Of course, I see something like this and I just swoon.
The “new writing” really ends up being just a “snippet” of her writing, and in fact only a “snippet” of one of her brother’s sermons – written in her handwriting – in 1814. But what I found interesting is what it says: “Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding – certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning.” The author, Alison Flood, points out that the subject matter of the quote in fact parallels Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, published the same year.
There’s much to-do about the writing hidden on the other side of the written sermon, and how they’re going to go about peeling away the layers and figuring out what it says.
Yes, yes, that part is important and interesting, but I couldn’t help but focus on the mention of the parallel between the sermon by Rev. James Austen and the book by Austen. Flood opines that perhaps “the whole Austen family felt the same way” about men. So, the whole Austen family felt that men were never quite conscious of the depth of meaning behind words and prayers? Then, too, could I extrapolate the idea to say Dear Jane carried that idea over into her more of her writing? Did she believe that men never truly understood the depth of force behind things they say?
Well, a couple of examples…
First, Darcy’s casual rejection of Lizzy at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice:
“…turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
Then, Lizzy’s reaction:
“Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings toward him. She told the story, however, with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.”
Many people might view Lizzy’s reaction as deflection – ridiculing that which could in fact upset her. But, I would wager, the interaction (or lack thereof) here between Darcy and Lizzy highlights the theme of the sermon quote. (I would also wager that the “no very cordial feelings toward him” then translates to “what an ass-hole” today.)
I understand that Pride and Prejudice was published before this quote is dated. I also understand that just because that is so doesn’t mean the themes and ideas don’t carry over.
At any rate, let’s look at the novel immediately following the dated sermon, Mansfield Park.
Edmund, one of my favorite male characters in Austen – and not solely because Jonny Lee Miller played him in the 1999 Rozema film adaptation – might be one of the most “true” characters in Austen. He is truly caring, kind, and attempts at all times to be proper (we’ll forgive him for his momentary lapse of reason when he was “taken in” by Mary Crawford). So we shouldn’t focus on him.
Then there’s Henry Crawford (oh, Alessandro Nivola! sigh!), who successfully woos Fanny with many protestations of love and affection; however, upon rejection, the “good actor” busies himself in luring Maria Bertram into a reputation-ruining affair. Uh oh. Did he really believe those professions of love for Fanny? Was there really “force and meaning” behind those words if his undying love was so short-lived?
Mary Crawford may also be “true” to who she is, cast by Austen as Fanny’s antithesis. She’s opinionated, brazen, and sometimes outright rude given the order of the day, though her words do not always tell the truth of her feelings (hello again, Lizzy). She also deflects when Edmund “dumps” her after he finds her morally unfit as a wife for a clergyman. In Edmund’s words, “She tried to speak carelessly, but she was not so careless as she wanted to appear.” She is self-serving, always working in one way or another to get what she wants, and sometimes she does not think about what she really says. For instance, I will further focus on her reaction when Edmund tells her they will not marry. Edmund describes her reaction: “I imagined I saw a mixture of many feelings: a great, though short struggle; half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame, but habit, habit carried it (my emphasis). She would have laughed if she could. It was a sort of laugh, as she answered, ‘A pretty good lecture, upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon? At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.” Not only that, but her reaction to Tom’s illness is rather cavalier: “I put it to your conscience, whether ‘Sir Edmund’ would not do more good with all the Bertram property than any other possible ‘Sir.'” I think in this case there is not a question of depth and meaning, because I certainly believe she wanted Edmund to have a “real life” instead of that of a clergyman,” but whether she possesses sufficient depth of character in the first place.
So, then. In a book that is focused on the communication and interactions between all of these people (and more, I just don’t have time to list them here. Really, this topic is worth a whole scholarly paper – maybe more than one – and would take up days of reading, annotating, and I’m trying to just go on memory and some finding of quotes I half-remember in gutenberg e-texts), wouldn’t the depth of meaning behind characters’ words be all that more important?
Also, doesn’t the theme of “men…repeating words…perhaps without thoroughly understanding – certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning” apply so much today? (Ahem, politicians.)
I love when something like this comes up, and it puts me in a “Well why didn’t I think of that?!” mode and now I want to go back and re-read all of Austen’s works. And maybe I want to go and spend all of my days in a library, re-reading and re-interpreting literature. Thanks for following me down the rabbit hole on this one. I feel like I could get lost in all of these good books for years. If only I had that chance.