Today’s post is about Brenda Cox and her just-published Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England. You can follow the other blog posts on this tour here. [See at the end of this post for information on the giveaway.]
A few thoughts: I was honored when Brenda asked me to write a blurb for the cover, and I repeat that here with a few additional thoughts. I would first say that I have read a few works on Austen and religion, all of them enlightening in their own way. We do need to have some inkling of this religious world Austen grew up in, and the religion she practiced, to see that dimension in her writing. I am a born and raised Episcopalian [my parents were Anglican] and much of what Brenda writes in her book was very superficially known to me, at least those parts about the Church hierarchy, prayers and liturgy and hymns. What was enlightening was how Brenda wove all the details of the Church itself, and its spiritual foundations into a fuller understanding of what Jane Austen is actually saying in her novels, in the plots, the characters, and the settings – this book is a compelling read and you won’t look at the novels and the characters in the same way ever again. Just the tables, definitions, and references alone are worth the price of admission.
Fashionable Goodness is a meticulously researched, faultlessly organized, and engaging study of how religion, in all its forms, features in Jane Austen’s world, her life, and her writings.
Starting with Henry Tilney’s famous defense of “the English” in Northanger Abbey, Cox reveals the facts of Jane Austen’s faith, the realities and challenges of practicing religion in the Regency period, and with biographical sketches of the leading religious leaders and analysis of the various denominations of the time, she puts into context the explicit and subtle religious references in Austen’s novels. This Christian world permeates Austen’s writings and a fuller understanding of the Church and its clerical hierarchy and the emphasis on living a moral “good” life will open up a clearer view of Austen’s plots, characters, and underlying themes. You will look at Mr. Collins, the Crawfords and the Dashwoods, the Tilneys, the Wickhams and Willoughbys, all the “good” and the “not so good” people that populate the novels (and especially Fanny Price!) with new and surprising insights. Bravo to Brenda Cox for giving us this very accessible illuminating take on the “fashionable goodness” of Austen’s era.
An Excerpt from the first chapter, beginning as I say above with my favorite Hero, Henry Tilney:
“Jane Austen’s England, A Foreign Country (Foreign to Modern Readers)”
“Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.”—Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey, ch. 24
How can we understand “the country and the age” in which Jane Austen lived? Her society is poles apart from our modern world, despite some points of similarity. As L. P. Hartley insightfully begins a novel set in 1900 [The Go-Between], “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The world of Austen’s novels is foreign to us, whether we live in the United States, modern England, or elsewhere. To enter this “foreign country,” the civilization that spawned Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and Emma Woodhouse, we need to learn its language and culture. While we may interpret Austen’s timeless novels according to our own experiences and values, we can enjoy them more deeply as we get to know Austen’s world.
Religious practices and values influenced many aspects of Austen’s culture. For example, in politics, the Church of England was (and is) the national church of England; the Pilgrims and Puritans fled to America to escape its authority. The sovereign was the head of the church, bishops and archbishops were members of the House of Lords, and Parliament made laws regulating worship, the clergy, and churches. From 1810 to 1820 (the Regency), the Prince Regent governed the country because of his father’s illness. Jane Austen disapproved of the Regent’s immoral lifestyle, but when he asked her to dedicate Emma to him, she respectfully complied, since it was her duty as a Christian to obey her country’s leader.
Religious values also guided family relationships. Honoring one’s parents was an important religious duty, given in the Ten Commandments in the Bible and elaborated in the Church of England catechism. In Mansfield Park, Edmund and Fanny are shocked by Mary’s disrespect for her uncle who raised her; Mary is showing poor moral values (ch. 7). Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice carries this to a ridiculous extreme when he delays reconciling with his cousins out of respect for his father’s memory, since his father was at odds with them (ch. 13). Disrespect toward a husband or wife was also considered immoral. In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby shows his poor character by criticizing his wife, and Elinor rebukes him (ch. 44).
As Laura Mooneyham White points out in Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, the “foundational worldview” of modern Christians, including modern Anglicans, differs radically from the worldview of the Georgian-era Anglican Church. Because of this, we may miss some of the deeper dimensions of Austen’s novels….
To understand the church’s pervasive influence in Austen’s world, we also need to recognize some the issues it was facing. Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford argue about several: clergy without a calling, clergy who did not live in their parishes, and “fashionable goodness.” Was it enough to follow the fashions of the city and show up at church on Sundays, ignoring religion the rest of the week? Or, as new movements in the church stressed, should people seek a personal relationship with God that affected their hearts and behavior? Even for Mr. Darcy, being “given good principles” – knowing theoretical religious truths – was insufficient to make him a man Elizabeth could respect and marry…
Jane Austen’s religious beliefs, and the beliefs of her society, are often overlooked. She does not talk as openly about religion as today’s Christian writers do, or even as some of her contemporaries did. And yet, as Henry Tilney points out, being “Christian” was part of the English identity. Jane Austen’s personal identity was also Christian, as we shall see in the next chapter. In the rest of the book, we’ll explore the crucial part Christianity played in Austen’s stories and in her world. In Austen’s England, morality came directly from religion….
