Jane Austen and the War of Ideas

Book Review by Brenda S. Cox

“Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey

Two Books on Jane Austen’s Assumptions

I recently read two books offering very different ideas about Jane Austen’s approach to religion. My favorite (let’s be honest—because it agrees with what I already thought!) is Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, by Marilyn Butler. Next time we’ll look at Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly, which shocks readers with another approach.

Both would agree, though, that: “no book is improved by being taken out of its context. Every book, even a masterpiece, yields a little more if its assumptions, its language, are understood” (Butler, 3-4). That means we need to understand a book in its original context before we start applying it to today’s world. (I think this is true for anything—the Bible, the American Constitution, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens . . .) However, Butler and Kelly see different areas of life as relevant to Austen’s novels.

Jane Austen and the War of Ideas by Marilyn Butler argues that Austen was essentially a Christian moral writer.

Jane Austen and the War of Ideas

“Jane Austen is by common consent an author remarkably sure of her values. . . . At the end of her novels the standing of the heroine’s soul in the light of the next world seems as decisively settled as her future financial security in this.”—Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1)


Marilyn Butler sees Jane Austen as part of a dispute between two sides. The “Jacobins” supported the ideals of the French Revolution. They were “sentimentalists” (think of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility), who trusted people’s individual instincts and feelings. Rather than examining herself according to moral standards, Marianne judges according to her feelings. She says, “if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure.” Sentimentalists saw man as naturally good, with right instincts.

Butler says that many feared the sentimentalists, thinking they were trying to overthrow religion and society. The sentimentalists saw the individual as more important than the group. Individuals could create their own standards, follow their own “natural” feelings and instincts.

Jane Austen was on the opposite side of this argument. The “Anti-Jacobins” saw man’s nature as self-focused and wicked, needing external restraints. Marianne learns this in Sense and Sensibility. She determines to regulate her memories of Willoughby “by religion, by reason, by constant employment.”

The Anti-Jacobins believed in clear, traditional principles of right and wrong.  Austen agreed, writing as a “conservative Christian moralist” (164).

Heroines who are Right or Wrong

Butler explores how Austen participated in this “war of ideas” in each of her novels. She says they can be divided into “the Heroine who is Right” and “the Heroine who is wrong.” Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Anne Elliot are conservative, orthodox Christian heroines. They give us examples of following principle and duty, sacrificing our own desires to serve others. The “Heroines who are Wrong” begin in error, then gain true understanding. Like Marianne Dashwood, Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, and Emma Woodhouse learn to see themselves more truly, and resolve to follow right principles in the future (Butler, 166).

Butler expands on Austen’s “Christian moralism” in each novel. I’ll share a quote and a few interesting points from each.

The Juvenilia and Northanger Abbey

“Isabella Thorpe, worldly, opportunistic, bent on self-gratification, is one of a series of dangerous women created by Jane Austen. Lucy Steele, Lady Susan, Mary Crawford, all like Isabella pursue the modern creed of self, [representing] the desirable, amoral woman whose activities threaten manners and morals” (180).

In the Juvenilia, Laura in Love and Freindship is an extreme early version of Marianne. Laura has only “Contempt” for a woman without “exalted Ideas, delicate Feelings, or refined Sensibilities.” The other heroine, Sophia, can’t even visit her beloved husband in prison because it would “overpower” her “Sensibility.”

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland learns about the evils of human nature. She finds that the Thorpes, Frederick Tilney, and of course General Tilney (even after she recognizes her misjudgment), are not the essentially good characters she first assumed them to be. These characters only seek self-gratification; they are not governed by religious principle.

Marianne’s sensibility leads her to flout society’s standards, giving Willoughby a lock of hair and even writing a letter to him, although they are not engaged. 
Sense and Sensibility

“Elinor was never intended to be infallible, but to typify an active, struggling Christian in a difficult world” (192).

Self-examination is a Christian virtue that Austen found essential. Marianne, until her illness, refuses to examine her own heart and actions. Elinor, though, often examines her own motives. She follows Austen’s own prayer, which asks God to “Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts.” Near the end, Willoughby appeals to Elinor’s sympathies, and Elinor finds herself tempted to accept his self-justification. But she considers her feelings carefully. She recognizes that his attractive appearance and lively manner make her think more highly of him than he deserves.

Pride and Prejudice

“The subject of Pride and Prejudice is what the title indicates: the sin of pride, obnoxious to the Christian, which takes the form of a complacency about the self and a correspondingly lower opinion, or prejudice, about others” (206).

Both Elizabeth and Darcy have pride in themselves, and prejudice towards others. They need to examine themselves and change. Their story illustrates another of Austen’s prayers, where she asks God to help us “think humbly of ourselves,” examining our own conduct severely, but “consider our fellow-creatures with kindness” (206).

Elizabeth learns to see that her judgments are really rooted in her feelings, not in absolute standards. Darcy speaks badly of her, so, in her hurt and anger, she misjudges him. Wickham attracts her and makes her feel good about her opinions, so she misjudges him also. She eventually examines her own thoughts and feelings and recognizes her errors.

Mansfield Park

“Champions of the two sides, evil and good, worldliness and spirituality, modern subjectivity and traditional orthodoxy, take the field and fight their conflict out to the finish—with, from the conservative viewpoint, an appropriate result” (245).

