Jane Austen’s Prayers: A History

When I speak about Jane Austen’s prayers, one of the questions I hear most is this one: Where are the prayer manuscripts and how did they get there? Here’s the answer to that question.

You can find Jane Austen’s prayer manuscripts at the Elinor Raas Heller Rare Book Room at Mills College in Oakland, California. The Mills College Special Collections and Archives has around 20,000 volumes, which is quite impressive for a school of its size. Located in the Bay Area, it’s been the recipient of quite a few wonderful gifts over the years.

How did Jane Austen’s prayer manuscripts end up at Mills College? Here is a brief timeline, provided by Bruce Stovel.

Brief History of Jane Austen’s Prayer Manuscripts

  • 1845: “Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra . . . left two sheets of paper containing the prayers to Cassandra Esten Austen, the eldest daughter of their brother Charles.”
  • 1927: “Two of Charles’s granddaughters sold them, along with other Austen papers and memorabilia, at Sotheby’s… (Le Faye, 244), for a price of £175 (Gilson, 1986, 13).”
  • 1940: “They were subsequently acquired by the California book collector William Matson Roth, who brought the prayers into print for the first time, in a limited edition (of 300 copies).”
  • 1957: “Roth donated the manuscripts . . . to Mills College in Oakland, California; they now reside in the Heller Rare Book Room of the F.W. Olin Library at Mills College.”

Stovel gives one of the most comprehensive histories and analyses of Austen’s prayer in his article, “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art.”

Stovel, a highly respected Jane Austen scholar, did incredible research on Austen’s prayers and faith during his lifetime. His article appeared in JASNA’s scholarly journal, Persuasions. For those interested in Austen’s prayers, faith, and the connections that can be found between her faith and her writing, this is the place to start!

Jane Austen’s Prayers Have a Good Deal to Say

Jane Austen’s prayers have a place in her writings that resembles that of many of her own heroines within their fictional worlds. Apparently of little interest, they have been generally ignored. These three short prayers survive in undated manuscripts inscribed “Prayers Composed by my ever dear Sister Jane”; the prayers themselves indicate that one member of the Austen family is reading to the assembled household at night before all retire to bed.

Like Elinor Dashwood or Fanny Price or Anne Elliot, the prayers have, in general, not been attended to: biographies and critical studies tend to ignore the prayers (with some striking exceptions, to be mentioned later in this essay). Yet, like those heroines, the prayers have a good deal to say for themselves if one does listen – in this case, a good deal about Jane Austen’s life and about the novels. They tell us that Jane Austen was a devout Christian and suggest that the novels are more suffused with religious feeling than we might have thought.”

–Bruce Stovel, “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art.”

To read the rest of Stovel’s groundbreaking article, you can click HERE.

As part of this article, I’ve included a photo of the prayer manuscripts for your enjoyment. The inscription by Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra reads, “Prayers Composed by my ever dear Sister Jane.” This appears on the outside of the folded quarto sheet on which the first prayer, with the heading “Evening Prayer.”

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent question, Rachel. Thanks for answering it so clearly! I assume you’ve been personally to look at the manuscripts? California would be pretty far for me, unfortunately, but maybe someday!

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