Reading the Goddess into Austen

Austen’s novels as spiritual journeys to the Goddess

Term Paper, 2005

30 Pages, Grade: A*


Table of Contents
Table of Contents ... 1
1 Preface ... 2
2 Introduction ... 3
3 Providence ... 4
3.1 Definitions of Providence ... 4
3.2 `And they laughed- the immortal gods' ... 5
3.3 The Providence of God ... 5
3.4 `Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered' ... 8
3.5 Jane Austen's Providence ... 8
3.6 Problematic Endings ... 9
4 Romance and Realism: A Reading ... 10
4.1 Definitions ... 10
4.2 Excerpt `Persuasion': a mini-story ... 11
4.3 Lady Russell: the Temptress ... 11
4.4 Inversion of Social Power Relations ... 12
4.5 The Matriarchal Vision ... 12
4.6 Negotiating Realism ... 13
5 The Religion of the Novel ... 15
5.1 The Origin of The Novel ... 15
5.2 The Trope of The Goddess ... 17
6 Austen and the Goddess ... 18
6.1 The Great Goddess ... 19
6.2 Representations: Looking at the Picture ... 20
7 Reading Austen as a Spiritual Experience ... 21
7.1 Identification ... 21
7.2 Identification and Devotional Prayer ... 23
7.3 A Replacement for Religion ... 23
8 Practising Mysteries ... 25
9 Conclusion ... 26
10 References ... 28

1 Preface
To write about Jane Austen is like writing about the Bible: no matter what you say there will
always be someone taking offence. And no matter how thorough an argument might be, there
will always be those who believe to know different about Jane Austen and her novels. Thus, I
have no intention to state any absolute truths (in which I do not believe in any case) but rather,
it will be my task to show how my point of view can be convincingly argued.
Before I get started, I would like to relate my first encounter with Jane Austen. I did not grow
up with Jane Austen; I was not even aware of her existence until I was 13 years old. Until
then, and for a long while after, it was knights, pirates and musketeers all the way. Sometimes
things just do not turn out the way they are planned and the day I first met with Jane Austen
was such a day. My dad was taking my little brother and me to the cinema but we were too
late to watch the film we had planned on seeing. My dad suggested driving to the
neighbouring town and watching Sense and Sensibility. On hearing the title, I objected, afraid
we children were too young for such a film. Checking the rating, we found it to be `U' and an
hour later we sat and watched the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's novel. My little brother
was not quite sure what to make of it, my dad was interested and I, inexperienced as I was in
watching films, tried to understand what was going on. I remember my reaction to the film
very clearly: I thought it was really well done (on what grounds I based such a verdict I really
could not tell you) but I did not quite follow the story line. I loved Emma Thompson's
performance but I thought she was the mother, not one of the daughters. And I was paralysed
all through the film because I feared Marianne would commit suicide. Overjoyed with the
happy ending which I all but expected, my dad filled me in on what I had missed, and with
hindsight I can say this was my initiation to realist fiction.
Now, I suppose what that tells you about me is that I tended to idealise mother-figures (still
do), that I had not yet learned to cope with death (do we ever), and that I was not experienced
enough in watching films to follow the different plot lines and remember all the characters.
However, my memory also throws light on the film itself. The most popular critique aimed at
the production, that Emma Thompson was too old for the part of 19-year-old Elinor, was
apparently not without cause. But what is more, it shows that the character of Elinor can be
seen as being a mother figure for Marianne, advising and guiding her. The plot of the story

