In her letter to her sister, Cassandra, dated 20th June, 1808, written from Southampton, Jane Austen appears to be rather upset by the news that a woman who had taken Holy Communion at the same Church service as her, was an adulteress:
This is a sad story about Mrs. P. I should not have suspected such a thing. She stayed the Sacrament, I remember, the last time that you and I did. A hint of it, with initials, was in yesterday’s “Courier,” and Mr. Moore guessed it to be Lord S., believing there was no other Viscount S. in the peerage, and so it proved, Lord Viscount S. not being there.
The adulteress in question was Mary-Letitia Powlett, who was married to one of the Austen’s Southampton acquaintances, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Powlett. The news in The Courier confirmed that the Lieutenant Colonel was going to take an action for damages by way of a suit of Criminal Conversation against Viscount Sackville, who had committed adultery with Mary-Letitia.
Why was Jane Austen so outraged by this woman taking Holy Communion? The answer is, very probably, in her very serious attitude towards taking this sacrament, which was also indicated by her attachment to a now little-known book, The Companion to the Altar by William Vickers.
William Vickers’ book was one of the few books we know she actually owned, as opposed to books that were in her father’s library and merely available to her, or those she borrow from friend s and circulating libraries. David Gilson’s Bibliography of Jane Austen lists only 20 volumes known to have been the sole property of Jane Austen, including this book. In Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter Irene Collins tells us that:
On the 24th April 1794 she received a gift often bestowed on Confirmation Candidates: a copy of William Vickers’ Companion to the Altar, a guide to the private preparation to be undertaken in order to be worthy of receiving Holy Communion
(Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter, Page 72)
According to Gilson’s Bibliography, her copy of this book is now owned by Princeton University, and it shows many signs of being greatly used. Miss Florence Austen, Jane Austen’s great-niece, who along with her sister, Jane, sold the item, noted:
…this book of devotions always used by Jane Austen we used to be told so by my old Aunt Cassandra
(Gilson,page 445 . Note, this Cassandra was not Jane Austen’s elder sister, as she predeceased both the Misses Austen who owned the Companion)
Irene Collins again notes that:
According to members of Jane’s family, she cherished the Companion and made constant use of the prayers and meditations included in it. She was to take her participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion seriously as a cleansing from sin and a repeated welcome into the company of the faithful.
(as above, page 72)
Jane Austen was 18 when she was confirmed, an age slightly older than our modern candidates often are. This can be explained because 18th century dioceses were very large, and, as a candidate could only be confirmed by a Bishop, it could take him some years to be able to visit the candidate’s local church in order to perform a confirmation service.
William Vicker’s book is not long, but it is extremely full of very, very detailed advice regarding the self-examination a candidate for communion had to perform in order to avoid:
those Fears and Scruples about Eating and Drinking unworthily and of incurring our own Damnation thereby..
It advises an extremely detailed self-examination prior to every occasion when Holy Communion was taken, and, as Irene Collins ruefully notes:
to carry out all William Vicker’s advice would have required several hours of meditation.
(as above 156)
Though Jane Austen’s copy of the book is a separate volume, in her lifetime this book was often bound together with volumes of The Book of Common Prayer. As a result the book was very influential, seeming to have “official” sanction of the Anglican church. And this is the case with my copy, which is contained in a small pocket-sized edition of the Book of Common Prayer, dating from 1783:
Here is the engraving from the Companion, showing the Last Supper, which of course, was the event that instated the sacrament of Holy Communion:
And here is the preface and first page of the book, and do note you can enlarge all of those images by clicking on them if you want to look at the detail:
The Book of Common Prayer sets out, in very clear terms, why it is very necessary to be thoroughly prepared, having repented and being free from sin before taking Holy Communion:
Therefore if any of you be a blasphemer of God, an hinderer or slanderer of his Word, an adulterer or be in malice or envy, or in any other grievous crime, repent you of your sins, or else come not to that Holy Table: lest, after the taking of that holy Sacrament, the devil enter into you, as he entered into Judas, and fill you full of iniquities ands bring you to destruction of both body and soul.
The Companion places extreme emphasis on the need for a candidate to thoroughly examine their own lives and deeds and to be truly penitent before taking the sacrament. Look at this quote below:
The first Part then of a Communicant’s Duty is Self –examination: A Duty not only enjoined by human Authority, but likewise commanded by St. Paul…when we are employing our minds in the Duty of Self-examination, before the Communion, or at any other Time, we must discharge it as impartially as is possible for us, judging as severely of our own Actions as we would do of our greatest and worst enemy; or otherwise we shall but flatter and deceive ourselves in a Matter of the greatest Weight and Importance, namely the knowing the State and Condition of our Souls.
As evidenced by her wondering comment to Cassandra in the letter quoted above- This is a sad story about Mrs. P. I should not have suspected such a thing. She stayed the Sacrament, I remember, the last time that you and I did. - the seriousness of taking the Sacrament and the rarity with which it was performed was certainly felt by Jane Austen, as a devout Anglican. That an adulteress, who was continuing in her sinfulness, should have put herself forward to take the sacrament, was shocking to her. Her contemporaries felt the seriousness of taking the sacrament too- many were noted for leaving Communion services prior to taking the sacrament, if they felt they were ill prepared for it. Jane Austen alludes to this in her comment in her letter to Cassandra, wherein she was surprised that Mrs Powlett, the adulteress
stayed the Sacrament
when she had the opportunity to absent herself from the church and not be a recipient of Holy Communion, for which she was obviously very ill-prepared.
Do note that while communicants these days are used to services of Holy Communion being made available to them on a weekly ( if not on a more frequent) basis, this was not the case for Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Being able to take part in a service of Holy Communion was rare: it was usually celebrated on only four occasions during each year. Anglicans very rarely celebrated it on days other than at Christmas, Easter,Whitsun (Pentecost) and as a service of thanksgiving after a successful harvest.
So, does this have any relevance to Jane Austen’ novels? I think it does. For example, Elizabeth Bennet really is blind to her faults and those of her family until she reads Darcy’s letter, which has a devastating effect upon her:
“How despicably have I acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 36
It is clear, I think that Jane Austen needs us to know how negligent Elizabeth has been, not only personally but as a Christian. Had she constantly examined her behaviour and motives as instructed by the Companion, she might not have been so blind and prejudiced against Darcy, and so taken in by Wickham and his lies.
Emma, too, is someone who would have benefitted from self-examination, for despite her proud boast to Harriet in Chapter 10;
“If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty.
she really did not know herself at all, being too proud of her abilities, and scornful of others. In Chapter 47, after Harriet has avowed she is in love with Mr. Knightley, Emma finally understands how stupidly and blindly she has acted:
Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world. …
Jane Austen certainly understood how to set her characters up for one almighty fall. Similarly, Marianne Dashwood’s extreme penitence after returning home to Barton after her illness, is indicative of her previous blindness to her own faults:
They have borne more than our conduct. Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think — It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my own behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died, it would have been self-destruction. I did not know my danger till the danger was removed; but with such feelings as these reflections gave me, I wonder at my recovery, — wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once. Had I died, in what peculiar misery should I have left you, my nurse, my friend, my sister! — You, who had seen all the fretful selfishness of my latter days; who had known all the murmurings of my heart! — How should I have lived in your remembrance! — My mother too! How could you have consoled her! — I cannot express my own abhorrence of myself. Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged. Everybody seemed injured by me. The kindness, the unceasing kindness of Mrs. Jennings, I had repaid with ungrateful contempt. To the Middletons, the Palmers, the Steeles, to every common acquaintance even, I had been insolent and unjust; with an heart hardened against their merits, and a temper irritated by their very attention. — To John, to Fanny, — yes, even to them, little as they deserve, I had given less than their due. But you, — you above all, above my mother, had been wronged by me. I, and only I, knew your heart and its sorrows; yet, to what did it influence me? — not to any compassion that could benefit you or myself. — Your example was before me: but to what avail? — Was I more considerate of you and your comfort? Did I imitate your forbearance, or lessen your restraints, by taking any part in those offices of general complaisance or particular gratitude which you had hitherto been left to discharge alone? No; — not less when I knew you to be unhappy, than when I had believed you at ease, did I turn away from every exertion of duty or friendship; scarcely allowing sorrow to exist but with me, regretting only that heart which had deserted and wronged me, and leaving you, for whom I professed an unbounded affection, to be miserable for my sake.”
Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 46.
Of course, Marianne, who is only 16 when the novel begins, may not have yet received her first communion, and may not, therefore, have been totally aware of her duty to examine her thoughts, words and deeds in such a severe fashion, to avoid possible Divine retribution. But the retribution her creator ensures she receives -severe illness- is exactly the punishment that the Companion fears will be the lot of someone who fails to prepare themselves properly when taking the sacrament of Holy Communion, thereby failing to live a Christian life through self-examination:
Note, this Word “Damnation” does not signify eternal Condemnation but on the contrary some temporal Punishment or judgment…such as Sickness or Death…
(The Companion,Page 8)
It is an interesting point to consider. But I think you will agree that it would appear that Jane Austen did place extreme importance on the ability to know yourself, truly, honestly and without prevarication, and this is reflected not only in her own conduct, but in her characters’ lives.
If you would like to read this interesting book for yourself, a copy of the Companion is available to read on Google Books: go here to see.
And that concludes for a while our small topic of Jane Austen and religion. I hope it has been interesting to you..