Bookish Birthdays: Jane Austen

16th Dec 2010

Jane Austen

But I can’t. I can’t keep the fangirl in. So I’m very sorry if this isn’t an academic exercise into why Austen was so remarkable, or what her history teaches us about attitudes to women and women’s writing, but there’s plenty of them on the internet if you do a little digging (and do, the merchandise available alone is worth it. My favourite has to be these  baubles which are just perfect for Christmas).

It is impossible for me to limit how much of an influence Jane Austen and her work have had over me as a woman to 800 words. Andrew DaviesPride and Prejudice was first screened on the BBC when I was 11, in my last year of primary school. Mr Darcy was my first real sexual awakening, along with a goodly percentage of women my age; we would gather in the playground on Monday mornings and compare squeals of pre-teen lust.

Everyone watched it with their mums; I sobbed when they finally got together and had my first realisation that men can be, in fact, bastards, during Mr Wickham’s treatment of Georgiana. I also completely fell in love with the idea of Pemberley, which started my current obsession with Chatsworth, where Austen supposedly got inspiration for Darcy’s seat from.

I immediately read the book, and was struck by how easily I adapted to the 18th century way of thinking. Of course you would spend a considerable portion of your time gossiping about boys, that’s all I did when I was 11. Now what strikes me most about the text was how limiting it must have been for an intelligent woman to live in such times, when being accomplished meant being able to play the piano, speak French, draw and paint beautifully, direct a household, sew, know enough about religion and politics to be able to entertain a anyone from clergyman to cavalry, and competently care for the sick. None of which I know how to do. Liberated, aren’t I?

Of course, what Austen is most famous for is her characterisation. She eloquently paints portraits that satirise the worst parts of people without demeaning the rest. One of her most horrific creations, Mr Collins, is rude and snobbish, but he also is deeply inquisitive, although he knows this to be a flaw and tries his hardest to please. He reminds me of Mark Corrigan from Peep Show; he knows what he wants to achieve, and how to get it, but cannot accept that he never will.

Austen’s sense of humour was what got her into writing in the first place. Now she’d probably be blogging somewhere, with a vast following on Twitter, but back in the day her audience was limited to her friends and family, for whom she wrote skits and short stories mocking the archaic style of writing of the time, and novels of sensibility, where bright young maidens with flaming auburn hair found themselves in meandering corridors being tempting by the very blackest of knaves, only to be saved by lovely vicars.

Austen hated over-emotional thinking, and her heroines (apart from Fanny Price, who I won’t go into because she’s a twit) are all either rational, sensible women, or aiming to be so. Catherine Morland is the exception to the rule; Northanger Abbey is a parody of the gothic romance favoured by Young Ladies of the early 19th century, and since Catherine desperately wants to be a Young Lady, she emulates their behaviour, even though it goes against her sensible country girl breeding.

As a teenager, Austen wrote Lady Susan, and the first draft of Sense and Sensibility. The first draft of First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice) was completed by the time she was 21.

As well as finding the time for all of this plus a supposed love-affair with a young lawyer Tom Lefroy, (over-exaggerated and romanticised upon to extreme by that blasphemy Becoming Jane, starring the doe-eyed American Anne Hathaway), Jane also took care of her family and was popular with her friends and neighbours.

Austen lived for a while with her parents in Bath, where she received a proposal of marriage from an old family friend which she accepted and later declined, although her reasons for this decision are not clear as she did not keep diaries for this period.

What she did do however was write the first draft for Northanger Abbey. When her father died, the Austens moved to be near her elder brother at Chawton, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Success suddenly appeared; the novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice (previously been rejected by publishers) were published, bringing great critical claim and ending the Austens’ financial difficulties.

Mansfield Park was published in 1814. The critics ignored it, but the public lapped it up. This says a lot, I think. Emma was published two years later, and Austen began work on what was to be her final novel, and my personal favourite, Persuasion.

By this time Austen was not a flighty, witty 21-year-old. Anne Elliot is a much more mature heroine that Elizabeth Bennet. She is Marianne Dashwood ten years on, without Lt Brandon to rescue her.

Blighted by her own weakness in making decisive decisions about her own future, she screws up her relationship with Captain Wentworth (could there be a more worthy or noble hero in literature? Sure, Darcy’s got the brains and the capital, but that letter Wentworth sends her still sends shivers down my spine) and spend the next ten years regretting it.

Her odious family and the well-meaning but pig-ignorant Lady Russell still make me howl with laughter and squirm with discomfort, even though I must have read the book more than twenty times!

Austen finished Persuasion in the summer of 1817. By the beginning of 1819 she was seriously ill. She stopped writing in the May and died, probably from tuberculosis, on 18 July 1819, aged just 41.

It was only after her death that Austen, on her brother’s insistence, was named as the writer of her works. Before that she was simply ‘A Lady’. Although Austen did not have to go to the length of Ellis, Acton and Curer Bell to be taken seriously by the literary establishment, it is her anonymity that to me hurts the most. Why shouldn’t this gifted and inspirational writer have been given the acclaim she so rightly deserved within her own short lifetime?

The continued international fame of Jane Austen is a credit to her. I believe her books have influenced my generation of women more than any other writer. Two of the major films of my teenage years, Clueless and Bridget Jones’ Diary, were based on her books. I must have seen about fourteen different adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.

Austen fanfic is some of the most entertaining on the net, and don’t even get me started of the hundreds of prequels and sequels to her work. The worst one I’ve ever read has to be The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough, who wrote The Thorn Birds and should therefore hang her head in shame because she is better than this. (Don’t believe me? Read some of the hilarious 1-star Amazon reviews.)

I love Jane Austen, and the best thing about it is I’m always going to love Jane Austen. As Emma Thompson (who should know) says in Love Actually; “true love lasts a life time.”

Austen in the writer I want to have children for just so I can introduce new people to her work. And that to me is the greatest of literary achievements. Well done, Jane. Well done. And happy birthday.

Jess Haigh