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Inquiring readers: The two summers before Jane Austen’s death, cold and wet weather plagued Great Britain due to a volcanic eruption in 1815 half a world away. This article discusses the reasons for the unseasonably cold weather and its effects on the world’s population, concentrating on those who lived in Great Britain. 

Tambora-Eruption_pg14_2Tambora’s Eruption

On April 10, 1815, a volcanic eruption of Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa became the worst volcanic event in the last 1,000 years. According to an article published by National Geographic, this event was a “hundred times more powerful than the 1981 Mount St. Helens blast.” It is estimated that the pyroclastic flow from the eruption killed from 10,000 to 90,000 people initially. These flows were similar to the fast-moving currents of hot gas and volcanic matter that initially killed thousands of citizens in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Tambora’s catastrophic event “injected about 100 megatons of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere,” resulting in a deadly atmospheric haze that traveled slowly around the globe. (National Geographic.)

That haze caused spectacularly colorful sunsets, influencing painters in Europe, Great Britain, and the U.S. (indeed the world over) to capture them on canvases.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_Zwei_Männer_am_Meer

Caspar David Friedrich Zwei Männer am Meer (Two Men by the Sea), 1817

The gaseous haze-inducing particles reflected only a fraction of sunlight back into the atmosphere, dimming the sun’s effects, resulting in a cooling of the world’s temperature by approximately half a degree Celsius. This change may seem fractional, but it affected the world’s climate for three years — 1815, 1816, and 1817 (the year of Austen’s death).

The effects of the eruption were devastating the world over and caused winter weather to linger into the summer months:

“In the U.S., frosts and cold weather ravaged the New England growing season, prompting cries of a “year without a summer” and a migration into western states. Plunging temperatures broke the monsoon cycle in Asia, sending India into famine and triggering a cholera epidemic of unprecedented severity.”

“Summer cold snaps and crippling rains also destroyed Chinese farmers’ rice paddies, driving many to starvation, infanticide, and even child slavery” – National Geographic

Loss of crops in the ensuing growing seasons, starved millions more. English scientist Luke Howard (1772-1864) recorded in 1816:

“Not meadows and villages alone but portions of cities and large towns lay long underwater; dikes were broken, bridges blown up, the crops spoiled or carried off by torrents and the vintage ruined by the want of sun to bring out and ripen the fruit.”

Farmer’s Magazine (1816) spoke of water overflowing river banks and carrying away cattle in the UK. The severest conditions were recorded in early February, where hard frosts and deep snow, combined with a “depressed agricultural sector” reduced formerly industrious and economically sound families to the lowest state of poverty.

Before Tambora’s eruption, England had already experienced years of cooling, harvest failure, and famine (1813-1814). The after effects of Tambora made this trend worse, resulting in incessant rainfall, cool temperatures, and bitter winds, but these shifts in climate were not the only surprises in store for the populace. In 1815, Edmund Woolterton wrote from Denton, Norfolk: “the drought has been so severe the park is short of feed …” Violent winds, more floods, drifts of snow that made roads impassable, and hard frosts greeted autumn and winter…“ The incessant spring downpours prevented crop growth and caused more widespread flooding.

Farmer’s Magazine 17 (1816) wrote of “considerable quantities of soil, filling upsoughs and ditches; and some Sheep have been lost.” Turnips and other food for livestock were severely damaged and provided scant fodder for the starving animals. In June the wheat crops failed because of the cold and rain. Hot days in the Midlands were replaced by rain events, one of which in July lasted for 6-8 weeks. Its length prevented farmers from cutting grass in pastures, which caused more hardship for them and their cattle.

Jane Austen commented about the weather in a letter to her niece Anna on June 23, 1816:

“Mrs. Digweed returned yesterday through all the afternoon’s rain, and was of course wet through, but in speaking of it she never once said “it was beyond everything,” which I am sure it must have been.”

While Austen’s remark seemed offhand, poverty and starvation for the poor and working classes became grim:

“The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that in Barnet on Thursday [in July 1816], a Gentleman, happening to go into the market-place, found about 140 poor people literally starving; he ordered them all to be supplied with half a quartern loaf, and to come back next morning for another. On Friday the number that applied for relief was 338, when they got the same bounty. On Saturday morning those (all strangers) who applied were 776, who each received one-third of a quartern loaf, and from the parish a quarter of a pound of cheese each …”

Due to the weather, workers had difficulty finding employment. Understanding their dire situation, money was raised so that the London Association could purchase twenty tons of red herrings. Lord Middleton donated hundreds of tons of coal, and various parishes established soup kitchens and distributed oatmeal to feed the hungry. In addition, night policing was established to address an increase in crime, such as looting.

