"Jane Austen's Prayers: A Personal Journey"

At one point during the 40th anniversary celebration of New College Berkeley last fall, those attending were invited to call out Bible passages in which the number forty is significant, one of them being the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. I recently read in the Lenten devotional God for Us, that the forty days of Lent echo this time period. A process of self-examination and repentance, familiar to us in the season of Lent, is evident in the three prayers Jane Austen (1775-1817) composed for her family’s devotions.

Jane Austen’s prayers follow the structure and are written in the style of prayers found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. All three of her prayers open with an invocation, and the prayer I will be quoting begins with the words, Give us grace, almighty Father. At times in her prayers, one can detect Austen’s own voice and concerns, as in this section:

May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing thoughts, words and actions during it…have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our hearts these questions oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by pride or vanity.

We may recognize the problem of pride, explored in its various forms in Austen’s most well-known work, Pride and Prejudice (1813). Pride is also a prominent motif in her last completed novel, Persuasion, published posthumously 200 years ago this year. Self-knowledge, in contrast to self-deception, is a central focus in all six of Austen’s novels.

Though containing dramatic elements, Jane Austen’s novels are written in the genre of comedy, and are not preachy. Austen’s prayers are a confirmation of her Christian faith, and they provide insights into her fictional works. Studying her novels and her prayers has been a journey for me in scholarship and teaching, and in my spiritual pilgrimage.   

After completing graduate work in film and television studies, in 1995 I saw a film adaptation of Austen’s novel Persuasion.  I was intrigued by its inventive visual style, scintillating dialogue, and portrayal of an intelligent female protagonist honored for making wise choices. As a result, I re-read all of her novels. I then began to research books and articles on Austen, and to think about the ethical principles expressed in her novels and their film and television adaptations. At one meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, I learned about the significance of her prayers. Subsequent conferences provided additional occasions to meet other scholars interested in Austen’s faith and her written prayers as they relate to her life and her novels.

Shortly after my family’s relocation to the Bay Area fifteen years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to teach for New College Berkeley on the Christian meaning in Jane Austen’s work. Since that time I have given several talks specifically on Austen’s prayers in relation to concepts of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation in her novels. My presentations always utilized film clips to illustrate sections of the books and to address questions of adaptation.  

Last year I used a more interactive approach for an NCB class on Austen’s prayers and did not include film clips. At different points, the class members and I all recited each of the three Austen prayers. After reading one prayer, I asked attendees if they would like to talk about their own devotional practices, and it was fascinating to hear descriptions of various approaches.  

Since learning about Austen’s prayers, I have given students a copy of an abridged form of the prayer quoted here. Initially, I found this version printed on parchment-like paper at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, and more recently in the form of a postcard, available from Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire. The same abridged version of this prayer is displayed in St. Nicholas Church in Steventon, Hampshire where Austen’s father and then one of her brothers had been the rector. 

In the process of research and teaching I learned that an expression of gratitude is part of each prayer, as in this passage: Give us a thankful sense of the blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot… Gratitude with spiritual overtones occurs in Austen’s novels, and is especially prominent in Sense and Sensibility (1811). Each of her prayers also contains a petition for the safety of others, such as:

May the sick and afflicted, be now, and ever thy care; and heartily do we pray for the safety of all that travel by land or by sea, for the comfort & protection of the orphan and widow and that thy pity may be shewn upon all captives and prisoners.

The reference to the sea is poignant, as two of Austen’s brothers were in the Navy, and the narratives of both Mansfield Park (1814) and Persuasion (1818) have significant elements pertaining to the Navy. We can also discern in the above passage an allusion to biblical injunctions to care for those in need. 

When first reading Jane Austen’s novels and those of C. S. Lewis, Charles Dickens, and Charlotte Brontë, I loved the stories but did not recognize their biblical allusions. Re-reading them after becoming a Christian was a discovery of a completely new dimension in their concerns with integrity, justice, transformation, and redemption grounded in biblical precepts and phrases. I appreciate having had the opportunity to teach on all of these authors for NCB, and to explore aspects of faith in their novels and film adaptations.

How have Austen’s prayers affected the way I pray? Once I became a Christian, I started to keep a prayer journal and still do. Intercessory prayer has always been important to me when writing in my journal and praying with others. The influence from studying Austen’s prayers is that, in reviewing each day, I consider where I need to ask God for forgiveness.

    Each of Austen’s prayers ends with an allusion to Christ as Savior, as in: Hear us almighty God, for his sake who has redeemed us, and taught us thus to pray. This is followed by the first few words of the Lord’s Prayer, Our Father which art in heaven…, indicating its recitation at this point. After we had recited the Lord’s Prayer together in my NCB class last year, I asked the students to compose a reflection on it or write their own version of it. Hearing responses to this exercise was one of the highlights of the class for me and felt like a moment of worship.

The writings of Jane Austen, along with those of other authors, have enhanced my spiritual life as well as my research and teaching.  At Easter time, the passage above, which alludes to the reconciling work of Christ’s death and resurrection, seems especially significant. Themes of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation in the prayers and in the novels Austen composed some 200 years ago still resonate today. This demonstrates to me the continuity of fellowship one can experience through the stories and prayers we encounter in our journey of faith.

Quotations of the prayers are cited from The Works of Jane Austen, Vol. VI, edited by R.W. Chapman, Oxford University Press, c1954, 1988.

Margaret Horwitz (Ph.D.) is NCB Adjunct Professor of Christianity & Literature.