Thursday, October 2, 2014

Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and Religion in the Regency Era

By Rosanne E. Lortz

[T]aking Holy Orders and becoming a beneficed clergyman was generally an undemanding way of life which enabled many practitioners to continue to enjoy the popular activities of the period—riding, hunting, drinking and gaming—without censure, and, for those who wished to marry, a well-endowed living provided ample means for supporting a wife and family…. A desire to enter the Church did not necessarily have to spring from a strong religious conviction or a passion for the calling; for many younger sons it was position which could ensure a reasonable degree of comfort based on an income derived from one or more livings which were frequently made available from the family estates.
Jennifer Kloester’s book Georgette Heyer’s Regency World is billed as “the definitive guide for all fans of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and the glittering Regency period.” The book is a well-researched compendium of the dress, dining, manners, customs, houses, and haunts of the time period. I have heard more than one historical novelist refer to it as the “Bible” that must be adhered to when writing Regencies.  I refer to it often and keep a special spot for it on my shelves.

Interestingly, the above quote, taken from Kloester’s book, is the single paragraph dealing with religion during the Regency in England. The lack of material on this subject (as well as the general tenor of this passage) gives the impression that religion, among the upper classes at least, was either nominal or peripheral.

But was religious belief, in particular Christianity, such an unimportant aspect of Regency society?

It is certainly true that religion does not figure much in Georgette Heyer’s books. However, it is equally true that Georgette Heyer’s Regency world is not the same world as that of the historical Regency era. Georgette Heyer was a historical novelist from the twentieth century who developed the genre of Regency romances as we know them today, and while many aspects of her books are well researched, there are other aspects that veer into the world of fairy tale (as romances in any time period are wont to do). The chance of meeting a wealthy, eligible, titled bachelor in Georgette Heyer’s Regency London, for example, is far greater than it would have been in real life....

Portrait of Jane Austen drawn by
her sister Cassandra
Jane Austen’s work, on the other hand, is far more realistic a picture of Regency life, for Austen did not simply write in the Regency world, she lived in it. Period sources show that she was the daughter of a clergyman who was much more devout than the description of clergymen given to us by Kloester at the beginning of this essay.

Peter Leithart, in his biography Jane Austen, examines primary source material and shows that that although Jane Austen was not demonstrative with her religious sentiments, she followed in her father’s footsteps as a believing Christian in the style of the period in which she lived. She attended church regularly, wrote her own prayers in the style of the Anglican prayer book, and encouraged her family members in moral living.

The most memorable clergymen in Austen’s books are the conceited Mr. Elton and the absurd Mr. Collins—Mr. Elton could certainly be the clergyman of nominal faith described in the paragraph from Kloester’s book. However, Leithart points out that all of Jane’s other clergymen are praiseworthy individuals. Edmund Bertram from Mansfield Park, despite temptation from the worldly Miss Crawford, is portrayed as taking right path to join the Church. And though Austen treats Mr. Elton with a good deal of ridicule, she also centers the whole book of Emma around the virtue of Christian charity.

Christianity, it seems, was not just a peripheral matter in Jane Austen’s life. It affected her daily life as well as her writing. And while it would be foolhardy to take the single case of Jane Austen’s beliefs and make them representative of all the denizens of the Regency era, it would also perhaps be reasonable to wish that “The definitive guide for all fans of…Jane Austen…” had a little more than one paragraph about a matter which impacted her life in such a large way.
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Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade. Her current WIP is a Regency era murder mystery.
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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer's Regency World. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2010.

Leithart, Peter J. Jane Austen. Thomas Nelson, 2010.

14 comments:

  1. Nice succint, comparative study Rosanne! I have never considered that Heyer didn't include much on the clergy, but you're right. I've enjoyed the contemporary insight of such writers like Austen, Gaskell and the Brontes on their times.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I hadn't thought about Gaskell or the Brontes on this topic, but you're right, there is a lot about the clergy in their works as well. St. John's religious interests (obsession?) is certainly a huge part of Bronte's Jane Eyre.

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  2. It's worth remembering that in Henry Tilney Jane Austen created a clergyman who is both humane and witty. Incidentally, I've a lot of time for poor Edward Ferrars, having to face out his odious mother's demands and discouragement before he can take holy orders.

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  3. The church at the period was considered dead or at least asleep by many. However, this was also the time of the Methodists, the Dissenters, the Evangelistsm and others who thought faith and religion should be more personal and should consist of more than sitting in a oew on Sunday.
    Because the church was considered a safe position for younger sons, there were many who barely could be considered moral much less Christian. Syndey Smith was heartbroken when a law was passed making it necessary for him to live in his parish instead of mixing with the society in London. Several went into the church because it allowed them to be a scholar but still get married.
    The enthusiam of the Methodist and Evangelicals( though Hannah More sued someone who called her enthusiastic) was making a difference , It took time for people to feel that there was more to religion than reading the Book of Common Prayer

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    1. I am sure there were indeed many in this time period who were only nominally religious. I haven't studied the religion of this period out extensively (as you can see, my post above is a wish for more information on the subject). I am equally certain that there were many who were truly religious, and that's what I want to learn more about.

      I did find one of Leithart's points in his biography of Jane Austen especially interesting--that we shouldn't judge Austen's Christianity or the Christianity of people of this time period by our own modern day standards of what it means to be "on fire" for religion. Composing a formal prayer in the style of the Book of Common Prayer was a religious act that indicated she was devout....even though it might not carry the same level of "personal relationship with Jesus" that we see evangelicals advocating today.

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  4. I believe you have begged the essential question when you wrote: "Period sources show that she was the daughter of a clergyman who was much more devout than the description of clergymen given to us by Kloester at the beginning of this essay."

    In my opinion, Leithart is 100% incorrect in his conclusions, and there is a small but significant scholarly tradition dating back while a while which argues that Jane Austen's portraits of clergymen like Dr. Grant, Mr. Elton and Mr. Collins ARE reflective of her contempt for the very sort of clergymen whom Kloester described in that passage you quoted at the top of your post.

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    1. No offense meant, but I guess we'll just have to disagree on that subject. :-) Have you read Leithart's bio of Jane Austen? My take on it was that he backs up all his assertions very well with source material.

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  5. Georgette Heyer's first biographer, Jane Aiken Hodge, noted that Heyer herself was a rationalist who didn't really "get" religious feeling; hence the lack of it in her books. Hodge notes that this deficiency sticks out even farther in Heyer's historical novels set in medieval times.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I started one of Heyer's medieval books a long time ago and put it down without finishing...I love her regencies but the medieval one wasn't my cup of tea. It's been so long I can't remember why I didn't like it, but I wonder if this "deficiency", as you call it, might be one of the reasons....

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  6. I enjoyed your article and the discussion comments very much -- and will be reading Leithart's biography of Austen soon.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by! :-)

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  7. I've always believed that religion (same as other standard aspects of Regency life) wasn't much dwelt on by Jane Austen simply because it would have been unnecessary. In fact, I doubt it wouldn't have occurred to her to do so. Standard religious practice would have been taken as a matter of course - by herself and her contemporaries. Just as she didn't explain the role of the servants or the details of transportation, she didn't need to elaborate on the common life of faith. Unlike in most places today, it would have been assumed and understood that people believed in God and were, in that fairly homogeneous society, Christian, at least in name. It was the rule, not the exception. Then as now, however, some were of course more committed than others.

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