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Prepare to be teased by Austen’s Sanditon

Sanditon by Jane Austen

How could Jane Austen be so cruel?

Twelve chapters into writing a new novel, she became so ill she had to put the manuscript aside. She died four weeks later leaving the novel unfinished and her readers yearning for more.

When she died on 13 March 1817, Jane Austen had written 23,500 words. Essentially all she managed was an introduction to the characters and the setting of a seaside village called Sanditon and some threads of possible plot lines.

Reading what became known as Sandition, is tantalising, frustrating and exciting in equal measures. Because this is Jane Austen as we have never experienced her before.

As Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland writes in her introduction to the new Oxford World Classics edition:

Only one paragraph in, we know that Sanditon will be unlike any other novel Austen wrote.

Gone are the villages and the stately homes familiar as settings in her previous six completed novels. Gone too is her previous opening gambit of introducing the heroine and her circumstances before moving onto the action.

Instead we begin with a coach accident in a country lane somewhere in Sussex.

The coach passenger, Mr Parker is injured but he and his wife are given shelter by a local family. As a thank you the Parkers invite the eldest daughter Charlotte Heywood to join them at the seaside resort of Sanditon.

A Seaside First

This setting is another first for Jane Austen. Although previous novels had seen characters talk about the seaside (Emma) or visit it for themselves (Persuasion); Sanditon is the first to be wholly located on the coast.

In another departure from past novels, Mr Parker is not your typical aristocratic landowner. He’s a would-be entrepreneur, an energetic man with ambitious plans to cash in on the trend for “seaside cures”. His vision is to turn the unpretentious former fishing village of Sanditon into a fashionable spa resort that will rival Brighton and Eastbourne.

He’s what Jane Austen calls ‘an enthusiast” – a man obsessed by his idea but whose enthusiasm is not equalled by his common sense. 

He could talk of it for ever.—It had indeed the highest claims;—not only those of birth place, property, and home,—it was his mine, his lottery, his speculation and his hobby horse; his occupation, his hope, and his futurity.

He has, he thinks a soul mate and financial backer in the form of Lady Denham. She’s a canny woman though, not given to spending money unnecessarily. She’s also sharp enough to know when relatives are cosying up to her simply to get a piece of her “many thousands a year to bequeath.”

Sanditon’s Unanswered Questions

By the time Jane Austen writes her final words, the stage is set and the players are in place. Eager beaver Mr Parker, grande dame Lady Denham; Mr Parker’s hypochondriac siblings; Lady Denham’s toadying relatives and the Charlotte Heywood who though young proves to be an astute judge of character.

There’s also an intriguing character of whom we hear but never get to meet. A Miss Lambe described as “a young West Indian of large fortune, in delicate health,” who is “about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender.” arrives in Sanditon and is about to take her first sea bathe.

It’s infuriating that we never get to know what happens next. Will Mr Parker’s ambitions come crashing down? Which man will try to get at Miss Lambe’s fortune? Will Lady Denham’s relatives get their comeuppance?

And since this is after all a Jane Austen novel, the burning question is: Who will Charlotte marry?

Certainly not Lady Denham’s idiotic nephew-by-marriage Sir Edward Denham. She’s already dismissed him as a “downright silly,” because of his tastes in reading. Mr Parker’s brother Arthur is similarly unappealing; he just stuffs his face and hugs the fire. So there must be some character yet to make an appearance, who wins her heart.

How this tale pans out has long been a source of speculation. At least seven people have attempted to finish the manuscript, Jane Austen’s niece, Anne Austen Lefroy. But her version was left incomplete.

Picking up Austen’s Baton

There have also been numerous attempts to adapt this for tv/film. The most recent (and the reason why Oxford University Press has issued a new edition) gets its airing in the next few days. You can watch the official trailer here.

It’s a six-episode series written by Andrew Davies (the man responsible for that Colin Firth wet shirt scene in Pride and Prejudice). I’ll be watching though I suspect it will bear little resemblance to Austen’s plans for her novel – Davies has already said that he used up all her material is just half of the first episode. So we can expect his usual inventiveness.

Sanditon by Jane Austen: Fast Facts

The new Oxford World Classics edition is edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of English Literature and Senior Research Fellow, St Anne’s College, Oxford. Her introduction is rich in contextual insight about attitudes to the health benefits of sea-bathing and the rise of economic speculation.

This edition also contains some fascinating information about the editorial decisions reached during preparation for publication. The publishers used a copy of Austen’s manuscript made by her sister Cassandra. It seems, says Sutherland, ‘far from finished”. There are few paragraph divisions and many abbreviations and contractions. Cassandra changed some of the spellings and corrected some obvious errors.

