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Exploring Jane Austen’s Prayers, by Rachel Dodge

As we reflect this month on the beautiful written treasures Jane Austen left behind her in this world, we also celebrate the wonderful life that she lived. Though she has been gone 200 years now, her novels are a continual gift we can enjoy again and again. And though we never knew her personally, we feel as though we have met her through the lives of her characters.

But what was Austen like? As we read her novels and letters, we see her sense of humor and her incredible intellect, but we often long to know more about what she thought and how she felt. We know that she was a beloved daughter, sister, aunt, and friend and that she lived a simple but full life. However, it is her personal life that is perhaps the most intriguing to us today.  

The Prayers of Jane Austen

The Prayers of Jane Austen. Image Rachel Dodge

One way we can better understand Austen’s rich inner life is by looking at one of the other treasures she left behind—her prayers. Though Austen may have written additional prayers in her lifetime, three prayers were kept by Cassandra with these words written on them: “composed by my ever dear Sister Jane” (Stovel). The date of her prayers is unknown, but many Austen scholars note that the writing style and handwriting is similar to her adult writing. Framed copies of her prayers hang in the churches at Steventon and Chawton, as well as in her bedroom at Chawton Cottage (Jane Austen’s House Museum).

Austen Framed Prayer

A Prayer by Jane Austen. Image Rachel Dodge.

Austen’s father, the Reverend George Austen, was an Anglican clergyman, and religion played a large and important role in their family life. By all accounts, the Reverend Austen took his role as the spiritual leader of his parish seriously and was a devout and capable clergyman. Austen’s letters and prayers suggest that she, too, was quite devout in her faith. It does not appear that she went through the rituals of the Church of England out of mere duty.

With the exception of Mansfield Park, Austen doesn’t openly discuss matters of faith in her novels, even though they all include characters who are clergyman (some of whom—think Mr. Collins or Mr. Elton—are not the most exemplary representatives of the church). In Mansfield Park, however, matters relating to religious activity and the clergy are discussed in more detail. In particular, Fanny comments on the habit of daily prayer being given up by families:

“It is a pity,” cried Fanny, “that the custom should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one’s ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine!” (MP 86)

Steventon Plaque (1)

Steventon church plaque. Image Rachel Dodge.

In the evening, the Austen family often enjoyed reading together from novels, poetry, and sermons, as well as from the delightful pieces that Jane wrote. Before going to bed, they also had family prayers. While we don’t know the exact details of what their devotions entailed, Austen wrote the following to Cassandra in a letter: “In the evening we had the Psalms and Lessons, and a sermon at home” (Austen Letters). It is possible that her prayers could have been shared during these gatherings.

Austen’s prayers closely echo the prayers found in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the liturgy of the Anglican Church. She would have grown up hearing the prayers in it at church services and likely during morning and evening prayers at home. The BCP contains prayers for Sunday services, special services, and morning and evening prayers. Each of Austen’s prayers is roughly thirteen sentences long and is written in the beautiful and elaborate style of the BCP prayers.

Interior Steventon Church

Interior Steventon Church. Image Rachel Dodge.

Each of Austen’s “evening prayers” expresses heartfelt reflection on the day that has passed, sincere gratitude for the many blessings given, and specific requests for continued safety, health, travel mercies, and comfort. The first prayer begins with the words, “Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our Hearts, as with our lips.” This highlights the beautiful language of the prayers and the heartfelt reverence they evince. While each prayer is personal in nature, asking for God’s aid to live lives that are loving and gracious, they also express kind concern for those ill or traveling, as well as widows, orphans, and prisoners. Each prayer ends with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Austen’s prayers suggest a sweetness and sincerity that is hard to miss. Like her novels, there is much more to Austen’s prayers than just eloquent words. They are not only beautiful—they are deeply heartfelt and founded on biblical principles. It is important that we do not gloss over them too quickly because of their length or language. Taking a closer look can teach us much about Austen’s inner life and faith. To read the prayers themselves, please follow these links:

Helen LeFroy Winchester Cathedral

Helen LeFroy at a private JASNA ceremony at Jane Austen’s grave, Winchester Cathedral, 2007. Image Rachel Dodge.

