Remarkably Clever: The Mormons and Jane Austen

By September 24, 2012

Jane Austen died in 1818 with mild recognition but little success. The latter part of the twentieth century saw a dramatic surge in Austen’s popularity, first with reprints and films and later with a multitude of spin-offs. In the early twenty-first century Miss Austen seems nearly ubiquitous. Jane even has her own font (see the title). Though the literary Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy may be your favorite, the options are plentiful. You might pick the Colin Firth version of Darcy (with or without dripping shirt), you might also choose a dashing yet stern 1940 Sir Lawrence Olivier, or 2005 Matthew MacFayden, or even Colin Firth as Bridget Jones’ Mark Darcy, or Darcy meeting his match in Lizzy Zombie Killer. (A hint: heads rolled.)

This upsurge in Austen spin-offs has not been without its Mormon stars. Popular young adult fiction author and Mormon Shannon Hale began a foray into adult fiction with the quick and quirky Austenland in 2007. (A follow-up Midnight in Austenland came out in January and recently in paperback.) Another Mormon, Jerusha Hess (of Napolean Dynamite and Nacho Libre fame) will bring her and Hale’s screenplay of Austenland to the large screen in late 2012 or 2013 with former Mormon Keri Russell in the leading role. (Produced by Mormon Stephanie Meyer’s production company.) I recently saw Mormon playwright Melissa Leilani Larson’s adaptation of Persuasion for the stage. Not to be forgotten are my favorite set of Mormon girls who laid out the rules for Jane Austen’s Fight Club last year: No corsets. No hatpins. No crying. The potential suitor asks, “You’re very clever, aren’t you? So how is that going for you, being clever?” Slam. Mormon feminists reclaim Victorian accomplishments and idleness. So much for “endless sobriety and polite affections.”

Whether Mormon women are attracted to Austen as they live out their own marriage obsessed pseudo-Regency culture, revel in sometimes scathing societal critiques that never reach the level of full rebellion (if you don’t ever mention fight club, can it reach full rebellion?), or merely enjoy the security of avoiding lurking literary trashiness, there is plenty to unpack in terms of Mormon women’s attraction to Austen. Though I’ll continue my own fascination with the twentieth and twenty-first century history of circles of Austen influence (please add other examples that I might have missed), as a historian of the nineteenth century I’ve noticed a couple hints of potential Austen influence on Mormons and I am interested to know if they expand further.

Last year I worked on a chapter for Women of Faith on Laura Farnsworth Owen (1806-1881). Her life follows a decidedly non-traditional narrative for a nineteenth-century LDS woman. (She divorces her first husband, could have divorced the second, published a “Defence of Mormonism,” and bashed apostates over the head with sharp kitchen implements drawing blood and defiantly marking her territory.) Throughout her autobiographical sketch, Laura calls her second husband “Mr. O.” This seems Austenesque to me (a la “Mr. F” in Sense and Sensibility—“its character as the wittiest letter in the alphabet had been long established with Elinor”). I wanted to preserve this and I actually added my own “Mr. F” for her first husband in the narrative. My editors regrettably did not feel the same. (And I, shamefully, did not notice when saw the final edits.) This may be a small thing, it may not be Austen, but Laura wrote her autobiography in 1868, plenty of time for Austen’s influence to make it across the pond and across the plains. [1]

My second example is a bit more specific and a bit better known in Mormon historical narratives. Jennetta Richards was born a little more than a month after Jane Austen’s death in 1817 and a little more than 250 miles to the English north. Jennetta was right at the Austen age for heroines (“not yet twenty and one”) when she heard Mormon missionaries for the first time. She stood up against her opposed minister father and family and was baptized a Latter-day Saint.

Heber C. Kimball called her the first English convert and wrote to fellow single missionary Willard Richards the day of her baptism noting, “I baptized your wife today.” Willard was 13 years Jennetta’s senior, perhaps an Austenesque age difference, but certainly not a suitable match for the pragmatic Austen. More than just a silly vicar—an offensive religion, unknown breeding, and questionable health would never do. Months passed and each heard consistently of the other, but they did not meet until the following March. (Can you imagine the anticipation?) The first time they met they walked together and Willard quipped, “Richards is quite a good name; I never want to change it; do you, Jeanetta?” [2]

Recently I watched the 2007 BBC version of Persuasion, and heard Mr. Elliot (the mistress collecting cousin) quip, “The name of Anne Eliott has long has a beguiling charm for me. If I dared, I would now breathe my sincerest wish that that name never change.” [3]

Was Willard quoting the scoundrel Mr. Elliot? He was certainly more successful and more faithful than Mr. Elliot. (True to Jenetta’s wishes Willard remained monogamous until after her death.) Jennetta’s letters from the period weave a tale of woe that might compete with those experienced or spun by Fanny Price. Jeanetta battled with her family and their ridiculous accusations of Willard. Mormonism was very offensive to the Richards; Willard was ever more so. The Richards’ family creative gossip would make even Mrs. Bennett’s nerves quake.

