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In Defence of Jane Austen

by Rhian Helen Fender

Olivia Williams as Jane in the BBC film Miss Austen Regrets (2008)

 

“Mrs Edwards thinks you are a child still. But we know better than that, don’t we.”

So began the 2008 television adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility, with the cad Willoughby seducing the naïve ward of heroic Colonel Brandon. The atmosphere seductive with low-light and fireplace burning, ripping bodices and whispered words… In its review, the Telegraph described how viewers tuned in “with jaws dropped, to this unexpected opening for an Austen adaptation.” The question is, why? Why would viewers deem a sultry scene unexpected in an adaptation of the work of Austen? Austen appears to have a reputation for representing everything that is light and lovely, with the admiring Sir Walter Scott describing Pride and Prejudice (1813) as “a very pretty thing.” Austen herself seemed aware – and concerned – of her delicate reputation, stating her fear that the novel Scott so admired was “too light, and bright, and sparkling.” Whilst it is true to state that Austen was largely focussed on the lower gentry of which she was personally aware, it would be a disservice to her work to suppose she did not consider larger social influences or events, nor the more scandalous actions of those whose world she so accurately depicts. Within Austen’s novels are various themes that are often ignored or unseen when analysing her work, considered too sinister in the works of the purportedly genteel Jane Austen.

Mansfield Park (1814) tells the story of young Fanny Price, a girl able to rise above her station due to the wealth and goodwill of her extended family. The source of that power, however, is controversial due to the head of the household’s links to the slave trade. It would be an exaggeration to proclaim the novel as slavery prose – allusions to the system are rare and implicit – yet the very fact that Austen chooses to even subtly reference slavery is a bold move. The one direct reference to slavery comes as Fanny describes a family conversation with her cousins and uncle: “And I longed to do it – but there was such a dead silence. And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject.” Austen leaves it to the reader to deduce why Fanny’s family might be silent when discussing slavery – disinterest, embarrassment, shame, ignorance –and it is this empowerment of the reader in reaching their own conclusions which gives this brief passage weight. Austen does not preach to her readers, but allows them to make their own deductions. Sir Thomas Bertram’s years at his plantation in Antigua is what allows much of the action of the novel to occur – unloving marriages, flirtation and seduction – and the reader is not incorrect in supposing that Sir Thomas’s focus would have been better placed at home, rather than in underhand dealings abroad. Continue reading In Defence of Jane Austen

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Jane and Cassandra: Extraordinary Sisters

Jane and Cassandra

by Caroline Kerr Taylor

Jane and Cassandra
Anna Maxwell Martin and Anne Hathaway as Cassandra and Jane in the film ‘Becoming Jane’ (2007)

Jane Austen was born in December 1775, the seventh child of Rev. and Mrs. Austen. Mrs. Austen nursed each of her babies for the first few months before they were taken to a neighboring family (the Littleworths). Each child was looked after by this family for the first couple of years until the child could walk and talk. The parents visited regularly during this time, until the child was ready to be brought back into the Austen household. This was not a totally uncommon practice for the time, nor was it considered unfeeling. As long as the baby was well cared for, that was what mattered to the Austens. Knowing today what we know of the importance of mother/baby bonding it would have been extremely disrupting for a child to be taken from its mother after just a few months and placed with another family. (And then, later, wrenched from that family when the Austens felt the child was ready to rejoin their household.) This could be a significant reason why Jane became attached more deeply to her sister than to her mother.

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Jane Austen’s Life and Impact on Society

by Gracelyn Anderson

Jane Austen entered the world fashionably late by one month on December 16, 1775, as one of the seven Austen children. The Austens resided in a parsonage in Steventon, England, and started a small school for boys in their home to provide extra income along with working their usual occupations. Although Jane’s family was constantly working to make a living, her early life was far from dull. As Meredith Hindley writes in her article ‘The Mysterious Miss Austen’: “From an early age, Austen’s world was full of boyish antics, bawdy humor, and outdoor exploration.” Jane had a natural tomboyish instinct, which she picked up from her five brothers.

At age seven, Jane and her sister Cassandra were sent to a girl’s school in Oxford, but it was short lived as they returned home a year later when sick with typhoid. Another year passed and the Austen girls enrolled at Mrs. La Tournelle’s Ladies’ Boarding School in reading, but stayed only for a year. As Hindley writes: “Austen’s experience, however brief, left her with little regard for girls’ schools. In Emma, she writes scathingly of schools that ‘professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems-and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity.’”

Most of Jane’s education came from her father’s library and her lively and affectionate family circle. Jane used the library frequently, reading book after book and writing extensively. Mr. Austen encouraged Jane’s interest in writing and bought her expensive paper and pencils, even though he needed to save every penny. The entire family also put on home productions, adding to Jane’s dramatic experience, which would prove a help in later years when becoming an author. As Renee Warren has written: “One can only assume that it was in these excersises that the true talent of Jane Austen was being nurtured-through observation, improvisation, acting and participation.” Most of all, it was the world that Jane drew from to write. Her early experiences in life paved the way for the her well-known works.

