The dictionary defines pop culture as being “cultural activities or commercial products reflecting, suited to, or aimed at the tastes of the general masses of people.” Jane Austen wrote during the late 16th/ early 17th century. During this time, religion was particularly prevalent in societal beliefs as well as a rigid social hierarchy. Society has rigorous expectations of each person dependant upon their place within it. Due to this, it is undoubtable that Austen draws her inspiration from popular culture for her characters and plots. Two novels which are heavily influenced by popular culture of Austen’s time are Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Both of these are arguably products of their times. I will refer to the pop culture influences of religion on Sense and Sensibility and the role of the social hierarchy with particular reference to servants in Pride and Prejudice.
In Sense and Sensibility, the two heroines are “both thoughtful, intelligent, and passionate young women, each with a strong moral sense, though with very different ways of confronting the challenges thrown in their way” by a society obsessed with wealth and social standing. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen gives a more complete picture of the process of self-examination and repentance. Marianne and Willoughby are the two key characters which embody the religious ideas of pop culture. Austen would have expected her readers to recognize Marianne’s repentance as it parallels prayer in the common book of prayer. White points out, “Austen would have heard and herself recited Morning and Evening Prayer countless times in her life,” such repetition is likely to have affected Austen’s language and ideas deeply. Religious connotations can be found in Marianne’s self-examination which happens after Willoughby rejects her and she neglects her health until the point where she nearly dies. “Her explanation to her sister Elinor of what she thinks and feels follows the pattern of the prayer of repentance in The Book of Common Prayer.” Willoughby’s “repentance” during Marianne’s illness also includes elements of that prayer but is not as complete as Marianne’s.” Brenda Cox stated that Marianne’s selfish absorption in her individual concerns has led to the neglect and disregard of others. Instead of following Elinor’s example she has,
“‘turned away from every exertion of duty or friendship’” an unchristian attitude that both Austen and other conservative writers of the period condemn. Marianne has placed herself in danger; her carelessness for her own health might have led to madness or indirect suicide. She has failed in her Christian duty.”
Marianne’s “‘desire… for atonement to her God’” arguably triggers her recovery as well as her repentance. Marianne states “‘My illness has made me think—It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect’”. Austen frequently uses the term “serious” to signify “religious,” and serious reflection or meditation indicates prayer. The term “serious” is in fact repeated thirty times throughout the novel, for the most part they have religious connotations. The word “serious” is used twice by Marianne to describe the way that her illness has changed her. Firstly, Elinor notices “an apparent composure of mind, which, in being the result as she trusted of serious reflection, must eventually lead her to contentment and cheerfulness.” Secondly, Marianne uses it in her own confession to Elinor in which she explicitly introduces religion. Marianne’s descriptions have been noted to parallel the morning and evening “general confession” in The Book of Common Prayer.
The Book of Common Prayer traces sin to following our hearts rather than following God’s laws, it says that “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws.” Marianne has been following her feelings and her heart, she finds they have been a false guide, she finally recognizes the flaws in her own heart. This leads to her repentance and her atonement. She hoped to live a “godly, righteous, and sober life,” as the prayer says, with the help of “religion, reason, and constant employment.” Religion would contribute to such a godly and righteous life. The Dictionary defines “sober” as “characterized by temperance, moderation, or seriousness.” Marianne’s plan to use reason, to govern her feelings, and to improve her temper would lead to a more “sober” life. Marianne states that she wishes to self-improve with “‘serious study.’” According to White, “Austen’s audience would, of course, have known that ‘serious study’ means religious study, not secular education. Marianne intends to read sermons, not works of history or philosophy.” Sermons were popular reading material in Austen’s day. Many books of sermons were published, and in Austen’s letters she mentions reading sermons which suggests that her works would have been heavily emphasised by her further reading.
