This is a sad story about Mrs. Powlett. I should not have suspected her of such a thing.—She staid the Sacrament I remember, the last time that you & I did.1
jane Austen did not write what is sometimes derisively called “Christian literature.” For this reason, Austen’s Christianity and the role of religion in her novels have often been matters for debate. Peter Knox-Shaw proposes that she “ranks among the least proselytizing of Christian novelists,” an assertion which seems to some to hold true even in her last complete novel (9). Laura Mooneyham White has argued that Persuasion’s narrator is witty, sarcastic, playful, sophisticated, and, at times, downright malicious (155-56). On the other hand, Anne Elliot’s unspoken concern about Mr. Elliot’s “bad habits” (P 174), particularly that of Sunday-travelling, has moved other critics to accuse Austen’s heroine—and Austen herself—of priggishness, prudery, and extreme religious conservatism. Marilyn Butler is so troubled by this moment in Persuasion and others like it throughout Austen’s body of work—moments which, in her view, reveal the author’s “preconceived and inflexible” morality—that she is compelled to ask, “are we right to call her a great novelist at all?” (289). Butler’s serious criticism of Anne’s assessment of her cousin’s moral choices requires us to think very carefully about the question, what is so bad about Sunday-travelling? If we fail to do so, we miss out on perhaps the biggest insight into our nature as human persons the novel has to offer. I argue that through this moment in Persuasion Austen calls her readers to strive for the authentic liberty that comes through adherence to the fourth commandment, all the while avoiding saccharine religiosity. The closer we get to Austen’s world, the more we will be able to understand why Sabbath rest made—and makes—sense.
Austen indirectly introduces the matter of Sabbath rest in volume 2, chapter 5. After even Lady Russell has warmly approved of Mr. Elliot as a potential suitor once his period of mourning has ceased, Anne still senses that her cousin’s character is not reliable:
She distrusted the past, if not the present. The names which occasionally dropt of former associates, the allusions to former practices and pursuits, suggested suspicions not favourable of what he had been. She saw that there had been bad habits; that Sunday-travelling had been a common thing; that there had been a period of his life (and probably not a short one) when he had been, at least, careless on all serious matters; and, though he might now think very differently, who could answer for the true sentiments of a clever, cautious man, grown old enough to appreciate a fair character? How could it ever be ascertained that his mind was truly cleansed? (P 174)
One might wonder why, of all eligible bad habits, Austen homes in on “Sunday-travelling.” At first, this seems anticlimactic, perhaps even nitpicky. What about gaming? Visiting houses of ill-repute? Burglary? Perjury under oath? Having some of those old “associates” knocked off? “Sunday-travelling” seems like rust on the scales of human iniquity. So much so, in fact, that Anne has been mocked by critics for her almost puritanical harshness of judgment.
Gloria Sybil Gross calls Anne “the prim and prudent heroine who is always right” and suggests, “her character represents the over-the-hill schoolmarm whose lips are permanently pursed. From being finicky about the untidy life style at Uppercross, squeamish at the rough familiarity of the Crofts or the Harvilles’ close quarters, tsk-tsking Mr. Elliot’s Sunday travel, she takes a dim view of indecorum” (167). And when Butler claims that Mr. Elliot “provokes from Anne herself some moralistic reflections which include a piece of prudery as disconcerting as anything uttered by Fanny Price,” she certainly has this moment in mind (280, 284). These critics conceive of Anne as almost a saint, and through her they perceive a flaw in Persuasion: Austen, undermining her memorable complaint, “pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked,” has contradicted her own artistic integrity by inventing a heroine who, she admitted, “is almost too good for me” (23-25 March 1817).
Gross and Butler suggest that Anne as a character represents Austen’s breach of good novelistic decorum because, in disapproving of Sunday-travelling, she insists upon a higher code of moral conduct than is humanly possible or even necessary. The implied assumption is, it would seem, that Mr. Elliot should have the right to travel on Sunday if he wishes to do so. Anne holds Mr. Elliot to an unreasonable standard, leveling against him the charge of having violated a social custom long since out of practice among people of real understanding.
