sympathies, and a shared thematic melody that plays across their often-disparate works” (Dabundo, 9).

Laura Dabundo joins a number of scholars who have begun to show great interest in examining the works of Jane Austen in light of her Christian faith. One thinks of Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (2011), Peter Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen (2004), Michael Giffin’s Jane Austen and Religion (2002), and Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy (1993), not to mention more devotional and reflective works like Steffany Woolsey’s A Jane Austen Devotional(2012) and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education (2012). It seems the trendy intellectual bias against discussing religion is giving way to a greater emphasis on appreciating the complete context of beloved and respected authors like Austen. This is particularly important in Austen’s case because, as Dabundo states from the very start: “The deeply rooted significance of church and faith creates the rich earth out of which characters develop, her plots blossom, and her themes flower. It was her reality; it is the reality of her art” (1). To ignore Austen’s Anglican faith and spirituality, therefore, is to only half-read her novels and so to potentially mistake her intention entirely.

Given the many works listed above and the many others not mentioned, Dabundo has to create a niche for her discussion of Austen’s Christian faith. For this, she incorporates a comparison with William Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet and contemporary of Austen. But what do these two literary giants have in common? Simply put, a faith in Anglican Christianity as the saving “glue” of British society, for both believed that in Anglicanism the British people found the harmonious marriage of nationalism and Christian morals—a marriage that gave birth to the ideal community. Indeed, this community is not only the source of obligation (duty to others), but also the deeper motivation for the individual’s being (inspiration) (64). Dabundo unpacks this interesting claim over several chapters, but she does so by examining the two artists’ works separately. While I understand her reasons for doing so, I found the four Wordsworth chapters to be of less interest to me than the three Austen chapters, mainly due to my own unfamiliarity with the poetry being discussed and my greater interest in the novels. As such, I will restrict my comments to the book’s latter chapters, perhaps to the chagrin of the author and Wordsworth devotees.

Happily, the chapters on Austen were superb and a delight to read. The first of those chapters, bearing the provocative title of “The Devil and Jane Austen: Elizabeth Bennet’s Temptation in the Wilderness”, compares the famous clash between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert. While this clash is certainly famous, the comparison to Jesus helps underscore the fact that Elizabeth “…has been isolated, tested, and shown to be resolute, deserving, and true” (94). There is a spiritual depth to Dabundo’s analysis which is refreshing and enlightening, especially as regards her claim “…everyone’s favorite heroine is also finally one of the most morally upright, a true daughter of the church” (97). Who? Playful, sassy Elizabeth Bennet? Comparable to long-suffering Elinor Dashwood or contemplative Fanny Price? Dabundo has me revisiting a character I thought I knew so well—the sign, of course, of a good book.

The next Austen chapter, “‘The Redemption of the World’: The Rhetoric of Jane Austen’s Prayers”, gives a thorough examination of the three extant prayers that Austen composed for family vesper services at home. As others have done, Dabundo notes that there is evidence that Jane Austen regularly participated in public and private liturgies, that receiving Eucharist was important to her spirituality, and that she held rather staunchly to the tolerant, established brand of Georgian Anglicanism dominant at that time (101). Dabundo also notes similarities between Austen’s prayers and the language of the Book of Common Prayer, indicating not merely that she was familiar with that text, but that she had imbibed its central characteristics and accepted its vision of the faith (109). What I found most interesting about this chapter however, was the claim that “The rhetorical purpose of the prayer indicates that it is their world that is to be redeemed, following the sacrifice of Christ and realized through the reformed examples and good works of Elinor Dashwood, Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, and their mates, inspired and emulating Christ’s exemplum” (99-100). It is so easy to read the novels as fairy tale, happily-ever-after comedies. Dabundo invites us to see a certain heroic virtue playing out in the lives of these women—an interpretation that transforms familiar scenes like the clash between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine mentioned earlier—into the very types of scenes in regular life in which lay Christians are called upon to make moral decisions that ultimately prove their saintliness. Dabundo’s vision here is not only the key hermeneutic for understanding the religiosity of the novels, but the spiritual depth of Austen herself, whose Christian struggles were not fought in the monastery or in a public ministry, but day-by-day in the context of home-life amongst family and friends.

