Jane Austen was a religious woman but not a religious writer. The good prevail in her works, but unlike one of her favorite authors, Samuel Richardson, or one of her contemporaries, Maria Edgeworth, the outcome is the result of the characters’ decisions and actions. It is not the result of the author’s desire to preach a lesson. The people with failings—including a clergyman here and there—suffer (or not) according to their earned deserts.
The church she attended as she pursued her writing full time had a strong family connection. This was St. Nicholas Church in Chawton, a short walk from the cottage where she lived the last eight years of her life. In addition to her regular attendance, she would frequently pass the church, for she would turn left at the building to make her way up the hill to the Great House where her older brother Edward lived and other family members regularly stayed.
Edward, the adopted heir of the Knight family, provided the living (salary and home) for the minister. At one time, Austen brother Henry
was the pastor here on an interim basis until one of Edward’s sons, Charles, succeeded to the living. The rectory was across the road from the church. As the wealthy landowner, Edward also provided most of the funds for the church’s upkeep.
Because the village was on the pilgrims’ route from Winchester to Canterbury, there’s a good chance that a church existed back in Norman times. The first records indicate a church at “Chautone” was built between 1225 and 1250, and one appears as part of the Diocese of Winchester in 1270.
The Knights acquired the manor in 1578; the church remained part of the estate until the family transferred it to the Bishop of Winchester in 1953, when Chawton and Farringdon, a village just to the south, combined under a single rector. The rectory was sold to benefit the parish, and the rector lived in Farringdon. In 2004, this parish consolidated with nine other local parishes.
The Chawton parish registers began in 1596, but the first wedding was not recorded until 1620, a “curious gap,” according to a church history. Sometime in the 18th Century the building acquired a square belfry and shingled spire. Jane would not have known most of the current building, because Edward and his son Charles reconstructed it in 1838, twenty-one years after her death. Over the next thirty years, Charles made additional changes. Tragically, in 1871 the church caught fire on the morning the church was scheduled to reopen after the latest alterations. The volunteer fire brigade finally put out the flames, but not before much of the building’s contents were damaged or destroyed. The losses included the pulpit, the clock, the organ, ancient memorial tablets, and stained-glass windows.
The church was immediately rebuilt. In 1883, four new bells were added to two ancient ones. The Friends of Chawton Church, founded in 2000, with help from the Jane Austen Society and contributions from villagers, installed new bells in 2009 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane and the other Austen women moving to Chawton—a quiet little village little changed since her residence there. Even the population is about the same–350, and many of today’s village buildings existed then. One can easily imagine the ladies—Jane, her sister Cassandra, her mother, and their dear friend Martha Lloyd—walking the short distance to the church and Jane’s lovely voice joining with the others in song to celebrate her deep Anglican beliefs.
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 now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.