At our last meeting we were pleased to attend a lecture by Kathleen ‘O’ Leary on the novelist Jane Austen. Amply aided and abetted by her husband, David, Kate gave us an insight into the life and works of Jane Austen.
It was interesting to note that her first novel, ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was published anonymously; ‘by a Lady’ and the second one, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was published ‘by the writer of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, the inference being that if you liked her first novel, you would really enjoy the second; quite a modern ploy, very recognisable today.
David took us through an investigation of what Jane Austen looked like and, despite one description of ‘a small lady with brown curly hair’, the actual Jane is incredibly elusive. Most of what we know is from her nieces who were, as she would have put it, ‘ridiculously fond’ of their aunt. She came from a fairly extensive family, more middle class than top drawer, and was very close to her sister, Cassandra. Nobody has ever come close to Jane as a writer: a woman of talent, she stuck to that old saying of ‘write what you know’ very successfully. Her work is a perceptive commentary of life from her position in the social structure, genteel but not aristocratic.
Her use of biting irony cannot be surpassed. In ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ Elizabeth has to tell her parents that she could not bear to marry Mr Collins even if it would save the family from penury after their father had died. Her parents response is classic: her husband-hunting mother declares she will never speak to Elizabeth again if she does not marry Mr Collins, while her father declares that if she does marry him, he will never speak to her again!
She had spent a little time at school and the curriculum for girls can be seen in the lives of the characters she described. Art, Music, Dance and Drama – major subjects at boarding school – are all faithfully recounted; many ladies were able to play the piano and sketch competently. A play is in rehearsal in ‘Mansfield Park’, although the production never comes to fruition. Every novel has a ball that is talked about or is being prepared. It has to be noted that Jane loved dancing.
The image of a rather staid lady, scribbling away, is rapidly vanishing. She had her ‘admirers’ and she adored dancing; hardly the stay -in-doors, downtrodden lady we imagine. Her characters are well drawn: from the wilting young lady who fades from the passion of love to the older lady who views life realistically, from the cad to the steady man who has an income of £10,000 per annum, Jane knew and wrote about them all.
They are surprisingly topical – the plantation owner in Antigua in ‘Mansfield Park’: the plight of impoverished gentlewomen in ‘Sense and Sensibility’; the foolishness of trying to change social class as seen in ‘Emma’ with Harriet and Mrs Elton… and fashion: faithful descriptions of the fashions of the times and the efforts to keep in fashion with dresses and frills mended and darned; the gossipy meetings with the Misses Bates and the haughty glances from Darcy all make up the fabric of life in Jane Austen’s novels. The French Revolution and Wars with France although, happening at the time of writing her novels, are scarcely mentioned; those are not Jane’s genre. Nor would it seem to be the news of the day such as Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, being captured and retained in Britain as an honoured prisoner; she confines herself to the business of living her life and writing novels based on it.
Entertaining, amusing and eternally readable, Jane Austen has left us a truly remarkable legacy and it is with pleasure that I finish this article with a quotation that is Jane’s own and with which I heartily concur, ‘the person be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’ (‘Northanger Abbey’)