introduces many complex characters to the viewer and the style of the film in general is
realistic, which made me expect a tragic ending as the logical conclusion to the story.
Many years later, when I started studying English literature, I was confronted with Jane
Austen again. I finally read the books, and watched all the adaptations, also the one I had seen
so many years before. Interestingly enough, the themes I puzzled over were still the same:
mothers, realism, plot structure and happy endings were, again, the focus of investigation.
2 Introduction
Now I think it time to introduce the interested reader ­ and I certainly hope the reader is
interested, otherwise these exertions of mine are rendered meaningless from the beginning ­
to the actual subject matter of this here paper. In the following, I set out to engage the reader
in a discussion of Jane Austen's novels as an antithesis to patriarchal Christianity. You might
well wonder how in all the world I came up with this idea. But seminars, discussions and
reading materials will take you down interesting paths and within such a context, I came upon
Doody's True Story of the Novel. This sparked my interest and what followed was more
research and finally this paper.
Coming from a pagan spiritual background, I am very much aware of the Christian mind set
underlying the majority of Western novels. Having studied Jane Austen novels for several
years, I grew more and more at ease with the social, economical, political and religious setting
which forms the background of Austen's work. Reading many different interpretations, or
readings, of the novels made me see that practically any point could be made if convincingly
argued. Thus, I decided to try my hand at writing an account of a `pagan, spiritual' reading of
the texts.
I first looked at the stories and tried to figure out the mechanics of Austen's work. Then, I
looked at the novel as a genre, where it came from and how it developed. Basing my
argument on Margaret Anne Doody's The True Story of the Novel, Jane Austen's novels can
be seen as a feminine genre developed out of religious traditions of Goddess worship. With a
focus on `providence' as the secret, underlying order of Jane Austen's "cosmos", I will
attempt an interpretation of Austen's work as a feminine spiritual reading experience as
means of substitution and replacement of the patriarchal Christian religion prevailing in our

times. I will adopt the two, maybe even contradictory, approaches of close reading
and that
of reader-response criticism. I will prove my case by interpreting a passage from Persuasion
which I believe, can be seen as representative for Austen's entire body of work. With such a
theoretical framework and the above stated background, I will try to argue my case
convincingly enough to keep the reader's interest and point out another way of understanding
Jane Austen's novels. `To interpret a work is to tell a story of reading.'
The story told here is
that of my reading of Austen.
3 Providence
In 1817, on May 22
, after a long illness which would eventually kill her, Jane Austen wrote
in one of her letters: `But the Providence of God has restored me and may I be more fit to
appear before him when I am summoned than I shall have been now!'
What is at stake when
we consider this concept of providence? `A belief in Providence might have inclined Jane
Austen to fall in with the view that hardship and disorder were all part of a "moral
A lot of propositions are made in this second statement.
3.1 Definitions of Providence
`Providence' is `the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power'. With a capital
`P', the word means `God or nature as providing protective care'. The word can also denote
`timely preparation for future eventualities'. It came into English from Latin `providentia' via
Old French. The Latin verb `providere', to foresee, to attend to (cf. provide) throws light on
the original meaning of providence.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, `providentia', the
learned term for `prudentia' (cf. prudence), that is, `foresight', the capacity to distinguish
good from bad, which became, under the influence of `pronoia', forethought' a virtue of
statesmen. Providentia Augusti and Providentia Deorum, the foresight of the Gods, were seen
as the protectresses of the imperial family and the empire.
When researching the word and
the tradition of providence it becomes clear to what great extend this concept underlies
Western (religious) thought.
Cf. I.A. Richards
Cf. P, vol II, chapter V, 129-130. Excerpt attached.
Culler, 63.
Cf. Austen, letters.
Knox-Show, 176.
Cf, OED, and `Word Histories'.
Cf. Dictionary of Classics Myth and Religion.