During the spring of 1817 – the last spring in Jane Austen’s life – the weather was cold and sunless and dry. In June, the month before her death, the UK experienced a heat wave, but then the rains began again toward the end of July. They continued through September and resulted in another failed harvest. The resulting famine led to social protest and violence.

FrankensteinTwo interesting developments resulted from Tambora’s destruction. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley rented a house near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. She was only 19 years old at this time. Rainy weather kept the couple and their friends inside their houses, for, as she wrote “it proved a wet, ungenial summer … and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” One of the friends who rented lodging nearby was Lord Byron. Bored, they competed to write a ghost story and the result was Mary’s Frankenstein, a classic that endures to this day. For the full story of this book’s inception, click on this link to History.com.

The other development was the invention of the early form of the bicycle. The reason for this method of transportation was the astronomical cost of feeding horses. Karl Drais set out to invent a way of getting around without horses or beasts of burden. Made of wood, this contraption came without a brake or pedals, but it could achieve a speed of 10 miles per hour.

Dandy's perambulationsa

Forward momentum was powered by feet. Without the protection of copyright laws, Drais did not make a fortune from his invention, which was initially called the laufmaschine. The Dandy’s Perambulations, a delightful satire written in 1819 and illustrated by Robert Cruikshank, shows the misadventures of two gentlemen out for a ride on their ‘dandy horses.’ Find this 40-page booklet digitized at the Internet Archive.

Dandy's perambulations

A possible third result of Tambora might have been an increase of chilblains among the populace, a painful condition caused by cold and wet conditions. This had been a common symptom among workers and servants who labored outdoors or in drafty kitchens. My guesses are pure speculation, for I’m no scientist or epidemiologist, but I wonder if 3-4 years of prolonged cold and wet weather after Tambora’s eruption might have resulted with chilblains spreading beyond the servant class and working poor.

Housemaids, scullery maids, and laundry maids from that era were particularly susceptible to this affliction due to their unceasing household chores. Exposure to cold, especially in winter, affected fingers, toes, and ears. The treatment required rest, keeping one’s body warm, and wearing dry woolen or cotton socks. No servant, or working class person who toiled outdoors for that matter, had the luxury to strictly follow most of those steps towards a cure. They could attempt to resist scratching their skin and apply witch hazel to reduce the inflammation, but few could rest for days in a dry and warm environment to recover.

In Longbourne, author Jo Baker introduces the reader to Sarah and Holly, two young fictional housemaids who served the Bennet family under their housekeeper Mrs Hill. They performed the drudgery work – scrubbing pots and pans, washing laundry by hand with harsh soaps, and hauling buckets of cold water to scrub floors and kitchen surfaces. Their hands and often their feet were plagued by chilblains that reddened the skin and felt as if their skin was on fire. In the novel, after the militia showed up in Meryton, Sarah was expected to act as the lady’s maid to all five Bennet girls, helping them to get ready for the increase in social events. This meant aggravating the chilblains on her hands, causing more soreness and pain as she spot-cleaned gowns, ironed them, and then dressed the girls’ hair.

Plunging hands repeatedly in cold water, as laundry maids and scullery maids did, irritated their skin, causing itching, red patches, swelling and blistering. This condition also occurred on the feet of people and farmers who walked in rain or wet fields with wet socks and shoes.

winter going north

Mail coaches and stagecoaches placed ‘cheap seat’ passengers on top or outside, leaving them exposed to the elements in rain and snow. Prolonged rains as described in first-hand accounts and cold weather throughout the summer and early fall must have increased the incidences of chilblains in this population. Several decades after Jane Austen’s death, Charlotte Brontë described the winter conditions for the orphaned girls in Lowood school:

“Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold: we had no boots, the snow got into our shoes and melted there: our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet . . .” — Jane Eyre

I searched Austen’s letters in the last years of her life from 1815 to 1817 (Le Faye), but could find only the quote I previously mentioned. It is sad to think that she experienced her final winter, spring, and early summer in such cold and miserable weather. Her hope about her health from autumn 1816 to early January 1817 shone through her surviving letters, and so her optimism about her future must be our consolation.