From Fashionable Goodness, Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, by Brenda S. Cox, Topaz Cross Books. © Brenda S. Cox 2022, used by permission.
Author interview: I asked Brenda a few questions about why she wrote this book and how it has affected her reading of Austen:
DEB: You have said you titled the book Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, because during Austen’s time, it was fashionable to attend church and pretend to be “good,” but that the immorality of the Prince Regent and others seemed more fashionable, leading the influential William Wilberforce and others to try to reform “manners” [meaning behavior] – Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park explains that “manners” meant behavior, how people acted based on their religious principles. So I would ask you: which of Austen’s novels focuses most on the church and this idea of “manners”?
BRENDA: Mansfield Park, hands down. Edmund and Mary Crawford discuss the importance of the clergy (those responsible for “all that is of the first importance to mankind”). Edmund and Henry Crawford discuss preaching and leading church services. Fanny, physically weak, displays great moral strength in refusing to marry an “unprincipled” (irreligious) man. Also, godly traditional values are contrasted with the immorality of the city. I appreciate Mansfield Park far more than I did before, now that I understand its religious background.
DEB: Your book is packed with information, from how the Church of England is organized, the challenges the church faced during Austen’s time, and the legacy it still holds for us. How did you decide to organize it?
BRENDA: My background is in engineering, and I tried to structure Fashionable Goodness logically. It starts, of course, with Jane Austen and her novels. We look at things like her personal faith, the lives of her clergymen, and worship during her time. Two chapters address how some of the church’s values played out in everyday life, particularly in the areas of marriage and divorce, and in scientific advances.
Part 2 then looks at challenges to Austen’s Church of England. Some of those, like the system of patronage and different levels of clergymen, are addressed in the novels. Others, like the Methodist movement and the place of different economic groups and races in the church, give background. I wove in fascinating stories of men and women leaders of the time.
As I saw how the church was making an impact on the country and the world, I added Part 3. It shows the impact of committed Christians of Austen’s era, ranging from the abolition of the slave trade to the Sunday school movement that educated millions of poor children and adults, breaking cycles of poverty and dependence.
DEB: What spiritual messages do you think Austen was trying to convey through her novels?
BRENDA: Austen always promoted moral behavior. But she didn’t do it by preaching and telling people what to do. Instead, she showed examples, both positive and negative. Readers of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, might learn to avoid judging and ridiculing other people. We might instead want to be more like Jane Bennet, assuming the best of others until the worst is clearly proven. (This was a religious virtue called candour in Austen’s time; posts on my blog explore this and other “faith words.”)
DEB: Which of her novels speaks most strongly to you personally?
BRENDA: Usually my favorite Austen novel, and the one that speaks to me most, is whichever one I have read most recently. Right now that is Sense and Sensibility, which I’ve read repeatedly in the months leading up to the JASNA AGM. It has made me more aware of emotions and their effect on us and other people. We can express our emotions selfishly, as Marianne did, not caring how we make others feel. Or we can recognize them in ourselves, as Elinor did, and choose ways to respond that do not hurt our loved ones. In this, Elinor was doing her Christian “duty,” to love her neighbour as herself. However, I also think Austen put Elinor in a worst-case scenario. Elinor’s promise to Lucy made it impossible for Elinor to tell her family what she felt. In other circumstances she might have shared her pain with her family in healthy ways.
About the Author: Brenda S. Cox has loved Jane Austen since she came across a copy of Emma as a young adult; she went out and bought a whole set of the novels as soon as she finished it! She has spent years researching the church in Austen’s England, visiting English churches and reading hundreds of books and articles, including many written by Austen’s contemporaries. She speaks at Jane Austen Society of North America meetings (including three AGMs) and writes for Persuasions On-Line [JASNA journal) and the websites Jane Austen’s World and Brenda’s own blog Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. You can find bonus material on the book here as well.
Where to Buy:
Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England is now available from Jane Austen Books and Amazon. [The link for international Amazon purchases is here: https://mybook.to/FashionableGoodness ]
Brenda is offering a book giveaway [paperback or ebook] – Please comment below or ask Brenda a question [she will respond here] by Wednesday November 9 and you will be entered into the random drawing for a copy [there are some limitations to worldwide shipping] – I will announce the winner on November 10th. Here are some prompts for commenting, or please ask your own.
1. What is one character trait you think Jane Austen most valued, based on her novels?
2. Who is your favorite clergyman or clergyman’s wife from Austen’s novels? And why?
3. What is one question you have about the church in Austen’s England, or the church and clergy in her novels?
*[N.B.: The giveaway is limited to addresses in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain, France, or Italy for a print copy of the book. The author can only send a giveaway ebook to a US address. (However, both the ebook and paperack are available for sale to customers from any of these countries, and some others that have amazon.)