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Christianity in Austen's novels
Jane Austen does not overtly reveal her Christian beliefs in her novels, but she clearly upholds the Christian values of goodness, virtue, truth, charity, prudence and honour:
- Eventually, characters whose behaviour is shaped by Christian morals are rewarded
- Those who indulge the vices, especially vanity, greed and pride, are mocked.
Rather than depicting the effect of morality (or lack thereof) on the state of the world at large, she demonstrates that the individual's moral choices have an effect on their immediate community. She leaves us to imagine to where those ripples might lead in the wider sphere.
The moral condition of Jane Austen's heroines can be divided into two categories:
- Those who are flawed, but improve in moral sense and practice as the novel progresses (like Emma and Marianne)
- Those who demonstrate good moral sense from the outset (like Fanny and Anne).
Manners or morals?
The comedy of manners is a literary form that was widely used during the Restoration and Augustan periods to critique the manners of a particular segment of society in a witty and satirical way. Jane Austen cleverly and subtly critiques the shortfalls and limitations of her society's morality with a similar use of wit and humour about manners:
- In her novels, manners stand for morals
- She evaluates her characters by their ability to make their outward display of manners line up with their inward moral compass
- When there is a disconnection between the two, she uses it as an opportunity for subtle ridicule
- Where manners are for outward show, and there is no moral substance, she mocks.
Jane Austen's treatment of the clergy in her novels is mixed. On the one hand she satirises clergymen like Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, whose actions and words are at odds with the Christian beliefs for which their profession stands. On the other hand are those like Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney, whose integrity suggests they practise what they preach.
Realistically, the Church attracted many men who approached the priesthood merely as a profession, a means to earn a living and to have status in the community. Far fewer were drawn to it as a vocation. This secularisation of the profession led to neglectful and absent clergyman, along with the frequent practice of hiring a curate to fulfil basic duties. Mansfield Park in particular draws attention to this problem, and at one point, Mary clearly vocalises it:
The tradition of patronage, through which a living could be bestowed on - or bought by - a clergyman, had a secularising effect on the Church of England and made it vulnerable to corruption. Jane Austen demonstrates both the benefits and the flaws in this system:
- In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon generously passes on the parish of Delaford to Edward Ferrars, who has been disinherited and would be unable to buy one himself
- In Pride and Prejudice, the patronage of the haughty Lady Catherine De Bourgh has enabled the obsequious Mr. Collins to be the incumbent of Hunsford.
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