If Austen’s Christian convictions are obscured today, blame the Victorians. So argues Michael Giffin in Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England: “the Victorians viewed the Anglicanism of the Georgian period harshly” (1). Giffin is not afraid to talk of “Victorian censorship” of earlier English novels.
When Austen is put into the context of Georgian Anglicanism, her religious convictions come to the fore. According to the accepted credo of 18th-century Anglicanism, the “social and religious contract is difficult to fulfil because of human fallibility. That is why Austen uses a complementary neoclassical and scriptural logic to represent an ‘economy of salvation’ as the best way of assisting the fallen person, and the fallen community, to achieve soteria in this world and, by analogy, in the next world. Within Austen’s economy of salvation there is a trinity of complementary marriages: between state and church, between estate and parish, and between man and woman. Each marriage is ‘ordained’ to fulfil a particular human necessity according to what Austen recognises to be a divine plan (30).
This is the Christian vision that animates the novels:
“In Austen’s novels, just as there is a strong concern to express soteria in its neoclassical and scriptural sense, there is strong concern to express oikonomia in its neoclassical and scriptural sense. For Austen, the oikonomia of the secular household (that is, the lay household) of the estate is a microcosm of the oikonomia of the state, while the oikonomia of the clerical household of the parish is a microcosm of the church. This domestic oikonomia, and the soteria it effects, involves both men and women as ‘equal’ partners in the sense of ‘evenly balanced or proportioned,’ which is one definition of the term ‘equal’ that suggests a complementarity between the sexes that is strongly present in the novels. All of Austen’s heroines and heroes lack a necessary ‘something’ as individuals, and they are only able to grow into the fullness of their humanity within an effective and complementary marriage partnership. However, none of these partnerships are established by fate, accident, or providence; and neither are they easily achieved. Because of the varieties of social and economic and moral fallenness, these partnerships are the hard-won product of conflict, misunderstanding, and growth, and they are forged in difficult social and economic and moral circumstances that often act against them.”
The typical Austen household, representative of the body politic, is in a state of disorder: “most protagonists, whether male or female, belong to a family, or to a household, that falls short of the scriptural ideal and is either mismanaged or disordered in some way that represents bad oikonomia. This social reality is due to an absence of effective parenting, sometimes because of the lack of an effectual father, or the lack of an effectual mother, or both” (32).
The disordered household is the product of a bad marriage, and so Austen is at pains to get her characters well married. In her Georgian Anglican perspective, this has import for church and state: “These marriages fall into two categories. They are either secular marriages—that is, they are marriages among the laity— within or attached to an estate, or they are clerical marriages within a parish. In this manner, the ending of an Austen novel is usually a vision of unity that includes one or both of the two classes that predominate in her novels: the class she firmly belonged to, the clergy; and the class she was strongly associated with by marriage and by social intercourse, the gentry.” Establishing a healthy movement and harmony between these classes was “an ideal in Austen’s economy of salvation” (33).