I was watching the film Sense and Sensibility again the other day. The book behind the film was written by Jane Austen, one of my favourite authors; I’ve read all of her novels. I’m not normally a lover of the romance, but hers are not just romances, they are far more. Jane had a wit that few have matched. She seems to me to have been a bit like the Agatha Christie character Miss Marple; someone who critically observed what was going on around her – much easier without the distractions of mobile ‘phones and computer games. I suppose we would call it people watching nowadays. Whatever we call it, she critically observed the society of her day and wrote about. I like her so much, I attended a lecture about her work back in the summer, and bought a book called The Jane Austen Writer’s Club by Rebecca Smith, one of her great nieces.
Scholars say that she had a natural talent for speech and listening to the way that people spoke, which is evident from reading her work.
“I have sometimes thought,” said Catherine, doubtingly, “whether ladies do write s much better letters than gentlemen! That is – I should not think the superiority was always on our side.”
“As far as I have had opportunity of judging, it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars.”
“And what are they?
“A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.”
From Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
There is an honesty in the stories that made me wonder how an 18th century spinster could know so much, and I wanted to learn more.
Jane was born on 16 December 1775. She was the youngest of eight children – six brothers and one sister. Her father was a clergyman. Jane’s father died when she was aged 30, which meant that she and her sister, Cassandra, moved house several times and struggled a bit financially. Quite a bit, to be honest. They basically relied on handouts from the family and whatever they could make in other ways – one being Jane’s writing. I think there was a touch of autobiography in many of her novels – most of her heroines had a bit of a financial constraint on them.
Jane started to write in her teens, even as a child she’d written plays for the entertainment of her siblings. She was encouraged to read and this is clearly where her loves of books arose. Her first novel was Love and Friendship. It was written as a series of love letters, although in true Austen style, it was something of a parody. Remember, there were no mobile ‘phones in those days, and people really did send love letters. Love and Friendship is classed as one of the Juvenilia Stories.
With the help of one of her brother’s, Jane started publishing her work when she was in her 30s. Hard for us, I know, but we have to remember that it was “not the done thing” for women to have jobs in those days, unless it was something like a governess or companion – George Eliot, who was born a couple of years after Jane’s death, was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans.
Sense and Sensibility came first, followed by Pride and Prejudice which, I think, was Jane’s favourite. These were followed by Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Sanditon was unfinished when she died. Some say the same of Lady Susan, also classed by some as one of the Juvenilia Stories, and unfinished, although I have always thought it stood alone, and seems very complete to me. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It’s another book written as a series of letters, very effective.
Jane became ill in her 40s. It is widely thought the she suffered from Addison’s disease, a condition in which the adrenal glands don’t make enough of a hormone called cortisol, one of the stress hormones, also used in the regulation of some major bodily functions. It leaves the body open to other conditions, and, in Jane’s case, there is some evidence that she may actually have had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, perhaps as a result of Addison’s.
I have often thought – and said – that were she to live today, Jane would have been a writer and a coach. She had a very clear philosophy, evident in her letters (most of those remaining were written to her sister) – whatever you want to do, just get on and do it. For an 18th century woman, this was very forward thinking.
Why didn’t she marry?
When I first read her books, I thought that Jane must have been the subject of unrequited love somewhere along the way, and, it seems that was the case. When she was 20, she met a chap called Tom Lefroy (sounds a bit like a George Clooney character). It seems they had a bit of a dalliance, but he had no money, nor did she, so that ended as quickly as it began. Jane had subsequent offers of marriage but refused them all. I like to think that she was still holding a candle for him. In fact, she probably was, if she turned down subsequent offers. She and her sister could have lived far more comfortably had one of them been married. So now I know how she knew so much!
Whatever your views on her novels, consider this: Jane wrote without a typewriter or laptop. All her novels were written by hand.
Jane Austen personal quotes
These are some of my favourite of Jane’s personal quotes, taken from http://www.janeausten.org/jane-austen-quotes.asp
“Wisdom is better than wit, and in the long tune will certainly have the laugh on her side.”
“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor. Which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.”
“One man’s style must not be the rule of another’s.”
“Every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies.”
“Business, you know, may bring you money, but friendship hardly ever does.”
“An artist cannot do anything slovenly.”
© Susan Shirley 2016