“Despite Willoughby’s frequent invocations of the deity “God be praised!,” “For God’s sake,” “Oh, God,” “Thank Heaven!,” and so on, there are only the merest hints in the text to encourage a theological reading of the passage.” Willoughby’s repentance begins with him listing all of his sins. There is then the argument of whether or not Austen portrays him as displaying true repentance adhering to the Book of Common Prayer. He calls himself a “‘hard-hearted rascal’” and confesses his selfish motivations for winning Marianne’s heart. Gillian Dooley and Charles Dufour point out, “It seems that in this case he had not been able to save himself ‘from deceiving himself by pride or vanity,’ in the words of Austen’s prayer.” He begs for forgiveness from Elinor and Marianne. But he still justifies and excuses himself more than he asks for mercy. Willoughby mentions God and heaven several times, as in “‘Oh, God! what a hard-hearted rascal I was!’” and “‘Thank Heaven! it did torture me.’” These may be habitual exclamations or, because he feels so strongly, actual appeals to God. The question is then posed, “does Willoughby desire “to live a godly, righteous, and sober life,” as the next part of the general confession requires? On the contrary, he says he will always love Marianne, which is in itself a sin, as he is now married to someone else.” By framing the beginning and ending of Willoughby’s confession with Marianne’s forgiveness and Willoughby’s lack of it, Austen could have expected readers to conclude that Marianne is more likely to receive God’s forgiveness than Willoughby is. The last chapter of Sense and Sensibility suggests that Willoughby’s “repentance of misconduct, which brought its own punishment, was sincere” and that he “lived to exert himself”. This conclusion seems to open the possibility that Willoughby did truly repent. Austen, however, uses the word “misconduct” rather than a more serious word such as “sin.” She gives no evidence of change in Willoughby’s life, which is still devoted to his previous pursuits and enjoyments. “It seems likely, therefore, that this “repentance” means not true religious repentance but simply being sincerely sorry that he has behaved badly and has had to suffer the consequences.” Gillian Dooley suggests that
“Willoughby seems to blame himself for his predicament. He confesses that at first his “‘vanity only was elevated,’” and he talks of his “‘meanness, selfishness, cruelty’” in trifling with Marianne’s feelings when they first met. In the manuscript prayer, there is a similar plea for to God.”
Brian Wilkie suggests that, although Austen “does address inherently moral issues, she characteristically veers away from their distinctively moral dimension, often using them instead as frames or lenses through which we are to confront the recesses and dynamics of human personality” I would suggest that forgiveness between human beings, In Sense and Sensibility, is largely a secular affair, involving a mixture of motives including pity, self-respect and involuntary attraction.
Pride and Prejudice is also a novel which is heavily influenced by popular culture of its time. Natalie Walshe notes, “Jane Austen doesn’t write novels about the servants who tend to her ladies and gentlemen, but she never writes novels without them.” Judith Terry calls them “non-witnesses,” occasionally, they are called upon to witness, or the narrative makes clear that “they have all along been witnessing, and such instances shatter the illusion that governs their relations with their employers.” If we examine those occasions when servant witnesses are acknowledged and their perspectives are given narrative recognition, we can highlight the on goings of supposedly private domestic spaces. Elizabeth Veisz notes that the integration of paid workers within the home was “increasingly mystified by middle-class domestic ideology” this mystification, “the willed denial of servant witnesses, is dispelled in those narrative moments that rely on information that these co-inhabitants in genteel houses have, indeed, seen and heard.” Through the use of the servant characters, Austen breaks down the invisible barriers maintaining the private façade of the Bennet family within their arguably non-private home. Sarah Dredge makes the interesting point; that it is evident that everyone in the neighbourhood knows of the events occurring, regardless of this evidency, Elizabeth, Jane, and the Gardiners have an inherent need to believe that the household servants do not in order to uphold their status. She then states;
“Mrs. Bennet’s failure of genteel behaviour is shown by her inability to recognize proper invisible barriers between family and servants. The narrator notes, in regard to Mrs. Bennet’s taking to her room and venting all her feelings on the housekeeper, who attended, in the absence of her daughters.”
This is a particularly interesting notion as it highlights the importance of the servant characters. They serve as an ever-present reminder of the class hierarchy which can only be broken by those higher up. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, becomes the token servant who is allowed to know the events going on. She becomes almost a bridging figure between servant and family. Though we well know that the housekeeper is called Mrs. Hill, she remains nameless for the most part, in doing so, Austen attempts a narrative distinction that reminds us of her difference and places her back with “the servants” as she is still part of the “household,” not of the family. Another way of perceiving her is to argue that Mrs. Hill’s intrusions into the narrative, serve the function of reminding readers that those who “answer the doors and deliver the notes are privy to inside information and might also have feelings involved.” The fiction of servants as “non-witnesses” is exposed to readers, who are then meant to forget it again so that we can share the novel’s judgment on Mr. and Mrs. Bennet for exposing it to us. The function of servants in Austen’s narratives is altogether relatively muted. In Sense and Sensibility, for example, there are multiple occasions when a servant performs actions such as opening doors or opening letters, essential actions for their masters and mistresses. However, they are not individualized, rather they are simply absorbed into the mechanisms of everyday life. Austen would have been very familiar with the generic tricky servant drama in which the servants disrupt their master’s interests. This would have been popular in literature of the time and Austen would have undoubtedly have been influenced by these ideas. However, her novels use much milder forms of the tropes of the tricky servant drama. Her servants for the most part remain nameless, unimportant pawns unless those important in the household deem it necessary to break societal structure for a moment to give them any importance. The servants have no agency of their own, it is handed to them by their employers. Both Austen and her characters see servants as indicators of economic status. Austen’s satire is frequently directed towards those working class and below. The characters who have Austen’s approval also have, among their other qualities, the virtue of reticence of what one another’s servants do.
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