by Marc DeSantis A Rural England Though Jane Austen’s life of forty-one years was lamentably short, her time on earth, 1775 to 1817, was nonetheless one of great and momentous change. England was still largely rural in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the rhythm of its country life was tied to the seasonal needs of agriculture. The population of Britain at the dawn of the nineteenth century was nine million, with four-fifths of this total living in the country. Fully one-third of the population of England was employed in agriculture. Like farmers in all times and places, the rural folk of Jane’s English countryside were at the mercy of the weather, which was especially fickle in the late eighteenth century. The winters were often very cold, and the springs very wet and late in arriving. Summers could be either very dry or cold and wet. Crops and livestock could be devastated by too much cold or not enough rain. Poor weather also encouraged the spread of blights and rots. When the wheat harvest was bad, the price of bread shot up, making it hard for the poor to feed themselves, and riots over food would sometimes erupt among the rural hungry. Life in the country had other hardships. There were highwaymen on the roads ready to waylay travelers, groups of gypsies robbed countryfolk as well, and thieves stole horses and other valuables. On some occasions there were even murders, particularly when it was thought that a vulnerable (more…)
“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
When Scott Southard set out to write a novel about Jane Austen, he purposefully avoided reading any of the recent spate of biographical fiction. This was to be an un-biography—the life he wished Jane might have led—a Jane Austen daydream. His goal, as stated in the dedication, was to make his wife laugh.
As a male writer, writing fiction featuring perhaps the most famous female writer of all time, Southard was in a class, if not by himself, then with very few to compete with. Certainly, he brings a new spin to the Austen oeuvre. His Jane is unlike any I’ve ever read—“a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice” if you will. A sharply tongued Marianne to Cassandra’s Elinor. Indeed, the world he has created for Jane, beginning with her life in Steventon, is full of characters that would later appear in one form or another in her works. Her dear friend Harriet, for instance, is a duplicate of Harriet Smith, in Emma.
Some may find this to lack creativity, they might assume that the author is indicating that Jane was unable to create realistic characters on her own, for the Jane in this novel is a writer, and does, over the course of the book, complete several of her now famous works. Others might look on it with the delight of discovering an old friend in an unexpected place. I prefer to think of it as the latter. After all, this is not a biography (as those familiar with the life of Jane Austen will quickly note) and it was written to make his wife laugh. How better to do that, you might ask, than to create a Lady Catherine De Bourgh imbued with the spirit of Mrs. Jennings? This is only one of the “sightings” which fill the book, adding to a diverse cast of characters, both real and imagined.
While shielding himself from recent publications, Southard saturated himself, instead, in Jane Austen’s own writings, reading through her works several times throughout the development of this novel. This familiarity with the entire Austen canon shines through, with much of the dialogue taken directly from her novels and letters (but with a twist). Lines are spoken “out of context”, combined with conversations from other works, and placed back into the mouths of Austen’s own friends and family.