3.2 `And they laughed- the immortal gods'
To illustrate the ancients' belief in the providence of the gods, the analysis of a fragment of
one of Sappho's poems is helpful.
And they laughed ­ the immortal gods
expresses a strong
belief in these deities. In Sappho's time, the existence of gods and goddesses was not doubted.
Everything was as it was because a god wanted it to be that way. One did not fall in love but
was literally "shot to love" by Aphrodite's henchman Eros. As a victim of the goddess,
Sappho expresses in all of her surviving works a trusting, naive and almost child-like certainty
about the gods' dominion over her life. When reading the line one cannot help but feel the
gods holding sway over the world of the mortals.
In this particular translation, the power of the immortals is stressed to a very high degree. The
sentence shows right dislocation, whereby the neutral And the immortal gods laughed is
transformed into the strongly marked And they laughed ­ the immortal gods. The translator
replaces the expected comma before the noun phrase of a right dislocation with a hyphen,
which emphasises `the immortal gods'
even more strongly, and by pausing establishes an
almost exaggerated distance between god and human. The epithet `immortal', the attribute
the gods, further underlines their ever-lasting power.
The act of laughing usually implies a relaxed (or relaxing) atmosphere. Such a situation is
only possible if the perpetrators of mirth are self-confident and/or powerful. It can be assumed
that the reason for the gods' laughter is human beings but it is by no means certain if they
laugh with or about the mortals. Taking the other works of Sappho into account one can
conclude that the laughter is benevolent and well-meaning. Sappho surrenders to the
immortals' power without feeling patronised or in any way diminished. On the contrary, she
seems to believe that she is guided by them, and her life is richer because of their benevolence
towards her.
3.3 The Providence of God
The Christian concept of providence seems, however, more complicated than that. It is not to
be divorced from the concept of divine grace. In classical mythology, the three Graces were
beautiful goddesses believed to personify and bestow charm, grace and beauty. Thus, grace is
The line under consideration is, of course, a translation and can therefore only ever be an imperfect attempt to
understand Sappho's poetry. Cf. Roche.
Cf. Roche, 150-157.

a divinely given talent or blessing. In Christian belief grace is the free and unmerited favour
of God, as manifested in the salvation and the bestowal of blessings.
Although God is wrathful in the Old Testament, his inborn son Jesus is to take away this
wrath and preach a religion of love towards our neighbours. When people observe the rules
and laws set up for them by God, they are promised salvation at the end of time. While some
factions of Christianity believe that some people are graced from birth, others believe one has
to earn such favours. Calvinism, for example, is based on the belief of a few elect who are
chosen by God to be saved, and share in his glory. No matter what the individual undertakes,
it is preordained who will be saved. The Puritan doctrine introduces the concept of `backlash',
that is, even though one is graced, there is still a possibility to forfeit salvation. Thus, to stick
to the rules is an absolute necessity. The Anglican Church promotes a somewhat more liberal
view. A belief in free will, the distinguishing feature between the Armenian faction of
Christianity and the many others, allows the individual the freedom of choice. By living a
truly Christian life, one has the chance to earn God's grace and thus be saved from eternal
damnation. In one's progress towards salvation, God might interfere to help in order to put
Christians back onto the right track. This reliance on God to help in acquiring grace is exactly
what Providence means; an underlying, benevolent power who promises one's salvation
interference in the individual's life.
Hand in hand with this concept goes the idea of "growing towards" deservedness. The saying
that God humbles those he loves is probably the best-known instance of expressed belief in
providence and grace. In Christian spirituality, and notably in the tradition of affective
devotional spirituality/prayer, to become one with God is the aim of all strife. The
annihilation of the self, and complete submersion in God, is the ultimate goal. Such can only
be achieved if one is open for God and ready to accept him into one's soul. In moments of so-
called `indwellings of Christ', Jesus is seen as the groom who comes to unit with the soul, the
bride awaiting him. Such moments of grace can also be observed in other spiritualities where
they are usually describes as moments of epiphany. To be ready to give up the self and
receive God constitutes the most difficult part of the Christian's progress towards salvation;
Cf. OED.
Cf. Kelly, 189.

