PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.32, NO.2 (Summer 2012)

“Cruel Comfort”: A Reading of the Theological Critique in Sense and Sensibility

Kathleen James-Cavan


Kathleen James-Cavan (email: is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Saskatchewan and M.Div. candidate at St. Andrew’s College, Saskatoon.  She edited Sense and Sensibility for Broadview Press and William Hay’s Deformity: An Essay for English Literary Studies.  She publishes on Austen and on disability culture in eighteenth-century British literature.


On October 10, 1808, a fortnight after the birth of her eleventh child, Elizabeth Austen, the wife of Jane Austen’s brother Edward, died very suddenly.  In a letter to Cassandra, who was staying with the family in Godmersham, Jane wrote from Southampton of having informed their cousin the Rev. Edward Cooper, then rector of Hamstall Ridware, Staffordshire, and friend to the Clapham sect:  “I have written to Edwd Cooper, & hope he will not send one of his Letters of cruel comfort to my poor Brother” (15-16 October 1808).  Although the letter to which Austen refers is unavailable, Cooper’s theology of comfort may be discernible in his sermon “The Holy Spirit The Comforter.”  Translated from the Vulgate, “The Comforter” is the title by which the third person of the Trinity was popularly known in the eighteenth century (“Comforter”).  Taking as his text the Gospel of John 14:16, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (King James Version), Cooper compares the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to a “skilful physician” who in the first step “to convince a man of his sins” destroys “all his former grounds of comfort” (21).  These worldly “false grounds of comfort” include domestic comforts such as prosperity and the admiration of friends as well as the comfort of believing one’s good works commend one to God (Cooper 19, 21).


The concept of the spiritual work of comfort was still with Austen a scant year later when, comfortably settled at Chawton, she was revising her epistolary novel “Elinor and Marianne” into what would become her first published novel.  Words derived from comfortcomfortable, uncomfortable, comfortably—are found one hundred four times in Sense and Sensibility, the highest frequency of these words in all of Austen’s mature works.1  From the late Latin confortare meaning “to strengthen much” (“Comfort”), comfort in Sense and Sensibility is a contingent, not absolute, value that operates as a currency in the plot to expose and keep ironies at play.  Linked through Marianne’s resurrectional narrative, the theological concept of comfort also appears in Sense and Sensibility as a cruel compromise threading through the text’s volatile ethos of “unresolved conflicts” to unsettle its closure (Copeland lx).


While the questions of the relation between Austen’s novels and politics, feminism, and the development of the genre have attracted much attention from literary critics, the novels’ critical engagement with theological questions has been comparatively neglected.2  In the past twenty-five years commentary has begun to elucidate the religious background often missed or mistaken by readers in a secular age.  Gene Koppel argues that being aware of this dimension in Austen’s work “intensifies our appreciation of the interlinked moral and psychological dimensions of the novels, and of the irony which pervades all of her fiction” (24-25).  In tracing the representations of the clergy in the novels, Irene Collins maintains that Austen was a “deeply religious woman” and that the morality in the novels is nothing more than “an essential part of Christianity” (182).  Michael Giffin and William Jarvis, both Anglican priests, reconstruct the Georgian context of the mainstream Anglican theology evident in the novels and letters.  While Jarvis argues that before Mansfield Park and Persuasion “there is no truly religious theme” (75), Giffin asserts “she is an Anglican author who writes Christian stories” (Jane Austen 27) and devotes to each completed novel a chapter detailing its connection to Austen’s overall theme of salvation.  Marilyn Butler, by contrast, observes that the last three novels “are profounder than the first three not because they express an inward religious intensity but because they are caught up in a national mood of self-assessment and regeneration” (“History” 207).


Not only prevailing religious questions but also constant exposure to the Anglican liturgy, argues Laura Mooneyham White, shaped how Austen “thought and the words she used” (37).  As evidence for Austen’s personal religious convictions and practice, readers such as Bruce Stovel, Elton E. Smith , and Laura Dabundo examine the set of three prayers attributed to Austen first published in 1940 (Todd and Bree cxix).  Janet Todd and Linda Bree argue persuasively that the prayers cannot be proven to be Austen’s composition;3 however, no matter the authorship of the prayers they offer an important glimpse into the spiritual life of the family to which Austen belonged, who was, after all, the first audience for her fiction.  Emerging from that environment, Austen’s writing reveals more than an unmediated reproduction of conventional piety.  Sense and Sensibility contains a significant challenge to the role of established religion as “Comforter” (Blair 1.58).


