I am sure Jane Austen would feel highly honoured to know that this first public act of worship at Steventon, following the easing of the Covid-19 lockdown, occurs in the week in which the anniversary of her death falls. We can’t of course pay our respects at Jane’s grave as it’s in Winchester but we stand here in this churchyard close to the grave of her brother James and other members of the extended Austen family.
Now James may not have been Jane’s favourite brother – he was 10 years older than her – but his life and activities were certainly inspirational for Jane. James published The Loiterer in 1789 when Jane was 14. It was a periodical containing essays and humorous articles – rather like today’s Private Eye but without the scurrilous material! The humour in James’s writing greatly appealed to Jane and it was he who must have led her to be equally humorous and comical in many of her early writings known as The Juvenilia.
In fact throughout her life members of the family proved of great importance to her and she was regularly in contact with them. Many visits were paid to brother Edward and his family over in Kent at Godmersham. Brothers Frank and Charles may have been at sea quite frequently but Jane kept in touch with them by letter and brother Henry, the one she most admired, was a huge help to her later in life when he entertained her in London and dealt with publishers for some of her novels. But it is also clear that
her brothers were a great help to her in her writings. Thanks to her father and James’s lives as clergymen Jane was able to write at length in Mansfield Park about Ordination and priestly ministry. Then from Frank and Charles she would have gleaned much knowledge about naval matters enabling her to compose important passages in both Mansfield Park and Persuasion.
And the great value Jane found in family life may be why she features family life so prominently in her novels. We can think of the Bennets in Pride & Prejudice, the Bertrams in Mansfield Park, the Dashwoods in Sense & Sensibility – and many others as well – families made up of several members all presented with great variety in character just as her own family comprised a wealth of different personalities and life experiences. Jane knew the many blessings which family life can bring, but she also knew the strains which it can also create.
One thing I have always found strange about Jane’s writings is that given her devout Christian faith there’s only one direct reference and quotation from the Bible. It’s a quotation from Psalm 16 voiced by Miss Bates in Emma as she rejoices over the village of Highbury as the most suitable place in which to live. The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground; yea, I have a goodly heritage. I’m sure Jane would echo those same words with regard to the fortune that was hers in family life. That life meant so much to her and that is indeed something for which we can always be thankful whenever we read her novels.
12th July 2020