Sources and articles

Situating 1816, the ‘year without summer’, in the UK, August 2016, Geographical Journal 182(4), Authors: Veale, Lucy and Endfield Georgina. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/306042378_Situating_1816_the_’year_without_summer’_in_the_UK

Greshko, Michael (2016) 201 Years Ago, This Volcano Caused a Climate Catastrophe: Indonesia’s Tambora eruption brought on a deadly spate of cooling—presaging the costs that come with sudden changes to climate. National Geographic. 

Blakemore, Erin, ‘Frankenstein’ Was Born During a Ghastly Vacation, History.com, March 12, 2019 (Original, March 9, 2018). Frankenstein Was Born During a Ghastly Vacation:

The Old Farmer’s Almanac: The Year Without a Summer, January 16, 2022.

Images: 

Paintings in the Year Without a Summer, Zachary Hubbard, Philologia

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Stage-coach and Mail in Days of Yore,

Volume 2 (of 2), by Charles G. Harper

Laundry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laundry#/media/File:Laundry_1806.PNG 

Maid of all work https://janeaustensworld.com/2009/06/14/regency-servants-maid-of-all-work/

Winter going north https://www.gutenberg.org/files/58668/58668-h/58668-h.htm#ip_165

One bookshop. Fifty-one rules. Three women who break them all.

Natalie Jenner, the internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, has gifted us with her newest book, Bloomsbury Girls, just in time for summer! It’s a compelling and heartwarming story of a century-old bookstore and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world.

Book Description:

Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare book store that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:

Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiance was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances–most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.

Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.

As they interact with various literary figures of the time–Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others–these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.

Purchase the Book HERE

My Review

Bloomsbury Girls is the perfect read for those of us who love a story that’s set in a bookstore and is filled with books and bookish people. As I began to read, it first reminded me of 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, a slim volume that is forever memorable for most of us who have read it and/or seen the film. I enjoy books where the setting (the house, the shop, the city) is so special and memorable that it becomes like another character in the reader’s mind. In Jenner’s novel, Bloomsbury Books itself is a very much alive and poignant character–and one I enjoyed immensely.

Beyond the setting and the great bibliophile feels the book provides, Jenner has done an exquisite job of weaving together a beautiful cast of characters and their individual stories. There is depth and complexity to each character, each couple, each department head, each story arc.

Finally, the storylines surrounding the three lead female characters are delightfully drawn. I found myself intrigued by each one, enjoying their individual stories as well as the bigger plot at hand. When they begin to work together and their stories begin to tie together and intertwine, it’s intriguing and delightful. The things they accomplish when they link arms is truly inspiring.

Overall, this is a fun, summery read filled with all the good things I love most. I hope you’ll stop in and visit Bloomsbury Books. Though it may seem like an ordinary British bookstore at first glance, there is so much more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye.

Audiobook

If you have a long car trip ahead, or if you prefer to listen to your books while you work, the audio version of this book promises to be incredible. Acclaimed actor and narrator Juliet Stevenson, CBE, narrated the audiobook for Bloomsbury Girls, with a performance that has been called “vocal virtuosity.”

Stevenson is best known for her roles in Emma, Truly, Madly, Deeply, Bend it Like Beckham, Mona Lisa Smile, Being Julia, and Infamous. She is also the BAFTA-nominated and Olivier Award-winning star of many Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre productions. Regarded as one of the finest audiobook narrators working today, Stevenson’s other recent narrations include Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia and the collected works of Jane Austen and Daphne du Maurier.

Listen to the beginning of the audiobook here:

Stream Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner, audiobook introduction from MacmillanAudio | Listen online for free on SoundCloud

About the Author

NATALIE JENNER is the author of the instant international bestseller The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls. A Goodreads Choice Award runner-up for historical fiction and finalist for best debut novel, The Jane Austen Society was a USA Today and #1 national bestseller, and has been sold for translation in twenty countries. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie has been a corporate lawyer, career coach and, most recently, an independent bookstore owner in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. Visit her website to learn more.



RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog. She is the bestselling author of The Little Women Devotional, The Anne of Green Gables Devotional and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

Inquiring readers, I despise housework.  As I lugged my vacuum cleaner from room to room I thought: ‘It could be worse. I would only have a broom or mop had I lived in 1810.’

