- Remembering the Reformation
No writer incensed Mark Twain more than Jane Austen. In a letter to his lifelong friend, the Reverend Joseph Twichell, he railed: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Twain was as ill at ease in the provincial Regency world of Austen’s characters as Huck Finn was in the parlor of the widow Douglas; like Huck, Twain chafed at “getting sivilized.” Roger Moore’s new book reminds readers of an important civilizing factor in Austen’s writing—namely, the long shadow cast by the Reformation over the English sacred landscape and sense of national identity.
This is a welcome addition to the heavy traffic in books by and about Austen, who in recent years has assumed something of celebrity status, abetted in large measure by the many lush period pieces adapting her works to film. It is not unusual to see impulse-purchase books at checkout counters with titles such as What Would Jane Do? (2014) and Jane Austen: A Treasury (2014) which, according to the book jacket, consists of “quotations that will inspire, amuse and enchant.” There is a steady trade in works aimed at Austen fans, including Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels of Jane Austen (2013), Tea with Jane Austen (2011), and, as was perhaps inevitable, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), recently released as an action-horror-romance film. Mass market media seems to be Austen’s own worst enemy, more damaging by far to the seriousness of her literary enterprise than Mark Twain’s censorious quip.
Although Moore claims his book does not offer a radically new view of Austen, his treatment of her Burkean dislike of precipitate change and preference for preserving ancient national institutions swept away by the Reformation is nothing short of revelatory. His impeccably historicized account of Austen’s contribution to the divisive national conversation about religious change in England reveals her to be an astute Christian commentator more engaged with religious affairs of the day than scholars previously have assumed. Such is the book’s argument, and it is elaborated suasively in two main sections. [End Page 665]
The first section establishes Austen’s knowledge of the Reformation and, more particularly, that her writing consistently expresses regret concerning the assault on the English sacred landscape and spiritual institutions, with special reference to ancien regime notions of hospitality. Meticulously researched throughout, this study rightly gives pride of place to John Weever and William Dugdale, whose antiquarian works were part of a rich Protestant literary tradition of nostalgia that emphasized “the goodness of medieval spiritual institutions and practices despite the corruption to which they succumbed.” The second section offers cogent readings of representative novels in which the Dissolution of the Monasteries and its consequences figure most prominently.
The opening chapter examines the early modern English genres and conventions of nostalgia that were accessible to eighteenth-century readers and goes on to account for the renewed interest in such issues with the closing of the French monasteries in the 1790s. The second situates the social, political, and literary contexts for properly assessing Austen’s passing reference to the Henrician Dissolution of the Monasteries in her History of England (1791), written when she was seventeen. Early and late in her career, Moore adduces, Austen displayed keen interest in the voices and stories from England’s past and an inclination “to look sympathetically at what has been lost or destroyed.” The third chapter masterfully explores specific, personal places—“medieval buildings she worshiped in, inhabited, or visited”—that deepened her nostalgia for the lost world they represented. In the succeeding chapters Moore interprets Northanger Abbey with reference to the nostalgic discourse of sacrilege; Mansfield Park in terms of Portsmouth’s Royal Garrison Chapel as a test case for Austen’s understanding of pre- and post-Reformation forms of hospitality; and Sanditon as a subtle satire of a world without spiritual moorings, emblematized through Mrs. Parker’s...