Gentle Readers: I welcome today Rachel Dodge, who has just published (October 2nd!) her book Praying with Jane: 31 Days through the Prayers of Jane Austen (Bethany House, 2018). I had the pleasure of meeting Rachel at the JASNA AGM last week in Kansas City, MO, where we connected at her Emporium table, and where I purchased her book. In it, Dodge takes us through the three prayers that Jane Austen wrote, offers ten devotions per prayer, and weaves into each chapter pieces from Austen’s life and works. It is lovely and inspirational and edifying all at once, taking us into a very private Jane Austen.
As Dodge herself suggests in her introduction, “take time to settle yourself into a quiet spot with a cup of tea or coffee and your journal. This is your invitation to know Jane better…and the God she loved…”
Exploring Jane Austen’s Prayers in Praying with Jane
When an author friend asked me a few years ago if I’d ever thought of writing a book about Jane Austen, it made me smile. After writing and speaking about Austen for almost two decades, the thought of writing a book intrigued me. My friend suggested I write something about Austen’s faith. As soon as she said the words, my heart started beating a little faster. I leaned forward and said, “I’ve always wanted to write a book about her prayers.”
That was the start of an incredible journey to the writing and publication of my upcoming book, Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen (Bethany House, October 2018). As I studied Austen’s prayers, read and reread every article and biography I could find on her faith and prayers, studied the original manuscripts at Mills College, and traveled back to her homes and churches in Steventon and Chawton, a picture of a faith biography formed in my mind. I wanted to honor Austen’s prayers and highlight the spiritual side of her life in a unique way.
As I read Austen’s prayers again and again, turning them over in my mind, listening to the cadence of her words, and reflecting on the meaning behind each line, I realized that simply reading Austen’s prayers in one sitting isn’t enough. Like her novels, Austen’s prayers are full of deep insights; they require a close, thoughtful reading. I began to look at the prayers in smaller chunks, reading them line-by-line. With that format in mind, I divided them into a month’s worth of entries and began work on a 31-day devotional book.
As I examined Austen’s prayers, I looked carefully at the meaning in each line and what writing them might have meant to her. Passages from her novels, her letters, and the Austen family memoirs came alive, and I wove them into each daily entry as illustrations of what the prayers can teach us.
Finally, the last step was to make Austen’s prayers practical and personal. As readers, students, and worshippers, we can either be passive or active. For me, the book couldn’t just be about her writing skill, the form the prayers take, or her use of language. It couldn’t even just be about her faith. It needed to also be about what her prayers can teach us. Thus, toward the end of each day’s entry, I include an area for personal reflection, a key Scripture verse, and a sample prayer. Praying with Jane is written as an exploration of Austen’s prayers and an invitation to join her in praying our own prayers.
Jane Austen’s Prayers
Besides her novels, juvenilia, and minor works, Jane Austen wrote three prayers. Cassandra folded them together and inscribed the words “Prayers Composed by my ever dear Sister Jane” on the outside. They were passed down by her family and kept safe for future generations. The three prayers echo the cadence and language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy of the Church of England. Each prayer includes thanksgiving, confession, petition, and intercession. In them, she uses the pronoun “we,” indicating that her prayers were most likely meant to be read aloud in a group setting. They are believed to have been written for evening devotions because they include reflections on the past day.
Austen’s father, Reverend George Austen, was a devoted Anglican clergyman, husband, and father. He taught his children to take time for private prayer in the morning and evening, to read devotional literature, and to read (and even memorize) famous sermons. In Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter, Irene Collins writes that Jane Austen “cherished” William Vickers’ Companion to the Altar and “made constant use of the prayers and meditations included in it” (72). The Austen family’s religious life extended far beyond the morning and evening church services they attended on Sundays. They shared in corporate family prayers in the morning and evening, they said their own private prayers when they woke up and went to bed each day, and they prayed as a family before meals and gave thanks afterward.
In the evening, the Austen family enjoyed reading out loud from novels, poetry, sermons, and the Bible. On one Sunday evening when the family was unable to attend church, Jane wrote in a letter, “In the evening we had the Psalms and Lessons, and a sermon at home” (Letters). It’s likely that Jane shared her prayers during her family’s evening devotions.
Austen is thorough in her prayers, as in her life, and covers every part of the human plight with great care. I’ve included a few lines from each of her prayers to illustrate the range of topics she covers. (All of my quotes are from the original manuscripts that I carefully transcribed as faithfully as possible.) Her prayers show deep concern for her family and friends and for others who may need comfort or protection:
Be Gracious to our Necessities, and guard us, and all we love, from Evil this night. May the sick and afflicted, by now, & ever thy care; and heartily do we pray for the safety of all that travel by Land or by Sea, for the comfort & protection of the Orphan & Widow, & that thy pity may be shewn, upon all Captives & Prisoners. (Prayer One)
Her prayers also reveal a spirit of thankfulness. It appears that Austen understood the importance of practicing gratitude in even the minor details of life:
We bless thee for every comfort of our past and present existence, for our health of Body & of Mind & for every other source of happiness which Thou hast bountifully bestowed on us & with which we close this day, imploring their continuance from Thy Fatherly goodness, with a more grateful sense of them, than they have hitherto excited. (Prayer Two)
Furthermore, her prayers point to her desire for a humble spirit and a kind attitude toward others. As her letters and novels attest, she had a fine sense of humor and did not take herself too seriously. She was quick-witted and opinionated, yet she was also quick to admit her own faults:
Incline us Oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, & to judge of all they say & do with that Charity which we would desire from Men ourselves. (Prayer Three)
Austen’s prayers also reveal a tender reverence in regard to her faith and her family’s spiritual life. Writing Praying with Jane has been an immense privilege. Exploring Jane Austen’s prayer life has enhanced my own spiritual life and brought me great joy. I hope it will do the same for many others.
About Praying with Jane:
In Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen, readers can explore Austen’s prayers in an intimate devotional format as they learn about her personal faith, her Anglican upbringing, and the spiritual truths found in her novels. Each daily entry includes examples from Austen’s own life and novels, as well as key Scripture verses, ideas for personal application, and a sample prayer.
To order your copy of Praying with Jane, visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your favorite bookseller. For a limited time, when you order a copy of Praying with Jane, you can visit RachelDodge.com to claim a free digital download of six printable Praying with Jane Prayer Cards. Each prayer card has a quote from Austen’s prayers and space to write your own prayers and praises.
About the author:
Rachel Dodge teaches college English and Jane Austen classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and Jane Austen groups, and is a regular contributor to Jane Austen’s World blog. A true “Janeite” at heart, Rachel enjoys books, bonnets, and ball gowns. She makes her home in Northern California with her husband and two children.
-Austen, Jane. Prayers. “Prayers Composed by my ever dear sister.” Manuscripts (two quarto sheets). The Elinor Raas Heller Rare Book Room, Mills College, Oakland, California.
-_____. Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deirdre Le Faye, 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.
-Collins, Irene. Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
You can visit Rachel:
Stay tuned for an upcoming book giveaway!