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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 Vicars' "Companion to the Altar" bound within the 1783 Prayer Book ©Austenonly

William Vicars’ “Companion to the Altar” bound within the 1783 Prayer Book ©Austenonly

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:

A Book of Common Prayer dating from 1783, from my collection. ©Austenonly

A Book of Common Prayer dating from 1783, from my collection. ©Austenonly

Here is the engraving from the Companion, showing the Last Supper, which of course, was the event that instated the sacrament of Holy Communion:

Engraving of The Last Supper ©Austenonly

Engraving of The Last Supper ©Austenonly

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:

Preface and First Page of the"Companion to the Altar" ©Austenonly

Preface and First Page of the”Companion to the Altar” ©Austenonly

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..

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.

As it is Holy Week I thought it would be appropriate to write a little about Jane Austen related religious topics this week, and today I’d like to consider two religious paintings by Benjamin West which Jane Austen admired.

Jane Austen was a quietly devout Anglican. The daughter of a clergyman, George Austen, she came from a clerical family and two of her bothers were ordained as Anglican ministers-James and Henry. In addition, her maternal grandfather and great-uncle were both Anglican ministers,as were her godfather, an uncle and four of her cousins.

Her attitude to her faith was rarely expressed directly by her either in her novels or in her letters. Some of her prayers still exist and reveal her faith to have been sincere and deeply held. Her famous comment about the Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church, made to her niece Fanny Knight who was considering marriage to a religiously serious man and wondering if this was the right thing to do,was probably influenced by her admiration for the work of the the Evangelical Abolitionists,than anything else, in my view:

As there being any objection from his Goodness, from the danger of his becoming even Evangelical, I cannot admit that. I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals and am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling must be happiest and safest.
(See Letter to Fanny Knight dated 18th November 1814)

It is apparent that  she very much disapproved of the religious attitude of certain Evangelicals, most noticeably, her cousin, Edward Cooper, shown below,

a noted Evangelical preacher and publisher of sermons. Below is the frontispiece of one of his collections of sermons, published in 1825:

Writing to her sister, Cassandra after the death of their sister-in-law, Elizabeth, Edward Knight’s wife who had died after giving birth to her last child, Jane Austen clearly disapproved of Edward Cooper’s habit of writing letters to the newly bereaved that, while they were consistent with his beliefs, could cause distress:

 I have written to Edward Cooper, and hope he will not send one of his letters of cruel comfort to my poor brother
(See letter to Cassandra Austen, dated 15th October, 1808)

In a letter to Martha Lloyd written from Henry Austen’s home in Hans Place, London on the 2nd September 1814 we have some of her most interesting comments on religion, made on seeing some of the religious works of the American born artist, Benjamin West:

I have seen West’s famous painting and prefer it to anything of the kind I ever saw before. I do not know that it  is reckoned superior to his “Healing in the Temple” but it has gratified me much more and indeed is the first representation of our Saviour which ever at all contented me. His Rejection by the elders is the subject. I want to have You and Cassandra see it. 

So that you can fully participate in appreciating Jane Austen’s opinions of them, I have traced copies of these painting for you and reproduce them here. Below is a black and white reproduction of Christ Rejected, which was Jane Austen’s favourite:


(Do note that you can of course,enlarge this illustration by clicking on it,as you can for all the illustrations in this post.)

And below is Christ Healing the Sick, which is the other painting by West that Jane Austen mentioned in her letter to Martha Lloyd.

Christ Healing the Sick was a very large work by West and it was completed in 1811. It’s history is interesting, for it was created at the request of the officers of the Pennsylvania Hospital:

…the officers of the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia …wrote to him in 1800 soliciting the gift of a painting. West consented to their request, and in 1801 he exhibited a sketch of ‘Christ Healing the Sick’ at the Royal Academy identifying it in the catalogue as for a large picture to be painted for the hospital. Despite this prompt and positive response , it took him a full decade to produce the large painting, doubtlessly because a work for which he did not expect to be paid had a low priority among his commitments. Ironically, however, when he finally completed it in 1811, he was paid and paid well, accepting an offer of 3,000 guineas for the picture from the directors of the British Institution. This meant that the Pennsylvanians still did not receive the painting they and asked for in 1800, but West did promise to paint a second version, and he eventually did complete a slightly larger and modified replica in 1815. After two more years of delay, it went off to Philadelphia in August 1817.

(See: The Paintings of Benjamin West by Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, page 142)

Christ Rejected (by the Elders in the Temple) was begun in 1801 and Benjamin West exhibited a sketch of the picture in that year. He didn’t finish the painting until 1811. Both paintings were exhibited by West in London and casued quite the sensation.  It is clear that Jane Austen saw them both on her visits to her brother, Henry Austen from the contents of her letter to Martha Lloyd.  As Helmut von Etrffa and Allen Staley write:

The sum of 3,000 guineas that West received in 1811( for Christ Healing the Sick-jfw) was not only more than he had previously received for any other single work, but at the time the highest price known ever to have been paid to any artist for any work and, coming from a public institution, which intended the purchase to be the commencement of a national gallery, it provided  concrete recognition of West’s stature in the profession. The price which was not kept secret, guaranteed the painting’s public success when it went on view in April 1811 at the British Institution, which made a profit on its investments from paid admissions and it inevitably led the artist to think of appropriate sequels. By July 1811 he had prepared an oil sketch for the even larger ‘Christ Rejected’ which he completed three years later, to be followed in its turn after three more years by Death on the Pale Horse, his last major work. These two painting he did not sell, although he was reported to have declined staggering offers for Christ Rejected and he exhibited them himself in special exhibitions at 125 Pall Mall a former home of the Royal Academy.(as above page 142)

Jane Austen therefore must have seen Christ Healing the Sick at the British Institution,and then three years later would have gone to Mr West’s Rooms to see Christ Rejected.  Both these exhibition rooms were in Pall Mall, and my copy of The Picture of London  for 1818

has this to say about The Gallery of the British Intuition:

This Institution was established in 1805 under the patronage of his Majesty for the encouragement and reward of the talents of British Artists and exhibits during half the year a collection of the works of living artists for sale; and during the other half  year, it is furnished with pictures painted by the most celebrated masters for the study of the academic and others in painting.