These are assumptions that Austen does not share. At other points in the novel Austen is quick to undermine Anne if her impressions are deemed unsound: take, for instance, Mrs. Smith’s doubting reply to Anne’s idealized description of the glories of a sick room (P 169). In the case of Mr. Elliot, though the narrative is colored by Anne’s thoughts, there is no indication that the narrator disapproves of Anne’s judgment of Mr. Elliot’s habits. We can be sure that Austen shared Anne’s opinion on this matter if we attend to the narrator’s diction within context. When she speaks of Anne’s concern about Mr. Elliot’s carelessness on all “serious matters,” we are meant to recall that the word “serious” usually has specifically religious connotations in Austen’s lexicon (Tave 112; White 59-60). In his frequent habit of “Sunday-travelling,” Mr. Elliot has been negligent of his primary duty, and this is a grave problem.
Austen does not view the Sabbath as something beyond which human beings will eventually progress through enlightenment. The fourth commandment given to Moses and inscribed on the tablets is a pronouncement from on high, but it also calls to our humanity, reminding us of our limitations and our need for rest as created beings. In this sense, it is a law which makes known to us our immutable nature.
The Sabbath in history and scripture
The matter of Sabbath rest in English history is fraught with controversy. John Moorman discusses the contentious origins of Sabbatarianism, a special Puritan doctrine that “sought to prohibit all kinds of sport and merry making,” including “morris-dancing, the maypole and rush-bearing” on Sunday (224). According to Kenneth L. Parker, Puritans were accused by their political enemies of insisting upon rigid practices of piety and abstinence on the Lord’s Day in order to wrestle authority away from the established church. During the English Civil War, each side caricatured the other in terms of its interpretation of the fourth commandment. Anglican Churchmen were accused by Puritans of replacing the truth of the scriptures with the teachings of man, and Puritans were accused of fanaticism (Parker 2, 5-7).
Sabbatarianism was again made “both fashionable and popular” by eighteenth-century Evangelicals, who hoped to reform the Anglican Church from within through their example of piety and charity (Moorman 308). Austen herself praised the Evangelicals in a letter to her niece Fanny, and this letter, coupled with other evidence, such as Anne’s complaint about Mr. Elliot’s habit of Sunday-travelling, has led some scholars to argue (or complain) that Austen was herself an Evangelical.2 Yet Parker shows that so-called Puritan or Evangelical Sabbatarianism is a misnomer since “it is impossible to isolate . . . sabbatarianism from its medieval origins” (5-7). Christians in England were keeping holy the Sabbath (or were being urged to do so from the pulpit) long before the Henrician Reformation. And as for Austen as a so-called prudish Evangelical “Saint” (Butler 283-84), Anne’s disapprobation just as likely reveals her commitment to the basic teachings of the Anglican Church as they are articulated in the Book of Common Prayer, the Catechism, and the lectures of prominent churchmen such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Secker.3
Irene Collins notes that Austen was familiar with Secker’s Lectures on the Catechism, which included a lecture arranged in question-and-answer format for each of the Ten Commandments (183-84). By the time she wrote Persuasion, Austen, whose father and two brothers were Anglican priests, certainly did not need Secker to teach her about the importance of Sabbath rest. But we could benefit from hearing Secker’s authoritative account of why, for Georgian Anglicans like Anne and Mr. Elliot, keeping holy the Sabbath was such an important matter.