And so I should be grateful to clean my house in the 21st century. But what were the duties a typical maid of all work or housemaid during this era, and what cleaning supplies did they use?

The Housemaid c.1782-6 by Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788

The Housemaid c.1782-6 Thomas Gainsborough, Tate Gallery, Public Domain

Dusting & Sweeping:

A Georgian/Regency household experienced a daily fight with dust, one that was usually lost. A wealthy family could afford more than one housemaid, but ordinary housewives most likely only had a maid of all work to help her. The poor were left to their own devices. Most roads and lanes in cities and towns were made of dirt that turned into mud on rainy days. Animal droppings from horses and cattle driven through town by drovers dried into dust if not swept from the street. Brisk winds would sweep dirt and flakes and dried droppings through cracks and crevices around windows and under doors. On mild days, windows were cracked open to admit fresh air, allowing the detritus to drift in a constant invasion.

Front entrances (indoors and outdoors), floors, and rugs also required constant maintenance. The job to clean them was unceasing.

In 1776, Susannah Whatman wrote the following in The Housekeeping Book for her housemaids:

“In cleaning floors…use as little soap as possible (if any) in ‘scouring’ rooms. Fuller’s earth and fine sand preserves the colour of the boards, and does not leave a white appearance as soap does.[Note that this job was performed on hands and knees.] All the rooms to be dry scrubbed with white sand.”

Susannah also wanted her maids to use a painters brush on ledges, furniture, and window frames – then follow up with feather dusters. Under no circumstances were they to dust pictures “nor the frames of anything that had a gilt edge.” They were never to dust black busts.

[Other mistresses expected housemaids to dust daily with clean linen cloths. After cleaning spots on wood furniture, they rubbed the wood with linseed oil until shiny.]

Daily chores:

  • Rise early to prepare the ground floor for the family. (more about this below)
  • Sweep the hall and staircase, and the “banister occasionally rubbed with very little oil and every day with a dry cloth.”
  • “To keep a small mop in the cupboard of the WC (water closet), and use water everyday to keep the inside clean.” The maid also had instructions to use only warm water during frosty weather.
  • Sweep the steps in front of the house
  • Force back all the window shutters so they will not get warped. Regarding shutters and drapes, they must be regulated according to the movement of the sun to prevent the sun from shining in full on carpets, painted furniture, pictures, and furniture with mahogany wood. For north facing windows, “the rooms must be aired, and the flies and flygokdubgs destroyed in time.”
  • Work in the Storeroom after her housework is finished, except on Saturday

Weekly housekeeping duties:

  • Tuesdays wash her own things and the dusters in the morning, and help wash stockings. In the evening iron her own things.
  • A_Woman_doing_Laundry_by_Henry_Robert_Morland

    A Woman Doing Laundry, Henry Robert Morland, 18th C., Denver Art Museum, public domain

  • Wednesdays fold with the Laundrymaid
  • Saturdays whisk the window curtains, and shake mats and carpets.

Her list goes on and on, which makes one wonder when and if the housemaid in Mrs Whatman’s house had any spare time

Daniel Pool in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew states that housemaids were the women who kept the house running. I’d like to add that the housekeeper (or mistress of the house) made sure the people she supervised stuck to their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules in the performance of their duties.

Leslie,_George_Dunlop_-_Her_first_place

Her First Place, George Dunlop Leslie, 19th c.?, Wikimedia, public domain work.

The reasons for the housemaids’ early rising was to make sure to lay & light the fires so that the family arose to a warm room. They then emptied grates of ash and cleaned them. For morning ablutions they hauled clean and heavy buckets of warm water up to the family’s rooms, sometimes as much as four times per day. After the family had bathed and washed and started their day, the maids took away dirty water and emptied chamber pots. They opened or closed curtains, then made beds in the morning and turned them down at night.

Pehr_Hilleström-Två_tjänsteflickor_vid_en_bäck (2)

Two Maid-Servants at a Brook, 1779, Pehr Hilleström, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the evening housemaids ironed or mended clothes, or tended to their own needs. Their day was never ending.