only with divine interference is it possible at all. Such interference is usually expected to be a
trial (illness, pain, loss etc sent by God) out of which one emerges purged and purified.
From a psychological point of view, such aims of immersions in the divine are easily
explained. As has been argued, the one characteristic which distinguishes humans from other
animals is our ability of self-perception and self-reflection. We are aware of our self, always;
unless we are dreamlessly asleep or in a coma. This awareness of self calls for a constant
negotiation between Freud's id, ego and super-ego. Defence mechanisms are at work to keep
us from going mad in the attempt to balance these three levels of consciousness.
Observing children at play, it is easy to see why they are unconditionally happy: they lose
themselves in their play, and are thus unaware of their self, or ego. It can be argued that
whenever we are perfectly happy, the self is temporarily suspended. Thus, we can only be
aware of perfect happiness when the moment has passed and we look back to it, or, in
anticipation, project it into the future. There are different ways to achieve this state of mind:
drugs and meditation are probably the most common ones, as most people forfeit their ability
to lose themselves in play as they grow up. `Creativity, love and play' inhabit what Winnicot
calls the `potential space'; when we engage in such `concepts of activities' we can be
temporarily completely happy because we stand between our `inner psychic space of "me"'
and the `outer social space of "not-me"'. In this state of experience, we are oblivious of our
In such a principle we seem to find the core of the human paradox: what makes us human is
our ability to perceive and reflect on ourselves but it is also this ability which causes all our
anxieties and unrest. This is what Pandora did not let out of her box: restfulness. This
restfulness or perfect contentment is what Christians are only to find in God, when the ego is
annihilated. Such moments of `indwelling' or epiphanies are very fleeting. Naturally, this
state can only be perpetuated in death. However strange it may sound, this seems to be the
bottom line of every spirituality or spiritual philosophy.
My knowledge of affective devotional prayer is founded on seminars and lecture notes by Prof. Woehrer,
Vienna 2004.
Cf. Keller in Harding, 192-195.

3.4 `Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered'
Many Christian writings, from hymns to metaphysical poems, explicitly express this idea. As
John Donne puts it `Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down'. In Christina
Baxter's `Meditation on the Crucified Saviour'
she states that `for centuries, Christians have
believed that meditating on Jesus is an essential way in which we can open ourselves to the
transforming grace of his Spirit which enables us to become more like him.'
In identifying
with Jesus, Baxter, and many others, see the way to salvation. `One medieval prayer asks `Let
the five wounds of Christ be my medicine', and these wounds are often referred to as `signs of
. Baxter believes that `keeping Christ's costly woundedness before us enables us to
learn how to suffer, and to receive that suffering as a privilege of God's grace.'
3.5 Jane Austen's Providence
What Jane Austen expresses in her letter, then, is exactly that belief in being humbled by God
through illness to be purified and `appear more fit' before God then she is before her illness.
As Knox-Show says, if the authoress believed in Providence, as the quotation from her letter
indicates, it is only reasonable to believe that this also constitutes an underlying principle of
the her work.
The suffering of characters is in general an important aspect of her novels. It is most clearly
shown in Marianne's illness through which the girl realises how to negotiate between her
public and her private self. She realises that her `want of fortitude' has `almost led [her] to the
grave', that her `illness made [her] think' and that is has given her time for `serious
. Her illness can be seen as God's merciful intervention to make Marianne `see
sense'. As Doody says, Jane Austen is all about different modes of knowing, and about how
to arrive at knowledge
. Elinor on the other hand, exerts herself all along. She has always had
that fortitude Marianne lacks. Even when she is to endure the news of Edward's marriage
with Lucy, she determines on exertion: `I will be calm; I will be mistress of myself.'
what is more, Elinor can feel beyond herself, she has a great ability for compassion. Why
Graham Kendrick, as quoted in Baxter, 122.
Cf. Baxter, The Wounds of Jesus.
Baxter, 9.
Baxter, 19.
Baxter, 216.
S&S, 262.
S&S, xxix.
S&S, 271.
Excerpt out of 30 pages


Reading the Goddess into Austen
Austen’s novels as spiritual journeys to the Goddess
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ISBN (Book)
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Goddess Studies, English literature, Jane Austen, goddess, Persuasion, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, novel, Ian Watts, Margaret Ann Doody, rise of the novel, feminine genre, romance, devotional prayer, spiritual reading, spiritual journey, paganism, Christianity
Quote paper
Dr.phil. J.S. Morgane (Author), 2005, Reading the Goddess into Austen, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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