The basic teaching of Secker’s Lecture on the fourth commandment is that the leisure afforded by the Sabbath helps man to understand and enact his duty toward God and his “fellow-creatures” more fully (150). Secker proposes that leisure is especially important for “the generality,” who “have scarcely any other seasons” for “instruction in their duty” (150). He argues that “if this most valuable time be either taken from them, or thrown away by them, they must become ignorant and vicious” (150). Those who have other “seasons” for such instruction, thanks to having a greater abundance of leisure time during the regular week, are bound to look out for this “generality.” Speaking in the first person plural, he asserts that “the safest general rule to go by” is to “omit whatever may be sinful, and is needless; and neither to require, nor suffer those who belong to us, to do on this day what we apprehend is unlawful to do ourselves” (149). Again Secker asserts, “we are . . . to guard ourselves and our servants and children” from “spending this day ill” (152). Leisure time should be spent in prayer, thanksgiving, examination of conscience, confession of former sinfulness to God, and making good resolutions for the future (150). The consequence of not devoting leisure time to remembering the goodness of God as maker, governor, and deliverer is misery “in this world and the next” (150).4
Secker’s lecture on the fourth commandment puts Anne’s concern about Mr. Elliot’s habit of Sunday-travelling in perspective. Had Mr. Elliot been at practically any church in Bath, Kellynch, Lyme, London, Steventon, Chawton, Southampton, or Winchester at any time after the seventeenth century, he would very likely have seen the Decalogue painted on the walls (Collins 182; Moorman 219). Furthermore, had he attended church on any day upon which Holy Communion was being celebrated (anywhere from four times a year to once a month) from the institution of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer onward, he would have been invited by the liturgy itself to meditate upon the fourth commandment to keep holy the Sabbath:
Collect: ALMIGHTY God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Then shall the Priest, turning to the people, rehearse distinctly all the TEN COMMANDMENTS; and the people still kneeling shall, after every Commandment, ask God mercy for their transgression thereof for the time past, and grace to keep the same for the time to come, as followeth.
Minister. GOD spake these words, and said . . .
4 Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day.
Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work; thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, thy cattle, and the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.
Response. Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.5
The quoted articulation of the commandment, which comes from Exodus 20:8-11, invites human beings to devote six days of the week to satisfying human necessity by human means: “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou has to do.” But God forbids labor on the seventh day because God has “blessed” and “hallowed” that day by “rest[ing]” on it himself. Human beings are invited to imitate him by resting; they are therefore invited to trust that if they rest in accord with his commandment, he will provide for them and will not allow them to come to harm (cf. Leviticus 25:20-22).6 Sabbath rest helps man to trust in God as his maker.
Emphasis falls in a different place in the version of the commandment appearing in Deuteronomy. The commandment begins in the same way. Masters are exhorted not to work and not to allow their servants to work, so “that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:12-14a). The great gift of the Exodus from Egypt is central to this version of the commandment: masters must be mindful of their servants because the Lord was mindful of them in the time of their bondage. It also calls the master to be mindful of the common humanity he shares with his servants: the “manservant” and “maidservant” shall not labor in order that they “may rest as well as thou.” Man’s place in the hierarchy of the cosmos is emphasized here.
The commandments appearing in Exodus and Deuteronomy suggest that there are two purposes for keeping holy the Sabbath. The first has to do with imitation of God as the creator who rested on the seventh day and, in so doing, made it holy; the second with imitation of God as the redeemer who delivered the Israelites from bondage and who therefore demands that his redeemed people enact justice toward their servants. If one has to do with man’s posture towards God, the other has to do with his posture toward his “fellow-creatures.”7 Sabbath rest puts man in his proper place.
In alluding to the teaching about abstinence from Sunday-travelling, derived from the fourth commandment, Austen suggests that there is something about man that requires him to be put in his proper place on a weekly basis. One need only read Exodus (or the newspaper) to ascertain that as human beings we tend to forget that we are creatures and stewards with respect to God as creator and master. Anne knows that Captain Wentworth attends church every Sunday (P 100). She is of the opinion that a man like Mr. Elliot, who chooses not to observe the Lord’s day and thus neglects the opportunity to receive a needed weekly reminder of his place in the created order, makes himself untrustworthy.8
Mr. Elliot’s uncleansed mind: New Testament implications
If we consider the habit of “Sunday-travelling” in light of the wording of the fourth commandment, we begin to see why Mr. Elliot’s transgression is so grave. Sunday-travelling does not require Mr. Elliot himself to labor. On a beautiful early summer day if the roads are in good repair, sitting in a church pew and sitting in a carriage might afford comparable rest and leisure. But, as we have seen, the commandment is not for the sake of the master alone: it is also for the sake of the “manservant,” the one who must harness and drive the horses. The seventh day is “hallowed” not just for those in positions of wealth or power but for all human beings (and beasts of burden: “cattle” and horses, too). It is typical of Mr. Elliot—who, according to Mrs. Smith, “‘thinks only of himself; who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any cruelty, or any treachery, that could be perpetrated without risk of his general character’” and who “‘has no feeling for others’” (P 215)—to be himself innocent of laboring on the Sabbath while being the instrument of someone else’s transgression.
