Judith Lambert

A Day in the Life in the Time of Jane Austen

“Religion” was the aspect of our presentation that I covered. Lauren, Ellen and I had pretty much decided on our topics well in advance of our actually beginning to work on them. We had several discussions, primarily via e-mail, and we met in the Library to go over our findings, organize ourselves, share sources, and decide on the order in which we would present.

As I have a good deal of time to “surf the web,” I accomplished some exhaustive research on “religion in 18th Century England.” There was a lot of information, but much of it was too specific and too detailed as to secular questions to be of any pertinent use. Various texts were helpful in providing general background information for context. As well, texts specifically concerning Jane Austen were beneficial for her placement within the topic.

Austen was virtually non-committal on secular and non-secular religious questions, so it was tricky to orient the presentation to make it relevant to our purpose. However, my original curiosity about how the issue of religion factored in to her writing was satisfied even though it was in a “moot point” way. I will be on the alert for possible connections as we continue our reading.

My research piqued my interest in the physical aspects of the old church structures and their surroundings. Of course, if we are able to attend a service, I will pay close attention to rituals observed and the nature and content of the address/sermon.

The period of Jane Austen’s life was a time of intense religious ferment in England. Austen herself was an Anglican, a member of the Church of England.

Austen’s father, George, was a rector. According to the definition given at The Republic of Pemberley webside, “a rector was a Church of England clergyman on the highest rung of the hierarchy of ecclesiastical endowment.” As such, he was entitled to agricultural tithes and security of tenure. His living of Steventon came to him through the good offices of a Kentish second cousin who was married to a land-owner with estates in Hampshire.” Though he subsequently acquired the living of Deane, a neighboring village, George Austen’s annual tithes brought him only 210 pounds annually. While he was able to partially sustain his large family through farm produce, it became necessary for him to take in students to supplement his income. That George Austen’s living was so small was not unique at this time. Parishes were poorly endowed. Over five thousand, five hundred such livings in the 18th Century were worth less than 5 pounds per annum.

The Church of England at this time was embroiled in partisan politics. Positions were assigned largely in reward for political favors rather than concern for parishioners. The local clergyman often served as justice of the peace as well as the spiritual leader of the parish. In addition, “enclosure” such as that John Dashwood spoke of was taking place in wholesale fashion. This incorporation into the large estates land that was formerly allotted to local farmers deprived them of their livelihoods. Many families were forced to migrate to the cities to look for work so that they might survive.

The Anglican hierarchy was primarily concerned with protecting its privileges and exalted status. What filtered down was a general lack of interest on the part of the Church in the welfare – spiritual or otherwise – of its lowest ranked parishioners. Methodist and Evangelical movements came into being. They appealed primarily to forces within the middle and working classes and were lumped together as Dissenting sects.

The advent of the French Revolution inspired religious Dissenters in England when the French Revolutionary government legislated religious tolerance. A whole layer of the Dissenting forces believed religious tolerance could not be effected in Britain without political reform on a broader scale. They challenged the government around issues of the rights of women, prison reform, relief to the poor and abolishing the slave trade.

All of this made the British government pretty nervous and it was quick to step in with censorship of the written word which included not only the press, but poets and writers of fiction such as Jane Austen, as well. Writers convicted of a count of libel would be fined substantially and face a prison sentence of months or years. The libel law afforded the government a useful and effective weapon in its attempt to check an ever-growing influential and rebellious media and, in so doing, it controlled the political attitudes of the reading public.

One wonders how all this affected Jane Austen’s works. “She would have known and understood both the interconnection of religion and politics and the way other writers used the novel to disseminate their religious and political views during the period when she herself was writing novels. She left little direct comment, however, in her novels or her letters, on these matters.”

However, it should be pointed out that – in Sense and Sensibility – Austen incorporated an oblique reference to one of the period’s most popular and radical poets. Do you remember the name of the horse Willoughby was going to give Marianne? Well, a work entitled Queen Mab, subtitled “a philosophical poem with notes,” was written around 1812 by Percy Bysshe Shelley. He supplemented the poem’s two thousand plus lines with “lengthy notes on such subjects as the labour theory of value, the decreasing obliquity of the earth’s axis, prostitution as ‘the legitimate offspring of marriage,’ and the incredibility of the Christian religion.” William Clark, the printer who circulated a series of the poem in pirated editions, was prosecuted and imprisoned for doing so.

Though Austen adhered to the accepted Anglican beliefs and practices, she found herself pulled two ways in the joined-at-the-hip political and religious furor. Readers certainly get the impression that she viewed the questions of the day from the perspective of a woman of her religion and class. Her father had been and two of her brothers were Church of England clergymen, so she had both a familial and a personal commitment to the established Church. She also had an interest in the social structure that supported and was supported by the Church. Yet Austen could sympathize with reformers’ claims for merit over inherited rank and status. This is certainly true in the case of women’s rights issues. Austen’s heroines consistently display attributes of strength of character, firmness of mind, self-control, independence, intelligence, and a quest for knowledge. Her plots, as well, are more than subtly critical of the inequity of the distribution of wealth and land in families.