For a woman and novelist of such obvious( to me at least) religiously based moral authority, it might surprise you to realise that Jane Austen makes direct mention of the Book of Common Prayer (and, indeed, to the Kings James Bible) only very occasionally.
As we noted in the last post, Jane Austen would have been very familiar with the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy of the Church of England, of which she was a member, and of which her father and, eventually, two of her brothers were priests. I think we ought to consider how often Jane Austen would have read the Prayer Book, for then it may become clear how its phrases became part of her, and how this was reflected in her works. Do note that Jane Austen wrote three prayers, date of composition unknown. I will not be discussing them in detail here, as we shall concentrate on the influence of the Prayer Book in her novels.
The Book of Common Prayer provides Anglicans with all the basic texts they need for all their devotions, throughout their lives, in church and at home. The services include those for Sundays, Morning and Evening Prayers, the litanies, daily offices( that is, daily church services) and also for the special services that would have been performed throughout an Anglican’s life: that is, for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, death-bed communions and funerals. Each Prayer Book also contains a Psalter, which contains all the Psalms as translated by Miles Coverdale. They are included because the Psalms are- one or more of them- an integral part of the services.
The Prayer Book also contains the Collects. The Collects are short prayers which are used not only in sequence though out the liturgical year, but also are used in private devotions. The Lectoinary is also included: this is made up of the readings-the Lessons- from the Old and New Testaments which were designated to be read on particular days, on a three-year cycle which was devised by Thomas Cranmer. He intended, therefore , that the Prayer Book would not only be used in Church but at home in daily services held by the family, and also in private devotions. The Austens at Steventon, Southampton and Chawton seem to have kept the habit of morning and evening prayers . In her letter to her sister, Cassandra dated the 24th October 1808, written when she was looking after her nephews Edward and George Knight, who were staying with her at Southampton after the death of their mother, Elizabeth Knight who had died unexpectedly after giving birth, Jane Austen makes mention of their habit of evening prayers:
In the evening we had the Psalms and Lessons, and a sermon at home, to which they were very attentive; but you will not expect to hear that they did not return to conundrums the moment it was over.
The habit of saying daily morning and evening prayers, as well as regular sunday attendances at church though out her life meant that Jane Austen would have been wholly family with the text of the Prayer Book, I’m sure you will agree. And in that case, it might surprise you how few direct references there are to the contents of the Prayer Book in her works.
The first and most obvious reference, is to the rubrick to the Solemnization of Matrimony service. The rubric is the instruction to the clergy and the laity as to how the service is to be conducted. This reference appears in Emma, in Chapter 53, where Emma is coyly referring to her future marriage to Mr. Knightley:
“Impossible! I never can call you any thing but ‘Mr. Knightley.’ I will not promise even to equal the elegant terseness of Mrs. Elton, by calling you Mr. K. But I will promise,” she added presently, laughing and blushing, “I will promise to call you once by your Christian name. I do not say when, but perhaps you may guess where; — in the building in which N. takes M. for better, for worse.”
Here you can see the service for the Solmnization of Matrimony from John Baskerville’s Prayer Book of 1761, printed after the accession to the throne of George III( and do note you can enlarge all these pictures by clicking on them):
As you can clearly see, the two parties to be married are referred to throughout the service as N and M:
A more puzzling reference to one of the Psalms, Psalm 16, is made by Miss Bates, again in Emma, Chapter 21
”Oh! my dear sir, as my mother says, our friends are only too good to us. If ever there were people who, without having great wealth themselves, had every thing they could wish for, I am sure it is us. We may well say that “”our lot is cast in a goodly heritage.”"
Here Jane Austen has made Miss Bates, the impoverished daughter of the former vicar of Highbury, misquote the Psalm:
You can see that Verse 7 clearly states:
The Lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage.
Margaret Anne Doody in her essay Jane Austen’s Reading, which is contained in the Jane Austen Handbook, (1986) edited by J. David Grey, explains this mistake as follows:
Miss Bates’s simple use of it point sot a misapprehension; she has no heritage-that is her problem. She is referring to charity, the only heritage the minister’s daughter may expect. Austen’s own relation to this truth may have tempted her in this instance to forsake her own custom ( of not referring directly or too closely to religious texts- JFW)
Other instances of indirect references to the Prayer Book can be found in her characters speech and in their letters. For they, like most of us and their creator, would have used phrases from the Prayer Book almost without knowing. Here are just three examples: there are more. The first is taken from chapter 57 of Pride and Prejudice: Mr Bennet relates the contents of Mr. Collins’ letter to Elizabeth and informs her that Charlotte is now pregnant;
The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte’s situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch.
This is a reference to Psalm 128, verse 4
Thy children like the olive-branches round about thy table.
In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon obliquely refers to the Communion of the Sick, wherein the sacrament would be administered to a dying person:
Life could do nothing for her, beyond giving time for a better preparation for death; and that was given. I saw her placed in comfortable lodgings, and under proper attendants; I visited her every day during the rest of her short life; I was with her in her last moments.”
The phrase preparation for death is clearly a reference to this service – the last rites if you like- where poor Eliza could ready and prepare herself for death. Colonel Brandon could do nothing more for her than to enable her to meet her end with dignity and in accordance with her faith;
The final example in this post comes from Chapter 23 of Persuasion, after Captain Wentworth is reconciled with Anne Elliot, and is considering her defence of her own conduct and of Lady Russell’s part in persuading Anne to reject his first offer of marriage:
He looked at her, looked at Lady Russell, and looking again at her, replied, as if in cool deliberation -
”Not yet, but there are hopes of her being forgiven in time. I trust to being in charity with her soon.
This is again a reference to the Communion service:
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your signs and are in love and charity with your neighbours..Draw near with faith and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort
So…why didn’t Jane Austen make more open references to this book, with which she was wholly familiar? Perhaps the answer comes from her friend, Mrs Barrett of Alton, who had this to say about Jane Austen’s faith as expressed in her novels:
Miss Austen…had on all the subjects of enduring religious feeling the deepest and strongest convictions but a contact with loud and noisy exponents of the then popular religious phase made her reticent almost to a fault. She had to suffer something in the way of reproach from those who believed she might have used her genius to greater effect. But her old friend used to say, “I think I see her now defending what she thought was the real province of a delineator of life and manners and declaring her belief that example and not “direct preaching” was all that a novelist could properly afford to exhibit…