Yet according to the wording of the commandment in Deuteronomy, Mr. Elliot and not his servant would be at fault if the servant were to break the Sabbath rest. Secker’s interpretation insists that the master, who is called to imitate God as supremely good governor of creation, must ensure that those in his care who have no leisure time apart from the Sabbath day be allowed this “season” for rest and reflection on their duty (150). If the servant violates Sabbath rest, the master, the one in a position of power and authority, must answer for the servant’s disobedience. Mr. Elliot’s refusal to allow his servants to take a day off amounts to a usurpation of God’s place in the order of creation. To break the Sabbath rest is to commit the sin of pride: though Mr. Elliot flatters himself that his pride has “‘the same object’” as that of his cousin Anne (P 163), Austen makes it clear through Anne’s being troubled by his habit of Sunday-travelling that this is not the case. Readers are expected to find Mr. Elliot’s habit disconcerting.
But we are not done with Mr. Elliot yet. His habit of Sunday-travelling implies shirking not only the Old Testament commandment to keep holy the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-14a) but also Christ’s great commandment regarding love (Luke 10:25-28).
In the New Testament, the Sabbath takes on even greater significance from the Christian perspective. After his temptation in the desert, Christ’s first action in his life of public ministry is to go to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, “as his custom was,” and stand to read from the book of Isaiah:
[W]hen he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, . . . [a]nd he began to say unto them, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” (Luke 4:16-21)
Christ immediately, deliberately associates the Sabbath day with a new kind of liberty. The distinction between “deliverance” and “liberty” is important: the former applies to “captives,” the latter, to “them that are bruised.” Moses brought about liberty for the Israelites through a literal, physical exodus from captivity in Egypt; Christian liberty has to do with the body—with healing “them that are bruised”—and with the spirit.
The connection between spiritual and physical liberty becomes evident later in the same gospel. While he is “teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath,” Jesus meets “a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself” (Luke 13:10-11). After Jesus heals her, the “ruler of the synagogue answer[s] with indignation, because . . . Jesus had healed on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:11-14). Jesus’s reply provides a new, Christian dimension to Sabbath rest: “Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16). The Sabbath is made a day of liberty from the bonds of sin and the decay of death by Christ, who takes on the new role of master while simultaneously showing that to be a master is to serve.
Recall that Persuasion also introduces us to an infirm woman, Mrs. Smith, whose “severe rheumatic fever” makes her “for the present a cripple” (166). She has “no possibility of moving” from the “noisy parlour” to the “dark bed-room” in her lodgings in Westgate-buildings “without assistance” (167). And though he is the one person who could easily restore her fortunes and provide the means by which her health might be regained, “Mr. Elliot would do nothing” (227). Anne sees Mrs. Smith’s account of his conduct as “a dreadful picture of ingratitude and inhumanity” (227). It is an account not of “former practices,” but of present and ongoing indifference. Anne’s intuition is affirmed: through Sunday-travelling, Mr. Elliot has revealed his rejection of the duties imposed by the Old Law; in cruelly ignoring Mrs. Smith, he refuses to strive to meet the standard of excellence established by Christ in the New Law. In both cases, Mr. Elliot cheats himself of liberty.