The granddaughter, daughter, sister, and cousin of Church of England clergymen, Jane Austen was no evangelical; rather, her religious views occupied the “safe middle course between Enlightenment rationalism, with its attendant dangers of agnosticism and secularization, and Evangelical ‘enthusiasm,’ characterized by intense personal piety” (Wheeler 406).  But a centrist religious practice does not indicate a lack of seriousness, for religious belief in Austen’s time was a fundamental part of identity.4  Described by William Warburton as a “coactive Power” with the state especially useful to the “Reformation of Manners” (80), the Church of England maintained its status as state church throughout the 1790s and the Regency period.  Against the background of the political turmoil in and subsequent wars with France, figures such as Edmund Burke argued that the intimate connection between church and state provided support for the monarchy and assured peace in Great Britain (Yates 26).  Nevertheless, in this same period during which Austen was drafting Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice “the full theological and personal implications of modern evangelicalism emerged into popular religiosity and popular culture” (Brown 36).


Like most of her class compatriots, Austen attended church regularly (Jacob 201-02), and references in her letters and novels to such matters as evangelicalism and ordination reveal her awareness of the religious currents and controversies of her day.  Her fiction also reflects the high visibility of the clergy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Penelope Corfield estimates that in 1801 the clergy of all denominations in England and Wales numbered approximately 13,500 in a population of ten million, a ratio of one clergy to every 740 non-clergy people (110).  Despite close connections to the clergy and active participation in worship, however, Austen did not leave a record of her spiritual life or openly discuss contemporary theological issues, such as the nature of the trinity or sanctification.5  Indeed, the words “spiritual” and “spirituality,” in relation to religion, do not feature in any of her fictional works or letters; she refers to “serious” matters, meaning those connected with religious belief, and uses the terms “religious” and “religion,” but these appear infrequently.


It would appear, then, that this woman of the church has little or nothing to say in her writings about deeper matters such as faith, theology, or Christology.  While characters such as Emma Woodhouse, Fanny Price, and Anne Elliot attend worship, they do not discuss the homily or sermon.  Even Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, who undergo profound spiritual reversals, do not reflect extensively on their experiences in deeply spiritual terms.6  Nevertheless the novels manifest an abiding concern for how religion affects the conduct of life.  As early a reader as Richard Whately, later Archbishop of Dublin, reviewing Northanger Abbey and Persuasion for the Quarterly Review in January 1821 observes, Austen is “evidently a Christian writer” in whose works religion “is rather alluded to . . . than studiously brought forward or dwelt upon” (359).  Sense and Sensibility contains little explicit religious content; however, through its narrative structure of death and resurrection and its repeated references to a discourse of comfort and the ambiguous role of the comforter, it opens the reader to a critical appraisal of notions of comfort, both religious and secular, that do not take seriously the pain of loss.


While both Ferrars brothers experience comic annihilation followed by restoration (although birth order is never put to rights), Marianne Dashwood’s descent and return is the most controversial.7  Just as Christians find comfort in the resurrection, so readerly comfort in Sense and Sensibility rests, at least in part, on understanding the nature of Marianne’s “extraordinary fate” (429) in her marriage to Colonel Brandon.  Has she been re-educated into an “automaton” (Tanner 144) and “disciplined into a domestic subject” (Stewart 78) to be the “reward” for Brandon’s “sufferings,” “constancy” (SS 379), and “sorrows” (429)?  And is their marriage the necessary punishment for Willoughby (376)?  Or, does a regenerated Marianne “voluntarily . . . give her hand” to Brandon animated by “no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship” (429)?


