Tammie Grimm ~ There I Plant My Foot: Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, and John Wesley
Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, and John Wesley:
One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong.
If you consider the three names mentioned above and come up with several possible responses, you’d be well within reason. There simply is no one definitive answer because, depending upon context, any one figure could be sorted separately from the others, e.g., Jane Eyre is a fictional figure (the creation of Charlotte Brontë), John Wesley’s life preceded the publications of the two Janes, or even that Jane Austen was a lifelong singleton compared to the two others. You may have indeed come up with different responses as the possibilities are numerous.
But how are these figures all like each other? You might be wondering, except for the fact that all are British figures, is it even possible to compare the life of an eighteenth-century reformer and evangelist with that of a Regency novelist alongside a heroine from a Gothic novel? After spending the spring re-reading Jane Eyre with a student and then re-reading beloved Jane Austen novels over the summer, I think there is affinity among the three beyond the fact that each has occupied a fair amount of my reading and reflection over the past year. Indeed, I believe it is possible to argue that the three are all on the same page together when it comes to integrity of personal identity and character. Wesley may have been an evangelist and religious reformer, but the Christian worldview and faith of Brontë and Austen is evident in the characters they develop in the pages of their novels.
There is little doubt to many regular readers of this site that John Wesley’s Christian belief and faith pervades his written works, whether it be sermons, letters, tracts, or hymns. Most of us who are contributing authors discuss the many various ways that Wesley’s life and ministry reflected his passion and zeal to help persons live new lives in Christ, to become more of who they were created to be, becoming more like Christ. As much as Wesley desired converts to the faith, his desire was to help persons be sanctified, to grow ever in perfect love through the power of the Holy Spirit—to be and to do like Christ—or as Wesley frequently put it in biblical terms to have the mind that was in Christ (Philippians 2:5) as to walk as Christ also walked’ (I John 2:6).
To be sure, neither Jane Austen or Jane Eyre explicitly discuss the Wesleyan way of salvation, the need for regeneration, prevenient grace, justification or entire sanctification. Yet, their stories depict characters who live out their Christian faith with wit and vivacity as well as varying degrees of pathos and faithfulness.
Re-reading Jane Eyre after several decades, and with the benefit of a seminary education, I was struck by Jane’s abiding faith that guides her throughout the novel. It’s easy enough for a twenty-first century high school English student to recognize many of the religious references and themes present even if their significance is lost on them and their contemporary English teachers who dismiss Christian belief as quaint and anachronistic. Still, the religious experiences and convictions of Jane are plainly discussed by Brontë and integral to Jane’s development throughout the novel. It is evident to the biblically literate Christian that Jane is the living embodiment of Proverbs 2:6, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” The Christian faith and teaching instilled in her as an orphaned child raised at Lowood School (which, in concept, is not radically different from Wesley’s own Kingwood School that came into being at the start of the Industrial Age) serves her when she is faced with temptation to become Mr. Rochester’s mistress. Wesleyans might even imagine Jane holding fast to the first two General Rules (e.g. to avoid evil and do good) as she struggles with her desires. It is her conscience that guards her from regret and guides her in character during a pitched moment of crisis:
Indomitable was the reply—“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there are not temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane; with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by; there I plant my foot.”
Yet, Jane’s resolve is not simply her own. In the remaining paragraphs of this pivotal chapter, Brontë writes of the presence of supernatural, likely a divine, power to prompt Jane to flee temptation completely and run away from Thornfield Hall. Towards the conclusion of the novel, in an answer to a fervent prayer, the presence of the supernatural appears again, bringing resolution to Jane and her Byronic hero Edmund Rochester. And, finally, instead of coming to a satisfying romantic denouement, the non-sequitur of the novel’s last line, “Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!” can be as abrupt and confusing to the Christian reader as it is to the most astute Brontë scholars.
Brontë is not out to write a religious narrative in Jane Eyre, but as a daughter of a Curate in the Church of England, she has no issue with integrating her faith and everyday living in her eponymous character. Neither is Jane Austen’s intent to discuss Christian faith in her romantic novels. The daughter and sister to clergymen, Austen was granted a cathedral burial because of her support of and contributions to clerics in her neighborhood.
Austen’s most visibly representative figures of religious establishment, clerics Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice) and Mr. Elton (Emma), are the target of humorous satire within her works while others like Captain Wentworth’s older brother (Persuasion) is a sympathetic figure looking out for the best interests of his younger sibling. Both authors are not above pointing out the hypocrisy in the life of the clerics they portray. Whereas Austen seeks to create caricatures of her clerics, Brontë creates stern, unyielding taskmasters of Mr. Brocklehurst, the head of Lowood Institute, or of St. John Rivers, Jane’s clergy cousin who dreams of being a foreign missionary. Rather, like Brontë with Jane Eyre, it is in the lives of Austen’s heroines (and even their intended suitors) that the cultivation of virtue is the evidence of the faith that dwells within.
Without a doubt, Austen does not come close to discussing religious experience in the explicit ways Brontë describes. Still, Austen’s heroines are faithful members of the established Church of England who regularly attend worship and prayer services—which proves to be as good a meeting place for plot development between suitors as any local dance or formal ball. Piety may not be the predominant virtue running throughout Austen’s novels, but each of her heroines—whether it be the Dashwood sisters or Emma Woodhouse, Anne Eliot, young Catherine Morland or even Elizabeth Bennet—are all essentially virtuous people seeking to become better persons through self-reflection and examination in light of the events that unfold. Self-examination may not happen explicitly through the lens of faith, but this penchant for self-reflection is not an exercise exclusive to her characters.
Austen wrote three prayers that have survived her death, each designed to accompany the Book of Common Prayer. Self-examination (somewhat akin to the spirit of Ignatius of Loyola and John Wesley) is evidenced in the following prayer Austen wrote, and which hangs in St. Nicholas Church, Steventon, a church where her father and brother pastored:
Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our hearts, as with our lips. Thou art everywhere present, from thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this teach us to fix our thoughts on thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain.
Look with mercy on the sins we have this day committed and in mercy make us feel them deeply, that our repentance may be sincere and our resolution steadfast of endeavoring against the commission of such in future. Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own souls.
May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing thoughts, words, and actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of evil. Have we thought irreverently of thee, have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our hearts these questions oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by pride or vanity.
Give us a thankful sense of the blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by discontent or indifference….
Neither Brontë nor Austen write with the religious zeal and desire to see their creations sanctified in the way Wesley
wanted for the people called Methodist. And as much as I want to see Jane Eyre as an example of discipleship in a Gothic novel, she is a solitary figure with no supportive community to support her in her daily Christian living.
Still, the novels offers insight, for those reading with a lens of Wesleyan discipleship, to the ways in which our favorite heroines (and their suitors) live into their Christian faith and teaching. Brontë and Austen do not offer escapism from the everyday, but provide a portal to consider how Christian faith helps shape the characters we love and cherish through the ages.
 John Wesley, ‘The Character of a Methodist,’ The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976- ). 9:41. See also, ‘Sermon the Mount XII,’ Works, 1:680; ‘The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,’ Works, 2:593; ‘The More Excellent Way,’ Works, 3:265; ‘The Principles of a Methodist,’ Works, 9:55; ‘The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained,’ Works, 9:225.
 Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 365.
 Glassy, Terry and Jane Austen. The Prayers of Jane Austen (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers), 9-19.
This post originally appeared on Wesleyan Accent in 2016.