I told you that I have three writing projects underway at the same time – something I’ve never attempted before – but I have a confession to make. There’s now a fourth. Yes, crazy but it’s true. When a friend, who has a long-time connection with a Seattle playhouse, suggested I should try my hand at writing a play, I got pretty excited by the possibility of seeing something I’ve written performed live on stage! So I got to work immediately, studying up on playwriting and trying to condense The Ladies of Rosings Park down to a play-length story. Not an easy task, as it turns out.
At the same time, I don’t want to neglect my other projects – #1 a Northanger Abbey sequel and #2 a non-JA story, which I profiled for you in my previous two posts, as well as #3: a Jane Austen devotional based on her prayers.
I have always been curious about Jane Austen’s spiritual side. We know she was raised in a Christian home, the daughter of a (by all accounts) dedicated Anglican minister, as well as having a brother (and later a second) belonging to the profession. She no doubt attended church nearly every Sunday of her life. Still, that didn’t prove sincere faith then anymore than it does now.
I suppose an argument could even be made to the contrary. For example, we see very few overtly Christian sentiments expressed in her novels. In fact, some of the portraits she draws of clergymen are quite unflattering (i.e. Mr. Collins). Also, some darker examples of her razor-sharp wit/humor (especially some preserved in her personal letters) might even be called caustic or irreverent.
However, I think it would be a mistake to conclude from this that Jane Austen didn’t take her faith seriously. Being a Christian doesn’t mean having no sense of humor, and not every pastor is a shining example, especially in Jane Austen’s day, when many went into the profession for the wrong reasons – as a convenient means of making a genteel living rather than in answer to a true calling from God.
As for Jane Austen’s novels, although they are stories written from a Christian perspective, upholding Christian beliefs and values, they would not qualify for today’s “Christian Fiction” genre. Indeed, in Austen’s society there would have been no reason for what is now a separate and distinct category of fiction, no need to make a point of declaring the gospel message in every book where church attendance and allegiance to the Christian faith were the norm, not the exception. I believe this fact explains a great deal.
Here and there in Austen’s novels, however, we do catch a glimpse of something that might be construed as a reflection of Austen’s personal faith. We notice the “God bless you” at the close of Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, for example, and the many occasions where God’s name is invoked in crisis or in thanksgiving. But perhaps the clearest example appears in Mansfield Park. There, Austen uses Mary Crawford’s attitude toward elements of faith as one means of revealing that lady’s faulty character. Mary openly ridicules the practice of family prayers, chapel attendance, and the clerical profession as a whole. By contrast, Austen’s heroine Fanny Price is reverent, honorable, and chaste – a much better candidate for an Austen-style heroine and a better choice of partner for future clergyman Edmund.
For the most convincing evidence of Jane Austen’s sincere personal faith, however, we must look beyond her novels, which are, after all, not autobiography but fiction. We must look to how she faced death (when she made a point of receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion) and we must look to her prayers.
Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our Hearts, as with our lips. Thou art every where 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. (opening of Jane Austen’s prayer “On Each Return of the Night”)
No one knows how many eloquent prayers the authoress may have composed in her lifetime. As with her letters, it seems likely that only a fraction of the original number have survived. We have only thee rather lengthy examples remaining to us, in fact. But each line of each one is a mini pray in itself, I realized, worthy of pausing for further contemplation.
So that’s what I’m doing in the devotional I’m working on. I have broken Jane Austen’s three surviving prayers down into individual petitions, allowing each to inspire a separate meditation with illustrations from her novels. Jane Austen drew her characters so convincingly – seeming like real people with real thoughts and problems – that their stories constitute a rich resource for teaching spiritual principles.
The devotional is about 1/3 done, which means it’s currently in the lead among my three main writing projects as to reaching the finish line! But the dark horse in the race is that play I mentioned. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes!