Christian Content of the Novels
A Closer Walk With God: Christian lnsights from the Novels of Jane
By Michael Kenning.
St. Nicholas, 1999. 20 pages. Paperback, $10.
Reviewed by A. N. Williams.
This pamphlet brings together five sermons preached in the parish church of Steventon, of which Jane Austen's father was once rector. The current rector, Michael Kenning, attempts in these sermons the difficult task of bringing out the Christian dimension of Austen's novels and at the same time addressing the Biblical texts read for the service. As Kenning writes in the Preface: "The characters and plot of [Austen's] novels provide insights and lessons which illuminate Christian teaching, particularly in ethics and morality," and his treatment of the novels' Christianity focuses exclusively on the moral lessons they impart.
Thus, Sense and Sensibility reveals the qualities human beings should develop, teaching lessons that are "deeper" than "how to gain the affection of the opposite sex and attain marital bliss," and reveals Elinor Dashwood to be "Jane Austen's truly Christian heroine." Mansfield Park reveals Fanny Price's passivity and quietness, qualities Kenning likens to Christ's endurance of the cross and the exhortations of Isaiah, and all three- Fanny, Isaiah and Christ--tell us not to measure human worth by how much we achieve or can acquire. Other novels furnish examples to avoid. When Emma tries to "play God" and discovers that she was "universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing--for she had done mischief," Kenning comments [i]t is that same sentiment that is echoed by Our Lord" -although it is not clear what Biblical text is envisioned here. Persuasion, on the other hand, teaches that: "we may well be just as cold towards God as Captain Wentworth was to Anne." As Anne and Wentworth learn to be persuaded of true affection for each other, and must learn to listen, so willingness to listen "lies at the heart of Christian worship and prayer."
The problem with such a treatment of Austen's novels is that it underestimates the subtlety of her moral vision--as well as draining them of all their delicate malice. What makes the novels interesting from the moral, and indeed specifically Christian, perspective, is that Austen sees that human intercourse cannot be governed by a set of pious maxims such as Mary Bennet might copy into her commonplace book. While almost all her heroines discover that they have made errors of moral estimation, Austen shows them having to make such judgements on the basis of partial knowledge, and in insisting on this point, she exposes the fragility of our life as moral agents and judges, inasmuch as our problems devolve not only on sin, but also finitude.
The same sense of precariousness is brought out in Austen's portrayal of conflict. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, it is Elizabeth's struggle "to unite civility and truth in a few short sentences" that is characteristic of her, and she is admirable not simply because she tries (sometimes unsuccessfully) to be kind, but also because she refuses to compromise truth. Likewise, Mansfield Park does not simply uphold Fanny as a model of passive resignation, but as a timid person who nevertheless has the strength of character not to be coerced by others into abandoning her own principles. When Fanny is merely timid, she seems less admirable; it is not till the point in the novel where we see her refusal to compromise her beliefs that her strength emerges, and she begins to seem plausible as an Austen heroine.
One might also question Kenning's judgement that the Christian dimension of the novels should be largely sought elsewhere than in Austen's abiding concern with romantic love and marriage. Like the balance of charity and truth, of humility and rightful assertion, marriage for Austen serves as an image of unity-in-distinction, and there is a long Christian tradition of using marriage as an image of the relation of God and the human person, just as there is a long tradition of understanding the Trinity as the dynamic relation of charity and truth.
It is in these cruxes that Austen's Christian vision might be
most fruitfully sought: in the struggle to serve both charity and truth,
or in marriage as the relation of equals who, however compatible, are fundamentally
different. Both themes are Christian not solely from a moral, but from
a theological, perspective: they suggest both the ideals of human life
and the reality of divine and Trinitarian life. If it seems too much to
suggest this is what Austen had in mind by so often ending all her novels
with a marriage, then it is also too much to suggest that her purpose in
creating some of the liveliest and strongest good women in English fiction
is simply to preach resignation.
A. N. Williams is Assistant Professor, the Walter H. Gray Chair in Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School.
JASNA News v.16, no. 1, Spring 2000, p. 16
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