By the age of nineteen, Jane Austen had begun working on “Elinor and Marianne,” which would later become Sense and Sensibility. Jane had been fearlessly experimenting with writing up to the point when she began her first novel. Jane acquired firsthand experience with the cruelty of a world dictated by money over love (much in evidence in her Continue reading Jane Austen’s Life and Impact on Society

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The Formative Years of George Austen, Jane’s father

George Austin

A look at James Cawthorn, George Austen and the Curious Case of the Schoolboy Who Was Killed by Martin J. Cawthorne

George Austin

 

Jane Austen’s father, George Austen has many connections to the city of Bath.

On the 26th April 1764 he married, by special licence, Cassandra Leigh in St Swithin’s, Walcot.  The Austen family were regular visitors to Bath and in December 1800, after 35 years ministering in Steventon, George Austen announced his retirement and moved to Bath, where he spent his final years.  He died in the city on the 21st January 1805 and is buried at St Swithin’s Church where a memorial to him has been erected.

Jane Austen lived at home with her parents all her life and the Rev George Austen played a significant part in her life.  Apart from a brief period at boarding school, Jane was largely educated at home; George also provided writing equipment for her to develop her literary talent.  The Rev Austen features in Jane’s correspondence and as a result much is known about his adult life. Very little, however, has been written about George Austen’s early life, before he met and married Cassandra Leigh.  It is known that he was orphaned at the age of six before going to school in his home town of Tonbridge, Kent, from where he won a scholarship to study at St John’s College, Oxford.  However, very little has been written about these formative early years of his life – until now.

Continue reading The Formative Years of George Austen, Jane’s father

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Jane Austen News – Issue 43

What’s the Jane Austen News this week?  2017 Is The Year Of Literature  Next year is a milestone for quite a few heroes of British literature, and to celebrate VisitEngland has declared it the ‘Year of Literary Heroes’. Among the anniversaries being celebrated are the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and publication anniversaries for Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes and Enid Blyton. 2017 will be mark the 75th anniversary of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, and it will be twenty years since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone! As well events surrounding these, there will also be special programmes of events to celebrate the wartime poet Edward Thomas in Petersfield, Hampshire, an exhibition on writer Arnold Bennett, and a festival dedicated to children’s author Arthur Ransome – the writer of Swallows and Amazons. So it seems 2017 is the year to visit England if you’re a fan of literature. Of course there will be plenty of special events on across the country to mark the 200th anniversary of Jane’s death, and we’ll keep you up to date with what’s set to be going on. A Christmas Dinner at Chawton Library         Best-selling author Edward Rutherfurd (his debut novel Sarum, a 10,000-year story set in Salisbury, was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 23 weeks) will add star appeal to the Christmas supper at Chawton House Library next month. Offering an opportunity to partake of a festive meal in the atmospheric oak-panelled rooms where Jane dined with her family, the black (more…)
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Jane Austen News – Issue 42

What’s the Jane Austen News this week?  National Library Protests in The UK  There was a protest in London on Saturday (5th November) as authors joined hundreds of members of the public (around 1,800) in the first national demonstration to protect library services. The march was held in response to the string of library closures which have been taking place across the UK over the past five years as the government looked to make cuts to local council spending. According to research by the House of Commons library service and the BBC, around one in eight council-run libraries has been closed or passed out of the public sector since 2010. In addition to this, total spending by councils on library services fell by a fifth between 2010 and 2015, and other research also showed that a quarter of all library jobs have been done away with since May 2010; 8,000 jobs in total. To help supplement this 15,500 volunteers have been called upon to take their place. Even this is not enough to stop the library erosion. Alan Gibbons, children’s author and one of the march organisers, had this to say: Libraries are places of learning and opportunity. They are community hubs in areas where there is no other collective meeting place. They provide advice, books, computers, storytelling, information and education. Any government that allows them to close can’t claim to want a literate society. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Are There Too Many Adaptations?     (more…)
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Jane Austen News – Issue 37

What’s the Jane Austen News this week?  Big Money for New Austen Tenners?  On the 13th of September the UK’s new five pound note was released for general use, and they caused a stir for those lucky enough to be given the sought-after low serial number notes. Those given some of the million notes with “AA01” serial numbers soon found that their notes might be worth more than their face value, and soon the ebay listings began popping up. In fact one man who received three of the AA01 notes managed to sell the set for £456! As well as a new polymer design to help the notes to last when in use, the new £5, £10 and £20 notes also feature a fresh set of important figures from UK history. The five pound note features Winston Churchill, the twenty pound note set for release in 2020 will feature JMW Turner, but the ten pound note due for release next year will feature Jane Austen. Three Winstons raised £456, and now at the Jane Austen News we’re wondering what kind of price a set of three “AA01” Austens could command. The Cate Morland Chronicles – By Women, For Women     The cast and crew behind The Cate Morland Chronicles, the new web adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, have said that one of the things they feel proudest of when it comes to the series is the fact that the crew is almost entirely made up of women, with the (more…)
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Rural England in the Age of Jane Austen

Rural England in the Age of Jane Austenby 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…)