Giving Thanks with Austen

With my regularly scheduled blog appearing this year on Thanksgiving, I wondered whether there was any formal giving of thanks in Jane Austen’s work. The November U.S. holiday has spread to most of the Americas. The English have a more general harvest-related tradition of providing bread and other food to the poor, often through the church. That tradition was extant in the Regency and continues now.

Though today’s American celebration is secular in nature, the practice has spiritual roots. It was religious settlers in Massachusetts and Virginia who began the celebration. Most Americans know the tradition of the Pilgrims inviting the native tribes to join in. It was the Indians who provided the food that enabled most of the early colonies to survive the first desperate years.

President George Washington created the first official Thanksgiving in 1789 “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.” President Abraham Lincoln made it an annual event beginning in 1863, when, in the middle of the Civil War, he proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

Austen’s family was religious, of course. Her father and two brothers were clergymen. Her works contain strong, though not didactic, moral strains. I wondered: Did any of her characters ever directly express thanks—to God, to Providence, to the universe? Did anyone express gratitude in a way that recognized any higher power?

I could not find any direct use of “giving” or “offering” thanks in any of Austen’s six novels. Most of her novels contain fifty or sixty ordinary thanks each. Persuasion is the least thankful with only eighteen, but it includes the most fervent. Most of the thanks are a polite reflex to ordinary behavior or a specific response to a good deed performed by another.

“Thank God!” occurs once or twice per book. The sense is usually general. Sometimes the phrase is a positive and sometimes a negative. In Persuasion, Mrs. Croft thanks God that as a naval wife she is blessed with excellent health and was seldom seasick on the ocean. Perversely, William Elliot writes “Thank God!” that he can stop using the name “Walter”—the name of Anne’s father—as a middle name. Anne Elliot stiffens upon learning the insult to her family.

“Thank God!” is a remark that is canceled out in Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland’s brother James writes her to say “Thank God!” that he is done with Isabella Thorpe, who is now pursuing Captain Tilney. The next post brings a letter from Isabella, telling Catherine “Thank God” that she’s leaving the “vile” city of Bath. By now dumped by the Captain, she doesn’t know that Catherine knows what’s up. Isabella pleads “some misunderstanding” with James and asks Catherine to help: “Your kind offices will set all right: he is the only man I ever did or could love, and I trust you will convince him of it.” Catherine doesn’t.

The only real “Thank God!”, as an appeal to the Deity, comes in Persuasion after Captain Wentworth’s inattention contributes to Louisa’s fall and concussion: “The tone, the look, with which ‘Thank God!’ was uttered by Captain Wentworth, Anne was sure could never be forgotten by her; nor the sight of him afterwards, as he sat near a table, leaning over it with folded arms and face concealed, as if overpowered by the various feelings of his soul, and trying by prayer and reflection to calm them.”

Admiral Croft and Anne Elliot are thankful that Captain Wentworth is coming to Bath–unengaged.

Everyone’s prayers are answered. Louisa mends and becomes engaged to Captain Benwick. Wentworth is free to marry Anne.

A deeply thankful attitude does exist with two of Austen’s characters. Readers who pause to think can probably guess the two. Beyond the village poor in the background, which characters are most in distress and most likely to be thankful for any relief?

We might consider Mrs. Smith from Persuasion, who had the “two strong claims” on Anne “of past kindness and present suffering.” Her physical and financial straits are dire, yet “neither sickness nor sorrow seemed to have closed her heart or ruined her spirits.” Mrs. Smith, however, is more shrewd than thankful, using Anne’s marriage to help end her own suffering.

What character, living on the margins, has a level of energy that often sets into motion her active tongue? We find her in Emma:

“Full of thanks, and full of news, Miss Bates knew not which to give quickest.”

When Mr. Knightley sends her a sack of apples and the Woodhouse family sends her a full hindquarter of tender Hartfield pork, Miss Bates responds with the sunniest appreciation: “Oh! my dear sir, as my mother says, our friends are only too good to us. If ever there were people who, without having great wealth themselves, had every thing they could wish for, I am sure it is us.” She might be auditioning for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

In contrast, the social-climbing new vicar’s wife, Mrs. Elton, feels thankful in a prerogative way. “I always say a woman cannot have too many resources—and I feel very thankful that I have so many myself as to be quite independent of society.”

If anyone has the right to feel a lack of thanks in life, it is Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. When she is not being forgotten, it is to provide some service for someone else. When she is not being ignored, it is to be abused by her aunt, Mrs. Norris. Just about every word that can convey melancholy, sadness, or anguish serves to repeatedly describe her.

She feels misery at least eight times; some variety of pain at least ten times; wretchedness half a dozen times. She is oppressed three times and suffers stupefaction once. The best she normally manages is to feel both pain and pleasure, four times. Her circumstances and personality leave her in a “creep mouse” state of mind. She trembles a dozen times; she cries a dozen times and sobs at least four other. The stress is so great that she comes close to fainting at least three times and is ready to sink once; she suffers fright or is frightened six times; she reacts with horror or to something horrible five times.

Yet for all her unhappiness, she manages to look on the sunny side of life.

Fanny feels gratitude at least fifteen times, for things small and large. Especially toward her cousin Edmund, played by Johnny Lee Miller in the photo by the headline. Gratitude for Edmund tending to her when she first comes to live with her wealthy relatives. For his providing her a horse to ride. For her uncle once letting her use the carriage to go to dinner. Even gratitude once “to be spared from aunt Norris’s interminable reproaches.” Kindness comes up more than 125 times in the book. The most common use again relates to Edmund: his kindness to her throughout, and his encouragement of others to be kind to her. Fanny can even feel grateful toward Henry Crawford, despite his character flaws, for his kindness to her brother and, a couple of times, for his kindness to her.

It seems to be a fundamental aspect of human nature that those with the least to appreciate in life treasure what they have the most. Austen’s treatment of Miss Bates and Fanny does not, I think, reflect a conscious attempt at moral teaching. Their attitudes flow directly from the women’s character. Fanny and Miss Bates are gentle souls with big hearts. They give thanks naturally for the joy of existence.

So should we all.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

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