“Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts”—Jane Austen’s Prayers, Evening Prayer
In each of Austen’s novels, some character has a change of heart. This, more than any romantic developments, is a climax of each novel: the point where the heroine or hero comes to see how they have deceived themselves, and what the truth is. Several come to a point of recognizing their sinfulness, repenting, and resolving to change. Each is drawn to that point through some kind of suffering which changes them.
Austen prays, “Look with Mercy on the Sins we have this day committed, & in Mercy make us feel them deeply, that our Repentance may be sincere, and our Resolutions stedfast of endeavouring against the commission of such in future.–Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts . . . and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.”
Sense and Sensibility
Marianne Dashwood shows the most complete repentance. When her beloved Willoughby rejects her, she drives herself into life-threatening illness. Her slow recovery gives her time for “serious reflection,” which means prayerful consideration. (“Serious” in Austen often means “religious.”) Marianne’s feelings, her “sensibility,” have controlled her life. But, she says, “I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings.” She confesses her selfishness, her failure in her duties to her family and friends, her unkindness and injustice to those who were kind to her.
True repentance includes a desire to change. Marianne says that in future she hopes to show that “my spirit is humbled, my heart amended, and that I can practise the civilities, the lesser duties of life, with gentleness and forbearance.” She determines to overcome the past “by religion, by reason, by constant employment.” (Employment means she will do useful work!)
Willoughby also experiences some kind of repentance. He confesses his failures to Marianne’s sister, but it seems he is mostly trying to justify himself, and he does not choose to change. (For more on Marianne’s and Willoughby’s repentance, see “Marianne Dashwood’s Repentance, Willoughby’s ‘Repentance,’ and The Book of Common Prayer“ in Persuasions On-line Winter 2018.)
Pride and Prejudice
Elizabeth Bennet’s heart changes after she reads Darcy’s letter. She has believed Wickham’s lies and thought the worst of Darcy. She now realizes she has been “blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.”
“‘How despicably I have 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 mistrust! 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. . . . Till this moment I never knew myself.’”
As in Austen’s prayer, Elizabeth sees the sinfulness of her own heart, and how she has been deceived by pride and vanity. She drops her prejudices, and begins to see Darcy as the man who deserves her heart.
Darcy has his own change of heart when Elizabeth rejects his first proposal. He sees his selfishness, pride, and conceit when she humbles him. His attitudes change radically, so that when she meets him again at Pemberley, Elizabeth is amazed at his civility and gentleness.
Emma Woodhouse is also deceived by pride and vanity. Her first change of heart comes when Mr. Knightley confronts her for being rude to poor Miss Bates. She recognizes that she has been “scornful, ungracious. But it should be so no more. In the warmth of true contrition, she would call upon her the very next morning.” She carries out this plan, but Emma still needs to see more deeply into her own heart.
When she finds out her friend Harriet loves Mr. Knightley, “It darted through [Emma], with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself! Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes.” Emma realizes that she has been inconsiderate and unfeeling. She is surprised and humiliated by what is in her own heart. “How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under! — The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!. . . To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavour.” She recognizes her “insufferable vanity” and “unpardonable arrogance” in believing she knew what was best for everyone else.
Like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma has been deceived by pride and vanity. Now her heart is more open, and she discovers she has also been unjust to Jane Fairfax. She resolves to conduct herself better, and hopes that each coming year will find her “more rational, more acquainted with herself, and leave her less to regret.”
Even foolish Catherine Morland has her own epiphany. Believing the truth of the lurid novels she’s been reading, she begins to imagine that evil General Tilney murdered his own wife. When Henry Tilney confronts her, “Catherine was completely awakened.” She is “grievously . . . humbled” by her “voluntary, self-created delusion.”
Her misery is quickly over, though. She resolves to always judge and act in the future with “the greatest good sense,” so “she had nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever.”
Persuasion and Mansfield Park
In both Persuasion and Mansfield Park, the heroine has already gone through suffering which formed her character. Mrs. Norris and others at Mansfield Park have emphasized Fanny’s low position for years. Anne Elliot of Persuasion has suffered the loss of her sweetheart and being misunderstood. Her father and sister consider her a nobody, “only Anne.” Both Anne and Fanny have learned humility, wisdom, and patience from their suffering. Neither needs a change of heart; they just need perseverance.
However, the heroes of both novels need their eyes opened. In Persuasion after the accident at Lyme, Captain Wentworth comes to see “the pride, the folly, the madness of resentment” which kept him from forgiving Anne and pursuing her. His encouragement of Louisa Musgrove was “grossly wrong.” When he sees his own heart and is freed from his obligation to Louisa, he goes to Bath and finds Anne waiting for him.
In Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram learns that he has deceived himself about Mary Crawford’s character. When he finally recognizes her lack of principles, he tells her that he “earnestly hoped that she might soon learn to think more justly, and not owe the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire—the knowledge of ourselves and of our duty to the lessons of affliction.”
Edmund tells us that affliction, or suffering, can teach us who we are and how we should live. Elizabeth, Darcy, Marianne, Emma, Catherine, and Captain Wentworth all experienced painful awakenings to the problems in their own hearts, which led them onto better paths in their lives.
Austen prays, “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, and how far we can acquit ourselves of Evil.”
Do you examine your own heart, and look for ways that pride and vanity might be deceiving you? What new paths have such reflections led you to?
Quotes from the novels are from The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Palmera Publishing 2012, kindle version.
Quotes from the prayer are from Later Manuscripts, Cambridge University Press 2013, p. 573. Not all scholars believe that the prayers were written by Jane Austen, but the evidence seems compelling to me.
Illustrations by C.E. Brock, public domain.