Public worship and cleansing the mind
To Anne, Mr. Elliot’s habit of “Sunday-travelling” is not merely a violation of a superficial social convention. Rather, in Anne’s mind the habit points to a deeper problem. Note that diction employed by the narrator in her account of Anne’s thoughts about Mr. Elliot in Persuasion appears likewise in the Collect from the Book of Common Prayer’s Liturgy of Holy Communion. In light of these considerations, Anne’s question is pregnant with meaning: “How could it ever be ascertained that his mind was truly cleansed?” How indeed, if he chooses not to go where he might hear the prayer, “ALMIGHTY God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Anne’s question takes for granted the assertion made in the Collect: since Mr. Elliot’s “desires” and “secrets” are “hid” to all save God, Anne is not sure how “it could ever be ascertained that his mind was truly cleansed.” She knows that she cannot know for sure. This understanding holds true even after she has read what appears to us to be the damning letter Mrs. Smith shows her: Anne’s strong sense of justice tells her that one should never be judged by what one says in a “private correspondence,” the context of which is known only to the interlocutors (P 221).
Nevertheless, Anne is right to doubt the purity of Mr. Elliot’s “mind” because his habit of shirking his religious duty tells her that he has chosen to isolate himself from the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” the agent which “cleanse[s] the thoughts of our hearts.” I infer from the arrangement of the passage and the liturgical direction appearing after the Collect that the Holy Spirit, invoked by the celebrant, makes the recitation of the commandments efficacious for the faithful: the people still kneeling shall, after every Commandment, ask God mercy for their transgression thereof for the time past, and grace to keep the same for the time to come. . . . The necessary prerequisites for “grace” moving forward are the acknowledgement of “transgression” and the request for “mercy.”9 Linked through shared diction, The Book of Common Prayer and Anne’s rhetorical question both suggest that participation in this liturgical rite (followed by the reception of Holy Communion if the parishioner discerns that he or she is fit) is the surest means of receiving “grace.” That Mr. Elliot needs it as much as anyone else is plain; that he rejects it is also plain.
What Sabbath rest might mean for Persuasion
Persuasion is deeply concerned with the quandary of mortality. John Wiltshire notes that Anne “wears her sadness and deprivation in her prematurely aging body and face” (155). The narrator brings before us various manifestations of aging and decay: not only Anne’s loss of bloom, but also Lady Russell’s crow’s feet around the temple, Mrs. Smith’s crippled legs, and Captain Harville’s wound that will not heal. We are not allowed to forget the late Dick Musgrove or Fanny Harville, nor are we allowed to forget that Sir Walter, Mr. Elliot, Lady Russell, and Mrs. Clay are all widowers and widows. Half the cast of characters in the novel has been touched by death (Wiltshire 156-57; Deresiewicz 127-28).
The other side of the coin is that Persuasion is also deeply concerned with immortality: think of the narrator’s teasing description of “prett[y] musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy” Anne was “sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate-buildings” (P 208, emphasis mine). Or think of Anne and Wentworth’s stroll up the “retired gravel-walk, where the power of conversation” makes “the present hour a blessing indeed” and prepares “it for all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow” (P 261, emphasis mine). In the most self-consciously morbid novel Austen produced, she describes the hero and heroine’s love not as earthly and therefore mortal but as an “eternal” thing, capable of “immortality.” Because Anne is so aware of the fact of her age—an awareness which, for better or worse, comes from the obsessive preoccupation her father and sister have with physical beauty and the loss thereof—she can appreciate her constancy in love as something that transcends her own aging.