In addition to the ambiguous motivations for her marriage, her preparation for it—a near death experience—is presented as a parody.  A serious novel of sensibility would kill off such a character. Marianne has, after all, committed the capital crime of throwing herself at the man in London who made love to her in Devonshire.  An astute contemporary reader of sentimental parodies, however, would have learned by 1811 to expect her illness to turn out anticlimactically (Moler 64, 66).  The text gives both a comic and serious turn to this event by setting the illness and recovery at “about the end of March,” just before Easter.  Emphasizing both the significance and ambiguity of this turn in the plot, Marianne’s serious decline is described as beginning “On the morning of the third day” (SS 350).


Conflating the narrative accounts of the resurrection and the words of both the Apostles’ Creed and the Creed of St. Athanasius that Christ “rose again the third day from the dead” (Church),8 such a phrase during the Easter holidays indicates more than a marker in time; it carries the weight of all the passages in the New Testament in which Christ prophesies his resurrection.9  Reversing the biblical text, Marianne becomes dangerously ill, whereas Christ rises, on “the third day.”  Nevertheless, Marianne’s descent and return mimics that of the redemptive male hero by both fulfilling and defying the sentimental narrative with which she has been consistently identified.  But is there comfort to her return to health?  How is the reader to respond to her resurrection?  To answer this question, I turn to the matrix of the concept of comfort which underpins the novel.


In his sermon “On Devotion,” Hugh Blair portrays a devout man counting his blessings:  “He reviews the events of his life; and in every comfort which has sweetened it, he discerns the Divine hand” (1:270).  In Sense and Sensibility the theme of comfort provides a moral thermometer with comfort itself emerging as a commodity that defines characters’ interactions.  Those who give most comfort, such as Elinor and Colonel Brandon, earn reputations for virtue; those who take it from others, such as Marianne and Willoughby, earn obligations.  But juxtaposed to this enticingly naïve measuring stick is the early example of the efforts of John and Fanny Dashwood to determine how to make Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters “comfortable,” in accordance with John’s promise to his father.


From his original intent to “increase the fortunes of his sisters by the present of a thousand pounds a-piece” (6)—which Edward Copeland points out is only a third of what they “might reasonably have expected” (n9 436-37)—John and Fanny eventually determine that the Dashwood women will be “‘excessively comfortable’” on an income of “‘five hundred-a-year amongst them’” (13-14).  Enjoying a merely “‘comfortable’” income of between £5,000 and £10,000 per annum (n16 438; 255), the John Dashwoods’ rationalizations about what they “‘can afford to do’” (11) recalls the “false Comfort” that Sherlock identifies with those who “excuse their Sins by laying all the blame on their own natural Infirmities and the Want of God’s Grace to enable them to do well” (2:93).  The threat represented by their hypocrisy and selfishness becomes comic only when Sir John Middleton’s “well timed” letter arrives (26) with its offer of Barton Cottage—the very situation that answers Mrs. Dashwood’s “notions of comfort and ease” (16)—to rescue the Dashwood women.


But Colonel Brandon’s story of the first Eliza provides a cruel parallel showing the consequences of wealthy family members imposing definitions of comfort on their dispossessed relations.  In spite of entering her marriage with a sizable fortune, Eliza Brandon is left with a “‘legal allowance’” after divorce that is not “‘sufficient for her comfortable maintenance’” and leads her to the “‘spunging house’” where she dies (235).  Colonel Brandon’s only means of making himself comfortable when he discovers her distress is to give her “‘time for a better preparation for death’” (235), an action of comforting the weak that Jarvis identifies with the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer (57) and that Sherlock states is the duty of the believer (3:80).  No doubt Colonel Brandon’s ministrations also enable Eliza to receive the sacrament of Extreme Unction, as provided in the BCP.  Although Sherlock argues that making provision for the comfort of others is both “a Godlike Virtue” and a source of comfort to the wealthy (5:202), Sense and Sensibility presents a serious critique of the abuse of such “Godlike” power in the portraits of the John Dashwoods and Colonel Brandon’s father and brother.