When Austen died, Cassandra wrote this to her niece Fanny Knight:

“I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.” (July 18, 1817)

As we consider all that has come and gone in the 200 years since Austen’s death, we can all give thanks for the gifts she left behind her and reflect upon the rich life she led—a life full of family, friends, fiction, and faith.

Further suggested reading:

Bruce Stovel also wrote an article in Persuasions that gives a detailed history of Austen’s prayers and how they fit into her life and novels. To read Stovel’s article, “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art,” please follow this link: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number16/stovel.htm

In recent years, books such as Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter by Irene Collins (2007) and The Spirituality of Jane Austen by Paula Hollingsworth (2017) have provided a deeper look into Austen’s spiritual life and faith. Terry Glaspey also released a beautiful gift book called The Prayers of Jane Austen (2015) that provides a short introduction to Ausen’s prayers and the prayers themselves, along with illustrations from the Regency period.

To read the full text of Cassandra’s letter and more articles about Austen’s final illness and passing, please follow this link: https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/cassandra-writes-about-jane-austens-death-july-18-1817/

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters, Edited by Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Austen, Jane, and R. W. Chapman. Mansfield Park, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

“Letters of Jane Austen — Brabourne Edition.” Pemberley.com, 2011, http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/brablt17.html.

Stovel, Bruce. “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art,” Persuasions, 16 (1994): 185-196.

Other posts on this blog about Jane Austen’s death: Click here

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Gentle Reader: This Father’s Day weekend, I salute Jane Austen’s father, George Austen. This post, which I wrote three years ago, has been resurrected and updated for this occasion.

Rev. George Austen was by all accounts a handsome man. Anna LeFroy, Jane’s niece wrote,

I have always understood that he was considered extremely handsome, and it was a beauty which stood by him all his life. At the time when I have the most perfect recollection of him he must have been hard upon seventy, but his hair in its milk-whiteness might have belonged to a much older man. It was very beautiful, with short curls about the ears. His eyes were not large, but of a peculiar and bright hazel. My aunt Jane’s were something like them, but none of the children had precisely the same excepting my uncle Henry.”

George Austen was born in 1731. His mother died in childbirth and his father died a year after marrying a new wife, who did not want the responsibility of taking care of the young lad. George then lived with an aunt in Tonbridge and earned a Fellowship to study at St. John’s. Smart, ambitious, and self-made (with the support of his uncle Francis), he received a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Arts, and a Bachelor of Divinity degree at Oxford. Considered good looking all his life, he was called “the handsome proctor” as he worked as an assistant chaplain, dean of arts, and Greek lecturer while going to school.

George first met Cassandra Leigh in Oxford when she was visiting her uncle Theophilus, a renowned scholar. After marrying Cassandra in Bath, George became rector in several country parishes, including Steventon. The family grew by leaps and bounds, and eventually he and Cassandra had six sons and two daughters.

Shortly after Jane was born, her father said: “She is to be Jenny, and seems to me as if she would be as like Henry, as Cassy is to Neddy.” But the little girl was known as Jane all her life.

By all accounts George and Cassandra Austen had a happy marriage. His annual income from the combined tithes of Steventon and the neighboring village of Deane was modest. With so many mouths to feed, the family was not wealthy. To augment the family income,  George Austen opened a boarding school at Steventon Rectory for the sons of local gentlemen, and sold produce from his farm.

George Austen presents his son Edward to the Knights, who adopted him. This was a common practice in that era. Image from Chawton House.