The OUP editors decided to reject Cassandra’s spelling corrections in order to remain more true Austen’s personality as a writer. They also retained her practice of irregular capitalization of common nouns in mid sentence. I’m so glad they did because, though it made the text more challenging to read, I wanted to experience the words as Austen herself wrote them.

If you’re interested in seeing Cassandra’s copy, there are photographic images of the pages here

Love is in the air

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

Since today is Valentine’s Day what better opportunity can there be to talk about how fiction represents romance and love? St Valentine is traditionally associated with courtly and romantic love but authors through the ages have shown different facets of the emotion. So today I’ve picked ten fictional couples whose relationships represent different dimensions of love.

Since the course of true love doesn’t always run smoothly, let’s start with a few examples of troubled relationships.

Pip and Estella

We begin with an example of unrequited love via Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip, the humble blacksmith who gains wealth from a mysterious benefactor, falls in love with the glamorous Estella though she is aloof and hostile towards him. Dickens’s ending makes it ambiguous whether the two ever marry.

The Butler and the Housekeeper

Remains of the day

Still from the film of The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize winning novel The Remains of the Day, gives us an example of love that is never declared.  Stevens the butler at Darlington Hall has practiced restraint for so long that he cannot ever allow himself to relax enough to show his true feelings. His relationship with the young housekeeper Miss Kenton at times comes close to blossoming into romance but even when Miss Kenton tries to draw closer to him, his stunted emotional life holds him back.

Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder 

Love of a different nature is shown in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, where two young men meet as students at Oxford. Charles Ryder, who comes from a sterile, loveless home, is mesmerised by the glamorous and wealthy Flyte family and their stately home at Brideshead. He spends idyllic summers with Sebastian but is powerless when his friend descends into depression and alcoholism. Bruised by the experience, Charles falls into a loveless marriage and then finds temporary solace with Sebastian’s sister Julia. The question readers have to decide for themselves is whether Sebastian was simply the appetiser for the real deal of Charles’ love for Julia or is she second best to Sebastian?

Elizabeth Bennett and Lord Darcy

Sometimes love happens between the most unlikely of individuals. The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is one that has delighted readers since Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813.  Jane Austen gets them off to a rocky start however.  In their first encounter Darcy thinks Jane”…tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

“From the very beginning— from the first moment, I may almost say— of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

Frank Doel and Helene Hanff

You could argue that isn’t strictly a romantic  relationship since the author Helene Hanff and the antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel never meet. But I’d challenge anyone to read the letters that fly from New York to London in Hanff’s memoir, 84 Charing Cross Road, and not come to the conclusion that there is something more going on than just a mutual affection for books.

Gabriel Oak and Bathseba Everdene

In Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy shows love can endure despite many challenges. Gabriel Oak (his name is a big clue as to his nature) doesn’t give up when the uppity Miss Everdene rejects his marriage proposal. He becomes a servant on her farm while she embarks on a disastrous relationship with a solider. But when she needs him most, he is ready to forgive…. Hardy is careful to show that the love that Gabriel and Bathsheba share is not the passion of a first love but a sadder and wiser connection born out of trials and tribulations. 

Sapper Kip and Hana the nurse

I can’t talk about love without mentioning my favourite Booker prize winner, The English Patient by Michael Ondatjee. It shows that sometimes love flourishes in the most unlikely of situations. In this case, in a bomb-damaged Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II, where four people are thrown together unexpectedly.  Hana, a troubled young Canadian Army nurse, is caring for a man severely burned in a flying accident. The death of her lover causes her to believe that she is cursed and that all those around her are doomed to die. The arrival at the villa of a Sikh British Army sapper, reawakens her emotions. But their affair is shortlived. Kip is horrified when he learns about the Hiroshima bombing, leaving the villa to return to his native India. He never sees Hana again though he never stops recalling the effect she had on his life.

Dexter and Emma

How long can you be in love with someone and yet never realise it? For the couple in David Nicholls novel One Day, it takes almost 20 years for them to get together after they spend the night together on their graduation from Edinburgh university.  The novel visits their lives and their relationship on that date – 15 July – in successive years in each chapter, for 20 years. Does it all end happily?  Not quite. But you’ll have to read the book to discover why not.

Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson

The Graduate

Still from the ending of the film The Graduate

I can’t end without an example of what many people would consider to be the ultimate romantic gesture. In The Graduate, Benjamin, a new college graduate with no idea what to do with the rest of his life,  is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson. But then realises it’s her daughter Elaine that he loves. Slight problem: she is about to marry another boy. Queue a desperate race to get to the church before Elaine says I do. If you’ve watched the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, you’ll know there is a dramatic ending involving a bride and a bus. I’m not cheating here by the way – the film is in fact based on a novel of the same name written by Charles Webb and published in 1963.


So there you have 10 couples who each, in one way or another, reflect love in many forms. Are there any couples you think of instantly when the subject of love crops up?

Six Degrees from Dorset coast to Australia’s outback

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation – hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best – where each month, a book is selected as the start of a chain. The idea is to link it with six other books.

This month we begin with The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles which was published in 1969. I remember enjoying it though the details are a bit hazy. The film version with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons left a lasting impression, primarily because Streep got to wear this fantastic hooded cape that I yearned to own.

  • french lieutenant's woman

The novel relates the intense relationship between a former governess and an amateur naturalist. Sarah Woodruff, the Woman of the title, is also referred to as “Tragedy” and as “The French Lieutenant’s Whore”. She lives in the coastal town of Lyme Regis  in Dorset as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by an officer from a French ship. Much of the novel sees her standing on The Cobb, a stone jetty, staring out to sea.

persuasion

The Cobb plays a key role in a novel from a much earlier period, Persuasion, the last novel fully completed by Jane Austen. It was published at the end of 1817, six months after her death. On a visit to Lyme Regis, one girl’s impetuous behaviour leads to a serious fall and concussion. It causes a change of attitude by a naval captain towards her sister Anne, the girl who he once wanted to marry but who rejected him. 

chesilbeach

All comes right in the end which is more than can be said for the unfortunate couple in my next book who play out their relationship just a little further along the same coastline. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007.

It’s an achingly sad novella about the young couple Edward and Florence, who arrive to spend their honeymoon at a hotel near the beach. Though this novel is set in the Sixties, they are both sexual innocents, very nervous about their first night together. The gulf that develops between them that night affects the rest of their lives. 

Florence is a talented violinist, who dreams that one day, the quartet she has formed, will be esteemed talented enough to play at the prestigious Wigmore Hall in London.

equal music

The violinist in my next novel is already a success yet he is haunted by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier. An Equal Music by Vikram Seth sees the two lovers find each other once again but one of them has a secret that could mark the end of any hopes of a permanent reconciliation.  Not surprisingly, this is a novel that is suffused with feelings of sadness and loss. 

return of the solider

An Equal Music is about the desire to return to the past, to rekindle a former relationship.  My next choice is also about the desire to return to the past but this time the desire to find the former lover represents a form of escape.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West recounts the return of Captain Chris Baldry, to his large country estate near London, from the trenches of the First World War. Suffering from shell shock, he doesn’t remember the death of his infant son, doesn’t recognise his wife nor his cousin, doesn’t even know that he is married. All he remembers is Margaret, with whom he had a summer romance 15 years earlier. All three women have to decide whether they should try to “cure” him and return him to the here and now. 

My final book in this chain has not one but two connections to The Return of the Soldier (this instance of over-achievement is unlikely to be repeated so enjoy it while you can). Both were debut novels written by young women. Both disappeared from public view for decades but are now considered as modern classics. 

my-brilliant-career

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (a pseudonym for her actual name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) was written in 1901 when she was 20 years old. It was intended as a tale set in the Australian outback, to amuse her friends but its popularity and criticism that it was more an autobiography than a novel , caused the author to withdraw the book from sale until after her death. Since 1966 it has never been out of print. The author left a permanent mark on the Australian literary scene with her endowment of the Miles Franklin prize.


And there we must bring this chain to an end. We’ve been to Dorset and the South East England and finally to Australia. Hope you enjoyed the journey. I’ve read all of the first six books mentioned and am currently reading My Brilliant Career.

 

 

 

 

 

Six Degrees from Atonement

six-chains-logo

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain.  The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.

This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.

It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.

I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.

Emma

For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen.  Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.

barchester towers

In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.

Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.

cannery row

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party.  Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.

The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.

Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.   I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.

all the light

It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II.  Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.

Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.

The Gourmet

Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.

But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.

The Sea, The Sea

Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.

All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.

Right well it’s just cup  a soup then…..

 

From Austen to Forster in six steps

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best and for once I have read the starting book in the chain. For anyone unfamiliar with Six Degrees of Separation each month the idea is that from the book chosen as a starting point we find link to another book, and another using whatever flights of fancy and free associations our brains can muster. As always the books in my chain are one I’ve read.

