George Justice, Editor

Austen in Her Religious Context

Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England

By Michael Giffin.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. vii + 222 pages.
Hardcover. $62.00

Reviewed by Laura Mooneyham White.

Austen criticism of late has concentrated fruitfully on the political and social contexts as well as the political and social nuances of Austen’s work. Michael Giffin’s recent study prompts us to acknowledge one contextual dimension generally uncongenial to contemporary critics but entirely central to Austen’s worldview: religion. Giffin is right to insist on the seamlessness of Austen’s religious and social attitudes: “Austen’s social commentaries are religious commentaries and vice versa.” In refocusing our attention to the high level of authorial intrusion and narrative control Austen exercises throughout her work, Giffin argues that contemporary scholarship has been inadequately attentive to the didactic dimensions of her work, including the presumptions about the didactic role of literature held by her contemporary Georgian and generally Anglican audience.

Focusing on Austen’s didacticism uncovers more of her philosophical and religious predicates, especially the “emphasis that mainstream Anglicanism of the Georgian period gave to the neoclassical prisms of natural law, natural order, natural reason, and natural theology.” Through Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Habermas, Giffin carefully explores the ways in which Austen’s neoclassical hermeneutics, derived through cultural osmosis from Locke and other British empiricists, are at odds with our own post-Enlightenment view of reason as a cultural cover for power relations. An examination of Austen’s work thus proffers multiple demonstrations of Austen’s assumption that her religious beliefs accommodated reason and/or empiricism, that reason is the means to uncover right, and, moreover, that right is indeed discoverable through the operations of reason—all Lockean premises.

Repeatedly, Giffin argues that a better understanding of Austen’s worldview promises a greater understanding of her awareness and depiction of social change; “the reader who notices this,” Giffin avers, “cannot possibly understand her novels as conservative appeals to maintain the status quo of a static, comfortable, semi-feudal, and rural existence.” In a related argument, Giffin holds that contemporary critics and readers look for a higher degree of “psychological probability” than is justified in Austen’s characters. This propensity to over-naturalize her heroines and heroes clashes with these characters’ roles as “vehicles for discursive rhetoric,” didactic in nature. The primary poles of this discursive rhetoric, reason and feeling, have, of course, long served as established terms in Austen criticism. Giffin’s contribution is to ground reason and feeling in the particular religious contexts of Regency Anglicanism, in terms of a “moral discourse that was common in her period.” Thus, Giffin can cast seeing Austen’s novels as didactic commentaries as a supple means of uncovering these same works as “condition of England novels”: “If we have become so dedicated to understanding Austen’s novels in the cultural context of her period, then recognizing the unity of her social and religious vision—whether we choose to believe in it or not—is an urgent critical task.”

The individual treatments of the novels are at their most original and enlightening when they focus on the less naturalistic but consistently didactic treatment of character and plot. Giffin sees each heroine on a pilgrimage towards the earthly version of soteria, or redemptive wholeness, tested by the allures of a romantic worldview and by faulty interpretations of the right. By attending to the heroines as didactic figures in a complex rhetoric, Giffin tells a story untold by most critics who focus on Austen’s significant contributions to the novel’s social realism. However, with certain characters, the didactic function seems to be overly read as allegorical, as in his reading of Fanny Price as a messiah-like redeemer of the fallen Bertram household. In fact, Giffin seems most convincing in his discussion of the novels in which the religious is less overtly a presence, as in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Giffin rightly points out how fully religious didacticism is present in such moments as when Henry Tilney, a clergyman, must learn to shed some of his worldliness and hypocrisy in the face of Catherine’s naive but morally clear insights, or when Louisa’s fall upon the Lyme esplanade opens up associations with numerous other “falls” in the novel, all variants of the metaphorical fall of humanity.

Curiously, Giffin reminds us frequently of Austen’s role as a daughter of a clergyman and a devout Christian believer herself without examining in any detail the evidence we have of Austen’s own spiritual devotions—the prayers of her own authorship, included in Chapman’s sixth volume, Minor Works. The prayers remind us that Austen’s Christianity was not minimal; rather, her active faith ordered her sense of her place in the social sphere, not just among the striving gentry but among the orphans, prisoners, widows, family members at sea and abroad, and even victims of her errant wit she speaks of in her devotions. Giffin’s study, however, takes its own way to demonstrate Austen’s religious worldview, tracing how the novels bring her characters to as just and as rational dispensations as Austen could imagine for human creatures in the particular dimensions of the “fallen world” represented by her dynamic Georgian society.

Laura Mooneyham White is Associate Professor of English, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the editor of Critical Essays on Jane Austen (1998) and the author of Romance, Language and Education in Jane Austen’s Novels (Macmillan, 1988).

JASNA News v.19, no. 2, Summer 2003, p. 18

See more book reviews

Return to Home Page