Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter, by Irene Collins
One of the great ways to write what is new, or at least striking and rare, about someone is to take an approach that goes against the understanding of our contemporary age. That is what we find in this book, a case where an author takes an obvious and straightforward perspective to Austen’s life and writing and finding a great mine of interpretive insight that is rare because few people recognize the vital importance of morality to the life and writing of Austen largely because their own understanding and practice of Christian morality is so nonexistent. Jane Austen was a parson’s daughter. Not only her father, but multiple brothers and other relatives of hers were clergymen. Jane Austen appears, moreover, to have been particularly close to her father and her father was a generous early patron of her writing, supporting her efforts with considerable warmth and generosity. Numerous examples of the importance of the clergy in Jane Austen’s novels exist, not only concerning the clergy as a profession for younger sons among the gentry but also the question of their role as the public exemplars of morality and decency in a society where both were being put in question.
This book is a modest-sized but very excellent work of discussion that looks at various facets of Jane Austen’s life and writing that are influenced by Austen’s own being the daughter of a parson. The book begins with a discussion of illustrations, a preface, acknowledgements, and an introduction that points out the importance of this fact. The body of the book consists of fifteen chapters, starting with the goodly heritage of Jane Austen’s family background with a heavy clergy involvement (1). This is followed by a discussion of Jane Austen’s upbringing (2) and the school her father ran and which allowed for at least some of her learning (3). After that the author talks about the role of reason and godliness in clergy attitudes during the Georgian age (4) as well as the importance of reading and learning (5). This is followed by a look at the dramatic times of the late 1700’s (6), stories (7), dancing (8), and the key aspect of war (9). This is followed by chapters about love and tragedy in the life of Austen’s relatives (10), publishing (11), issues of marriage and money (12). The book ends with chapters on classical scenes and gothic novels (13), the dread and terrible times of the late 1700’s (14), and Austen leaving Steventon for Bath at the retirement of her father (15), as well as notes, a bibliography, and index.
One of the more notable aspects of this book is something that the author comments on at some length, and that is the relationship between Jane Austen’s writings and the clergy of her time. In the contemporary period, we tend to lack an understanding of the role and importance of the parish church and the parish clergy to the social and moral life of England in reality as well as in Austen’s novels. At the time, though, Austen was an astute observer of the role of the clergy from a privileged role as an insider given her family connections to the profession, and similarly her writing and its practical moral bent were themselves recognized clearly by clergy, among whom were some of her earliest and most perceptive reviewers. We may look at figures like Edmund Bertram and Edward Ferrars and not see them as very impressive, or we may look at Mr. Collins as a figure of fun, and may not see the pervasive importance of clergy as being a touchstone of society and an important part of the context of Jane Austen’s writings, springing from her own experience and observation. And early clergy reviewers praised Austen for her high moral tone as well as her practical approach to showing morality through action rather than merely lecturing about it, something they found worthy of praise but something which in less morally sensitive times has made the moral message of Austen’s writings less plain.