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
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
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
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:
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Monday, September 30, 2013
Jane Austen and Her Complicated Donation to the Society for Christian Knowledge
Posted by Arnie Perlstein at 1:09 PM
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