In “The City of Sisterly Love in Jane Austen”, Dabundo’s focus on community comes full circle as she examines the novels through the lens of sisterhood. She writes, “In short, within the compass of sisterhood often lurk the specters of the same sorts of social conflicts writ larger in the contexts and contests of the novels themselves. The families, in other words, may mirror through their daughters the issues that these novels seek to resolve…The progress of the novels, then, is toward the achievement of a community of sisterly affection” (113). She goes on to discuss some of the fascinating groupings of sisters found in Austen’s canon: The Bennet sisters in contrast to the Bingley sisters, the Dashwoods versus the Steeles, surrogate sisters in Emma and Northanger Abbey, and broken sororities in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. A community of sisters is so important to Austen, she argues, because it provides “an enclave of strength against the vagaries of fate and the challenges and vexations of life” (126). In other words, where there is a Christian sister on hand, the heroine’s own moral compass remains true. Undoubtedly, Austen learned this lesson first-hand living so closely with only sister Cassandra.

Dabundo’s final point is that there is more to marriage than what meets the eye in both Austen and Wordsworth’s visions. For both, Christian marriage is a metaphor that combines the earthly goal of building a righteous community and the heavenly goal of keeping one’s hopes set on the next life with God. Christianity’s central concern of redeeming the world finds its undimmed light shining out from these literary depictions of Christian marriages. In particular, for Austen, the marriage of men and women who have been transformed through “naked self-disclosure”, who have acknowledged their mistakes and who are now “poised to be active forces for good in their spheres, from village to town to nation to world” (133). In this Dabundo finds what Austen and Wordsworth both must have understood to have been the merit of Anglican Christianity: its moral thrust to transform the world through the establishment of communities of discerning, conscientious Christians.

While I did not savor every minute of my reading of this book, namely its chapters on Wordsworth, I hope it is clear that I found plenty to enjoy here. I only wish Dabundo had included more commentary on the novels and was better able to integrate her thoughts on Wordsworth with those on Austen, as the book felt like two separate projects put together under an umbrella theme of community. I also regret that she neglected works like Lady Susan and the fragments of “The Watsons” and “Sanditon”, as they could have further illustrated some of her points about moral struggle, community, and sisterhood. In the end, however, this is the kind of work that has an impact on my thinking long after I have returned it to the shelf, as it invites me to revisit these favorite novels and to find in them an earnestness and depth I sometimes, like a novice, underestimate.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen , by Laura Dabundo
Mercer University Press (2012)
Hardcover (152) pages
ISBN: 978-0881462821

Book cover image courtesy of Mercer University Press © 2012; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2012, Austenprose.com

15 thoughts on “The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo – A Review

  1. Thank you for the wonderful article. I have always thought of Austen as a Christian author, though most people would disagree with me. Elizabeth is not perfect, but she definitely exemplifies Christ in her moral values, standards, and speech. I see the same qualities in Jane Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, and other Austen characters. Edward Farrars prefers the clergy to wealth and power. Fanny Price stands for right when the family she loves pressures her to do what she knows would be against the wishes of her absent uncle.

    I have written a Christian fiction trilogy with the characters from Pride and Prejudice, and I’m presently writing Accidentally Yours, another Austen Christian fiction. AY has a time switch. The Darcy who lives in modern times is a Christian; the Regency Darcy is not. God answers the prayers of the modern Darcy while also giving the Regency Darcy what he wants.

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  2. Great review of a book that I’ll now put on my “to read” list. I would be more interested in the Austen chapters as well, but perhaps it will invite to revisit Wordsworth as well.

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  3. Jane Austen’s strong moral themes is what drew me to her novels in the first place and Wordsworth’s Christian faith can not be questioned. As I read this review, I’m saying to myself, “Yes, yes yes!” I know I’m going to thoroughly enjoy and rejoice in reading this book. Thank you Laura Dabundo for sharing your insights with the world!

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    • I had the exceptional privilege of meeting Dr. Dabundo at the Decatur Book Festival in September. I was fortunately seated beside her, and I very much enjoyed our discussions.

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  4. Thank you for your detailed review, Brother Paul. I am not a very religious person but your review made me want to pick this up; at least to read the chapters on Jane Austen!

