Sunday, 27 January 2013

Jane Austen

I’ve already written about Jane Austen in last year's review of Persuasion, but I couldn’t resist penning a little something to celebrate 200 years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, young woman to feel that Jane Austen’s novels have a special place in my heart. Like many my first Austen was Pride and Prejudice; in fact my introduction to her began with the much loved BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. There are few authors who loom so large in our collective imaginations, and the impact she has had on literature is huge, but perhaps underrated.

Pride & Prejudice is one of the most loved novels of all time. It has the whole package: romance, humour, and excellent prose, but mostly we love it for the characters. In her leads, Austen created one of the best couples in literary history. Elizabeth is lively and likable, Darcy takes some warming too, but we love him by the end. Early on Elizabeth is tempted by the roguish Wickham. The ridiculous Mr Collins is tempered by the pragmatic Charlotte Lucas, who serves as a reminder of what society expected for young women, by marrying without affection. It was Austen’s second published novel, after Sense & Sensibility, and was an immediate success. It took a long time to make it to publication - the earliest version was written in 1796, sixteen years earlier. I suspect we have benefited from this delay, as Austen finessed the story into the novel we know and love today.

I’ve read only a very little of eighteenth & early-nineteenth century prose; the reality is very little is worth reading. Poetry was where a lot of the quality writing was. A popular novel form was the gothic novel. Unlike the later gothic novels, such as Dracula, which created atmosphere and horror, these were by and large very shlocky books. They are full of young maidens, evil men, ghosts, and candles guttering out at the worst moment. To a jaded modern audience they are hilarious. Of course there are exceptions, but it is easy to forget that Jane Austen was writing realism before it became the norm. Furthermore, to do so as a female writer was extraordinary. Unlike the Brontes, who (much later) hid behind male pseudonyms to be published, it was always known her books were written by a female, although anonymously.

Unlike the popular gothic authors, Austen wrote many admirable female characters. I am not alone in finding some hard to love, Fanny Price from Mansfield Park being the obvious choice. Even in writing those she ridiculed Austen brought female concerns into a public sphere. Their interests are still recognisable: discussing fashion, giggling over boys, worrying about how to make ends meet. Others deal with the pressing concerns of female lower gentry, such as how to lead an autonomous life when you are dependent on men. Miss Bingley and Elizabeth Bennet, or Emma and Jane Fairfax, are prime examples of how women are their own worst enemies - judging spitefully to make themselves look better, or in competition over men. She wrote a diverse range of characters, far from the simple romantic heroines her novels are associated with.

Part of this perception is due to the way her image was shaped by her family after her death. Although they were initially successful, her novels were out of print for sometime, and only popular amongst the intellectual crowd. They had a resurgence in the late Victorian era; especially after her nephew wrote a biography. In doing so he cultivated a ‘Jane Austen’ who was a fitting figure for Victorian values. The Regency period of her lifetime was very different, and Austen was a much more knowing woman than she is often credited for. It is easy for us to forget how people lived without modern hospitals; although unmarried, it would have been normal for her to care for ill members of the family, including women in childbirth (although I don’t know for a fact Austen herself did this). Victorians were notoriously prudish, but Austen must have been less so than her nephew would have liked people to think. She may have written the meek Fanny Price, but she also wrote Mary Crawford, who even makes a pun about sodomy.

The truth is very little is known about the real Jane Austen. Her sister Cassandra destroyed most of her letters after her death, and others were destroyed by her extended family. She speaks to us through her novels. In them she portrays a diverse picture of the society she lived in. Sure there are lots of things she ignored: she does not write of people outside of her class, and slavery is barely mentioned (although I have heard it argued that abolition was so widely accepted by the time she was published that it may have seemed a non-issue). She holds up a mirror to the society of her time - what it reveals is not always pretty. This is tempered by the genuine feeling at the heart of the novels. Her heroines tell us much about what hopes and dreams women held in the Regency period, and presumably what Austen herself had hoped for.

There are only two authenticated pictures of Jane Austen, both drawn by Cassandra. The first sketch is seen in nearly every edition of her books. It was not considered by her family to be a very good likeness. The second is a woman, dressed in blue, sitting outside. She faces away from us. It leaves us to imagine what she is looking at, or thinking. I rather like this image of her.

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