Jane Austen and Charity, by Diana Oaks

Jane Austen and Charity, by Diana Oaks

Charity is a theme woven into each of Jane Austen’s six novels, with various facets of this virtue woven into characters and communities in ways that illuminate the best and worst of its meanings. We’ll take a look at a few examples of these themes in her works, including the contradictions inherent in her illustrations.

As presented in the Bible (1 Corinthians 13), we know that early Christians considered charity to be a frame of mind and way of life that manifests kindness, humility, generosity, longsuffering, and love for one’s neighbor, among other things. The same passage warns that actions alone do not constitute charity. Austen brilliantly gives us the perfect example of the non-charitable bestower of charity in Mansfield Park’s Mrs. Norris. In chapter one, Mrs. Norris, wishing to elevate herself, proposes that the Bertrams take in the eldest daughter of their poor sister to raise and educate. She has no intention of accepting the girl, Fanny Price, into the parsonage where she resides, but rather volunteers her brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Bertram as the girl’s patron. In spite of his reservations, she presses the point and then congratulates herself on her own benevolent and charitable nature.

Under this infatuating principle, counteracted by no real affection for her sister, it was impossible for her to aim at more than the credit of projecting and arranging so expensive a charity; though perhaps she might so little know herself as to walk home to the Parsonage, after this conversation, in the happy belief of being the most liberal–minded sister and aunt in the world.

Mrs. Norris lectures Fanny Price on appropriate behavior for a charity case.

Over the course of the novel, Mrs. Norris’s true nature reveals itself, until we come to understand how deeply she resents the object of her earlier “charity.” When Henry Crawford approaches Sir Thomas and offers for Fanny, we see that not only does Sir Thomas have his suspicions about Mrs. Norris, but Mrs. Norris has no charitable feelings toward her niece at all.

When Sir Thomas understood this, he felt the necessity of making his own wife and sister–in–law acquainted with the business without delay; though, on Fanny’s account, he almost dreaded the effect of the communication to Mrs. Norris as much as Fanny herself. He deprecated her mistaken but well–meaning zeal. Sir Thomas, indeed, was, by this time, not very far from classing Mrs. Norris as one of those well–meaning people who are always doing mistaken and very disagreeable things.

Mrs. Norris, however, relieved him. He pressed for the strictest forbearance and silence towards their niece; she not only promised, but did observe it. She only looked her increased ill–will. Angry she was: bitterly angry; but she was more angry with Fanny for having received such an offer than for refusing it. It was an injury and affront to Julia, who ought to have been Mr. Crawford’s choice; and, independently of that, she disliked Fanny, because she had neglected her; and she would have grudged such an elevation to one whom she had been always trying to depress.

Mrs. Norris complains about Fanny after she refuses Henry Crawford

In the character of Emma, we see a young woman of privilege who has been raised to understand her obligations of charitable giving and behavior toward those in her community, but who has not yet internalized generosity as a true component of her identity. She clearly desires to fulfill her duties to the poor honorably, but still processes these transactions as something of an equation of class, which she explains to her protegee, Harriet Smith when discussing a young farmer, Robert Martin.

Emma visits the poor with a charity basket and kindness.

 “That may be — and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it.”

Emma teaches Harriet to hide behind a parasol to avoid encountering Miss Bates.

Miss Bates, on the other hand, falls into the category of “the deserving poor,” and receives obligatory charitable attention from Emma, but not a shred of actual respect. Emma’s condescension toward Miss Bates, who is oblivious of Emma’s disdain for her until the picnic at Box Hill is exactly the sort of attitude that makes recipients of charitable giving feel the sting of humiliation. Unlike Mrs. Norris, Austen gives Emma a redemption arc, and Emma ultimately matures into owning a truly charitable heart after Mr. Knightley rebukes her for her treatment of Miss Bates.

There are many other characters in Austen’s works whose charity, or lack of it, merit exploration through the lens of charity. Consider Fanny Dashwood vs Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility, or Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. In a time when governments did not provide welfare services such as those provided to the needy today, the provisions provided through charitable giving within a family, and among friends and the larger community were the safety net of that time. Your thoughts on this topic are invited in the comments section below.

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June 12, 2022 2:41 PM

Enjoyed reading.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
June 1, 2022 8:39 PM

I enjoyed your article! I am not sure if I felt Mrs. Norris was the most uncharitable, or if the sister of famous Mr. F was the worst specimen. But you have definitely made me think on it!

J. W. Garrett.
J. W. Garrett.
June 1, 2022 12:30 PM

I had to laugh as I read these accounts. Your description of Mrs. Norris was so revealing. It also made me think of Sir Walter’s and Elizabeth’s idea of economizing was to cut back on donations and they didn’t redecorate a room. He considered himself beloved by the servants [who probably hadn’t been paid] and the community. The pompous so-and-so was so full of himself that he wanted to ride up with the driver so he could wave to the village as he passed through when they quit Kellynch. Good grief. Thanks for this post.

Shana Jefferis
Shana Jefferis
May 30, 2022 8:22 PM

I cannot remember if charity is well canvassed in Sense and Sensibility, but the difference between Elinor and Marianne perfectly illustrates the sort of Christian charity properly performed and a variety of charity that perhaps falls short!

If its not in the novel, I would love to hear those two girls discussing a charitable visit to the likes of someone like Miss Bates.

Thanks for the great post.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
May 30, 2022 9:04 AM

Pretty interesting!

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