Rev. Austen, a doting father to all his children, encouraged Cassandra and Jane to read from his extensive library, and taught his boys in his boarding school. For entertainment, the family read to each other, played games, and produced poetry, novels, and plays. James, the eldest son, an accomplished writer and poet, was considered to be the “writer” of the family, especially by his mother, Cassandra, who doted on him. George Austen was proud of his youngest daughter’s accomplishments, and tried to get First Impressions, the first draft of  Pride and Prejudice published. The “Memoir of Jane Austen” by Edward Austen-Leigh contains a letter from George Austen to Mr. Cadell, publisher, dated November 1797, in which he describes the work as a “manuscript novel comprising three volumes, about the length of Miss Burney’s ‘Evelina'” and asks Mr. Cadell if he would like to see the work with a view to entering into some arrangement for its publication, “either at the author’s risk or otherwise.” Unfortunately, nothing came of this query, but P&P became hugely popular among the friends and family who read it before it was published. The original 3-part manuscript no longer exists, and a much shorter form of the novel was finally published in 1813, long after George’s death and only four short years before Jane’s fatal illness.
Rev. George Austen died unexpectedly in Bath on  January 1, 1805, where the Austen family had moved after living in Steventon for over 30 years. This move did not sit well with Jane, who, as legend goes, fainted when she learned that the family was moving to Bath. (The silhouettes above are of George and Cassandra, who had not aged well). Rev. Austen did not linger long after falling ill, and on January 21,  Jane Austen would write sorrowfully to her brother, Frank, one of two sailors in the family:

“We have lost an excellent Father. An illness of only eight and forty hours carried him off yesterday morning between ten and eleven. His tenderness as a father, who can do justice to?” – Sir Francis William Austen

Rev. Austen was buried in St. Swithin churchyard in Bath. The inscription on his grave reads:

Under this stone rests the remains of
the Revd. George Austen
Rector of Steventon and Deane in Hampshire
who departed this life
the 1st. of January 1805
aged 75 years.”

Double click on this grave marker to read the words. (From: Find a Grave Memorial. Image of George and his grave is from this site.)

More on the topic:

The Austen Family:

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July 18th (today) marks the anniversary day of Jane Austen’s death in a rented house in College Street, Winchester. Her life was all too short (December 16, 1775 – July 18, 1817), and her output all too meager for those who wish she had written more novels. This post consists of a series of recollections of Jane’s last days from her, her family, and her biographers:

During her illness, Jane wrote:

“I live chiefly on the sofa, but am allowed to walk from one room to the other. I have been out once in a sedan-chair, and am to repeat it and be promoted to a wheeled chair as the weather serves.”

“On this subject I will only say further that my dearest sister, my tender watchful, indefatigable nurse has not been made ill by her exertions. As to what I owe to her, and to the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion, I can only cry over it, and pray to God to bless them more and more.” 

Her brother Henry wrote that “she supported, during two months, all the varying pain, irksomeness, and tedium,” attendant on her decline “with more than resignation, with a truly elastic cheerfulness.” “She retained,” he says, “her faculties, her memory, her fancy, her temper, and her affections, warm, clear, and unimpaired, to the last . . . . She expired on Friday, July 18 (1817), in the arms of her sister.”

We have followed Miss Austen to Winchester, and have visited the house in College Street where she passed the last weeks of her life. College Street is a narrow picturesque lane, with small old-fashioned houses on one side, terminating in the ancient stone buildings of the College. The garden ground on the opposite side of the street belonged, and still belongs, to the head master. We have entered the “neat little drawing-room with a bow window” which remains unchanged. It is a pretty quaint parlour, with a low ceiling and a narrow doorway. Its white muslin curtains and pots of gay flowers on the window sill lent a cheerful air to the room. We almost fancied we could see Miss Austen seated in the window writing to her nephew, glancing from time to time across the high-walled garden, with its waving trees, to the old red roofs of the Close, with the great grey Cathedral towering above them.- Constance Hill, Jane Austen, Her Homes and Friends