Mr West’s Rooms are described as follows:

Mr West’s Pictures at the East end of Pall Mall

Mr President West here exhibits  the chefs d’oeuvres of modern art in his  superior pictures of Christ rejected by the Jews and another of Death on the Pale Horse of inferior though of great merit. It is well known by his fine sketch which has been before the pubic some years in the original rooms of the academy…The rooms are also hung with some sketches and minor pictures of this unrivalled painter. The admission is one shilling.

Benjamin West, shown below in a magnificent portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence,

was, of course, the first American born artist to achieve international fame and stature. He was born in the then British colony of Pennsylvania in 1738. He rose to become Historical Painter to King George III and succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds to serve as second president of the Royal Academy in 1792. During his lifetime his reputation was almost unrivalled. He was the most prominent artist in the English-speaking world untill his death in 1820 at the great age of 81 years. He even achieved  fame in France:

…the French artists held Mr West in the highest esteem of an Artist and ..when David spoke of him..he was quite moved to tears. For other British artists they have no applause.
(See: The Paintings of Benjamin West by Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, page 1)

I love the fact that this tiny paragraph in her letter reveals Jane Austen to have been not only someone capable of sensible art criticism,but someone who was bang up to date with the latest developments in the art world. The image of her as a domestically minded spinster,content to stay at home occasionally writing the odd novel is far,far from the truth, to my mind. She was terribly interested in the latest developments in the world, be it  the latest fashions, poems or the latest artworks. I also find it vastly interesting that this is the image of Christ that most appealed to her.

(©HM Queen/The Royal Collection)

Today is the 30th January and in Jane Austen’s lifetime it was known in the Anglican Church Calendar as the Feast Day of St Charles the Martyr. It referred to the beheading -the regicide- of King Charles the First in 1649.

This is The Calender of Saints and Feats Days from my copy of The Book of Common Prayer dating from 1761 and printed by John Baskerville for Cambridge University.

Jane Austen was a fierce Jacobite, as readers of her History of England know quite well. She was a strong supporter of the Royal House of Stuart, of which Charles I was a leading member. Indeed it was though his support of Charles I ,who was rescued entry into the city of Coventry that Jane Austen’s ancestor, Thomas Leigh of nearby Stoneleigh, shown below, was ennobled in July 1643, becoming thereafter known by the title, Lord Leigh. There can be no doubt, surely, that Jane Austen’s strong Jacobite feelings were influences by her family history.

The beheading of King Charles was seen by many of his supporters as a form of religious martyrdom. The Cult of King Charles the Martyr began not long after his death, with relics of his body being preserved and some of them were later reputed to have performed miracles and to possess healing powers. As Sophie Dicks wrote in the catalogue to an exhibition of relics of King Charles held at the jewellers,Wartski last year, The King’s Blood, and which she curated:

There are varying accounts of the crowds reaction to the execution( of King Charles-jfw) but what is certain is that relics were gathered and in the years following the king’s death his supporters would ascribe healing powers to them. Use of the relics was seen as a substitute for the healing power of the King’s Touch in life. There was certainly a brisk trade in vials and boxes said to contain his blood and hair varying from the magnificent to the humble and memorials were fashioned  from even the most obscure of material including peach stones…Andrew Lacey in his study of the cult of King Charles the Martyr has identifed  the king as ” the only post-Reformation monarch to be credited with healing powers after his death

Here is a memorial ring dating from the 17th century,which commemorates King Charles.

You can see that the reverse of the ring, below,  is enamelled with a skull and the  date of his death as 30th January 1648 due to the operation of teh Julian and not teh Gregorian calendar, ,and also has a quotation from Romans 8:37 “More than conquerors“.

Jane Austen as a devout Anglican would have taken part in the day of religious ceremonies commemorating his death. Before we look at the wording of these services, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves why he was commemorated.

The Monarchy was restored in 1660 when King Charles’ son, Charles II,  resumed the throne after the Interregnum. Charles I was canonised ( he was the last saint to be canonised by the Anglican church) and his name was added to the ecclesiastical calendar  for the anniversary of his death,  so that services could then be held to commemorate his death. The idea was to create a day that could be observed as a day of national mourning for the dead king who was considered by his supporters to have died in defence of his religion.

This situation continued until 1859 when the feast day was removed from the Calender in the Book of Common Prayer. The Society of King Charles the Martyr was formed not long after this took place and the aims of the society are to work for the reinstatement of the feast day in the Book of Common Prayer. As their website declares their main aim is to :

Work for the reinstatement of the Feast of S.Charles in the Kalendar of The Prayer Book from which it was removed in 1859 without the due consent of the Church as expressed in Convocation (The Feast was restored to the Kalendar in the Alternative Service Book of 1980 and a new collect composed for Common Worship in 2000).

Here are the pages from the 1761 Book of Common Prayer showing the forms of Morning  and EveningPrayer to be said in commemoration of Charles I, as they were said during Jane Austen’s life time. Do remember you can enlarge all these pages by simply clicking on them in order to read the fine print:

The day and services are still commemorated by members of the Society of St Charles the Martyr today. I thought you might be interested to see them,as they are rarely  performed today.

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