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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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Understanding the subtle nuances behind formal introductions and customary greetings during Jane Austen’s lifetime is a lot of fun, and it can provide a unique level of insight into her books. The reason: Austen uses breaches of etiquette and manners as commentaries on her characters. In her book Those Elegant Decorums, Jane Nardin says, “In Jane Austen’s novels, a person’s social behavior is the external manifestation of his moral character” (12).

Austen utilizes greetings such as formal introductions, handshakes, curtsies, bows, and even the infamous “cut,” in order to help drive her plots, provide insightful information about her characters, and give subtle hints to her readers.

Making Introductions

 Throughout her novels, Jane Austen makes clever use of the rule that two strangers cannot interact socially until they have been properly introduced by a third party or mutual acquaintance. Today, it might seem rude to mingle with someone in a social setting and not introduce ourselves, but Kirsten Olsen says in All Things Austen that “genteel people who had not been introduced simply did not speak to one another” (132). Austen is able to use this code of conduct to the advantage and disadvantage of her characters.

Catherine Moorland feels the disadvantage of this rule acutely when she first goes to Bath: “she longed to dance, but she had not an acquaintance in the room” and Mrs. Allen only says, “every now and then, ‘I wish you could dance, my dear—I wish you could get a partner.’” (Northanger Abbey 21). Because they have no acquaintance, Catherine cannot dance. When they find a place for tea next to a large party of people, they even spend the meal “without having anything to do there, or anybody to speak to, except each other” (22). But if a girl cannot get a dance partner or find friends at the tea table without an acquaintance, how can she meet a marriage partner? Luckily, there was an exception to this rule: The master of ceremonies at the Lower Rooms could make a proper introduction, which is how Catherine meets Henry Tilney. (See Vic’s article on The Lower Assembly Rooms and Bath Society for more.)

Austen also uses this rule of introductions as the essential “hook” that grabs the reader’s attention at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice when Mrs. Bennet harasses Mr. Bennet to pay a visit to Mr. Bingley. Among the gentry in the country, when someone moved into the neighborhood, it was polite for his neighbors to call on him. Obviously, Mr. Bennet must introduce himself so that his daughters can meet Mr. Bingley. However, there is another reason for Mrs. Bennet’s insistence: Once the call is made, it must be returned. As Olsen says, “virtually all visits required a reciprocal visit so that once one started visiting at a particular house, it was hard to stop” (Olsen 385). This bit of information makes Mrs. Bennet’s shrewd scheming even more humorous for she knows it will inevitably lead to her daughters being introduced to Mr. Bingley.

Later in Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Collins introduces himself to Mr. Darcy without having been formally introduced, it is an embarrassing breach of conduct, especially as he is of inferior social rank: “Elizabeth tried hard to dissuade him from such a scheme, assuring him that Mr. Darcy would consider his addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom, rather than a compliment to his aunt; that it was not in the least necessary there should be any notice on either side; and that if it were, it must belong to Mr. Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance” (PP 79). This is not merely a terrible social faux pas—Austen is bringing attention to Mr. Collins’s ignorance and over-inflated sense of pride in regard to his connection to Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Polite Gestures and Greetings

Austen also uses bows, curtsies, nods, and other physical gestures purposefully; body language carries a lot of meaning in her books. Bowing and curtsying, for instance, was to be done elegantly and gracefully. However, the depth and duration of a bow depended on the circumstances. For example, “A short, curt bow, more like a nod, could indicate displeasure or mere formal acknowledgement, while a long bow could be ridiculous in some situations and lend emphasis to one’s words or departure in others” (Olsen 131). We see an example of this subtlety when Mr. Darcy only bows slightly and moves away after Mr. Collins comes forward to introduce himself. Mr. Collins tells Elizabeth that the introduction went well, but from mere observation Elizabeth can see that the opposite is true.

Gentlemen were also expected to bow upon taking leave of a lady. Bows or tips of the hat were given in greeting to women, social superiors, and to acquaintances seen at a distance. Nodding was also important. Nodding was also common courtesy among women. And, much like a visit, a tip of the hat or nod of the head must be returned, as we see in Northanger Abbey when Catherine is looking for Mr. Tilney but is also occupied with “returning the nods and smiles of Miss Thorpe,” which “claimed much of her leisure” (Austen NA 35).