Physical comfort, particularly in the domestic space, provides the foundation for emotional or spiritual comfort but what constitutes domestic comfort is highly unstable, particularly in the novel’s first volume.  The elderly Mr. Dashwood or “the old Gentleman” of Norland Park, enjoys “every degree of solid comfort” in the company of his niece and nephew, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood, and their children (3). But comfort for the younger generations lasts only as long as the old Gentleman’s life since their place at Norland is dependent upon a will that reproduces the system of strict settlement10 and provides very little for the comfort of female relatives.


The Dashwoods’ next residence, Barton Cottage, “though small, [is] comfortable and compact” (33); it is also disadvantaged by “‘dark narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smokes’” (85).  But for Willoughby, performing the role of man-of-sensibility, its small parlor contains “‘more real accommodation and comfort than any other apartment of the handsomest dimensions in the world’” (86).  Also described as “‘comfortable,’” however, is the much larger “‘pretty sitting room up stairs’” at Allenham, which Marianne argues needs only modern furniture to make it a pleasant summer-room; with windows on two sides commanding views of the village and bowling green, respectively, its comforts are of a quite different order than those of Barton Cottage (81).  Marianne’s notions of comfort are as contingent as her definition of financial competence.


Similarly, Robert Ferrars, who has never had to live in one, descants to Elinor on the elegance and comfort of a cottage (286).  On the other hand, Mr. Palmer is irritated that the much grander Barton Park lacks comfort because Sir John is too stupid to have a billiard room (128).  This pattern of varying, solipsistic definitions of comfort would be only amusing but for Edward Ferrars’s repeated desire for “domestic comfort and the quiet of private life” (18) as a country parson.  For Edward his vocation is not so much a call to service as a retreat from distinction (105) into a domestic comfort that the novel defines so amorphously.  Perhaps this negative expression of a sense of call is one reason John Henry Newman comments in relation to Emma that all of Austen’s parsons are “vile creatures” since “she has not a dream of the high Catholic ethos” (qtd in Littlewood 425).  If a legitimate call to religious service can be characterized merely as a desire for a quiet domestic comfort, and that nearly unquantifiable, then the novel poses serious questions about the motivations of the Anglican clergy.


Spacious rooms and smoke-free kitchens aside, domestic comfort relies upon good governance.  Blair argues that “the chief comfort of our present life” is that “we find ourselves in a regular and orderly world,” assured by the “unchanging tenour of Divine government” (Blair 2:107, 113).  Ironically the best example of such reliable human governance appears in the somewhat vulgar Mrs. Jennings’s unflagging efforts to comfort Marianne throughout her distress in London.  But comfort and cruelty meet when, sure of “bringing comfort” and doing Marianne good (229), Mrs. Jennings hands her a letter from her mother when Marianne expects a letter of contrition from Willoughby.  Marianne is silenced simply by the direction:  “[t]he cruelty of Mrs. Jennings no language, within her reach in her moments of happiest eloquence, could have expressed” (230).


In contrast, Mrs. Ferrars’s domestic management exemplifies the capriciousness that creates unease.  Edward excuses his ill-conceived engagement to Lucy Steele as the consequence of his mother not making his home “‘in every respect comfortable,’” whereas he felt “‘at home, and . . . sure of a welcome” at Longstaple (411).  Her changeability emerges as comic cruelty when she causes her family to be “exceedingly fluctuating” by annihilating her sons and then restoring them unevenly (423).  The novel closes in some discomfort with the acknowledgement that Robert attains the status of preferred son for marrying Lucy, whose secret engagement to Edward initially caused the latter’s demise in Mrs. Ferrars’s eyes (428).


But making the domestic space comfortable is also a cruel task.  When Elinor finally tells Marianne that for four months she has kept secret her knowledge of Edward’s engagement, Elinor becomes “the comforter of others in her own distresses” (296).  Marianne, whose responses are never particularly measured, responds alarmingly:  “‘you have made me hate myself for ever’” (299).  Those who bring comfort, therefore, also create burdens for the recipient.  Elinor discovers this for herself when she has the distinctly uncomfortable pleasure of communicating to Edward the details of the Delaford living, which, although according to Colonel Brandon not sufficient to enable him to marry, is to provide the basis for his future with Lucy (328-29).  Unconvincingly motivated, the excessive cruelty of Elinor’s commission is a test not only of Elinor’s fortitude but also of the reader’s confidence in a narrative that seems bent on torturing its heroine.  This time Elinor goes beyond comforting another in her own distress; she is made to collaborate in making it much worse.  The office of comforter, therefore, holds few comforts.


