Jane Austen: A Brief Life, by Fiona Stafford – An Extract

On this day in 1817, Jane Austen passed away in Winchester, England at the age of 41. In her short life, Austen composed some of the greatest works of  English literature including Pride & Prejudice, Emma and Sense & Sensibility. Her legacy is maintained to this day. Fiona Stafford explores this legacy in the below extract from her work Jane Austen: A Brief Life.


Jane Austen

Famous authors inspire many different kinds of devotion, ranging from the serious scholarship of those whose lives are spent studying the work to the creative responses of artists and writers in every medium. Then there is the design and production of remarkably varied merchandise aimed at the largest band of followers: enthusiastic readers, viewers, and visitors. ‘Jane Austen’ has long since ceased to refer solely to a woman novelist who lived between 1775 and 1817; it has expanded to encompass an icon and an industry.

Jane Austen

As the twenty-first century rolled into its second decade, the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s first published novel generated fresh interest in a novelist whose reputation was in need of no help. Celebrations of Sense and Sensibility set the scene for 2011, but it was a new portrait of Jane Austen that really stole the media attention, forming the centrepiece of the BBC’s Austenfest on Boxing Day that year. Paula Byrne’s identification of Jane Austen as the sitter in a Regency portrait she owned was a very significant development – not least because, until then, the only portrait known to have been taken from life was the little watercolour sketch (right) by Cassandra Austen. This slender, upright woman sitting in front of a window in Westminster was very different from the subject of the intimate sketch by Jane Austen’s sister, but Paula Byrne was struck by the facial resemblance to portraits of the Austen brothers, an insight prompted by the name on the back of the picture: ‘Jane Austin.’ Her energetic and persuasive case for the authenticity of this newly discovered Austen portrait did not carry universal conviction, and probably will not unless the crucial question of provenance, essential for all firm attributions in the art world, is resolved. The picture nevertheless went on display at the Jane Austen’s House Museum and was reproduced in Byrne’s biography, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things.

An even more significant event for Austen scholars that year was the Bodleian Library’s acquisition of the manuscript of ‘The Watsons.’ (The purchase also attracted considerable media attention, largely on account of the sum involved: £993,250.) Very little of Jane Austen’s fiction survives in its original form, so this was a unique opportunity to secure an early, unfinished draft in Jane Austen’s own handwriting. This precious remnant, like the unpublished Sanditon, similarly scored with crossings-out and second thoughts, offers rare insight into Austen’s creative process, otherwise lost in the transition from manuscript to print. Hints in the letters and family anecdotes about the writer who firmly lopped and cropped her stories are fully corroborated by these brief but invaluable manuscript fragments.

There has never been any doubt about the importance of Austen’s manuscripts, but it is only in the past decade that they have become accessible to a wide audience. Excitement over ‘The Watsons’ was fanned by an extraordinary website. Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts is an online resource launched in October 2010 that enables people all over the world to see what survives of the handwritten narratives, simply by visiting janeausten.ac.uk. Here are the three volumes of her juvenilia; here is the original ending of Persuasion; here is Sanditon, with no end in sight. Anyone can now take a look at the flourishes of her teenage quill that adorn the dedications and finales of early gifts to family members.

‘Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.’

The digitisation of the fiction manuscripts, carried out by Kathryn Sutherland and her expert team, has made the potential of utilising electronic technology to enlarge understanding of the novels abundantly evident. The visual possibilities of computer graphics have also begun to open up other areas of Jane Austen’s world. In May 1813, Jane Austen, flushed with excitement over the publication of Pride and Prejudice, was staying with her brother Henry and taking the opportunity to visit the London art galleries. At an exhibition put on by the Society of Painters in Oil and Watercolours, she was very pleased to spot a portrait resembling Jane Bennet: ‘Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.’ Jane Austen also supposed that ‘Mrs. D. will be in yellow,’ but the gallery failed to offer a suitable candidate. A few days later, at the Reynolds retrospective in Pall Mall, she was again disappointed to find no image matching her idea of Elizabeth Bennet (‘I can only imagine that Mr. D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye’). Her unsatisfactory search has now borne unexpected fruit in the form of a virtual reconstruction of the Reynolds exhibition of 1813. The What Jane Saw project, led by the Austen scholar Janine Barchas, allows present-day viewers to enter the gallery, admire the paintings and even move from room to room. They will not spot an image of Elizabeth Bennet, but they can at least find out what she did not look like, in the eyes of the ultimate authority.