The parlour in College Street

Of her last days, her brother Henry wrote in the introduction of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, published posthumously:

But the symptoms of a decay, deep and incurable, began to shew themselves in the commencement of 1816. Her decline was at first deceitfully slow; and until the spring of this present year, those who knew their happiness to be involved in her existence could not endure to despair. But in the month of May, 1817, it was found advisable that she should be removed to Winchester for the benefit of constant medical aid, which none even then dared to hope would be permanently beneficial. She supported, during two months, all the varying pain, irksomeness, and tedium, attendant on decaying nature, with more than resignation, with a truly elastic cheerfulness. She retained her faculties, her memory, her fancy, her temper, and her affections, warm, clear, and unimpaired, to the last. Neither her love of God, nor of her fellow creatures flagged for a moment. She made a point of receiving the sacrament before excessive bodily weakness might have rendered her perception unequal to her wishes. She wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen was become too laborious. The day preceding her death she composed some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour. Her last voluntary speech conveyed thanks to her medical attendant; and to the final question asked of her, purporting to know her wants, she replied, “I want nothing but death.”

Jane’s last poem written July 15th:

When Winchester Races

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.

The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.–

But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.

‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said

These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.

Ye cannot but know my command o’er July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–‘.

About Jane’s funeral, David Nokes writes in Jane Austen: A Life:

The funeral took place on the morning of Thursday 24 July at Winchester Cathedral. “It is a satisfaction to me,’ Cassandra wrote to Fanny, that her sister’s dear remains were ‘to lie in a building she admired so much – her precious soul I presume to hope reposes in a far superior mansion.’ Only three of the brothers – Edward, Henry and Frank – were present at this ‘last sad ceremony’. Charles, at Easbourne, was too far away to attend; James, too, stayed away. ‘In the sad state of his own health and nerves,’ he said, ‘the trial would be too much for him.’ Women were not expected to attend such melancholy ceremonies; their grief, it was thought, might overcome them. The funeral was held in the early morning; it ‘must be over before ten o’clock,’ Cassandra told Fanny, ‘as the Cathedral service begins at that hour’. Before the coffin was closed, she cut off several lock of Jane’s hair as family mementoes. ‘Everything was conducted with the greatest tranquility,’ she wrote. She and Martha Lloyd ‘watched the little mournful procession the length of the street & when it turned from my sight I had lost her for ever.’ (p. 521)

More about Jane’s last days:

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Mary Austen nee Lloyd, the wife of James Austen, was present at Jane’s death. She wrote the following passage in her diary (See image below)

17 July 1817 “Jane Austen was taken for death about ½ past 5 in the Evening”
18 July 1817 Jane breathed her last ½ after four in the morn; only Cass[andra] and I were with her. Henry came, Austen & Ed came, the latter returned home”

Read a sad but fascinating account of Jane’s final hours, Jane Austen’s Final Resting Place, at Hantsweb.
Jane spent her last days in a small house in Winchester, near a doctor of some repute. She wrote in May:

I live chiefly on the sofa, but am allowed to walk from one room to the other. I have been out once in a sedan-chair, and am to repeat it and be promoted to a wheeled chair as the weather serves.” And speaking of her illness she remarks, “On this subject I will only say further that my dearest sister, my tender watchful, indefatigable nurse has not been made ill by her exertions. As to what I owe to her, and to the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion, I can only cry over it, and pray to God to bless them more and more. – Chapter XXIII, Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923) by Constance Hill.


Jane died on July 18, 1817. Cassandra, Jane’s dear sister, wrote these affecting words:

Since Tuesday evening, when her complaint returned, there was a visible change, she slept more and much more comfortably; indeed, during the last eight-and-forty hours she was more asleep than awake. Her looks altered and she fell away, but I perceived no material diminution of strength, and, though I was then hopeless of a recovery, I had no suspicion how rapidly my loss was approaching.

I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well — not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.