Two set pieces that may exhibit the remnants of the novel’s epistolary origins exemplify the cruelty of comfort in final losses.  When Colonel Brandon recites to Elinor his tale of lost love, his intention, he says, “‘is to be a means of giving comfort;—no, I must not say comfort—not present comfort—but conviction, lasting conviction’” to Marianne (231-32).  The only information relevant to Marianne’s situation is the exposure of Willoughby’s transgression with Eliza Williams; nevertheless, Colonel Brandon begins with her mother’s story, a highly sentimental narrative complete with a death scene in a debtor’s prison.  Colonel Brandon asserts that having discovered “‘the remains of the lovely, blooming, healthful girl, on whom [he] had once doated,’” his “‘greatest comfort’” was that he found her “‘in the last stage of a consumption’” (235).


Similarly, in his interview with Elinor during the first few hours of Marianne’s recuperation, Willoughby asserts that throughout his arduous ride from London, “‘when I thought of her to-day as really dying, it was a kind of comfort to me to imagine that I knew exactly how she would appear to those, who saw her last in this world’”:  “‘white as death’” (371).  It is a shockingly selfish admission even for Willoughby that his constant companion and source of comfort has been the memory of Marianne’s physical collapse following his brutal, public dismissal of her love.  At that moment she looks “dreadfully white” and is “unable to stand” (202); indeed, the moment marks the beginning of her decline into despair that nearly ends in her death.  Comfort, here, is associated ironically with the look of death, and so we come around again to Edward Cooper’s theology of the work of the Holy Spirit as Comforter in removing worldly comforts to focus the soul on the lasting comfort of the resurrection.  But by this time, the notion of comfort has been thoroughly unsettled.


“Comfort” in Sense and Sensibility derives not from a mollifying of hardships but from their sharpening into tools that strengthen much, as the word’s etymology suggests.  “[T]olerable comfort,” the state to which the Dashwood women aspire following their expulsion from Norland (48), implies, at the very least, putting up with such inconveniences as a smoky kitchen or a husband twice one’s age who wears flannel waistcoats.  Building on the famous second chapter in volume one, in which John and Fanny Dashwood all but redefine “comfort” as its opposite, the repeated references to comfort throughout the rest of the novel serve to strengthen the novel’s ambiguities and creative tensions.


Whereas hope is the “universal comforter” according to Blair (1:49), the most significant tangible hope for Elinor, the ring on Edward’s finger containing a lock of what she believes to be her hair, turns out to be the cruelest “comfort” to Lucy (155).  Initially perceived as a symbol of Edward’s attachment, it becomes instead the means by which Elinor frees herself from illusory hope and discovers true comfort in clear vision.  When Marianne emerges from her encounter with near self-destruction, she is strengthened similarly by experience.  If fear makes the Christian set “to work for the Thing [he or she] . . . is afraid to lose,” says Sherlock, then fear is a comfort which enables the Christian to do all things through Christ (2:53).  Thus taking issue with Edward Cooper’s Holy Spirit, the Comforter who scourges human beings of their worldly attachments, the novel contains, in both senses of the word, a critique of such cruel comfort, proposing in its place a Comforter who is a creative rather than destructive thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7).  While Austen’s novels and other writings have earned attention for their depictions of delightfully bumptious clergy, they have yet to be fully explored for their insights into the mainstream theology in which Austen and many of her readers were steeped.  Under cover of laughter readers may hear the sound of passionate inquiry.





1. De Rose’s Concordance lists a total of 579 occurrences of words derived from the stem “comfort” in the six-volume Chapman edition.  With 104 such uses Sense and Sensibility accounts for 17.9% of their appearance in Austen’s work.  By contrast at a word count of 102,734, the novel comprises 9.6% of Austen’s total words published in the Chapman edition.  No other work of fiction by Austen contains as many or as frequent appearances of “comfort” words.


