Books in Little: Austen’s Catholic Landscapes
Since Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas appeared in 1975 there has been much written about Miss Austen’s political and cultural views. A fair amount of space has been given, pro and con, to Butler’s contention that Austen was a Burkean conservative of sorts, a thoughtful reader of history and observer of politics who was supportive of cultural tradition and rather hesitant about hasty societal change. In Jane Austen and the Reformation Roger E. Moore expands upon Butler’s thesis, primarily in connection with Austen’s understanding of the effect of the Reformation on the English landscape, both physical and spiritual.
His first three chapters examine the literary and historical conventions of the eighteenth century that dealt with the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and he argues persuasively that Austen was familiar with much of this material. Moore also demonstrates that she had firsthand knowledge of several medieval religious sites, and that this personal familiarity helped produce in her a “nostalgic” feeling for what disappeared when these institutions were lost. (It should be noted that Moore uses the words “nostalgia” and “nostalgic” frequently, but does not give them the largely negative connotation that they generally have today.)
In the final three chapters Moore gives close readings of three Austen works, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Sanditon, examining the themes of sacrilege, both physical and spiritual, and the loss of hospitality and community present in those books. A brief coda and a substantial bibliography close out the work.
Moore concludes that “Far from acquiescing in the Whig dogma that the Reformation was an unmitigated ‘Good Thing’ for England, she is willing to consider that the violent elimination of the material vestiges of Catholicism impoverished English culture.” To Austen, the ruined abbeys and churches of pre-Reformation England were more than just picturesque landscape features. They were reminders of a lost spiritual legacy—a “sacred landscape.” In Jane Austen and the Reformation, Moore has produced a work that should be of interest not only to Austen enthusiasts and students of English literature, but to readers with a historical interest in the English Reformation, and to anyone who is interested in landscape and its relation to “place.”
Robert Grano writes from outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His articles and reviews have appeared in Touchstone, Again, and in various small press journals.
Posted: April 9, 2017 in Books in Little.
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