Butler says Austen sets up three different groups in Mansfield Park. Each has a different kind of education and values. Henry and Mary Crawford are intentionally worldly, with no respect for religion or morality, seeking only self-gratification. They learned their values from their uncle, the Admiral who lives with his mistress. Maria and Julia Bertram are confused. The only real duty that Maria acknowledges is to marry someone rich. Their education has left a vacuum. They learned feminine accomplishments without the Christian virtues of “self-knowledge, generosity, and humility.” Fanny, of course, has learned those virtues. Maria ends up on the Crawfords’ side, while at the end of the book there is still hope for Julia.

Fanny’s refusal of Henry Crawford represents a moral choice: will she choose wealth and the shallow values of the upper class, or the peace and humility of her life at Mansfield Park?

Fanny is tested by Henry’s proposal and her time in Portsmouth. Places in the book represent different values. At Mansfield, Fanny has the peace to examine herself and practice devotion. She takes the humble role of serving others. Everingham (Henry’s estate) and London represent noise, busyness, and fashion. Corrupt, upper-class, self-centered values prevail. Fanny’s family home in Portsmouth is likewise a place of constant noise and selfishness. Fanny returns to the peace, balance, and service of Mansfield.


Emma “is poised at the outset of life, with two missions to perform: to survey society, distinguishing the true values from the false; and, in the light of this new knowledge of ‘reality’, to school what is selfish, immature, or fallible in herself” (250).

Speech is one interesting theme of Emma, bringing out the characters and their values. The comic characters chatter constantly, but no one listens to them—Miss Bates, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mrs. Elton. Miss Bates doesn’t even finish her sentences. Though Miss Bates illustrates good nature and humility, she is not a role model for Emma. None of these people are as intelligent as Emma.

Frank Churchill also talks too much, and gets Emma talking too much. His goal in talking is to deceive the community. When Emma finally learns of Frank’s engagement, she sees it as a social crime. His secret perverted all his interactions in Highbury. Jane Fairfax, much less comfortable with deceit, talks too little as she tries to preserve the secret.

Mr. Knightley does not speak much in the novel, compared to others. He is the person of integrity and honesty who leads Emma to truth and humility. He is her perfect match. Incidentally, Robert Martin, who we never hear speak in the novel, is Harriet Smith’s perfect match. The use of many words is not a virtue in Emma.

Persuasion and Sanditon

“For all the world like Marianne, Captain Wentworth comes to recognize that he has been blinded by pride and self-sufficiency, and to admit that real strength lies outside the self” (290).

At Lyme, Captain Wentworth began “to deplore the pride, the folly, the madness of resentment, which had kept him from trying to regain” Anne. 

Butler says that Austen’s priorities haven’t changed when she gets to her last two novels. Like other Austen heroes and heroines, Wentworth comes to a moment of self-realization, recognizing his pride and need for humility.

In addition, like Mansfield Park, Persuasion is tinged with popular Evangelical ideas. Following Evangelical priorities, Austen focuses on Anne’s intense interior life. Anne disapproves of Mr. Elliot’s Sunday traveling and Captain Benwick’s excessive reading of romantic poetry. Austen shows the emptiness, vanity, and selfishness of Sir Walter’s upper-class life.

Sanditon is likewise set up to show the empty lives of irresponsible and self-indulgent people like Lady Denham and Mr. Parker. Sir Edward, who admires the villains in popular novels (Samuel Johnson, Evangelicals, and others warned of this possibility), will likely be a hilarious villain himself.


“For [Jane Austen], the moral human being wages war with the natural human being. Her scepticism about fallen human nature has excellent Christian authority. She is indeed a moralist much as Samuel Johnson is a moralist” (296).

Marilyn Butler makes a strong case that Austen is a strongly moral, deeply Christian novelist. Austen’s characters learn to govern their feelings, as well as their pride and prejudices, by religious duties and principles.

I got this book from my public library. If you want to delve more deeply into it, be aware that the style is academic. It includes long discussions of other authors and works of Austen’s time. I recommend the introduction, chapter 1, and chapters 6-13, which focus on Austen’s novels, as the most interesting and helpful parts of the book.

In Austen’s novels, what do you think is the best example of her deeply moral priorities? Do any of her lessons particularly resonate with your life?


Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Marilyn Butler, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, 1987, 1989.


9 thoughts on “Jane Austen and the War of Ideas

  1. Dear Ms. Cox,

    The subject of your post/review is I think often overlooked in modern circles. Austen’s Christian faith is a golden thread that informs all her ideas about good and bad characters. Like all good writers, she sees humanity as she sees herself, fallen but endeavoring to do better.
    I identify very strongly with the character of Eleanor from Sense and Sensibility as a firstborn introvert, as I believe Eleanor was. She holds a lot inside, but it is motivated by a desire to do the right thing. My favorite scene and where I think Eleanor shines is when she is goaded by Lucy Snow, and she remains civil. It is so filled with undertow.

    Thanks again for your work.


    1. Thanks, Amy. Yes, Elinor is amazing in that scene, as she struggles against her own feelings and still does her duty, even to someone who really doesn’t deserve it. She turns the other cheek to Lucy repeatedly. A beautiful example.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It was a delight reading this. I recently finished reading Persuasion, which some consider her most artful work.


  3. Thanks, Kevin! There are a lot of depths to each novel. At some point I’m thinking about doing a series of posts on each novel, bringing out (and discovering!) more of the Christian principles and morals undergirding each one.


  4. I have just read Sense and Sensibility. I am quite amazed at the moral teachings that Jane Austen is attempting to encourage. I like how she focuses on many of the heavenly and capital virtues and the seven deadly sins.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Yusuf. Yes, at this year’s JASNA AGM (yearly conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America), I will be speaking on faith messages in Sense and Sensibility, mainly focusing on the ideas of selfishness and self-denial in the book. A fascinating study!


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