2. For a notable exception, see Jager.


3. See Todd and Bree’s “Introduction” to The Later Manuscripts (cxviii-cxxv); see also “Protecting Jane.”


4. Social historians such as W.M. Jacob, Nigel Yates, and Callum G. Brown as well as literary critics Laura Mooneyham White, Gary Kelly, Michael Giffin, Michael Wheeler, William Jarvis, Irene Collins, Gene Koppel, Lesley Willis, Bruce Stovel, Marilyn Butler, and Colin Jager agree that for the British gentry and middle classes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Christian observance and belief was a social norm.  Contemporary sources, however, such as Austen’s favorite sermon-writers, Thomas Sherlock (1678-1761), the Bishop of London, and the Presbyterian Hugh Blair (1718-1800), frequently address “unbelievers” as an identifiable, social phenomenon.  See, for instance, Blair’s “Sermon on the Union of Piety and Morality” or Sherlock’s “Discourse I: John 6:67-69” and passim.


5. For a summary of the theological debates of the mid- to late-eighteenth centuries, see Nigel Yates’s chapter, “The Maintenance of Doctrinal Authority” (70-103).  See also the articles by Peter Nockles and Martin Fitzpatrick in Walsh.


6. In one of the most explicit religious references of the Austen oeuvre Marianne wonders, after her illness at Cleveland, “‘that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once’” (391).


7. Most critics acknowledge that Marianne attracts sympathy as she takes on much of the novel’s criticism of the culture of sensibility.  For Marvin Mudrick, she is a passionate character “which Jane Austen . . . ultimately exorcises altogether” (113).  Marilyn Butler and Angela Leighton agree that Marianne fades into social irrelevancy (Butler, War 184; Leighton 140).  Claudia Johnson sees her as submitting “without resistance to those [codes] which dictate desolation and very nearly death as the price of feeling” (50).  Deborah Kaplan argues that Marianne’s sensibility is a “self-pre-occupied version of authority,” which is to be avoided (537).  Alistair Duckworth’s opinion is that while the novel endorses Elinor’s “sense,” it nevertheless admits the necessity of emotion and makes Marianne much more attractive than her sister (113-14).  This pattern, says Douglas Bush, “demands a more complete subordination of sensibility to sense than . . . [Austen’s] own sympathies . . . can altogether support” (83).  In the wake of cinematic versions of the novel, Elinor’s virtues have risen more recently in critics’ estimations; see, for example, Mangiavellano, Tate, and Stohr.


8. On Feast Days such as Easter Day, the Anglican Church says the Creed of St. Athanasius.  The Apostles’ Creed is used for morning and evening prayers and in regular Sunday worship.  The only other critic I’ve encountered who notices this echo, Janine Barchas, in her article on the novel’s allusions to the Hell-Fire club of West Wycombe suggests the phrase may parody of the group’s “mock-Catholic ceremonies” (27).  In my view, the Anglican use, so familiar to Austen, is a more likely source.


9. See Matt. 16.21, 17.23, 20.12, 26.61; Mark 8.31; Luke 9.22, 18.33, and 24.6,7.


10. Strict settlement was designed to protect estates from bankruptcy by naming male successors as tenants for life and tenants in tail, and restricting their rights to sell or alter the land.  For a thorough explanation of strict settlement see Spring.



Works Cited


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Walsh, John, Colin Haydon, and Stephen Taylor, eds.  The Church of England: From Toleration to Tractarianism.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Warburton, William.  The Works of the Right Reverend William Warburton, Lord Bishop of Gloucester. In seven volumes.  Vol. 4.  London, 1788.

Whately, Richard.  “Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.”  Quarterly Review 24 (1821): 352-76.

Wheeler, Michael.  “Religion.”  Jane Austen in Context.  Ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.  406-14.

White, Laura Mooneyham.  Jane Austen’s Anglicanism.  Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

Willis, Lesley.  “Religion in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.”  English Studies in Canada 13 (1987): 65-78.

Yates, Nigel.  Eighteenth-Century Britain: Religion and Politics, 1714-1815.  New York: Longman, 2008.


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