Book Review by Brenda S. Cox
Jane Austen “is, first and finally, a Christian writer” — Laura Dabundo, Jane Austen: A Companion
Are you looking for a “companion” to Jane Austen? A reference where you can look up the people and places in her life, the themes in her novels, events in history, and discussions of her novels? Look no further. Laura Dabundo’s Jane Austen: A Companion will give you all that and more.
Let’s pluck out just a few of the many topics in this book. On science, we find “agriculture,” explaining the agricultural revolution going on in Austen’s England. Changes in agriculture affected the Austen and Knight families. The best landowners in Austen’s novels, Darcy and Knightley, are involved with their farms. Even Mr. Bennet knows when horses are needed on his farmland. Large landowners were enclosing (fencing off) common land, as Austen occasionally mentions, which left many of the poor homeless and sent them to work in the new factories.
Another section on “city vs. country” explains Austen’s use of this theme, with its background and context. In Austen’s novels the worst crimes happen in the cities, while more moral characters inhabit the countryside.
Another section explains the impact of the Industrial Revolution on Austen’s England and on her novels. While the new factories gave riches to some, they also led to “pollution, urban blight, crime, and poverty,” (110), as well as disease, overwork, and poverty for many. In a world of such “upheaval and displacement,” it’s not surprising that three of Austen’s novels begin with change and displacement (S&S, Persuasion, and P&P).
Professor Dabundo sees Jane Austen as a woman of deep faith. She says Austen is “first and finally, a Christian writer, which is an important legacy of her upbringing” (17). Dabundo discusses that faith in her “brief biography” of Austen, including Austen’s prayers and practices. She gives a few examples of how that affects Austen’s novels. In Emma, several characters are identified by the parish they live in: “Their religion anchors their identity.” Austen gives her moral judgment on Maria Rushworth’s adultery in Mansfield Park, talking about her “punishment.” Henry Tilney also expresses Christian values as part of a national identity: “we are English, . . . we are Christians.”
Faith-related entries in the Companion include:
- “Bible, Authorized Version (King James Version),”
- “Book of Common Prayer (1662),”
- “Church of England and Anglicanism,”
- “Fordyce, James” (a Presbyterian minister mentioned in P&P),
- “illegitimacy” (and the church and society’s attitudes towards it),
- “livings, ecclesiastical,” and
- “slavery, the slave trade, and abolition in Great Britain” (a campaign led by Quakers, Evangelicals, and other Christians).
Besides these explanations, Dabundo gives an in-depth analysis of each of Austen’s novels, including the incomplete works. She sometimes mentions spiritual themes in these entries. For example, quoting another scholar, Anita Soloway, Dabundo tells us that in Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford was rejected because she lacked “the single most important attribute of the wife of Proverbs [31.3]–the fear of God” (146).
I am finding Jane Austen: A Companion fascinating; I am learning a wide variety of new things as I read it straight through. Most will probably want to use it as a reference, however.
For more about the book and an interview with the author, check out my post this week on Jane Austen’s World: “Here, There, and Everywhere.” Happy reading!
Jane Austen’s faith affected her writing, though often in subtle ways. How does what you believe affect your life and work? How would you like it to affect your life and work?