How Jane Austen's writing reveals her spiritual side

Reverend Paula Hollingsworth, Chaplain at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, is the author of The Spirituality of Jane Austen. She outlines the evolution of faith in Jane Austen’s novels and her personal life.
A colourized version of an engraved depiction of Jane Austen, originally done by her sister Cassandra. (Public Domain)

Jane Austen may have never used the phrase "spirituality" in her time — but that doesn't mean her books were devoid of themes of faith. 

Reverend Paula Hollingsworth, Chaplain at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, is the author of The Spirituality of Jane Austen.

Hollingsworth talked to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about the role that spirituality played in Jane Austen's novels, to that scene with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, to what we can garner about Jane's stance on the abolitionist movement through her writing in Mansfield Park.

Here is part of that conversation.

I guess we should start with a disclaimer right off the top. Spirituality isn't a word Jane Austen would ever have used, correct?

That's absolutely correct. It's a word that has come into use, sort of subsequently. And also the way in which we use, it wouldn't really be concepts that she would have understood. She grew up in a country at a time when almost everybody she knew she would have seen as being Christian or at least nominally Christian. And most of them within her social circle would have been Anglican, or, as we would say here, Church of England. And so the key thing to her would be whether or not people were sort of active in practicing their faith.

Paula Hollingsworth (Submitted by Paula Hollingsworth)

You've found a rich stream of spirituality in Jane Austen's novels, even though that's a word that would have been quite foreign to her. So how do you define spirituality when you use it in the context of Jane Austen's novels? What are you looking for with that framework?

I began by looking at spirituality, not necessarily within a very specifically Christian understanding of the word. And I looked at all the different ways that I could find that people had to define spirituality. And I found three common themes.

First of those was the importance of values by which we seek to live our lives. The second was something that I described as being a desire to live in the light of a realm that is beyond the material. And then the third one would be something about an inner path, an inner journey. And in particular, that would be the ability or the growth of the ability to reflect on oneself and to have a sense of, of a life's journey.

When I was studying Jane Austen, I began very much by applying those three different criteria, if you like, of spirituality to her early novels ... and I found much richness within that. Later on in Jane's life, there's much more evidence, I believe, of a very committed Christian spirituality. So the later novels I looked at much more in terms of how they reflected a Christian spirituality.

I'm intrigued by a subtle kind of spirituality you're pointing to in Jane Austen. So not so much about going to church, but more about a kind of "quiet revolution," is your phrase, a quiet revolution in the lives of certain characters. Where do you see that kind of spirit at work in Jane Austen?

If you look at people who have, in a sense, described the nature of different spiritualities, the particular nature of Jane Austen's spirituality would fall within the holiness stream of understanding spirituality. And what's important for those people for whom this matters, it's an inner journey which is so important. A journey of reflection that is seeking to develop more and more a Christian lifestyle, and a Christian journey. To develop holy habits.

Jane Austen has a great belief that through the faithful actions of individual people, particularly people who are in places of influence, that is how the world can be changed and the world can be made a better place.

The ability to grow into a different kind of person — a better person — is woven into so many of the plots. What do you think Jane Austen believed about our ability to change who we are? To change the essence of who we are?

The opening verse of Emma, I think, is fascinating in relation to that. 

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her."

Jane Austen is letting us know that Emma hasn't yet suffered. And it's through suffering and finding things difficult, and then reflecting on that, that we can change. And I think that's been the … pattern in all of her books.

I can't talk about Pride and Prejudice without all of these scenes from the BBC adaptation coursing through my mind. And you've suggested that can be a problem. People start thinking, Jane wrote a scene in which Mr. Darcy rises from the lake, all hot and bothered from a long day riding back to Pemberley. That becomes part of the canon right? Did you like the adaptation?

Well in other respects, of course, that's a wonderful dramatization. What Andrew Davies was trying to do deliberately, is he was in a sense trying to bring sort of the sex angle in much more. That was what he was trying to do. But in other respects, I think it's a very, very good dramatization.

You've suggested there's an interesting thing about the dramatizations, all of them, in the context of spirituality. That they may bring Jane to a vast new audience, but the spirituality of the novels gets lost along the way, and that this is almost inevitable. Tell me how that happens, how the spirituality gets flattened out in that journey from page to screen. 

I think the novels focus much more on the development of the person. And that takes time. Because to reflect you need time. So a film of Pride and Prejudice, which is over in two hours, doesn't give the opportunity for the audience to see the way in which the characters are reflecting and thinking and changing and growing. 

You point out that Jane would have gone to church every Sunday, she created her own prayers. One of her most enduring characters is a clergyman, and he is a buffoon. If she was that religious in the conventional, traditional way, why do you think she felt so free to make Mr. Collins an imbecile?

She doesn't mock his faith. She mocks his character. And she mocks the way in which he behaves. Jane Austen believes that clergymen were really key people in their communities, because part of their role was to be one of these people who would influence other people for good. And Mr. Collins is not doing that. And so she mocks him in his social role. 

One of the things I think it's important to say is that Jane Austen's mother, who was the mother, the wife, and the daughter of clergymen loved Mr. Collins, she wasn't offended by him at all. 

I've been reading about the recent move towards owning up to slavery, as the engine that powered a lot of the wealth in Jane Austen's world, both fictional and in real life. And I gather there are some very heated arguments right now about acknowledging slavery at the Jane Austen Museum in the village of Chawton. What do we know about Jane and the idea of abolition in her own day?

I think several hints. One of the things we have to say is that Jane Austen had two sister-in-laws, who came from slave owning families in the West Indies. As did many people of Jane's social position at the time.

However, various literary figures have pointed to two very interesting things about Mansfield Park. One is that a key figure who played a very important role, ultimately, in enabling the abolition of slavery through some of the acts that he saw come into being, was somebody called Lord Mansfield. Somebody who was very much a baddie in the slave trade, was a particularly cruel abolitionist who was called Norris. And of course Mrs. Norris, who's particularly nasty, you know, is perhaps named after him. So those are just suggestions.

Jane's life ended at the age of 41. She died of what would today probably be diagnosed as Addison's disease. What do you think she believed about what comes next? Would she have had certain ideas about an afterlife about going to heaven?

Yes. I mean, and I think that's clear in some of the words that she said to her sister. And that was reflected when she was dying. She said to her sister, "Pray for me. Oh pray for me." And she was, you know, there's a sense in which, you know, at the end of her life, she was very ready to die.

And I think because of what Jane had written earlier about a belief that her sister-in-law was now in a better place. I think that Jane Austen very much believed that she was going to be with God.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Written and produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke.