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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.

Frontispiece to the Book of Common Prayer 1761, printed by John Baskerville for the Cambridge University Press

Frontispiece to the Book of Common Prayer 1761, printed by John Baskerville for the Cambridge University Press

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):

The Solemnization of Matrimony  from the 1761 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, printed for Cambridge University Press by John Baskerville

The form of service of the Solemnization of Matrimony from the 1761 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, printed for Cambridge University Press by John Baskerville

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.”

Chapter 31.

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:

Prior to receiving the sacraments the priest advises his congregation to prepare themselves for it on these terms

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…

(“Jane Austen’s Friend Mrs. Barrett”, R. W. Chapman,  Nineteenth-Century Fiction , Vol. 4, No. 3 (Dec., 1949), pp. 171-174)
How very typical of her to realise that preaching would not influence people, only examples of lives lived well would do, and by making only glancing references to books she obvious considered serious, she did not diminish their worth, or their influence upon her.
Next, one of her  favourite books, William Vickers’ Companion to the Alter.

This year, remarkable for many events- the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics amongst them- has another major cultural celebration:  the 350th Anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This book-written all those years ago- is still the official liturgy of the Church of England.  And while its anniversary has been marked in certain circles with some gusto, it has not achieved, in my very humble opinion, anything like the publicity or public acclaim that last year’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible accrued. Which to me is astonishing for, like the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, to paraphrase Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram, we all get to know phrases from the Book of Common Prayer, without really knowing how:

But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”

“No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree,” said Edmund, “from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent

Mansfield Park Chapter 34,

Of course the way mine and previous generations, including Jane Austen’s, got to know these phrases by heart was though repetition: the 1662 Prayer Book, with slight alterations, was the liturgy with which I grew up and heard at every service in my youth, as did Jane Austen. I was married  and my children were baptised using the beautiful services contained within it. I try to attend services using the Prayer Book, but these days it is getting harder and harder to do so for the rituals contained in Common Worship has replaced it in many, many parish churches and cathedrals. What a pity to lose such a link with the past. And doubly a pity, for we are all, I am sure, very familiar with the following phrases, all culled from its pages, even though some may not be aware it is the source of these phrases we can hear almost every day:

Speak now or forever hold your peace….To love, cherish and to obey…Till Death us do part…Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest…In the midst of life we are in death…Renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world…

I could continue,but will restrain myself, much to your relief, no doubt :)  As it is now the 350th anniversary of this book,  which undoubtedly influenced Jane Austen, and to which she made direct references in her works, I thought I would  post a small series about it. Today, I want to look at a brief history of this very influential book, then my next posting will be about Jane Austen’s use of it.

Thomas Cramner, Archbishop of Canterbury who edited the first Prayer Book of the Anglican Church

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who edited the first Anglican Prayer Book

The Prayer Book was originally complied by Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century. It was published in 1549 during the reign of King Edward VI, and as such it was a product of the English Reformation, following the break with Rome by Henry VIII. The 1549 book  was vitally important as it was the first prayer book written in English to contain all the forms of service for daily and Sunday worship and to do so within a single volume.

This first Prayer Book included services for morning prayer, evening prayer, the Litany, and Holy Communion. The book also  included  other occasional services in full: the orders for baptism, confirmation, marriage, ‘prayers to be said with the sick‘ and a funeral service. It set out in full detail the Epistle and Gospel readings for the Sunday Communion Service. The Old Testament and New Testament readings for daily prayer were also specified  as were the set Psalms.  Canticles, mostly biblical,  were also provided to be sung between the readings. The services in this prayer book were important in the development of the Church for they emphasised the people’s participation in the eucharist, and required that the Bible was to be read from cover to cover. Fast days were retained but saints’ days were not.

The 1549 book was rapidly succeeded by a  revision in 1552 which was again edited by Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury.  This book  never came into use however because, on the death of Edward VI in 1553, his half-sister Mary I restored Roman Catholic worship to all English churches. On her death in 1558, her protestant half-sister, Elizabeth became Queen and a compromise version- which was  largely the 1552 prayer book with a few amendments from the 1549 edition- was published in 1559.

In 1604, under the reign of James I, there was a minor revision of the Prayer Book, but  the terrible events of  the English Civil War proved disastrous for its continued use.  In 1645 it was abolished for use and the Long Parliament decreed that anyone found to be still using it was to be found guilty of a criminal offence.

Frontispiece of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

Frontispiece of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660( Hurrah!), the restrictions on the use of the Prayer Book were removed. Charles II initiated another major revision to the Prayer Book, and convened the Savoy Conference in 1661. The purpose of the conference was to decide the manner and content of the liturgy for the 17th century Anglican church. The Revised Book of Common Prayer which resulted was made legal by the Act of Uniformity  of 1662 ,which ordered  the exclusive use of the new Prayer Book,  in all places of worship, from St. Bartholomew’s Day (that is, the 24th August) 1662 onwards,

before which all ministers must publicly declare their assent to it on pain of deprivation…

And since that date, 350 years ago almost to the day,  that edition-with minor amendments- has remained the official Prayer Book of the Church of England, and of most other Churches in the worldwide Anglican Communion. It has been extremely influential:  Christian denominations other than the Anglican Church have adopted and adapted its services and prayers for their own use. For example, traditional Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian prayer books have all borrowed from it. The wording of the Prayer Book marriage and burial rites have been adopted by other denominations and, as we have seen above,  phrases from the book have seeped  into the everyday English language. This all explains why Jane Austen knew the book intimately…and next time we shall discuss how she used it in her writings.

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