“there seem to be very few, in the style of a Novel, that you can read with safety, and yet fewer that you can read with advantage.”- Sermons to Young Women, James Fordyce, 1766
It’s no secret that Jane Austen’s family were novel readers during an age when such books were considered frivolous and not worthy of reading. (Writing a novel was considered an even worse offense!) Enter Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. In her delightful book, Jane created a satiric scene in which Mr. Collins confirmed Mr. Bennet’s opinion of his young cousin’s foolishness. After he enjoyed the younger man’s inanity for a while, Mr. Bennet proposed that Mr. Collins read to the group. The girls chose a novel, of which Mr. Collins disapproved:
Mr. Bennet’s expectations [regarding Mr. Collins] were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.
By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawingroom again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed.—Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce’s Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with—
“Do you know, mamma, that my uncle Philips talks of turning away Richard; and if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him. My aunt told me so herself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mr. Denny comes back from town.”
Lydia was bid by her two eldest sisters to hold her tongue; but Mr. Collins, much offended, laid aside his book, and said—
“I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess;—for, certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction. But I will no longer importune my young cousin.”
One cannot but help enjoy the irony of the situation. During his lifetime, Dr Fordyce was considered an excellent orator and his sermons were much appreciated, but by the time Jane Austen began to write her novels his luster had dimmed and novel reading was becoming more acceptable. These wonderful paintings by John Opie represent both sides of the sermon/novel story. In the first painting the governess is reading boring homilies to her charges in the hope of educating them. She is completely unaware of their expressions. One girl yawns, another can barely keep her eyes open, and a third looks pensively at the viewer as if to say, “Can you believe this?” Two of the youngest children entertain each other by playing cat’s cradle, and the girl sitting nearest the reader is about to fall asleep. What a wonderful tableau! One can imagine that the Bennets must have looked much like this ensemble before Lydia blurted out her question.
The second painting depicts the delight that the ensemble takes in listening to a tale of romance. They are all engaged and smiling and hanging onto every word from the reader. A kitten is left to play with a wool ball by itself.
Jane Austen employed words to create an ironic tone; John Opie used images. Both used their respective mediums to make a memorable point. Today, Dr. Fordyce’s sermons are largely forgotten. The following excerpt from Sermon VIII, Volume 2 demonstrates why he was considered dull and stodgy even 200 years ago:
Sermons to Young Women, Volume 2, James Fordyce, 1767. You can download the volume as an ebook at this link.