Monday, December 02, 2013

Austen, Sacraments, and Juvenile High Jinks

Communion was not the only important sacrament Austen experienced regularly; she attended weddings, baptisms, and ordinations. She did not go to funerals, however; it was customary for only men to attend, presumably to protect women from the emotional hardship of the occasion (for this reason, Cassandra did not attend Jane's funeral in 1817). Austen would have, however, witnessed the sacrament of final unction, a ceremony intended for the sick in preparation for death. As a teenager, Jane Austen acted as a witness for several of the Steventon weddings officiated by her father. Her role as matrimonial witness must have provoked her, sometime when she was about 16, into a piece of juvenile high jinks: the fictional entries into the marriage register at Steventon, announcing the banns of marriage between herself and Frederick Howard Fitzwilliam of London, then between herself and Edmund Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool, and then between herself and Jack Smith, place unmentioned (Jarvis 12). She attended weddings often herself, though never, of course, as a bride. Her knowledge of the service is evidenced by the joke at the end of Pride and Prejudice, when the reader is informed that Mr. and Mrs. Collins are expecting "a young olive branch," olive branch being a term Mr. Collins had used earlier in his rhetorically inept letter of introduction to the Bennet family (PP 403). Austen certainly knew that one of the two Psalms ordained for the marriage service suggests that the bearing of children is the first goal of matrimony: "The wife shall be as the fruitful vine : upon the walls of thine house;/ Thy children like the olive branches : round about thy table" (Psalms 128:3-4).

Laura Mooneyham White, Jane Austen's Anglicanism, Ashgate (Burlington, VT: 2011) p. 53. As White notes in a footnote, the names Frederick, Howard, Fitzwilliam, Edmund, Arthur, and William all show up in Austen's novels as names of Austen heroes of one sort or another (although Arthur and William also show up as names of cads). And, of course, she also notes that we see Austen at age 16 already perfecting a technique she uses in her novels, that of comic descent from the high to the low. That women did not attend funerals is an interesting fact that I did not know before.

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