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“Penance and mortification for ever”: Jane Austen and the Ambient Noise of Catholicism
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At first glance, the subjects of Catholicism, Catholic Relief, or Catholic political life more generally appear largely absent from Jane Austen’s work. And yet her lifetime witnessed not only the Catholic Relief Acts of 1778, 1782, and 1791, but also the 1800 Act of Union, which—though not yet resulting in full Catholic emancipation—initiated the wider debate facilitating the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, twelve years after Austen’s death. The title of my essay, however, belies the notion that Catholicism is all but absent in Austen’s novels. The quotation comes from a passage in Emma (1815) describing Jane Fairfax’s apparent fate to become a governess. Describing the current predicament of Emma’s archrival, the narration tells us, “with the fortitude of a devoted novitiate, [Jane] had resolved at one-and-twenty to complete the sacrifice, and retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope, to penance and mortification for ever.” With its obvious reference to the ritualistic practices of Catholic sisterhood, the passage is playful, even a bit facetious. However, the comment also indicates an awareness of key Catholic concepts—novitiate, sacrifice, penance. In addition, whether ironically or not, the passage introduces—and not for the first time—the specter of the nun. For how do we read Emma’s earlier declaration that she has “none of the usual inducements of women to marry,” except as the announcement that she too would very much like to be, if not a nun, then the Mother Superior herself? (p. 82). After all, Emma’s vision of a respectable celibacy, a life rooted in good works and possessing economic independence outside of marriage, does indeed suggest the life of a nun. Still, the very idea seems absurd—the convent was scarcely seen as a viable alternative to marriage in Regency Anglican England, and Austen’s readers only wait for Emma to recognize the “true” nature of her own heart.

The easiest way to approach this topic might be to ask, “What was Austen’s attitude toward Catholicism?” If this were indeed the question, the answer would not be simple. As a young woman, she appears to have been an enthusiastic supporter of the Stuart cause and the Catholicism that it evoked. However, later textual clues suggest a very different sensibility, as I will discuss shortly. I propose that the organizing question here is not whether Austen demonstrated any apparently pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic sentiments, but rather, “What is the significance of far-reaching effects of Catholic political life on Austen’s work?” Or, to ask the question another, broader way, could it be that Catholicism and Catholic Relief function analogously to the issues of slavery and abolition in Austen’s oeuvre? After all, a scant thirty years ago, few would have thought to connect Austen to colonialism or to the African slave trade. Edward Said’s famous comments in Culture and Imperialism (1993) not only initiated new research into Austen’s political affiliations but also led to new readings and understandings of the political “not-said” in her work. Is it possible, then, that Catholicism and the issue of Catholic Relief function similarly as “not-saids” permeating Austen’s work and generating particular narrative pressures to close down certain possibilities, while opening up others? If this is the case, where can we detect the presence of a topic that scarcely makes its appearance?

In several ways, those who believe that a deep and abiding antipathy between Protestant and Catholic England was in place across Britain before the Christian-Muslim division identified by Said in Orientalism (1978) have laid the groundwork for this line of questioning. Raymond D. Tumbleson, for one, has argued that Protestant hostility towards Catholics was a “constitutive element” in emerging, seventeenth-century nationalist and imperialist ideologies. He further asserts that, right up into the eighteenth century, the sectarian dichotomy between English rationality and putative Catholic “feudal-absolutist unreason” is “the obscured original” of Said’s central opposition between colonialist and orientalist mentality (p. 12). According to Tumbleson, “oppositions of first and third worlds reiterate a cultural logic first developed to justify English Protestant exceptionalism” (p. 12). Tumbleson...

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