As the 19th century progressed, however, housework became less onerous. This was due to new inventions. Rumford fireplaces were more efficient and smaller than traditional fireplaces, and emitted more heat due to their design. Indoor plumbing was slowly introduced and by the end of the 19th century had become common even in middle class houses. Kitchen stoves with flat tops and doors that opened to an oven were invented and were sold by 1790. Their design encouraged the production of new flat-bottomed pots and pans. Insulated ice boxes kept an ice block from melting, keeping foods like milk and meats fresh. By 1809, methods of preserving food through sterilized glass containers or hermetically sealed cans reduced daily food preparation.

These inventions eased the intensive labor of maintaining and keeping a clean and smooth working household, allowing for fewer servants to perform the same chores or dividing the tasks in a different, more efficient way. Still, I thank my lucky stars for today’s automatic can openers, reusable storage containers, electric vacuum cleaners, freezers, water heaters, and sanitizers.

Regardless of our modern improvements, I still hate to do housework.

____________________

More About Female Servants:

Additional Sources:

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From fox hunting to whist — the facts of daily life in 19th-century England (1993). NY, Touchstone, published by Simon & Schuster.

Whatman, Susanna. The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman. (Foreword by Christina Hardyment, afterword by Thomas Balston.) First published in 1776, published 1987. London, National Trust Classics.

Book's coverStrictly speaking the oficial Regency lasted from 1811 to 1820, but the author, Ian Mortimer, takes the reader on a journey to Great Britain – England, Wales and Scotland – from 1789 to 1830, a time period that is in line with most other historians, literary critics and antiques experts.

This book achieves something unique – a historian’s perspective written in a style of writing that is exciting to read. I did indeed feel like a time traveller as I was taken through the British countryside, Brighton, London, and Manchester. Mortimer touches all aspects of British life – from the vitality of the era, expansion of cities, and the explosion of scientific advances, trade, transportation, and the island’s population. Mortimer describes both the good and the bad effects of the industrial revolution, and the results of enclosures in England on farmers with small farms and of the Highland clearances on Scottish crofters.

The era’s glittering lifestyle is not neglected and the author takes advantage of the journals and accounts of contemporary eyewitnesses. This is Karl Moritz’z impression of the rotunda in Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea (1810):

“On my entry I mixed with this crowd, and what with the constant changing of the faces around me (most of them strikingly beautiful), the illuminations, the majesty and splendour of the place, and the ever-present strains of music, I felt for a moment as a child would on first looking into a fairy-tale.”

Above: Two images included in the book. Hover cursor over them for details.

Mortimer contrasts this memory with the description of a winter in London some twenty years later. Coal fires in London so polluted the air that soot floated without falling, and the fog and smoke darkened the skies even at noon.

As the rich built grand houses or renovated outdated mansions, and hired Capability Brown or Humphrey Repton to transform their grounds, many poor people suffered, for few resources or improvements were provided for them. Liverpool’s houses for migrant workers were designed in such a way as to provide no comfort or cleanliness. Two privies might serve two or three hundred people. The overcrowding was so severe that the population density was estimated at 777 per acre. So many other topics are covered: science, medicine and health; pleasure gardens and entertainments; occupations; food and drink; clothing; etc.

Time traveAfter reading this book, I had a comprehensive overview of the Regency era and recommend it to anyone interested in this period. Amazon Kindle edition (See cover to the right) offers a sample of the book’s Introduction, and Chapters 1 & 2 in full.

About the Author:

Ian-MortimerDr Ian Mortimer has been described by The Times newspaper as ‘the most remarkable medieval historian of our time’. He is best known as the author of The Time Traveller’s Guides: to Medieval England (2008); to Elizabethan England (2012); to Restoration Britain (2017); and to Regency Britain (2020). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and has published research in academic journals touching on every century from the twelfth to the twentieth. For more information, see http://www.ianmortimer.com

By Brenda S. Cox

“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” –Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, Sept. 8, 1816

Last month we talked about Austen’s first cousins, particularly Edward Cooper, son of Jane’s mother’s sister. He became a clergyman like Jane’s father and Edward’s father. Edward was a strong Evangelical, and he and Jane did not always see eye to eye.

Evangelicals in the Church of England

The Evangelical* movement in the Church of England started early in the 1700s. While some evangelicals left the Church of England, others stayed within it. (We use a capital “E” for this movement within the Church of England at that time.) In general, evangelicals stress the centrality of the Bible and of Christ’s death on the cross to redeem sinful people, the need for a personal conversion experience, and Christians’ responsibility to actively lead others toward Christ and do good in the world. These are the messages Edward Cooper and other Evangelicals preached. 