The starting point this month is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in honour of the author’s bicentenary. The story of five daughters of the Bennett family was her third published novel and arguably most popular work in her lifetime, going through three editions before her death. The multiple tv and film adaptations produced since have helped maintain its popularity. One of the key turning points in the narrative arc is when Lizzie Bennet, second eldest daughter, visits Pemberley, the large country estate of Lord William Darcy, a wealthy landowner with whom she has previously clashed. Lizzie’s delight in seeing this estate brings her realisation that she might have misjudged this man and “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

For my next link I’m choosing a book where the central character finds a door into a new world via another large country estate .

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh traces from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, including his friendship with the Flytes, a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. He becomes seduced by the charms of the family but ultimately the relationship turns sour, not because Charles is of a different class but because they are Catholic and he cannot understand the hold religion has on their lives. Waugh wrote this as a convert to the Catholic faith and his novel reflects themes of divine grace and reconciliation as the characters struggle with their beliefs.

Like Waugh, Graham Greene was a Catholic convert who also explored the  drama of the struggles within the soul from a Catholic perspective. I could chose one of several books for my second link but I think I’m going to opt for  The Heart of the Matter (my review)  which is my favourite Greene novel. It details a life-changing moral crisis for Henry Scobie, an assistant police commissioner in a British settlement on the West Coast of Africa during World War II. A superb book about a tortured soul who wants to do the right thing but finds himself morally compromised.

Greene was at one time an agent of the British intelligence service and supervised and befriended by Kim Philby, a man later revealed as a traitor and Soviet spy. They worked together in what is known as MI6. Which gives me my next link …

John le Carré is a highly successful British author of espionage novels. He could write authoritatively about spies and their practices because he was, for a time, one of them. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for both the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service under his real name of David John Moore Cornwell.  He’s best known for his masterful novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which is a fiendishly intricate plot about a traitor at the heart of the security service. But I’m going to select his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which is a tremendously atmospheric novel set in Berlin at a time when the city was divided by the wall. Much of the force of Le Carre’s writing comes from the way he portrays the inner conflict of his characters and in this one, he features Alec Leamas, a British agent, who has been sent to East Germany as a fake defector with a mission to spread disinformation. By the end he has to choose between a German girl with whom he has fallen in love and his duty to his country.

Berlin and the cold war. Now that reminds me of the first Ian McEwan novel I read, The Innocent. Set in 1950, this centres on a joint American and British security operation to build a tunnel from the American sector of Berlin into the Russian sector to tap phone lines of the Soviet High Command. Leonard Marnham is the young Englishman tasked with the set up and repair of the tape recorders used in the tunnel. He’s out of his depth and bungles along until he finds in a spot where betrayal becomes easy.

 

That idea of an innocent caught up in something he doesn’t fully understand gives me my next link.  L P Hartley’s The Go-Between is the recollection of 1900 when 13-year-old Leo Colston spends the summer at a grand country house in Norfolk, rented  by the family of a prep-school chum, He gets caught unwittingly in a love affair between his friend’s beautiful sister and a neighbouring farmer.  Initially is involvement is all rather innocent, he just acts as postman between the pair but each of them is eventually very nasty to him and he’s made to feel an intruder rather than a welcome guest.

 

For my final link we’re going to visit another country house though this is on a less grand scale. Howard’s End by E. M depicts the clash of attitudes between three families, the rich and capitalistic Wilcoxes, the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Tibby, and Helen), whose cultural pursuits have much in common with the real-life Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, a poor young couple from a lower-class background. Leonard represents the aspirations of the lower classes; he is obsessed with self-improvement and reads constantly, hoping to lift himself up. But he is never able to transform his meager education into an improved standard of living. Through an accidental encounter with the Schlegels he sees a chance to change his fortunes. The Schlegel’s well-intentioned idea of helping him go horribly wrong when, because of their advice he loses his job and becomes destitute. Another example of an innocent seduced by a world outside his own experience.

And with that we’ve looped back to book number 2 in my chain and not just thematically. The TV adaptation of  Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons, was in fact filmed at  real country house called Castle Howard.

The many sides of Jane Austen

jane austen noteTwo hundred years after her death, the world has not yet had enough of Jane Austen. The Bank of England marked the bicentenary by unveiling a new version of the British  £10 note complete with  Jane’s portrait and a quote from her novel Pride and Prejudice. Winchester Cathedral where she was buried opened a new permanent exhibition about Jane Austen and her life while the town of Basingstoke, near her birthplace of Steventon unveiled what’s believed to be the first statue of Austen. All this in addition to a host of commemorative events in Bath, the city that features in more than one of her novels, and Hampshire where she lived for much of her life.