You know me too well to be at all afraid that I should suffer materially from my feelings; I am perfectly conscious of the extent of my irreparable loss, but I am not at all overpowered and very little indisposed, nothing but what a short time, with rest and change of air, will remove. I thank God that I was enabled to attend her to the last, and amongst my many causes of self-reproach I have not to add any wilful neglect of her comfort.

She felt herself to be dying about half-an-hour before she became tranquil and apparently unconscious. During that half-hour was her struggle, poor soul! She said she could not tell us what she suffered, though she complained of little fixed pain. When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death, and some of her words were: “God grant me patience, pray for me, oh, pray for me!” Her voice was affected, but as long as she spoke she was intelligible.

Read the rest of the letter on the Republic of Pemberley website.
Click here for my previous post on this sad subject.

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Jane Austen, 1775-1817: I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well — not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.

Cassandra to Fanny Knight, July 20, 1817, two days after her beloved sister’s death


Jane Austen’s grave stone at Winchester Cathedral

Although Jane Austen had been ill since fall of 1816, as late as May 27, 1817 she wrote a letter to her nephew Edward saying she was feeling better:

Letter to Edward, 1817
Mrs. Davids, College Street-Winton

Tuesday May 27.

I know no better way my dearest Edward, of thanking you for your most affectionate concern for me during my illness, than by telling you myself as soon as possible that I continue to get better.-I will not boast of my handwriting ; neither that, nor my face have yet recovered their proper beauty, but in other respects I am gaining strength very fast. I am now out of bed from 9 in the morng* to 10 at night-upon the sopha t’is true-but I eat my meals with aunt Cass: in a rational way, & can employ myself, and walk from one room to another.-Mr. Lyford says he will cure me, & if he fails I shall draw up a Memorial and lay it before the Dean & Chapter, & have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned, and Disinterested Body.-Our Lodgings are very comfortable. We have a neat little Drawing room with a Bow-window overlooking Dr. Gabell’s garden. Thanks to the kindness of your Father & Mother in sending me their carriage, my Journey hither on Saturday was performed with very little fatigue, & had it been a fine day I think I should have felt none, but it distressed me to see uncle Henry & Wm. K-who kindly attended us on horseback, riding in rain almost all the way.-We expect a visit from them tomorrow, & hopethey will stay the night, and on Thursday, which is Confirmation & a Holiday, we are to get Charles out to breakfast. We have had but one visit yet from him poor fellow, as he is in sick room, but he hopes to be out to-night. We see Mrs. Heathcote every day, & William is to call upon us soon.-God bless you my dear Edward. If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been, may the same Blessed alleviations of anxious, simpathising friends be yours, & may you possess-as I dare say you will-the greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their Love. I could not feel this.

Your very affec: Aunt

J. A. Had I not engaged to write to you, you wd* have heard again from your Aunt Martha, as she charged me to tell you with her best Love.

Alas, Jane died in her sister’s arms on July 18, 1817. Today, there is a debate about the disease that caused her early death. (See the links below.) Mourning rituals and observances were fixed during the 19th century, and a lock of Jane’s hair is preserved to this day (see the sidebar in this blog). I wouldn’t be surprised (though I have found no corroboration of my suspicion) that Cassandra or Mrs. Elliot, Jane’s mother, wore a locket with a sample of her hair.

Mourning heart locket, 1800-1820, typical of its day and often filled with the hair of a loved one.

Read more about about this sad period in the life of the Austen family:

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Jane Austen’s Will

The website, Treasures from the National Archives, UK, links to a copy of Jane Austen’s Will which she wrote at Chawton just months before she died. Also find William Shakespeare’s Will on this site.

Here is the transcript of Jane’s Will:

I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last will I testament give and bequeath to my dearest sister. Cassandra. Elizabeth everything of which I may die possessed of which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50 to all de Byion which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear sister the executrix of this my last will & testament.

April 27 1817

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