Whatever immortality the novel offers, it is a direct fruit of Anne’s hard-won, deliberate, chosen habit of hopeful reflection (P 193, 201, 246, 266-68). She knows that she is no longer the blooming girl of nineteen Wentworth first loved. Yet she is able practically to skip down the streets of Bath “sporting” with the aforementioned “musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy” because she has submitted herself to the mysterious beauty—and, concomitantly, the moral obligations—of her Christian faith, a faith which is rooted in the Decalogue. She is not fool enough to suspect that she can have the mystery and beauty without the duty and obligations; nor is she fool enough to think, as Mr. Elliot does, that the counterfeit of social propriety—mores, etiquette, manners—could ever stand substitute for authentic goodness. There is nothing salvific about propriety in Persuasion. It is good, but it is no more the highest good than physical beauty. The characters who are allowed to have “spirits dancing in private rapture” (P 261, emphasis mine) are the characters who have chosen to submit themselves to the demands of a law—including the fourth commandment concerning Sabbath rest—outside of themselves, a law that has helped them to understand the limitations of their nature as embodied, animated human beings.10
Man’s amalgamated nature—embodied and animated—merits further consideration in light of what I’ve said about Anne’s religious convictions. For the Christian, all faith and hope for happiness is sought not in man’s ability to reason, to please himself, to perfect himself, or to create an earthly utopia, but in Christ’s incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection. In other words, Christ’s having taken on human flesh matters to Austen’s characters. Austen’s letters and prayers reveal her belief in the divinity of Christ.11 But the humanity of Christ—his having entered into the lives of men and shared with them pleasure and pain—is central to Austen’s character-craft. The teachings of Christ—his allusions to the Decalogue, his great commandment of love, and, as we have seen, his profession to be Israel’s true and final liberator from sin and death—spring as much from his humanity as they do from his divinity. Christ teaches that the body requires rest (cf. Mark 6:31; Matthew 11:28-30), and both creation accounts in Genesis demonstrate why this is the case.
Through Anne, then, Austen has a lesson for us that we need now perhaps more than ever before in human history. It is almost easy to forget that as body-soul composites we are creatures in an “intermediate position” (Alvis ix)—below God and above the “ox,” the “ass,” and the “cattle.” Technology compensates for many of our limitations, positioning us nearer to the divine; religious wars and disregard for creation class us with irrational animals. The commandment to rest—and to ensure that those in our care also have the opportunity to rest—is utterly human and humanizing. The Sabbath is therefore a celebration of our nature. The significance of the Sabbath, then, is why Mr. Elliot’s habit of Sunday-travelling is such a problem and why it is such a grave misrepresentation to speak of Anne’s disapprobation of his habit as “a piece of prudery” (Butler 280). When Anne, referring to the standard examination of conscience based on the Decalogue, thinks that for Mr. Elliot “Sunday-travelling had been a common thing” (P 174), she tacitly criticizes him not for having lived too fully but for not having lived fully enough.
2Butler seems to complain of it (283-84). White shows how complex the issue of Austen’s relationship to Evangelicalism was (24-27). Irene Collins also acknowledges that complexity but asserts that Austen was not an Evangelical (184-94). Michael Giffin sees the deontological influence of the Evangelical Reform Movement but suggests that Anglicanism had always held “deontology’s law of divine command” in “creative tension” with teleological natural law and that the mainstream morality of the Georgian Anglican church favored the latter (25). Jocelyn Harris notes that, despite the aforementioned claim in a letter to Fanny Knight that all Christians perhaps “ought” to “be Evangelicals,” Austen also endowed the “oldest Anglican mission organization in Britain,” the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, “with some of her precious cash” (136). Peter Knox-Shaw also denies Austen’s adherence to the tenets of Evangelicalism but is not convinced that Austen was always a firm believer: he hypothesizes that she may “without ever having ceased to believe in the utility of belief, have been something of a private sceptic in the first part of her career,” though he asserts that she “died a believer” (9).
3White affirms that Sunday-travelling was “a practice condemned by the [Anglican] church (and implicitly by the Fourth Commandment)” (56). She provides a catalog of other Austen characters who failed to keep holy the Sabbath. Northanger Abbey’s General Tilney, in sending Catherine home “by herself on a Sunday . . . worsens the already black nature of that act” (56-57). And from the detail that Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Collins “has preached only twice before Lady Catherine de Bourgh in a period of time that stretches from Easter to mid-October,” White infers that “for all her oversight of her perish, Lady Catherine neglects to go to church herself” (56).
