200 years ago today on the 18th July 1817, a 41 year old English countrywoman living quietly in the south of that country passed on, having published anonymously 1811 – 1818 some six novels providing a unique insight into human personalities, and the rules of the society in which she lived.
Around the world today there are many societies remembering their heroine author Jane Austen (1775-1817) by offering a program of events to commemorate the bicentenary of her death.
Gloriously, in the UK, Jane Austen’s much loved face will appear on a new ten pound note and two pound coin, after all she is the lady who always insisted marriage should be a matter for the heart and all about true love triumphing over matters of wealth and advantage.
It’s perhaps easy to surmise that while Jane Austen may have been secretly pleased to know about the success of her works in our time, she would have been more than a little overwhelmed by her extensive celebrity and that of her most popular hero, Mr Darcy as played by British actor Colin Firth.
It has now far exceeded all the bounds of propriety she would have possibly imagined.
His swim in the lake may have not been a part of the original story, but his wet shirted body which shocked Elizabeth helped to also secure Colin Firth’s status as a sex symbol extraordinaire for his generation, while ensuring Lyme Park starring as Pemberley went to the top of the pile of most visited country houses in England.
Engaging and entertaining Jane Austen’s novels Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Sense and Sensibility (1811) plus posthumously Northanger Abbey (1818) and Lady Susan (1871) are a tribute to her sensitivity, writing abilities and rare ability to convey pathos; that interior universe to which man is drawn attracted by life’s complexities and contradictions.
They did not immediately become fashionable, but instead were admired by a discerning clientele who enjoyed the witty, ironic and humorous repartee at which she excelled. The contrast of their settings from battlefield to ballroom served as a reminder of the powerfully opposed elements that made up the England into which Jane was born and in which she grew to maturity.
They were based on her observations of a life lived in an around an English country village, during the period when George, Prince of Wales was Regent of England. From the monarch to the poorest of the land there was a pyramid of patronage and property
Country houses and their beautiful parks were not simply the expressions of a wealthy ruling class for Jane and her contemporaries.
They represented an ideal civilization, one that combined a mixture of self-esteem, with national pride and uncompromising good taste whilst emphasising the unequal structure of a society in which a third of the nation’s population daily faced a struggle to survive; the labouring poor, cottagers, seamen, soldiers, paupers and vagrants all of whom lived at subsistence level.
Her modern men and women heroes and heroines had a delicate sense of honour, displayed benevolent behaviour towards each other and fully understood the importance of decorum. They embraced charitable good works, while showcasing their integrity and unique capacity for both forming and making strong attachments.
Jane’s family were wealthy merchant class on her father’s side and solid aristocrats on her mothers. Her father as a rector was regarded as a ‘gentleman’ of sorts, allowing their participation in local events. This put her on a firm footing with the leisured classes, although she was not in reality, one of them. He was welcomed by the landed gentry and well off tenants, as was her brother Edward, heir to his cousin Mr. Thomas Knight one of the main landowners.
Her childhood, brought up in a country rectory was from contemporary descriptions, without pretension, more ‘in a homely rather than grand manner’. It was an attractive, happy one, full of amateur dramatics in the barn, playing charades, literary readings and music, while her older brothers hunted, shot game and her mother managed a small herd of cows and a dairy
It seems the family fell into the category of being ‘middling people’. “I have before discovered there was nowhere but in England the distinction of middling people, wrote Horace Walpole a noted eighteenth century literary wit, on his return from the continent in 1741. “I perceive now there is peculiar to us middling houses; how snug they are”.
Her brother Edward Austen Knight inherited Godmersham Park in Kent. Francis and Charles two other brothers, had distinguished careers in the British navy. This was a period when the Royal navy were winning great victories, and although they were involved, the events for those left behind seemed remote, something that happened in newspapers or far out to sea.
Francis received a knighthood and the much-coveted Order of Bath. Jane’s brother Charles bought topaz crosses for his two sisters, going without to give them to them…in the Christian understanding where perfect love makes no demands and seeks nothing for itself, a quality that abounds in so many of the characters in Jane Austen’s own life and her novels.
Along with other ladies of her age and status in life, Jane went about pursuing such activities as music, painting, playing games and writing. She enjoyed her ‘life a la Godmersham” including hunting, playing billiards and entertaining in style. In 1813 she commented, “at this present time I have five tables, eight and twenty chairs and two fires all to myself”
Jane Austen made approximately 630 pounds from all her writing while her contemporary Sir Walter Scott, was earning 1000 pounds per novel.
Sir Walter Scott admired his colleague and her genius, reflecting that during a tumultuous and eventful period in England’s history Jane Austen chose to write about ‘ordinary people doing things that happen in every day life’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017