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.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 4, 2017, in Bookends, British authors, Classics, Irish authors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 57 Comments.

  1. I started reading Jane Austen as a teenager. She still seems to me to be the romance novelist who understands men the best, which is probably why she wrote comedy.

  2. Aaah this was so satisfying to read!

  3. What a fabulous intro post about Jane Austen. I learned something, which I thought was impossible. Here is my first post for the Austen in August Challenge. I’d be honored if you would take a peek. Thanks. Longbourn

  4. Lovely write up Karen. I reckon you got all the salient points down really well. I liked your comment that she explores “questions about the individual and society”. And of course for me her acerbic wit is a big drawcard, plus her knowingness about human nature/behaviour.

    I was aware of the Bank using a prettied up picture of Austen. A shame I think but at least she’s there.

    • There’sbeen a real hoo-ha about that bank note and it’s use of the quote with people pointing out that Austen was using it ironically in Pride and prejudice

      • A lot of people use Austen quotes that she used ironically. A friend gave me an Austen pendant with a Caroline Bingley quote about preferring reading when we all know she was just trying to show off to Darcy. Still, taken straight it works and the pendant makes no reference to Austen, so you have to know. However, on a banknote meant to be commemorating her, surely they could have done better.

  5. What a fascinating and well-thought out post – I especially liked the link to Helen Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road because of course you’re spot on – it’s probably why re-reading these books works so well because our thoughts on some elements change over the years and then we go looking for something a little different in her work.

  6. “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 ”

    I think this is where her success lies. Most of us live our lives in the domestic circle and despite world events happening ‘out there’ most of us live quietly, concerned only with our domestic affairs. We recognise a version of ourselves in her stories.
    It’s why a lot of the mash-ups fail IMO, they try to bring in outside events.

    Happy Austen in August 🙂

    • I agree with you. People who criticize Austen for “only” writing about the domestic seem to forget 1) her position as a woman in a specific time period, 2) that she can’t be everything to everyone, and 3) the domestic is not somehow lesser or unworthy of being fodder for fiction. Several years ago I taught a lit class that focused on the “twisted domestic,” meaning the darker side of domesticity. It was a lot of fun–and a reality check for some people.

    • a lot of the criticism seems rather disingenuous – she like other women writers of the period is criticised for being too domestic (how could it b otherwise given the kind of lives they led) and ye when they step out of that world like emily bronte they are accused of being sensationalist and unfeminine. they just couldn’t win

    • All the Beat authors wrote about in their novels was each other. All Saul Bellow seems to write about is himself. All Charles Bukowski wrote about in his novel was women showing up on his door wanting to have sex with him so his Muse would rub off on them and the resulting STDs and dysfunctional relationships. So, yeah, I’d rather read “Pride and Prejudice” again.

  7. #DuckingForCover I have read all her novels, over and over again since I was a teenager, but now, I’ve had enough of Austen, sexed up, ‘edited for a modern audience’ and marketed as Austenmania.
    A publisher sent me a copy of her juvenilia, and I haven’t touched it…

    • I’m sure it feels like piggbacking, like, why can’t these authors instead be INSPIRED by Austen and then go make their own books.

    • so sad that anyone feels it needs sexing up

    • If you love Austen, Lisa, her juvenilia is great – and have been published in various groupings for decades. They show the writer she was to become. I bought (and read) my copy – the Chapman edition – back in 1972. They’re not something read by the general reader at all in my experience – I don’t think I’ve ever really seen them marketed for the popular market? But maybe this one you’ve received is?

      They are, instead, a bit of an acquired taste – containing much broad youthful humour, no deep characterisation, etc – but they provide such an insight.

  8. Wonderful post. I have loved Pride and Prejudice since I was about fifteen. When I re-read Persuasion I found so much to love I had forgotten. The same with Emma. I have been meaning to re-read Mansfield Park for ages. This should be the perfect time, but not sure I will fit it in. I adore the domestic, society of Austen’s world, and the wit.

    • I didnt “get” her when I first read her as a teenager. The stories were good and the characters enjoyable but the wit completely passed me by. it wasn’t until I began re-reading them in my early 30s that I saw the cleverness of the techniques she was using. so they absolutely do reward re-reading ..

  9. Wow, there is Jane Austen money? I didn’t know that.
    She is a very inspirational woman to aspiring authors and a treasure to readers. I am happy she’s received such apt recognition.

  10. Great post – reading Austen as social commentary is very different to reading it as romance! We recently published a book comparing and contrasting the lives and writing of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth – thought it might be of interest

  11. Excellent post, Karen. Returning to Austen’s work after quite a few years I was surprised to find how acerbic she was at times, something I’d missed when I was much younger and concentrating on the more romantic side. She does have a small canvas but that doesn’t stop her being a very sharp-eyed social commentator.

    • that was exactly my experience – I wonder whether there are some authors that require a little maturity in order to enjoy to the full. George Eliot and Dickens come to mind; You can enjoy them on one level but with more experience of life to employ on re-reading a deeper meaning can be discovered

  12. What a great take and incredibly well written!

    I’m always shocked at people who say Austen was solely a domestic author. Sure she basis her stories there, but she gets so many barbs in about everything you mention to the state of the empire in Persuasion to slavery and women’s limited options in Emma. One of my favorite passages of all time includes:

    “Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

    “I did not mean – I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different, certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies. But I only mean to say that there are advertising offices, and that by applying to them I should have no doubt of very soon meeting with something that would do.”

    And that’s saying something because I do NOT like Emma.

    • what a great quote that is to counter arguments about her limited field of vision. Some critics have complained that her work ignores the turbulent era of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Yet the militia and the navy are so prominent in her writing. Where would pride and Prejudice be without the red coats that Lydia drools about – they are no there for purely decorative purposes but performed a vital role in protecting the home front from foreign invasion. Similarly Mansfield Park and Persuasion have a strong naval background. Its because the wars are over that Admiral Croft is no longer needed at sea and hence is looking for a place to live

      • Yeah. The one good thing that I felt Helena Kelly’s new book did was make it even more clear that Austen was writing broader than most modern readers read.

  13. I think part of the appeal is that Jane was an ordinary person from an ordinary family, not spectacularly wealthy or so poor that she was struggling. She wrote what she knew and was a keen observer of the society around her. Everyone wants a happy ending and she provides that. It’s quite interesting that she is so popular and influential that entire university courses are based on her writing and her life and that there are actual “Jane-ites”, her dedicated following. I wouldn’t class myself in with those dedicated to the author but I do like her books. I haven’t read all of them and I plan to do that in addition to rereading the ones I have read, over the rest of this year.

  14. For such a low key mild-sounding person, she certainly generates strong opinions.

  15. A lovely post! I am always amazed by the many different readings of Jane. Marriage and money: constant concerns. One online Janeites group is polarized by Charlotte’s decision to marry Collins, as was I when very young. I am much more empathetic to Charlotte these days. Austen in August would be nice, if only I hadn’t reread two Austens in the spring and then read hundreds of articles about her in July. But I shall reread more Austen next year.

    • Its easy to criticise Charlotte because she does seem to settle for second best and a loveless marriage but I think she is sensible – what would be her future if she didn’t?

  16. Great post! So true about how Austen’s themes reflect the social issues of her time, but those same issues continue to intrigue today’s readers.

  17. Very well said. I went to an Austen Festival–what a hoot–for the first time. Tomorrow the book meme Six Degrees of Separation is doing P & P for the August meme. Could I link to this post in my meme post? I’ll be back to read more!

  18. exhibition on at the moment at the ashmolean

  1. Pingback: Farewell Austen in August – Dwell in Possibility

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