The author often regarded as quintessentially English is now an international phenomenon, as immediate to those in the Antipodes as in Andover. The Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom was founded in 1940, chiefly to help with the preservation of the Chawton home. It has since grown into a flourishing organisation with numerous members and meetings. Branches have spread across the British Isles; new societies continue to sprout all over the world. The Jane Austen Society of Pakistan meets annually in December for a birthday tea party, while the Jane Austen Society of Australia celebrates with a pre-Christmas lunch in Sydney. Spain is one of the more recent countries to launch a Jane Austen Society, now offering competitions, conversations, and reading clubs, while the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), founded in 1979, currently boasts some 5,000 members and seventy regional branches, as well as a reputation for exuberant annual meetings and an excellent online journal, Persuasions.

The bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice in 2013 was a global phenomenon, marked by a celebrity readathon in Bath; exhibitions in Canterbury, Chawton, Edinburgh, Gretna Green, London, Lyme Park, Oxford, and Winchester; study days in Brighton, Chawton, London, Oxford, and York; and international conferences in Adelaide, Brisbane, Cambridge, Chicago, New York, Singapore, and Tokyo. Regency balls and dinners abounded, Austen weekends became de rigueur, Cunard launched Austen-related transatlantic cruises. The Royal Mail entered into the mood of the moment by issuing a set of stamps to honour the occasion and designing a special postmark for letters sent from Chawton or Steventon in the publication anniversary week. Even the Bank of England did its bit to bolster Jane’s fame. In the year of Pride and Prejudice, Governor Mark Carney announced that Jane Austen would be the face of the new £10 note, replacing Charles Darwin (who, as a great admirer of her novels, would probably have had no objection).

Jane Austen herself might well have been amused by Cassandra’s little portrait being transformed into currency, as well as by the choice of accompanying quotation: ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!’ She composed these words for Miss Bingley, whose preference, in fact, is more for banknotes than books. The portrayal of Jane Austen on a £10 note is in keeping with a view long held by certain critics that money was a major preoccupation for her. W. H. Auden’s comment is the pithiest: in his ‘Letter to Lord Byron,’ he confessed to being shocked to see ‘An English spinster of the middle class… Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety / The economic basis of society.’ What would Auden have had to say about the handful of ‘Jane Austen fivers’ that began to circulate late in 2016, on which a tiny portrait of Austen engraved by Graham Short increased the notes’ value to £50,000? Or about the auction in March 2017 at which a first edition of Pride and Prejudice sold for £38,000?

‘Jane Austen’ is big business. Pride and Prejudice has been précised and presented via kittens, knitted figures, and guinea pigs dressed in bonnets and lace.

‘Jane Austen’ is big business. Pride and Prejudice has been précised and presented via kittens, knitted figures, and guinea pigs dressed in bonnets and lace. There are peg doll kits and cut-out cards of Mr. Darcy. Quotations from the novels have found their way onto bags, bookmarks and bracelets, mugs and mousemats, cushion covers and caps. Marketing opportunities are a sign of modern success, but the merchandise tells much about the enduring appeal of Jane Austen. Whatever earlier literary critics may have had to say about the transcendent truths embodied in her words, the memorabilia tells another story. The Jane Austen action figure, striding confidently ahead with pen in hand, is a different Jane from the late-Victorian image of the spinster aunt at her tiny table. What Lady Catherine de Bourgh offered as a crushing insult to Elizabeth Bennet is now sported proudly on t-shirts: ‘Obstinate Headstrong Girl.’

