by Margaret Mills
As a part-time adult education lecturer in English literature and history, I am never happier than when I am asked to deliver a course or a talk about Jane Austen’s life and work.
In October 2017 I was asked to give a talk at our local public library, and I was delighted to hear that this library, along with others in Essex, has decided to offer talks and refreshments in the evenings, when the library would normally be closed to the general public. This particular library is offering a varied programme of different talks, and considering this is a fairly new venture, I was pleased to find that an audience of 18 people attended, all interested in learning more about Jane, aided by a slide presentation and followed by refreshments and a discussion. Thanks to the articles and comments in the Jane Austen News I was also able to bring into my talk some more recent developments and discoveries about Jane, her life and times.
People are often surprised at how relatively unknown Jane was as an author at the time of her death. The comment made by the verger of Winchester Cathedral to a gentleman visiting her grave is a perfect example of this: ‘Pray, sir, can you tell me whether there was anything particular about that lady: so many people want to know where she was buried?’ (Austen Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen). This really sums things up. In today’s world, where we are inundated with the cult of ‘celebrity’, (too often based on very little in the way of genuine talent and ability), it strikes many people as amazing that she was seemingly content to stay in the background. Her letters to her beloved older sister, Cassandra, often project a wistful desire for recognition and acknowledgement, but this is concealed behind a self-effacing, dry humour.
My audience was surprised to learn that perhaps Jane’s greatest admirer outside her own family was ‘Prinny’, the Prince Regent, a man it is safe to say she held in a certain amount of contempt for his immoral, dissolute and spendthrift lifestyle. Her very tongue-in-cheek response to the Prince’s librarian, who had passed on his own suggestions for a future work on the topic of the German Royal Family, caused much merriment and comments on her bravery in having the courage to say ‘no’ but in a diplomatic way. Then, as now, a royal request would be hard to ignore, so ‘well done, Jane’, was the general consensus!
We turned to her letters, where she reaches across the centuries in her roles of daughter, sister, niece, aunt and friend. The written word tells us so much about a person, and we realised how she was to a large extent defined by family relationships, which were enormously important to her throughout her life. Many comments were forthcoming from the audience about the wise, loving and carefully-phrased advice she gave to her nieces and nephews over the years. The relationships in her books reflect her own love, concern and worries for family members, including her sailor brothers, who must have been rarely absent from her thoughts on their tours of duty during the dangerous years of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We remember that her life was spanned by the upheavals reverberating from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, which ended only 2 years before her death.
During the break for refreshments, and in question time at the end of my talk, there was lively debate to try to define why Jane Austen is still so popular today and why her works have stood the test of time. One conclusion we came to was that ‘times change, people don’t’ and her shrewd observations on character traits, morals, pretension and hypocrisy are still relevant today. Her books have been critically described by expressions such as: one long husband-hunt by females looking to marry well. Hmm, does this not still happen today, I wonder? And we surely need to put the world of Jane Austen into the context of its time. Somewhere, perhaps, the gentle spirit of Jane Austen smiles at this and similar accusations. After all, this is the lady who wrote in Pride and Prejudice: ‘Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains?’
Margaret Mills is a lecturer in history and English literature, working mainly in the adult education sector. She also gives talks to a variety of different organisations, as well as broadcasting history notes and book reviews on a local Community Radio Station.