Shaking hands was generally used between men of the same social class. However, Olsen says that “women could choose to shake hands, even with a man, though conduct books indicated that this was a favour (sic) to be distributed with care” (131). We see in Sense and Sensibility that Marianne has become accustomed to granting this favor to Willoughby (and is hurt by his apparent indifference) when she holds out her hand to him and cries: “Will you not shake hands with me?” when they see one another at a party in London (176). When she first sees him, he merely bows “without attempting to speak to her, or to approach.” After spending so much time together, he is incredibly uncomfortable and acts as though they do not know each other as well as they do. Austen uses this scene to reveal to the reader that Willoughby’s feelings and intentions toward Marianne have changed abruptly.

The Cut

Finally, we see that once two people have been introduced, each one must give and return the appropriate calls, bows, curtsies, and nods. When someone deliberately chose not to engage in these polite customs and acknowledge an acquaintance, it was known as a “cut.” Olsen explains that “[a]n introduction was a matter of some importance, as once two people were introduced, they had to ‘know’ each other for good, acknowledging each other’s presence every time they met and accepting visits back and forth. The only way out of perpetual acquaintance was for one…to do something so horrific and unforgivable that the other might ‘cut’ him” (Olsen 132).

For instance, when meeting on the street, if one man saw a gentleman acquaintance, he would tip his hat. The other could then nod back. However, to ignore the other person and refuse to acknowledge him was a “cut.” The “cut” is used pointedly in Pride and Prejudice when Darcy sees Wickham in Meryton: “Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat—a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know” (73).

The cut is highlighted several times in Austen’s novels because “in her social world it was almost as dramatic an incident as could possibly happen” (Olsen 133). We see the cut used several times as a way to show that a relationship between two people has been broken for one reason or another. In Sense and Sensibility, after Willoughby breaks Marianne’s heart and she become ill, he tells Elinor that Sir John spoke to him for the first time in two months when they met in public. He says “[t]hat he had cut me ever since my marriage, I had seen without surprise or resentment” (330). Depending on the situation, sometimes it is the one being cut or the one giving the cut who is at fault.

In Pride and Prejudice, when Jane visits Miss Bingley in London, Miss Bingley waits several weeks before returning the call (though a call should be returned within a day or two. Jane writes to Elizabeth: “It was very evident that she had no pleasure in [the visit]; she made a slight, formal, apology, for not calling before, said not a word of wishing to see me again, and was in every respect so altered a creature, that when she went away, I was perfectly resolved to continue the acquaintance no longer” (148). This is a subtle cut and was considered highly impolite.

In each of her novels, Austen utilizes social gestures such as they to give her readers special insight into her characters and plots. When someone is in error, we should always look closely to find out why Austen has written it that way. Often, when the code of conduct is not followed, something (or someone) is amiss. Exploring these nuances is one way to understand the underlying meaning in Austen’s books. For more on these topics, see… (links/references)

Rachel Dodge, May 24, 2017

Inquiring readers: About Ms. Dodge, the author of this article (and more to come):

Rachel Dodge’s knowledge of Jane Austen and the Regency World is impeccable. She has an M.A. in English literature in creative writing and public relations, and is a free freelance web and marketing content writer/editor for churches, missionary organizations, and small businesses. Rachel is a frequent speaker at libraries, literary groups, and reading groups about Jane Austen, 18th-century literature, and the Regency Era. Her written works include: “Exploring Womanhood: Moral Instruction, the Ideal Female, and 18th-Century Conduct in Pride & Prejudice.” (Master’s Thesis on the topic of female etiquette in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). She belongs to JASNA National, JASNA Greater Sacramento, and Inspire Writers.

You can see why I am so pleased to add Rachel to the Jane Austen’s World group of contributing writers! Please welcome her aboard.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane, and R. W. Chapman. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

–. Pride and Prejudice. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

–. Sense and Sensilibity. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Nardin, Jane, and Jane Austen. Those Elegant Decorums the Concept of Propriety in Jane Austen’s Novels. Albany, State Univ. of New York Press, 2012.

Olsen, Kirstin. All Things Austen: A Concise Encyclopedia of Austen’s World. Oxford, Greenwood World, 2008.

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