“. . . there are so many who forget to think seriously till it is almost too late.” –Mrs. Smith in Persuasion (italics added, here and throughout this post)
What does “serious” mean in Austen’s novels? Usually, what we would expect: the opposite of light and frivolous. But often it hides a deeper meaning: “religious.”
In the above quote, Anne Elliot’s old friend Mrs. Smith has been speaking of how selfishly people behave on their sickbeds. She may also be thinking of her husband’s death; he apparently didn’t think about religion, thinking “seriously,” before he died. Similarly in Sense and Sensibility, when Colonel Brandon finds his first love Eliza dying, he says, “Life could do nothing for her, beyond giving time for a better preparation for death.” This preparation would have been thinking “seriously,” remembering God. She would have received final unction, a last Communion service (White, 60). Preparation for Communion required “serious” self-examination and prayer.
Those without religion do not think “seriously.” In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia “has never been taught to think on serious subjects; and for the last . . . twelvemonth—she has been given up to nothing but amusement and vanity.” Lydia does not think about religion, which is why she interrupts Mr. Collins with an irrelevant comment when he is reading Fordyce’s Sermons to the family, a book “of a serious stamp.” Fordyce addresses young ladies whose only goal is entertainment. He points out that they were not sent into the world only to have fun, but should spend at least some time on “serious” things, to prepare themselves for the future (106-7).
“Serious subjects” in Austen are religious subjects. This is clear in the brief biography that her brother Henry wrote about her:
“One trait only remains to be touched on. It makes all others unimportant. She [Jane Austen] was thoroughly religious and devout; fearful of giving offence to God, and incapable of feeling it towards any fellow creature. On serious subjects she was well-instructed, both by reading and meditation, and her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.”
Austen uses the word in the same way. In a letter describing a novelist whose book she read, she says “Mrs. Hawkins’ great excellence is on serious subjects. There are some very delightful conversations and reflections on religion . . .” (letter to Anna Lefroy, late Feb-early March, 1815). “Reflections on religion” are “serious subjects.”
In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram discuss how to read the church liturgy, while Fanny listens. Edmund is pleased that Henry is discussing the liturgy “without any touch of that spirit of banter or air of levity which Edmund knew to be most offensive to Fanny.” He knows that to win Fanny’s heart, Henry needs to show “seriousness on serious subjects.” These “serious subjects” are the church service and sermons. When Fanny explains her aversion to Henry, she tells Edmund, “I am persuaded that he does not think, as he ought, on serious subjects.” Because he misled Maria Bertram, Fanny believes he has poor moral values with no religious foundation.
Henry’s sister Mary is not “serious” either. Mary tells Edmund that “nobody likes” daily prayers. While she seems serious enough in her criticisms, Edmund, trying to justify her, says, “Your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects”: prayer and worship.
Serious Fanny Price
Edmund tells Fanny that she and Henry will be a good match, balancing each other, since Henry is “lively” and Fanny is “serious.” He means their temperaments, since Fanny is “easily dejected” and Henry is cheerful.
However, I think Austen may have meant something deeper. Fanny was also “serious” in the sense of being religious. Henry, though, had no religious values, and would later commit adultery with no apparent idea of the seriousness of his crime.
Fanny Price is religious (“serious”) both in her words and her actions. She is delighted by the idea of family prayer, showing a love for worship that is foreign to Mary Crawford. She rhapsodizes about the stars and the trees; “the sublimity of Nature” carries her out of herself and, it is implied, towards the Creator. When Fanny believes Edmund will marry Mary, she attempts to overcome her love for him, as is her religious duty, and she prays fervently for his happiness; one of the few explicit mentions of prayer in Austen’s novels.
In Emma, when Emma has been wrong, Mr. Knightley says he will not scold her, but leave her to her own reflections, trusting that her “serious spirit” will correct her “vain spirit.” Her serious spirit is her conscience, the religious knowledge of right and wrong.
“Serious reflection” appears to mean prayer (White, 60). In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood experiences “serious reflection” or “serious recollection” during her severe illness. She searches her heart before God, seeing her sins and failures and her need for “atonement” and better behavior. She determines to devote her time to “serious study”: religious reading, such as sermons (White, 62). Austen herself read sermons and other “serious” (religious) materials.
While Marianne’s serious reflection was based on her grief at the loss of Willoughby, both Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot pray when they are thankful. When Emma finds out that her friend Harriet is to be married, Emma is overjoyed and grateful, and wishes only “to grow more worthy” of Mr. Knightley. “Serious she was, very serious in her thankfulness, and in her resolutions; and yet there was no preventing a laugh, sometimes in the very midst of them.” Emma is “serious” in her joy—giving thanks to God, and in her religious resolve to become a better person.
Anne Elliot, after Captain Wentworth proposes, is so joyful that she needs “an interval of meditation, serious and grateful” to make her “steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.” Serious and grateful meditation appears to be prayer, thanking God for restoring the hope she had lost.
Austen’s characters do think about “serious” religious subjects, though we may not notice it since our use of “serious” has changed. If you find other examples in her writings where serious means religious, please share them in the comments section below.
We might join with Austen in the third of the prayers she wrote, as she prays, “Keep us oh! Heavenly Father from evil this night. Bring us in safety to the beginning of another day and grant that we may rise again with every serious and religious feeling which now directs us.”
Tave, Stuart M. Some Words of Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, page 112, introduces the idea of “serious” meaning “religious,” and gives examples.
White, Laura Mooneyham. Jane Austen’s Anglicanism. London and New York: Routledge, 2016. Taylor and Francis, Kindle edition. White gives examples of “serious” as “religious” on pages 59-60 and elsewhere.
Austen, Jane. The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Palmera Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Fordyce, James. Sermons to Young Women. 13th ed. Volume 1. London: Cadell and Davies, 1809.