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