In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER. (Jane Austen’s epitaph in Winchester Cathedral)
Jane Austen died 200 years ago today. Much has already been written about her and so much more is pouring forth in commemoration of this anniversary. A great deal of it is complete nonsense and utter rot.
Current authors would have it that she was a rebel, a feminist, a lesbian, someone who kicked at the confines of her life, an unhappy, rather bitchy spinster. And those are just the pieces of idiocy I’ve read. Who knows what all else is still fermenting in the cauldron of so-called literary criticism.
If these “experts” would just take off their modern glasses and forget about how they would feel if they had to live her life, and look at JA through her own lenses instead of theirs, it would all be so very simple.
Jane Austen lived a quiet and rural life – but then, so did most of the rest of the world. It was a typical, ordinary, normal life for someone of her class and connections within the minor landed gentry.
She was a child of the 18th century, a time when rational thought and reason were much admired. Her father was a clergyman. She was taught that Truth exists and it is unchanging. She was raised, as was common at the time, with a sound idea of beauty, the moral life and the essential dignity of man (meaning both men and women.) It’s all reflected in her novels. (As this is meant to be an 800-word blog post, not a Ph.D. dissertation, you will have to take my word for it, or read the novels yourself.)
It bears repeating, though, that she was a child of her own time, not ours. In her first novel Sense and Sensibility, she booted the 21st century idea that emotion is the end-all, be-all of life. So, somehow I doubt she feels hard done by in having missed the Facebook age, when truth is whatever you feel it to be and everyone is a victim. That simply wasn’t her style.
Jane Austen wrote with lightness and humor. You know she was smiling when she wrote sentences like: Nothing ever fatigues me, but doing what I do not like. Or Is not general incivility the very essence of love?
Is it likely that someone deeply unhappy with her lot in life, resenting the world’s attempts at squashing her spirit would write prose that has smiles seeping out of the page corners? It’s not. People with a chip on their shoulder take themselves seriously; the same with their prose. Their humor is sarcastic or bitter. It doesn’t smile.
Jane Austen had a quick eye for paradox, for the incongruities and absurdities of life. Gentle humor is her default setting. In an 1816 letter, she admits as much to a Mr. Clarke, who suggested she should write a contemporary romance:
I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
Even if this theory of a deeply unhappy, rebellious woman could be supported by her writing style, would someone who was unhappy about living (and writing about) a quiet life advise a young author to do the same? When her niece Fanny asked her for advice on writing her first novel, Aunt Jane replied: 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.
And finally, Jane Austen wrote many, many letters to her family. These letters are full of small details of everyday life, descriptions of clothes and parties, comments on people she met, etc. They were often quite long. Would someone who is essentially unhappy about life take the time to write so carefully, so joyfully of what she was doing? Is she not winking at her sister Cassandra as she writes from London: Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted.
All I can do is paraphrase JA, who once wrote to Cassandra, I will not say that your mulberry trees are dead; but I am afraid they’re not alive: To all you earnest literary critics and literature professors and book reviewers: I will not tell you that your theories are preposterous; but I’m afraid I’ll have to let you know that they are incredibly silly.
- Jane Austen, from Emma