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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, September 30, 2013

Jane Austen and Her Complicated Donation to the Society for Christian Knowledge

In Austen L this morning, Anielka Briggs wrote:
"It has often been said that Jane Austen never saw her name in print in her lifetime other than as Miss J Austen, Steventon" as a subscriber to the first edition of Fanny Burney's "Camilla" in 1796. Well I'm not a little proud to say that I have discovered another couple of instances of Jane Austen's name in print. Here is our very own Miss Jane Austen giving 10 shillings and sixpence  to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and, as was the custom, getting her name printed into the bargain in the Hampshire Chronicle on Monday 6th September, 1813."

I replied as follows:

You may have just found it, Anielka, but by some very strange coincidence (a classic Anielka Coincidence, in fact) so did Jocelyn Harris, but she did this about 2 years before you, and she published her findings in a journal which you will find difficult to dismiss as a backdating.  The latest print Persuasions (of course one of the two JASNA journals) is where you will find it:

" Jane Austen and the society for promoting Christian knowledge"  by Jocelyn Harris in
Persuasions Vol. 34 (2012) at p. 134 et seq.

Anielka also wrote: "Of course this is particularly interesting as there has been some debate in the past at various Austen Appreciation boards about Jane Austen's own view of Christianity ranging from the idea that she was in fact some sort of latter-day deist to the idea that she scorned Christianity and the work of the Christian Church and had somehow encoded within her books a scathing commentary on the wickedness of the Anglican ideals of the family to which she belonged and her entire rejection of the Christian faith. Sadly for those who like to harbour such radical notions, here is Jane Austen either being forced to be a massive hypocrite by all her friends and family and shamed into donating for a cause she eschewed, or, much more likely, in my humble opinion, doing exactly what we might predict the daughter of a Church of England clergyman might do and putting her money where her mouth was. "

Of course, Anielka was referring to moi, so I also responded as follows.

Jocelyn Harris (with whom, I am proud to say,  I share many similar viewpoints on Jane Austen's moral and political stance---in fact, I just had the pleasure of chatting with her at this lately completed JASNA AGM on that very topic) actually addressed that very question in her article:

"From 1698 onwards, the SPCK communicated the basic principles of the Christian faith both at home and abroad. In the eighteenth century, it was by far the largest producer of Christian literature, for Thomas Bray, its founder, believed passionately in the power of the printed word. Pamphlets exhorted specific groups such as farmers, prisoners, soldiers, seamen, servants, and slave-owners to improve their way of life; the group published as well more general works on subjects such as Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, the Prayer Book, and private devotion. So which of these many activities might Austen have especially admired? The SPCK's provision of equal education in literacy, numeracy, and Biblical knowledge for girls as well as boys would surely have appealed to her, along with its encouragement of such skills as needlework and woodwork. She might also have known that as well as providing advice and encouragement to local groups to help them set up, finance, and run many hundreds of schools, the SPCK was the catalyst for the spectacular growth of the charity school movement. In 1811, two years before the Basingstoke meeting, the National Society was established to take over SPCK's responsibilities in this area ("Our History"). The Society's religious and charitable activities provide reason enough for Austen to contribute so generously."

I have never suggested that JA was not a Christian, I have repeatedly suggested that she was a true Christian, one who actually cared most about what Jesus said in the Gospels about loving the poor, the outcasts, & the oppressed, rather than buying into the Church overlay on Jesus. That overlay somehow twisted his words so as to defend the power of men over women, and the power of the rich over the poor.

And we are seeing a great example of this in the Catholic Church today--all good people around the world are rejoicing in the recent statements by the new Pope Francis, who is alarming a lot of conservative Catholics because he's starting to sound like Jesus. That's the sort of Christian I believe Jane Austen was. She'd have supported Pope Francis, and she'd have satirized the previous Popes, whom she'd have found anything but 'infallible'.

So I agree with Jocelyn Harris that there was enough of true Christianity in the works of SPCK to have given JA reason to donate to them. But...I also think Anielka's sarcastic comment has a large grain of truth in it as well--the timing of JA's donation is very significant, because it is in Sept. 1813, and that is precisely when JA has just begun writing Mansfield Park, which is one of the greatest fictional condemnations ever written depicting sanctimonious hypocrisy and evil cloaked in a veneer of respectability and piety (all wrapped up in Sir Thomas Bertram).

So I think that, given that so many of the (mostly male) members of the Austen circle are making donations to the SPCK (as the Harris article details), it probably would have been pretty awkward for JA, who had just made a few pounds from her novels by this point, to say, "Leave me out of this"--she could look to the egalitarian charitable things the organization did, and hold her nose as to the rest, and just write off this substantial expenditure as a cost of doing business, and that business was the writing of novels, for which she needed the peace of Chawton Cottage.

So I say it's no accident that in Mansfield Park  JA gives Mary Crawford the license to gore the sacred cows of the English patriarchy and church establishment--that was her way of justifying her "silence" in real life interactions with family and friends who would not approve of her true feelings.

I think JA, for reasons which seem pretty compelling to me, chose to be "silent" about the wrongs of that establishment in her letters and in her charitable behavior, and to leave her condemnations of the patriarchy to the shadows of her novels--but as Mansfield Park illustrates, there was a LOT of pent up condemnation that poured out of her then, as she loaded that novel up from one end to the other with massive hypocrisies and abuses by Sir Thomas.

And that condemnation is exactly in accord with the Jesus described in the Gospels (of course the heart of the Christian Bible) which the SPCK distributed far and wide, particularly this part, John 2: 13-15:

And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.

Sir Thomas Bertram, the Father at Mansfield Park, literally made his house a house of merchandise, in every possible way:

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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