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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Excellent women novelists

Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral, as all good Janeites know, but it’s another prominent medieval English church that will host an academic lecture about her work next week: Westminster Abbey, perhaps the most famous religious site in the British Isles.

For three evenings next month, the abbey and the British non-profit Art + Christanity are sponsoring a free lecture series on nineteenth-century English female novelists who “use fiction to explore questions of faith, morality and personal adherence to the Church of England.”

In addition to Austen, talks will cover Charlotte Brontë, born a year before Austen’s death, and Charlotte Yonge, who, although less well-known today than either Austen or Brontë, had a far longer and more prolific career than either, dying at the start of the twentieth century.

Next Tuesday’s kickoff talk, “Jane Austen’s Afterlife: Art, Culture and Religion,” will be given by the Rev. Alison Grant Milbank, associate professor of literature and theology at England’s University of Nottingham.

Jane Austen’s religious commitments and influences are unfamiliar to many modern-day Janeites, who live in far more secular cultures than the one that shaped her writing. It should be fascinating to hear a theologian talk about her work – wish I could be there. (And if you are, please let us know what you think!)

As a side note, I felt a little thrill at the title of the lecture series: “Excellent Women,” surely a tribute to the wonderful twentieth-century British writer Barbara Pym, whose most famous novel bears the same title. Pym’s books, with their precise Austenian irony and frequent references to Austen’s characters, often center on quiet, overlooked spinsters whose volunteerism underpins church life – excellent women indeed.

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