What is it about her novels that holds such attraction for readers? Is it the fact, as the Wall St Journal asserted, that they deal with universal themes of “love, money, power and status.”? Or that so many of the plots revolve around the desire for personal happiness; something to which we can all relate? Is it the fact her characters are often people  we can recognise from our own communities: the pushy mother (Mrs Bennett); the shy and self-effacing young girl (Fanny Price); the wrong-un (George Wickham) or the romantic idealist (Marianne Dashwood)?  Or is a question of how she tells her stories with their subtle undercurrent of wit and satire that punctures the pretensions of anyone who gets above themselves?

It’s surely all those components.   Austen’s work has so many dimensions that there’s sure to be something that resonates with our individual interests, whether that’s romance, or the social conventions of Georgian England; or the difficulties of being an unmarried woman in a world which offered few prospects of earning your own income.

One of the critiques often levelled at Austen is that her work is circumscribed in its social and emotional range; that her uneventful, retiring life within the domestic circle of her family meant she was secluded from the larger world of political and social affairs. Consequently her novels are concerned only with the domestic affairs of two or three families in a tranquil English neighbourhood. It’s true her plots largely deal with the affairs of the heart rather than the ideological conflicts that characterised English culture during the years that followed the French Revolution. But I don’t think she ignores these issues —running through her work for example are questions about the individual and society: what should their relationship be and what  are the consequences for the individual, for others, and for society when the individual ignores or even deliberately transgress society’s rules?

She also considers the relationship of the imagination/fancy versus reason/judgment; a pertinent issue given the cult of sensibility which had arisen during the late 1700s in reaction to the emphasis on reason and intellect that had predominated during the earlier part of the century. So we have Austen debating in Sense and Sensibility the consequences of Marianne’s yielding to imagination, rather than listening to the dictates of reason that characterises her sister Elinor.

And then of course we have Austen’s concern with income, property and marriage (look carefully at her text and you’ll find repeated references to someone’s wealth). This isn’t in the novels because she had nothing else to write about but because Austen recognised this as one of the big social issues of her time.

In a social world where the only moment accorded importance in a woman’s life was marriage, the choice of a partner was a serious business.  Upon the rightness of that choice depended their entire future well-being. Their ability to actively seek a partner was however severely limited to the number of social acquaintances that came within their social circle. Mrs Bennett boasts that she dines with “five-and-twenty families” but that’s not sufficient to get marriage partners for five daughters so when Lizzie rejects what would be considered a very desirable offer from Mr Collins, her mother’s concern and warning is understandable:

if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all — and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead —  shall not be able to keep you.

Understandable therefore that Lizzie’s friend Charlotte takes the more pragmatic approach and positions herself to accept the same offer from Mr Collins though he is a few years her junior. Being neither young, pretty, or rich Charlotte cannot afford to view love as the most vital component of a marriage. She knows she has to marry someone  to avoid a life of dependancy on her family but her choices of husband are limited. She is too wealthy, educated, and upper-class to marry a working man—that would represent a social demotion for her family—but not rich or good-looking to attract a truly wealthy one. She can’t marry up or down—she can only marry sideways. Mr Collins, for all he is the “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” Lizzie despises does offer respectability and a secure future. As Austen puts it:

Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.

Austen’s primary theme of marriage is thus far from trivial. She understands the reality of her age that marriage is women’s best route to financial security and social respect.

Sweet Aunt Jane writing gentle romances from her rose-clad cottage? Conservative Jane who mocked subjective feelings in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility?  Master stylist Jane who invented the technique of free indirect discourse to gently mock her characters and undermine the persona they want to present to the world?  Many different Jane Austens have been celebrated since 1817. Just like that scene in the film version of 84 Charing Cross Road where Helen Hanff recalls “I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for”, we go looking for the Austen we want to experience and enjoy.

If you want further proof of how Austen continues to interest and intrigue take a look at a series of essays published by  Signature (a Penguin Random House site) in a free downloadable guide: Signature’s Essential Guide to Jane Austen. The guide features 12 essays on topics from the level of sexiness in her novels to book-to-film adaptations, from the challenges of  editing Austen fictionso that it resonates with  modern audiences and how Alexander McCall Smith came to write a new version of Emma.

austen in augustNot yet had enough of Austen? Then the Austen in August event at Roof Beam Reader might be your answer. Visit the intro page to find out more and access reviews and guest posts.

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