Of all English novelists, Jane Austen, the favourite aunt from a village in Hampshire, has been given most coverage on our screens over the last 50 years. Colin Firth as Darcy became the object of distant desire for a generation. Emma Thompson was a very convincing Elinor in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and, by the way, also received an Oscar for her screen play of the novel.
The BBC produces a series based on one of Jane’s six novels regularly. This is similar to a national art gallery mounting an exhibition of Impressionist painters when in need of funds, or to Hollywood producing a western. It is sure to be a success.
Jane Austen wrote on a small table in the drawing room and quickly collected her papers and hid them away when any visitor arrived. This did not seem to affect her work. It was not the distraction that the ‘Man from Porlock’ caused when he visited Coleridge in his little cottage in Nether Stowey on the Quantocks in Somerset. He was writing ‘Kubla Khan’, and when he had got rid of his visitor and picked up his pen, he could not put down another word. The trance and the vision had gone.
Go to Chawton in Hampshire and visit the house where Jane Austen lived with her mother and sister. Visit Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey as well.
Jane’s life was not as sheltered as her readers often think. Her novels give the impression of an old English paradise where men were refined, women were pampered, houses were big, and servants were many. Jane’s life was not like at all. She had money problems after her father died when the family lived in Bath. In fact, she, her mother, and her sister Cassandra, moved from one house to another in Bath, each time to a less fashionable part of the city.
Her novels were not like this either. In ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Lydia Bennet elopes with the penniless scoundrel, Wickham. This would cause a raised eyebrow even today. Poverty, or at least straightened circumstances, was often just around the corner.
Jane Austen was clever, and, as all ladies of her time and background, lacked outlets for her gifts. It is as well that novel writing did provide an opportunity. Today she would have been Professor of English Literature at Oxford with a few years as visiting professor at Harvard in her cv. She would have appeared on TV in her own series of programmes on the development of the novel. How annoyed she must have been to see the comfortable lives of men with half her intelligence and spirit while she was an impecunious spinster with less independence and standing as the years passed by.
Her own prospects are reflected perfectly in Knightley’s reproach to Emma Woodhouse when Emma has made fun of Miss Bates on an outing to Box Hill. Miss Bates, like Jane, is the unmarried daughter of a vicar. ‘She is poor;’ says Knightley to Emma ‘she has sunk from the comfort she was born to, and, if she lives to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done indeed!’’ Jane’s situation after her father died was not very different from that of Miss Bates.
Jane took revenge on unintelligent men in characters such as the empty-headed John Thorpe in ‘Northanger Abbey’. Here Catherine Morland is worried about her brother’s carriage, and she asks Thorpe if he thinks it will break down.
‘Break down! Oh lord! Did you ever see such a little tittuppy thing in your life? There is not a sound piece of iron about it. The wheels have been fairly worn out these ten years at least; and as for the body, upon my soul, you might shake it to pieces with a touch. It is the most devilish little rickety business I ever beheld! Thank God! We have got a better. I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty thousand pounds.’
‘Good heavens!’ cried Catherine, quite frightened, ‘then pray let us turn back…Do let us turn back, Mr Thorpe; stop and speak to my brother, and tell him how very unsafe it is.’
‘Unsafe! Oh lord! What is there in that? They will only get a roll if it does break down; …Oh, curse it! The carriage is safe enough if a man knows how to drive it; a thing of that sort in good hands will last above twenty years …Lord bless you! I would undertake for five pounds to drive it to York and back again without losing a nail.’
Catherine listened with astonishment. She knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing…’
Catherine has that essential goodness that is more important than wit or great beauty. She may not have the sparkle of Elizabeth Bennet or the controlled wisdom of Elinor Dashwood, but she has an instinctive concern for others and a refreshing humility.
Jane Austen is often concerned with how her heroine must understand where she is going wrong. Emma finally recognizes her own faults. Elizabeth Bennet admits her mistaken judgement of both Darcy and Wickham. Catherine is the only heroine of Jane Austen who does not have to learn to know herself. She is lovely from the beginning of the novel to the end.
In 1964 I went to Munich to take a course in German. It was just before the Fasching carnival. I happened to pick up a local newspaper and saw a short article about Jane Austen. Being young and far from home, I had to read it. It said that Jane Austen’s books centre on courtship and marriage but that she herself remained single. ‘How lucky for us,’ continued the article, ‘because this gave her more time to write the novels we enjoy today.’
Yes, we are really very lucky!