On Jane Austen

July 18, 2017

It’s two hundred years today – 18 July – since she died. I’ve visited the house she lived in at Chawton, places in Bath where she lived and stayed and went to balls, I’ve stood outside the house where she died in Winchester and stood by her memorial in the cathedral and mused. What is is about her that is so attractive, and so important?

I managed to avoid her at school – but then, at a boys’ boarding school, that wasn’t hard. No-one ever suggested reading her. So my first encounter with a writer that I had vague notions of being romantic and dull came in my first year at university, where we were faced with Mansfield Park. Not the easiest start… and yet, I really liked it. Perhaps because it’s more complex, with a wider range of characters and locations, a heroine who’s a prig, political issues: I don’t know, but it was a good one to begin with: I went on to read all the other novels, and have been coming back to them regularly, ever since. And once I was drawn into the many subtleties of her written style, I began to realise just how clever she was.

Looked at baldly, there’s not a lot there: a few families in a village or small town. Intrigues which lead up to the heroine getting Mr Right. Happy ever after. Things that seem quite bizarre to a twenty-first century reader: Emma Woodhouse marrying the man who played with her on his knee when she was a baby? Fanny Price marrying the man she has grown up with for over ten years? Marianne Dashwood ending up with Colonel Brandon, who is twice her age? And then there’s what’s not said – slavery, warfare, enclosures…

My two favourite novels are Persuasion and Mansfield Park, so I’ll concentrate on them, and try and explain why Austen is so brilliant, at least to me…

Mansfield Park has a wonderful range of characters. There’s the vile Mrs Norris, who makes Fanny’s life hell, penny-pinches, and who bears some responsibility for Maria’s final disaster; the wonderfully laid-back and air-headed Lady Bertram who is so horizontal she even manages to forget her lap-dog’s gender; the ridiculously rich and brain-dead Mr Rushworth; the exciting and attractive – almost Satanic – Crawford pair, and the wonderful Portsmouth family that Fanny is eventually so toe-curlingly ashamed of. Issues are raised: the Bertram family money comes from plantations in the West Indies; the changing English countryside with its many ‘improvements’ reflects the enclosures of the time and the gradual and inevitable move from an agricultural to an industrial society, and Fanny is wistful about what is being lost; the Portsmouth scenes are set in the nation’s largest naval port against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Austen knew what was going on, but she wasn’t writing War and Peace, or Middlemarch

The Napoleonic Wars are even more obvious in Persuasion: they’re the whole background to Wentworth’s success and the reason he’s a suitable match for Anne Elliot eight years after their first parting; there is poverty in Mrs Smith, Anne’s friend, her background and where she lives: Sir Walter is horrified by Westgate Buildings as an address…

Jane Austen wrote about the world she knew, as a woman and of her times. Never in her novels do men converse apart from women: she had no idea what they might speak of. But she knew, and her life story shows, that a woman’s position depended on finding a (suitable) man, and early enough, to ensure her future security. The novels are full of women who have found men and suffer for it; Charlotte Lucas’ sad tale exemplifies that sort of an ending. Austen leads her heroines along difficult paths before they eventually end up with men who love them – a relative novelty in those days – and who therefore do have a chance of living happily ever after. And in none of her novels is the denouement as powerful as at the end of Persuasion, where the love and desire is evident and the heroine acts – in so far as she is able – to secure her happiness.

Just because the novels are not realistic – and I’ve written often about the slipperiness of that word – does not mean that real questions are not confronted and explored in the novels. And there’s fantasy and wish-fulfilment, too. Readers who have revisited the novels repeatedly (and there are many of you out there, I’m sure) will recognise Austen’s amazing command of, and facility with the English language, as well as her wit, her irony, her ability to make you stop short at an opinion or idea to wonder and re-read ‘who’s speaking there?’ Ah, the shifting sands of authorial (un)reliability…

Like Shakespeare, for me Jane Austen is a writer for all time: she observes closely and sharply, yet creates a cosy world which we perhaps unconsciously aspire to, and she places striving for love and personal happiness at the heart of the world, with which we cannot disagree.

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