Jane Austen’s life was steeped in religion. As the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, she almost certainly believed in God, attended church regularly, and knew the Bible well. She wrote three overtly Christian prayers and was buried in an Anglican cathedral, under a stone bearing an epitaph that mentions her religious faith twice and her novel-writing not at all. But little of the religious context of Austen’s life and times can be discerned in the pages of her books. Although her stories chronicle her characters’ moral development, she virtually never gives this growth an overtly spiritual dimension. Austen’s heroes and heroines do not seek divine help in adversity, pray for suffering friends, or turn to the Bible for comfort. The heroine of Eucharista Ward’s The Watsons Revisited, the subject of today’s post in my Watsons in Winter blog series, does all of those things. Ward’s version of The Watsons springs from a religious sensibility that, if not stronger than Austen’s own, is at any rate more demonstrative in its expression. Consequently, while Ward’s completion of Austen’s novel fragment isn’t great literature, it’s nevertheless an interesting prism through which to refract the question of Austen’s religious faith.
M. Eucharista Ward (b. 1934 or 1935) is a Roman Catholic nun whose order, the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio, works in such fields as education, health care and social work. Ward spent decades teaching English and religion to junior high and high school students and, after retiring from the classroom, worked as a nurse’s aide. During night shifts at an assisted living residence, she passed the time writing Austen fan fiction: sequels to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and this completion of The Watsons. Given this background, it’s no surprise that Ward makes religious faith a touchstone for her characters from the very beginning of The Watsons Revisited. Her version is good-hearted and reasonably well-written despite the occasional anachronism (“perky”? “natty”?), and its story closely follows Austen’s presumed outline. Like Austen’s heroine, Ward’s Emma Watson returns home after years of absence and finds herself a virtual stranger in her own family, forced to make her way among relatives and neighbors she barely knows, en route to romantic fulfillment. Ward eliminates most of Austen’s comic relief – we see virtually nothing of the overbearing oldest Watson brother, Robert, and his self-satisfied wife, Jane, for example – and she occasionally succumbs to the temptation that afflicts so many Jane Austen fan fiction writers, dressing up the ordinariness of her story with a hint of domestic violence here, a soupçon of marital mystery there. Despite the melodramatic trappings, however, Ward mostly sidesteps the sorrow and bitterness that are the keynotes of the novel fragment, turning Austen’s dark story into a reassuring tale of faults mended and virtue rewarded. Ward’s Emma is a paragon who shares unexpected windfalls of jewelry and money with her sisters, treats everyone with kindness, and bears setbacks with superhuman patience, from time to time upbraiding herself for insufficient resignation. The clergyman hero, Mr. Howard, longs for a congregation with true faith and impresses his parishioners with a Christmas sermon that Ward quotes for a full paragraph. Meanwhile, Emma’s older sisters Penelope and Margaret, whom Jane Austen sketches as spiteful, scheming and whiny, soon mend their ways as they undergo overtly religious trials and reformations. Penelope suffers and is redeemed through the example of a prayerful servant girl. Margaret, pegged early on as worldly and shallow when she rejects a gold cross pendant in favor of a necklace with more sparkle, dedicates herself to a life of greater generosity after a stern but loving talking-to from Penelope’s husband. “Do you think I take religion seriously?” Margaret asks Emma at one point. “Dr. Harding said I did not look serious enough to take Christ’s message to heart.” It’s the kind of question that Jane Austen’s characters never ask, even in the midst of their own dark nights of the soul, their own voyages of humbling self-recognition and moral growth. Perhaps Austen thought the religious dimensions of pride, humility, and moral reform too self-evident to need such underlining; perhaps her reserve reflects a post-Enlightenment discomfort with excess religiosity, or an English reticence about matters so deeply personal. Whatever the explanation, Ward’s frequent reliance on religious language and motifs – her Emma silently recites the Lord’s Prayer at a tense moment and recalls a line from a psalm at another – serves to point up Austen’s near-silence on such matters. Jane Austen probably took religion very seriously indeed. But she didn’t talk about it. Eucharista Ward. The Watsons Revisited: A Continuation of Austen’s “The Watsons.” Outskirts Press, 2012.