|A Brief Review of
Jane Austen: Christian Encounters Series
Reviewed by Chelsea Andres.
Peter Leithart, in his biography of Jane Austen for the “Christian Encounters” Series, offers a fine effort at relaying a poignant life. His work demonstrates no lack of research and study as he blends tidbits of Jane Austen’s personality with major facts about her life in a smooth-flowing biography. Leithart does an excellent job of showing Austen’s sardonic humor, which sets the tone in most of her novels. He also shows the progression of Austen’s publishing struggle and the valuable editing she did of her work in response. I am impressed by Leithart’s knowledge and study of Austen’s work. He is able to illustrate the complexities of her characters in spite of the seemingly simple stage of British countryside, the preferred setting of Austen’s work. Thus, this book is an accomplishment for Austen fans in that it reflects their literary hero in a funny and humanizing light.
“On December 5, 1794, George Austen paid twelve shillings for ‘a Small Mahogany Writing Desk with a Long Drawer and Glass Ink Stand Compleat’ probably as a birthday gift to his daughter, soon to turn nine” (43). This sentence communicates the two most important parts of her life: family and writing. Leithart dedicates the first chapter, and much more, to describing Austen’s family and their life together. Since Jane Austen didn’t get married, she spent her entire life living with either her parents or siblings. Leithart considers that because Jane’s father, George Austen—an encourager of all things creative or intellectual—was a minister, she was clearly a Christian.
Now, since this biography is part of a series entitled “Christian Encounters,” I personally assumed two things before reading Leithart’s book. One, the person about whom the book is written is a believer and follower of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Two, the book would be brief but focused on their work and faith. After reading Jane Austen, it is apparent Leithart labored to live up to my assumptions. The book is brief and definitely focused on Austen’s influences and work. He also tried his darndest to connect Austen’s faith with what he could in her writings. But, frankly, this Christian biography lacks Biblical grounding and Christ-centeredness.
“The Austens’ Christianity was not the excitable Christianity of Bunyan or John Newton, but a cooler, more rational and more ethically focused Christianity, which expressed itself in acts of charity” (25).
Leithart tries to convince his readers that Jane’s “morality and manners” offsets an author prone to gossip and judgment. That “her moral stance was sometimes too rigid to be entirely charitable” is an understatement when much of her letters included her condemning view of other people’s choices (68). There is an example of Jane’s written prayers in the book, which illustrates her understanding of sin and the need for mercy. Not once, though, does she mention Christ’s sacrifice and grace. Leithart also provides a few of her writings on nature to show her observance of the Romantic literary current beginning in her day. Here, too, there is no reference to the Creator of such physical wonders. Even her gravestone lacks Biblical clarity and instead displays a hope that her “Redeemer” will accept her soul because of her charity and purity (141). All of this makes me wonder if Christians are really to spend time puzzling together the pieces of truth in others’ genius in order to claim them for our cause. Though I enjoyed this biography, I would rather have read how the Word of God is the basis for all human creativity, even the possibly Christian creativity of Jane Austen.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com