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  5. Thank you for this review! I am adding this book to my Christmas wish list, as it sounds thought-provoking, and provides a different angle of insight into Austen’s works than I’ve run across up to now. As a Christian myself, I’ve always appreciated the signs of faith in her books, and I look forward to delving deeper into them. Wordsworth is not one of my favorite poets, but maybe this book will inspire me to revisit his works.

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  6. Brother Paul, I have already read many of those books about Jane Austen’s faith as I knew years ago that it had a big impact on her world view, even the little bit of the world she knew. I really appreciated your review. I was going through a pile of papers today and realized that some books I’d ordered were in there. This book was in there. I will move it ahead of some other books in my TBR pile. I’ll also note the books you mentioned that looked at her spirituality and read the ones I haven’t read yet. I know that my life is largely shaped by my Christian beliefs and felt that Jane Austen’s must’ve been so, too. I have been frustrated at our 21st century scholars who have totally left out her spiritual background and professions. They are important to know in order to know her and her works. I read all of her works with that context in mind.

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    • An odd thing is that among those writing Austen variations, erotica appears to be more acceptable that Christian Austen. I was told that my work was polarizing and controversial, yet I feel that portraying her characters as believers is more true to Austen than portraying them in explicit sexual situations. I’m not advocating telling people what to write, buy, or read, but I would like for the same courtesy to be extended to me.

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      • I agree, Robin. I’m somewhere in the middle when it comes to Austen variations-I don’t mind some Christian themes in it nor do I mind a dash of steaminess but I don’t like either to overwhelm the story. Whenever I write a review, I always include a caution if the story involves any sort of theme that could potentially be an issue for a reader. I wish people actually took the trouble to read reviews before buying. We (readers and authors) could all avoid needlessly negative reviews and misunderstandings that way.

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  7. I would like to thank Br. Paul and the others for such generous and thoughtful comments. Br. Paul, I hope that all the reviewers of this book are as sensitive, informed, and careful readers and writers as you have shown yourself to be. I am humbled by the care.

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    • Laura, what an honor to have the author comment! Again, I loved your commentary on Austen. You are so readable and articulate and insightful. I said in my review I wanted more, only because I enjoyed what you gave so much. Also, I only wanted more on Sanditon, The Watsons, and Lady Susan, because I happen to love neglected and unfinished texts–their lack of polish and completion only increases their appeal for me, for some reason.

      When I improve my knowledge of Wordsworth, I’ll revisit your thoughts on him.

      Anyway, thank you for this wonderful book,
      Br. Paul

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  8. Br Paul: A masterful review of what appears to be a difficult work to critique! Laurel Ann chose the perfect subject matter expert to take this one on. This is going on my Christmas wish list!

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  9. Thanks, everyone, for the feedback, especially Laura Dabundo. It’s been a busy week at school, but I was able to show the review to my students, encouraging them to see writing as a passion that continues well beyond high school. I also was able to mention Jane Austen yet again, making her a “household name” in my theology classes.

    One thing that I found most interesting in the comments was the discussion on the role religion and/or sex play in Austen-inspired historical fiction today. In this, I find writers grappling with two areas of Austen’s works that may be a bit understated for modern taste. It has been remarked, however, that Austen’s religious subtlety helps her to appeal to more people and to survive the vicissitudes of public attitudes concerning expression of faith, and I tend to agree with that. This subtlety seems to have been an conscious choice on Austen’s part, both from a artistic sensibility on what should and should not be represented in fiction and also from her personal religious sensibilities about how religion ought to be lived and expressed generally.

    There are so many good studies coming out about Austen’s faith, this book included, that I find I am becoming more and more convinced of how important Austen will be to the historical rediscovery of Georgian Anglicanism and what exactly was good about this often neglected period, long seen through the lens of the disapproving Victorian reformers who came afterward. Just last night, I was reading chapter two of Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism and found my eyes being opened to the way that the shift in language now obscures areas of Austen’s novels that would have been read as obviously religious in her day. There are great examples, but I’ll leave that for another review.

    Let me just end this reply with a tantalizing note on sexuality in Austen. Let’s just say a recent reread of Sanditon had my eyes raising quite a few times at the high level of sexual charge I felt coming from the text. Again, I will leave that for another discussion.

    Thanks,
    Br. Paul

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