The most famous Evangelical of Austen’s time was William Wilberforce. Wilberforce and other Christians, especially Evangelicals, led the fight against the slave trade, supported campaigns to educate the poor in England, and much more. (While modern evangelicals may be associated with certain political stances, evangelicals in Austen’s England were associated with these issues instead: education for the poor, the campaign against the slave trade and slavery, and others.)

Cooper’s Sermons and Jane Austen’s Responses

In Jane Austen’s time, many clergymen published their sermons. Sermons were popular reading, as well as providing preaching material for other clergymen. Austen enjoyed reading books of sermons. Cooper published a number of volumes of his sermons. Apparently, though, Jane and Cassandra didn’t like them much. In 1809 (Jan. 17), she commented,

“Miss M. conveys to us a third volume of sermons, from Hamstall, just published, and which we are to like better than the two others; they are professedly practical, and for the use of country congregations.”

This was Edward Cooper’s Practical and Familiar Sermons Designed for Parochial and Domestic Instruction(meaning for reading at home and for preaching to churches), first published in 1809. The earlier volumes were one in 1803 criticizing the practice of the militia drilling on Sundays (a day of rest), and then Sermons, Chiefly Designed to Elucidate Some of the Leading Doctrines of the Gospel (1804).

Where did Jane differ from those “leading doctrines” of Evangelical preaching? Evangelicals taught that people needed a conscious, personal conversion experience, a regeneration or rebirth, to become true Christians. Other Anglicans believed that growth in faith was gradual through life, beginning with a person’s baptism as an infant; this was probably Austen’s belief.  Both groups believed that throughout life the person needed to trust in Christ, repent when they sinned, and ask God’s help to live a good life. Edward Cooper’s hymn, “Father of Heaven,” which is still sung today, asks God for His “pardoning love.”

Cover of Edward Cooper’s Practical and Familiar Sermons, which Jane Austen was to “like better than the two others.”

This theological disagreement partly explains Jane’s reaction to a later book which includes two of Edward’s sermons. It’s been speculated that the “we” here might refer to the rest of her family, perhaps to her mother and brother’s opinion more than to her own. But still she does include herself:

“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” (Sept. 8, 1816).

This refers to Two Sermons Preached . . . at Wolverhampton Preparatory to the Establishment of a Bible Institution (1816). I was surprised to find that these sermons do not use the word regeneration, and conversion is used only once (with convert used two further times). However, the concepts are implied.

Cooper does talk about the world’s need for the gospel and for the Bible. Jane Austen apparently did not disagree with these goals. In her third prayer, she wrote,

“May thy [God’s] mercy be extended over all Mankind, bringing the Ignorant to the knowledge of thy Truth, awakening the Impenitent, touching the Hardened.”

Cover of Edward Cooper’s sermons for the Bible Society, which Austen found too full of “regeneration and conversion.”

The SPCK and the Bible Society

So, why would Austen object to Cooper’s supporting the Bible Society? She and her family supported a different institution that distributed the Bible, the SPCK. In fact, Jane herself contributed half a guinea, a substantial amount of her income, to this organization in 1813.

The SPCK, or Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, is a Church of England organization that published and sold Christian literature at that time. However, many felt that they were not supplying enough Bibles in different languages (specifically Welsh, at the beginning), and so the British and Foreign Bible Society was formed.

The Bible Society included both Anglicans and Dissenters (people in other denominations). Because of this, they published and distributed only Bibles, with no commentary (which might support one set of doctrines over another). The SPCK produced the Book of Common Prayer and other materials explaining the Bible from an Anglican perspective. There was some tension or competition between these two groups.

Both societies formed auxiliary groups in various areas to support their work. According to Irene Collins, in 1813, both organizations set up branches in Basingstoke, in the Austens’ part of the country. James Austen, Jane’s brother, organized and spoke at the initial meeting of the SPCK. The Lefroy family, old friends of the Austens’, were leaders of the rival Bible Society auxiliary started at almost the same time.

A copy of James’s speech for the SPCK has been preserved. He said that the SPCK was better than the Bible Society, because along with the Bible it distributed commentaries and the Book of Common Prayer (the “Liturgy”). He explained,

“It [the SPCK] not only puts the Bible in a poor man’s hand, but provides him with the best means of understanding it.”

