Saturday, October 05, 2013

Fordyce's Sermons

By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it (for every thing announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. -- Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed. -- Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce's Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with,

``Do you know, mama, that my uncle Philips talks of turning away Richard, and if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him. My aunt told me so herself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mr. Denny comes back from town.''
[Austen, Pride and Prejudice, chapter 14]

The full title of the book would be Sermons to Young Women. And this is the table of contents for that scintillating book (by 1809, the two volumes were presented in a handy one-volume work):

Volume I
1. On the Importance of the Female Sex, Especially the Younger Part
2. On Modesty of Apparel
3. On Female Reserve
4. On Female Virtue
5. On Female Virtue, Friendship, and Conversation
6. On Female Virtue, with Domestic and Elegant Accomplishments
7. On Female Virtue, with Intellectual Accomplishments

Volume II
8. On Female Virtue, with Intellectual Accomplishments
9. On Female Piety
10. On the Same Subject
11. On the Same Subject
12. On Good Works
13. On Female Meekness
14. On the Same Subject

I actually wonder if there is more going on in the scene than is usually given credit. Obviously we have Mr. Collins "with very monotonous solemnity" reading a book of sermons because he refuses to read novels, which tells us a very great deal about Mr. Collins. And it's almost certain that she's mocking Fordyce, whose method of educating young women is perhaps less than well calculated to keep their attention. And one has only to dip into the sermons to find that they do not exactly sparkle, being exactly the sorts of sermons one might read with very monotonous solemnity. Nonetheless, there are often layers and layers of irony in Austen, and it is noticeable that Lydia, who gapes at the very idea of reading sermons and who rudely interrupts, arguably needs the sort of lessons Fordyce is trying to get across, even if not in a sermon monotonously read. Here is a selection from Sermon III, On Female Reserve, after he has broached the virtue of shamefacedness and noted that it should not be confused with pretences.

Has Virtue then forsaken the sex? God forbid. But I am bold to say, her favourite walks are not in those places of public entertainment, now so fondly frequented by so many women. She loves the shade. There she finds herself most secure from the blights of calumny, and the heats of temptation. Ah! ye mothers of this land, how can you expose so rashly those tender blossoms committed to your care? Have ye forgotten that every unkindly breath is ready to blast them? Are ye ignorant, how soon the whitest innocence may be sullied; that it is possible, even for the strictest principles to be corrupted? Is there nothing in your own minds that whispers of the frailty of your sex?...

[He imagines here what the parents might say to him about the necessity of making sure their daughters are not naive, but have some carefully supervised introduction to the world.]

We admit your arguments, so far as they go. Keep within these bounds, and be blameless. But do the parents of the present generation commonly keep within them? Are not many of those parents as fond of gaiety and show as the merest girl can possibly be? Is it surprising to see the daughters of such become very early the votaries of Folly, when every other day or night they are conducted in triumph to her temples, without any precaution, any previous pains taken to instruct them in the emptiness and worthlessness of the object worshipped there; worshipped with every circumstance that can serve to propagate the idolatry, while the poor innocents are inflamed by 'the concurrence of company, dress, flattery, example; the example of those whom, hv nature and education, they are disposed to respect most highly, and to imitate most implicitly? It were strange indeed, if in this situation their too susceptible hearts should escape the fashionable contagion. But what can be said for those, who thus directly, and with their eyes open, lead their children into a snare ?—Cease, thou restless and raging spirit of hell, who art "going about "seeking whom thou maycst devour," cease thy cruel toil. The parents of Britain render it needless....

If you think about Lydia's situation, it seems to hit a spot, doesn't it? And Austen herself read sermons quite often; although she expresses a preference in one of her letters for Thomas Sherlock's sermons over any of the competitors.

This does not change the fact that there is something very, very Mr.-Collins-ish about Fordyce:

...there seem to me to be very few, in the style of Novel, that you can read with safety, and yet fewer that you can read with advantage.— What shall we say of certain books, which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestife rous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, such horrible violation of all decorum, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute, let her reputation in life be what it will. But can it be true—say, ye chaste stars, that with innumerable eyes inspect the midnight behaviour of mortals—can it be true, that any young woman, pretending to decency, should endure for a moment to look on this infernal brood of futility and lewdness?

Nor do we condemn those writings only, that, with an effrontery which defies the laws of God and man, carry on their very forehead the mark of the beast. We consider the general run of Novels as utterly unfit for you. Instruction they convey none. They paint scenes of pleasure and passion altogether improper for you to behold, even with the mind's eye. Their descriptions are often loose and luscious in a high degree ; their representations of love between the sexes are almost universally overstrained.

But fairness requires noting that he does recommend very highly the novels of Samuel Richardson, especially Clarissa. This is a taste of which Austen herself might well approve, at least to the very limited extent that it goes: Richardson was one of her favorite authors and Richardson's The History of Sir Charles Grandison was one of her favorite novels from an early age. (Which does not mean she will not mock him ironically when the occasion suits.)

Minor bit of trivia, incidentally: Charlotte Lucas seems to be the only female character in Austen's novels to marry a man younger than herself; because, of course, part of the point of the character is that pompous, sententious Mr. Collins, who refuses to read novels and reads sermons monotonously, is only twenty-five years old.


  1. branemrys12:31 PM

    You're quite right. It fits so well, it's hard to believe that it could be just an accident.

  2. On further thought, I realized that I always assume that when Jane Austen mentions something offhand-like, she's making a point whether I understand it or not. She was a lady who knew how to make a point!
    I actually find her writing rather similar to Tolkien in the way they both threw tidbits into their writing to make their written world larger and more real. Like Mrs. Norris's "considerable sum".

  3. Enbrethiliel12:29 PM


    How interesting! I love it when books within books add another layer of meaning to the story. =) If novels were often read aloud in family settings rather than enjoyed alone (as is mostly the case these days), then we also get the case of a read aloud within a read aloud!

    I know that it's a tiresome cliche to pit Austen against Charlotte Bronte, and I don't mean to do it here, but I can't help but see the contrast between the Bennet girls and Jane Eyre. One of my uni professors said that if he were the censor of a totalitarian regime, the first book from our syllabus (which included Pride and Prejudice and Emma, as well as Great Expectations, Howards End, A Room with a View, Under Western Eyes and Women in Love) that he would ban would be Jane Eyre, because it has the most "dangerous" opening image: an individual reading a book in solitude. Inferring the rest of the criteria, it's clear that Pride and Prejudice has much "safer" depictions of reading!


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.