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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Austen as Sermoniser...or Playwright

In Austen-L this morning, Anielka Briggs wrote (in relevant part): 

"I contend Austen’s moralising is the clever, gentle and entertaining writing of a Church of England clergyman’s child in the tradition of the Church of England. Sermon writing is and was an art. ...Sometimes clergymen were required to preach a set sermon but quite often they were required to
compose their own sermons....even if apparently “off the cuff” they needed to be tailored to the audience and sufficiently entertaining, interesting or captivating to prevent the audience from falling asleep. Indeed, they had to be something more; they had to inspire the congregation to moral change.   If the vicar or his patron noticed a particular problem in their parish the vicar might wish or be expected to write on that topic.   The chances were that the thief would be in the congregation, would hear the words and be moved to change…if the sermon was effective .....Mrs. X would feel the full weight of her personal guilt, perhaps conscious the sermon was designed around him... Of course the best of clergymen might add a few little details to his sermon known only to herself and the chicken-thieving Mrs. X. This way Mrs. X is shown that the gentle and kindly hand of God is covertly helping her to reform and to forgiveness rather than overtly escorting her to the local magistrate, public shame and punishment..... Austen’s  six books can all be read as carefully constructed full-length sermons of a type..."

It's not an accident that Henry Crawford waxes eloquent on the subtleties of the giving of sermons AND also on Shakespeare's artistry in Mansfield Park.

I think JA's deepest and truest role model for the moral content and structure of her novels was a country playwright who wrote nearly forty miraculous "sermons" which transformed the entire world for the better-of course I mean Shakespeare and his plays.

And Shakespeare himself gave us dramatic testimony of his own monumentally ambitious goal to replace the simplistic sermon with a truly transformational teaching tool like the Ancient Greek drama and comedy, resurrected two millennia later, when he gave us "The plays the thing to catch the conscience of the king" and " We'll ha't to-morrow night. You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would set down and insert in't, could you not?"

And then, as I first discovered 7 years ago, Jane Austen gave us dramatic testimony of HER equally monumentally ambitious goal to extend Shakespeare's transformational drama into the realm of the novel of everyday life, when SHE wrote the following:

"...and Sir Thomas was in hopes that another day or two would suffice to wipe away every outward memento of what had been, even to the destruction of every unbound copy of Lovers’ Vows in the house, for he was burning all that met his eye."

Sir Thomas, the father returned from the scene of his most awful crimes, Antigua, has been greeted by a "dramatic" accusation artfully staged by his "mad" son, and clearly he has felt the sting of guilt.  But, profound and resourceful hypocrite that he is, he tries to burn his guilt out of existence without atoning for it. And so he goes on to attempt to perpetrate another vile sin, compounding his earlier "sale" of his eldest daughter to a rich fool, by the further selling of his nephew and his niece to the jaded sexual pervert, Henry Crawford---ka-CHING! go the coins clinking in Sir Thomas's coffers.

Anielka also wrote: "By endowing every character with the seeds of biblical good, Austen shows us the path to grace just as George Austen, James Austen or any other Church of England  clergyman would have demonstrated in their Sunday sermon."

Ah, but that's the thing, Anielka, JA understood the profound hypocrisy of the Church of England in her world-- it's deep complicity in sins (inter)national and personal, and Sir Thomas was, i suggest, her truest representation of that deep hypocrisy, manifest in her world not only in the national "father", the future King George IV, but also in JA's own father, now dead 8 years and therefore finally safe to render this subtle public judgment on, without her having to fear being sent to "England" carrying her own death warrant.

Apparently her father, the maker of sermons, was, ironically, beyond the reach of them.

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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