Jennetta, as any good Austen heroine, made up her mind and never ceased to speak it. Her sharp tongue even reached Joseph Smith one day as he received a letter that Willard had been away for far too long as a missionary and it was time for him to come home. Willard quickly came home and the spent time in their own “prettyish kind of a little wilderness” on the side of their house in Nauvoo. At 38, not living quite as long as Jane Austen—both Jennetta and Jane met their demise too early, Jeanetta would be buried there in the garden of her humble Nauvoo abode.

[1] Brittany Chapman and Richard E. Turley, eds, Women of Faith, Vol. 1, 1775-1820, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 215-228.

[2] Janiece Johnson, “Give It All Up and Follow Your Lord”: Mormon Female Religiosity, 1831-1843, (Provo: BYU Press, 2008), 48-51.

[3] This is an adaptation of Austen’s original version: “The name of Anne Elliot…has long had an interesting sound to me. Very long has it possessed a charm over my fancy; and if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change.”

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. This is a fun and really quite interesting post, Janiece. I’m a bit surprised, though, that you omitted any mention of the 2003 film Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-day Comedy.

    Comment by Christopher — September 24, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

  2. Christopher: Thanks, clearly I missed that–I may have actually blocked it out. 🙂 I’d be happy to hear of any others I’ve missed.

    Comment by JJohnson — September 24, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

  3. Fun post!

    One more: Lucy Bigelow Young did a proxy baptism for Jane Austen during an early Wilford Woodruff temple project (Eminent Men and Women, 1877). The endowment was done by Sarah Smith, an English convert born in Shropshire. Shropshire is that distant place that Captain Wentworth keeps visiting in the novel Persuasion.

    There were no Austen selections in Bernhisel’s 1852 Territorial Library (which did tend toward non-fiction), but evidently Lucy Bigelow Young was familiar with Austen by 1877.

    Comment by Amy T — September 24, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

  4. Amy T.: That is fantastic that it was Lucy Bigelow. Especially with Brigham’s feelings about novels. 1877? Before or after his death?

    Comment by JJohnson — September 24, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

  5. Thanks Janiece. As Christopher said, it is really fun. Lot’s of things people more versed in the literature can add, I’d imagine, as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 24, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

  6. Most of that temple work project happened mid-August (this one was on August 23), so it would have been just a few days later that Lucy got a telegram and she and her daughter and Wilford Woodruff headed up to Salt Lake City for Brigham Young’s funeral.

    Comment by Amy T — September 24, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

  7. I love Jane. My wife turned me on to her. When I was doing my LL.M. in tax law at DePaul University, I would come early for my evening classes and sit in the library reading Jane (then for the first time). I’ve been known to spend an entire Saturday watching the (six-hour) BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, often next to a roaring fire.

    In case there is any doubt, I offer this.

    And I love Jeanetta. And that wonderful picture.

    Thanks for a fun post.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 24, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

  8. I have the audio version of the zombie Pride and Prejudice and I love it. (I hasten to add that I’ve read the original many times.)

    I wonder if the reason why Austen does well in contemporary Mormon culture also has to do with a (perceived) culture of domesticity. Just a thought.

    Thanks for the post!

    Comment by Saskia — September 25, 2012 @ 7:16 am

  9. Kevin Barney – Thanks for the reminder that this is not just Mormon women. I think anyone who makes it through that 5th hour deserves kudos. Great context of primogeniture and entail for an OT discussion.

    Saskia – I think exploring domesticity could be a particularly interesting avenue. I, of course, am quite partial to the rejection implicit in Jane Austen’s Fight Club as I bake my oatmeal and dark chocolate cookies with fluer de sel. 🙂

    Comment by JJohnson — September 26, 2012 @ 6:46 am

  10. Janiece, I’d recommend taking a look at Mercy R. [Fielding] Thompson’s writings–many of her letters to her nephew Joseph F. Smith (in the JFS papers) contain Regency-era sentiments that might be of use. She and her sister, Mary Fielding Smith, were remembered as “those lovely English girls” after their journey across the pond. I believe Amanda HK recently did some work on the Fieldings, too.

    Wonderful post, and I’m not afraid to admit I stay awake long after my wife falls asleep to finish P&P.

    Comment by Nate R. — September 26, 2012 @ 10:34 pm


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