However, he also said that those supporting the Bible Society did so from “the purest and best of motives,” and encouraged them to support both organizations. He complimented the Bible Society, saying its “exertions” had produced “extreme good.” He called for a spirit of unity in the area and a spirit of “candour”—which meant assuming the best of one another. The speech is gentle and conciliatory; a good model for today’s controversies.

Jane Austen and the Evangelicals

So, Jane Austen had some disagreements with her Evangelical cousin Edward Cooper, and didn’t much like his sermons. However, Cooper had an Evangelical friend in neighbouring Yoxall, Rev. Thomas Gisborne. Both Cooper and Gisborne were involved with Wilberforce in working for the abolition of the slave trade. 

Austen did enjoy Gisborne’s work. In 1805, she told Cassandra,

“I am glad you recommended ‘Gisborne,’ for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it” (Aug. 30, 1805).

The book was probably An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex

In Austen’s letters, she made two specific mentions of the Evangelicals. On Jan. 24, 1809, she wrote, “I do not like the Evangelicals.” She was telling her sister that she did not want to read a new book by Hannah More, a popular Evangelical author. She went on to say, “Of course I shall be delighted when I read it, like other people,” so she doesn’t seem to be very serious. My guess is that she did not like More’s style, which is didactic, clearly teaching lessons through her story. Austen preferred to tell a good story and let readers come to their own conclusions.

Later, on Nov. 18, 1814, she had a serious discussion with her niece Fanny Knight about marrying a man who was leaning toward Evangelicalism. She wrote, “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling must be happiest & safest. . . . don’t be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.” So at that point, though she was not Evangelical herself, she admired them.

Austen’s beloved brother Henry later became an Evangelical preacher himself. But he still wrote about his sister, in the introduction to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion:

“She was thoroughly religious and devout . . . On serious [religious] subjects she was well-instructed, both by reading and meditation, and her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.”

While some have claimed that he was exaggerating here, at the time being “religious” was not necessarily popular. Jane Austen did not always agree with her cousin Edward’s theology or style of writing, but it seems to me that she was serious about her faith, as he was.

Brenda S. Cox blogs on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. She has written a book called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England, which she hopes will be available by the end of this year.

*Note that “Evangelical” and “evangelism” are two different things, though people sometimes get them confused. Evangelicals, the focus of the article above, were and are groups of Christians with certain common beliefs. Evangelism  means people sharing their religious beliefs with other people.

For Further Reading

Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin, Part 1

Edward Cooper, Wolverhampton Sermons, Jan. 1, 1816.

Jocelyn Harris, “Jane Austen and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,” Persuasions 34: 134-139. 

Irene Collins, “’Too Much Zeal for the Bible Society: Jane Austen, Her Family, and the Religious Quarrels of Her Time,” Jane Austen Society Reports, Collected Reports Vol. 6 (2001-2005): 21-38. This article explains the rivalry and cooperation between the Bible Society and the S.P.C.K. in Austen’s community, and Jane’s theological differences with her cousin Edward Cooper. 

Gaye King, “Jane Austen’s Staffordshire Cousin: Edward Cooper and His Circle,” Persuasions 1993 

Gaye King, “Visiting Edward Cooper,” Persuasions 1987 

Donald Greene, “Hamstall Ridware: A Neglected Austen Setting,” Persuasions 1985 (Includes a photo of the rectory where Jane and her family visited Edward and his family)

Come and Visit Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin,” Jane Austen House Museum blog, Sept. 17, 2012, Edward’s portrait 

Edward Cooper as a hymn writer 

Edward Cooper’s letter to Jane April 6, 1817 (article also includes commentary on the letter)

Jane Austen in the Midlands,” scroll down for a section on Cooper. 

’Cruel Comfort’: A Reading of the Theological Critique in Sense and Sensibility,” Kathleen James-Cavan (springboards from Jane’s comment on Edward Cooper into the ideas in S&S) Persuasions On-Line 32.2 (2012) 

Other Sources

Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, 2nd ed. (p. 262 says Henry Austen became an Evangelical clergyman)

Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th ed.

Laura Dabundo, Jane Austen: A Companion

Irene Collins, “Displeasing Pictures of Clergymen,” Persuasions 18 (1996): 110.

Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy

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