Monday, September 1, 2014

Jane Austen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This may be the first blog post ever to mash together Jane Austen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but in honor of both my upcoming Bonhoeffer book and my favorite English author, I write about some of the similarities between the two. 

What could an early nineteenth century English woman novelist with no political involvement  have in common with a twentieth century German theologian executed for his part in conspiring against Hitler? Even I was surprised at the number of parallels:

Both probably had bouts of depression.

Both Dietrich and Jane had a serious streak and periods of depressions (or so has often been assumed about Austen in the years after the family moved to Bath.) Bonhoeffer wrote of spells of accidie or dejection. 

Both were the second-to-youngest in close knit families of eight children. 

This image, probably not of the Austens, though the possibility has been raised, shows a close knit gentry family of Jane Austen's era. Only four  children are in this, casting doubt on its authenticity: Why would the Austens leave the other children out? If it is the Austens,  Jane would be the girl on the center left, her arm raised in the air. 

An idealized family portrait shows all eight Bonhoeffer children gathered around  their mother in 1911 or 12. Dietrich is the blond boy standing with his arm on the table. The father is not in this photo but was very much the paterfamilias.

Both were talented pianists. Bonhoeffer's family thought he might pursue a career in music before he turned to theology.

Austen's piano. 

This shows a Bechstein piano of 1920s vintage, of the sort that might have travelled with Dietrich to London and later Finkenwalde seminary. Bonhoeffer made a special effort to have the piano removed before the Gestapo closed Finkenwalde. The wife of the owner of the Bechstein company supported Hitler early on, introducing him to polite society in Berlin and Munich and wishing he were her son. That the Bonhoeffers owned these pianos (purchased prior to Hitler's ascent) show the complications of German life and politics. 

Both were exceptionally close to a sister. We know of Jane and Cassandra’s lifelong devotion. Likewise, Dietrich remained extraordinarily close to his twin sister Sabine. Though Sabine and Dietrich necessarily developed independent lives as adults, arguably the greatest rupture in his life was her marriage and removal from the family of origin. This left him groping for almost a decade for  "a ground to stand on." Being cut adrift led him first to Spain and then to a transformative year at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Later in life, Bonhoeffer wrote that Sabine was one of the two people in the world--the other Eberhard Bethge--who seemed entirely real to him.

Dietrich and the darker-haired Sabine. We have no portrait of Jane and Cassandra together.

Both had a sibling tragedy, Jane in her older brother George, who was mentally disabled, and Dietrich when his brother Walter was killed in WWI after only two weeks at the front.

Both came from families that nurtured their talents and both maintained strong relationships with siblings all their lives. For both, the necessary adult breakup of the family of origin as siblings married was devastating.

Both were good with children. Some of the most delightful images of Austen from her nephew's memoir, and her own letters, depict her joy in a good slide on the ice with her nephews or engaging with her nieces and nephews in lively games and stories. Bonhoeffer shone as a youth minister in Barcelona who grew the youth program from one to 40 students. In Berlin, he worked as a youth pastor in a poor neighborhood and former students remember him taking them to his family's vacation home in the Harz mountains --a great treat for kids who never got to leave Berlin. 

Both had a close friend who was--or could have been--the replacement for the beloved sibling. 
Bethge, taller and darker, with Bonhoeffer. He filled in the empty space left by the marriages of Bonhoeffer's siblings.

Martha Lloyd. She eventually married Jane's brother Frank, but had Cassandra married, it's likely Martha would have become Jane's closest supporter. 

Both came from roughly the same gentry class background. Like the Austens, the Bonhoeffer family was not aristocratic but had relatives in the aristocracy and circulated on the periphery of the highest social circles. Unlike the Austens, the Bonhoeffers were wealthy and, leaving aside wars and the German hyper-inflation of 1923-24, did not suffer from financial worries.

Austen grew up in a respected family in a rural parsonage.

Bonhoeffer spent much of his childhood in this grand house in a well-heeled Berlin suburb called Grunewald.

Neither family would have ever imagined, in their wildest dreams that Jane or Dietrich would be the child to catapult them to fame. Jane was a spinster, Dietrich the son the family thought had thrown his talents away by pursuing a pastoral career.

Neither was well-known in his or her lifetime.

Both grew famous because of the power of their writing, Jane through the four novels she published in her lifetime and the two released after her death, and Dietrich through two books published while alive (he also published three scholarly tomes)--Discipleship and Life Together--and through the posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison

The writing desk from Dietrich's attic bedroom in the house his parent's moved to in his adult years. Dietrich often wrote standing. Did Jane?

Jane's writing desk

Both died young, cut off in their prime. Austen was 42 when disease took her. Bonhoeffer was 39 when the Nazis hanged him in the last weeks of the war. The loss of their talent at relatively young ages is incalculable.

Austen died wanting more of  life. She had a long, slow decline, but died with her sister and Martha Lloyd in attendance and was buried in Winchester Cathedral, shown above.

Bonhoeffer did not suffer a lingering illness but was hanged at Flossenberg concentration camp in the last days of the war, far from family, alone, also young. He was most likely thrown in a mass grave and cremated. 

Both transcended limitations of their time and class to achieve greatness: they wrought more than they knew. 

Both came from families that closed ranks to protect, control and ultimately distort the image of their most famous member. (We can argue that in each family, some did this more than others.)

Neither could have imagined the impact their small body of work would have on the world. Austen could hardly have envisioned herself as one of the pivotal, canonical novelists in English literature, rated with Shakespeare as among the greatest English authors of all time. Bonhoeffer could hardly have conceived the worldwide impact his writing would have on theology, including liberation theology in places like South Africa and Latin America. He could hardly have imagined that he would often be rated with Barth as one of the two greatest theologians of the 20th century or become an object of popular fascination.

Jane no doubt would have been amused to see her face depicted on a ten pound note. This idealized portrait dates to the publication of her nephew James Arthur Edward Leigh's Memoir. Given her almost constant concern for money, ending up on a bank note would have constituted a wonderful irony to this supreme ironist.

Bonhoeffer specifically wrote that he did not want to become  a "pillar saint." Naturally, he became a pillar saint. 

Both had enough sense of humor and self irony that it is easy to imagine that they would have been amused and bemused at the adulation now paid them. Bonhoeffer said more than once he didn't want to be considered a saint; about Jane Austen we need only direct ourselves to her novels.

Would they have liked each other? That's a difficult question to answer.  


  1. Once again congratulations. A neat coupling. Ellen

  2. Thanks Ellen. And I forgot to mention in the blog that neither married.