Publishers have done their best to fuel Austen-mania, bringing out books aimed at stimulating more participation in the Regency world. Anyone wishing to throw their own version of the Netherfield ball can seek advice from books such as Dinner with Mr. DarcyA Dance with Jane Austen, or Regency Women’s Dress. There has also been a series of more traditional, academic studies of Jane Austen’s texts, but twenty-first-century scholars are more willing than their predecessors to take into account the popular responses to those. The avalanche of Austen-related events, books, blogs, and bric-à-brac has created a playful aura around an author at one time admired primarily for her moral vision. John Mullan’s book of conundrums – What Matters in Jane Austen? – catches the tone in its title. Like John Sutherland’s Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?, Mullan’s collection of questions prompted by the novels combines critical expertise with a sense of fun, even adding a slightly more gossipy tone (“Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?”). Unsurprisingly, the work that attracts most attention from Mullan is the one in which puzzles and charades are most prominent – Emma.

Fascination with Jane Austen’s novels has led to the pursuit of puzzles of a very different kind. ‘Who killed Fanny Price?’ is the question posed by Lynn Shepherd in Murder at Mansfield Park, in which she takes a widely held readerly aversion to Austen’s heroine to extremes by transforming Mansfield Park into crime fiction. Suddenly, Jane Austen is inadvertently revealed as the mother of the whodunnit, as well as everything else – the familiar genre of the country house murder, usually traced to Agatha Christie, is here found to derive from Mansfield Park. Or should that be Pride and Prejudice? P. D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley takes its cue from Pride and Prejudice, and has now become a bestselling crime novel and subsequent television adaptation. If these murder mysteries play fast and loose with Jane Austen, they are positively strait-laced in comparison to Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Ben Winters’s Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Austen herself was not averse to coining new words, as seen in Emma’s idea of herself as ‘an imaginist,’ so it is apt enough that she should have inspired a new genre of literary ‘mash-up’ (since the amalgamation of Pemberley and a zombie apocalypse had no obvious literary precedent, reviewers turned to the contemporary music scene to find an adequate term). Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, of course, was also destined for the big screen.

Though not to the taste of every Janeite, the mash-ups demonstrate, more than any other recent phenomenon, the extent to which Austen’s stories have now achieved the status of modern myth, so widely known that they are open to being adapted, inverted, or subverted. Even the distant offspring of her novels have assumed lives of their own. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones first appeared in a newspaper column; her story, mirroring Pride and Prejudice, borrowed first the name of Austen’s hero and then, for the cinematic version, the actor Colin Firth, who played Darcy in the BBC adaptation. Bridget Jones’s Diary was followed by Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and, more recently, a film that fast-forwards a few years to Bridget Jones’s Baby.

Since 2011, the bewildering succession of Jane Austen bicentenaries has brought home the concentration of her original output, each year giving rise to celebrations of another novel. Six great novels in the space of six years was – and still is – a remarkable achievement. The twenty-first-century obsession with anniversaries has also meant that the tributes to Jane Austen have coincided with commemorations of the First World War. Historical accident brought Mansfield ParkEmma, and Persuasion into contact with the convulsions of the early twentieth century, and, in doing so, highlighted the conflict of Jane Austen’s own day. The Napoleonic Wars may seem far removed from Mansfield or Highbury, but the appeal of these settings’ tranquility is greatly intensified by the thought of what so many contemporary brothers, husbands, and sons were enduring and how their bereft sisters, wives, and mothers were suffering. With images of the First World War so much in mind, the commemorative plaque commissioned by Jane Austen’s supporters in 1917 for the centenary of her death takes on poignant additional dimensions. The black tablet, set into the brick wall of her home in Chawton, bears a striking resemblance to the memorials that were being erected in villages all over Britain in the wake of the vast battles of northern France. Lewes’s prediction, uttered in more peaceful times, deepened into a statement of faith when it was engraved in brass and mounted on oak in 1917. It continues to provide a suitably enduring monument to Jane Austen: ‘Such art as hers can never grow old.’


Fiona Stafford is professor of English language and literature, University of Oxford. She is author of The Sunday Times Nature Book of the Year, The Long, Long Life of Trees and presenter of two highly acclaimed series for BBC Radio 3 titled The Meaning of Trees. She lives in Bucks, UK.

Jane Austen: A Brief Life is available to purchase here.

 

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