4In Pride and Prejudice Mr. Bingley’s playful jab at Mr. Darcy supports Secker’s assertion that both the master and the “generality” need to enter into the Sabbath. In Mr. Bingley’s mind there is no “‘object’” as “‘aweful’” as “‘Darcy, on particular occasions and in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening when he has nothing to do’” (55). The chiastic structure employed here highlights Mr. Bingley’s playfulness: “occasions” fits with “Sunday evening,” “places” with “house.” Through this structure, Austen deliberately makes it impossible for us to take what Mr. Bingley says as a serious criticism of Mr. Darcy’s character (even though Mr. Darcy himself, according to Elizabeth’s observation, is “rather offended” by his friend’s comment). Yet though the tone is playful, there is no reason to assume that Mr. Bingley’s assessment is unreliable. We know Mr. Darcy to be a very good man with a strong and correct sense of duty. But he, like the “generality,” is also a man of action: consider with what decision he proposes to Elizabeth, moves to rescue his sister from Mr. Wickham, and attempts to salvage Lydia Bennet’s reputation after her elopement. Mr. Darcy’s habit of prompt and decisive action might perhaps mean that even he sometimes fails fully to enter into Sabbath rest in a way that would meet Secker’s high standard outlined above. If “having nothing to do” on a Sunday evening makes Mr. Darcy an “aweful object,” we might conclude that in order to escape misery “in this world and the next,” Mr. Darcy needs authentic Sabbath rest as much as the servants whose Sunday leisure he is obliged to protect.
6Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the Israelites are instructed to keep not only a Sabbath day each week, but also a Sabbath year each seven years. During this year, they will neither sow nor reap. God anticipates the distress of the people, representing their concern for their own survival in the following dialogue: “And if ye shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year? Behold, we shall not sow, nor gather in our increase: Then I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years. And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat yet of old fruit until the ninth year; until her fruits come in ye shall eat of the old store” (Lev. 25:20-22). We can assume that what he will do for the Sabbath year he will also do for the Sabbath day. The purpose, in either case, is to engender trust in God in the mind and heart of man and to remind man that he, like the land, is God’s creation and that he should not forget the limitations of his nature as a created being.
7In the climactic conversation about constancy with Captain Harville at the White Hart, Anne speaks of men and women equally as “‘fellow-creatures’” (256). Archbishop Secker also uses this term in his lecture on the fourth commandment. In referring to men and women together as “fellow-creatures,” Anne calls both sexes to live up to the standard of excellence which she at once articulates and enacts in her discussion (and living out of) constancy. White notes that Austen’s “three prayers—which bear strong marks of evangelical self-searching—speak of ‘fellow-creatures,’ in five separate mentions. ‘Fellow-creatures’ is a term that focuses on the shared human subordination before God” (109). I argue that in his habit of Sunday-travelling, Mr. Elliot rejects this posture of humility.
The Authorized Version of the Bible, or the King James Version (1611), and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer were familiar to Jane Austen from a young age. She knew them from repetition in exact form on a daily basis. She read the Bible, and had the Bible read to her at home or as a part of the church service. She heard on a regular cyclical basis the passages for Sundays and for the religious festivals. Passages from the book of Psalms were used throughout the church services. She herself wrote prayers. (507)
White conjectures that the effect of hearing these religious texts repeated—and repeating prayers and petitions herself—“thousands of times” over the course of her life must have been “powerful” (50).
9Secker affirms that “a reasonable portion of the Lord’s day,” beyond “public worship” with one’s “fellow-creatures,” should be spent in “the private exercise of piety, in thinking over our past behavior, confessing our faults to God, and making good resolutions for the future” (150).
10There is evidence elsewhere in Persuasion of Anne’s submission to the commandments. Consider, for instance, her choice to forego marriage to Wentworth out of obedience to her disapproving father and godmother, Lady Russell (29-30). One of the most difficult problems of the novel (which my argument here might help us to resolve) is that Anne still defends this choice to Wentworth at the end of the novel (267-68). It is true that Anne acts in apparent disobedience to her parent when he discourages her from doing that which she believes to be her duty (visiting Mrs. Smith in Westgate-buildings [170-72]). The Anne we meet in the real-time of the novel has reached the age of maturity and grown in prudence; she is therefore capable of judging for herself—based upon her own conscience—where her religious duty lies.
11Consider the above epigraph for a sample of how seriously Austen thought about the Sunday liturgy of Holy Communion. For Austen’s prayers, see the appendix to Collins’s Jane Austen and the Clergy (197-200).