For our November meeting, members researched Jane Austen from various approaches and angles to try to ascertain who she really was. What a challenge! This post contains the first three contributions.
It’s difficult to find the ‘real’ Jane Austen behind the smoke and mirrors of her family’s mythmaking and the creation of ‘Dear Aunt Jane.’
Henry Austen began the process in his biographical notice of 1818, describing his sister’s “perfect placidity of temper” and a” life of usefulness, literature and religion . . . not by any means a life of events”, a woman who “never uttered a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression”.
In 1870, James Austen-Leigh brought his Victorian values to his memoir of his aunt, describing her “own sweet temper and loving heart”, and her being “entirely free from the vulgarity so offensive in some novels”.
Austen-Leigh wanted posterity to view his aunt as almost angelic with her “sunniness of temper”, an author who was “as far as possible from being censorious or satirical”.
As Emily Auerbach writes in Searching for Jane Austen, “ Austen’s relatives . . . worked hard to sweeten her image, weaken her words and soften her bite”, as a result dampening down her vivacity, presenting her as a “drab, humble paragon of propriety”, creating an inoffensive and uninteresting maiden aunt.
However, to P D James “her letters show that she was very far from the gentle, uncomplaining spinster of popular legend”. Fay Weldon believes Austen was “a much sharper, shrewder, unhappier woman than he (Austen-Leigh) allows.” Carol Shields describes Austen as “an ironic, spiky” woman writer. Virginia Woolf, for whom Austen is “the most perfect artist among women” believes Austen must have been “alarming to find at home”.
What do we definitely know about her?
She was tall with hazel eyes and high colour in her cheeks. She loved wine and dancing and was devoted to, and depended upon, her older sister. She loved to laugh, loved puns and riddles (for instance the joke entries she wrote in the marriage register at Steventon).
The closest we can come to Jane Austen’s true self is through her letters. To Deidre Le Faye by reading the letters we can hear Austen “talk to us”.
What do the letters reveal?
To me they reveal a woman who didn’t suffer fools, who could be scathingly judgemental (letter 27) and a woman who could be outrageous and risqué (is this why Cassandra destroyed so many letters). For instance in letter 60, Austen writes to Cassandra
I must notice a wedding in the Salisbury paper, which has me amused very much, Dr Phillot to Lady Frances St Lawrence. She wanted to have a husband I suppose, once in her life and he a Lady Frances.
The joke combines the sound of the groom’s name as Fill-it with the naughty connotation of “Lady Fanny”. Every woman has a Lady Fanny. This is the wit Austen gives Mary Crawford. Given the nature of this joke, why did Austen name her most modest heroine Fanny?
Austen’s choice of names generally can be a surprise. For instance the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility. Francis Dashwood, 5th Baron Le Despenser is notoriously known for founding the Hell Fire Club.
For a detailed, scholarly exploration and analysis of the names Austen uses in her novels, as well as the extraordinary mind behind the choices, I can recommend Jane Austen’s Names by Margaret Doody, Unversity of Chicago Press, 2015.
The description of Austen that rings truest to me is by Charlotte-Maria Beckwith, who, as a child, knew Austen in Chawton.
I remember her as a tall, this spare person with very high cheek bones, great colour – sparkling eyes not large but joyous and intelligent . . . her keen sense of humour I quite remember, it oozed out very much in Mr Bennet’s style.
So Mr Bennet’s sense of humour and Mary Crawford wit but there’s another of her characters which reveals so much about Austen and that’s Emma. There’s more of Austen in Emma than in any of her other characters. Not her wealth, but Emma “the imaginist”, the word Austen created to describe this character. Austen was the ultimate imaginist. In Letter 29 she tells Cassandra
We plan having a steady cook and a young giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter.
Even Austen-Leigh remembered that “the laugh which she occasionally raised was by imagining for her neighbours, as she was ready to imagine for her friends or herself, impossible contingencies”.
The real Jane Austen remains elusive but it is possible to imagine a woman who combined Mr Bennet’s ironic sense of humour with Mary Crawford’s risqué wit and Emma’s imagination.
No other topic has troubled me as much as this one. None has caused more reading or more thought and produced so little.
According to Napoleon, “to understand a man, you need to understand the world when he was 20 years old”. I have always regarded Jane Austen as a Georgian country woman whose world was changing swiftly to that of the Regency; from the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution and the Evangelical Movement, the rise of the middle classes and rampant consumerism; from Augustan literature to the Romantic, the Picturesque and the Sublime. Now throw in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars … Not much help there, Napoleon.
I made lists of descriptive words – extremely intelligent, observant, perceptive and sensitive, a dutiful daughter and caring sister and aunt, with a wicked sense of humour. Educated, well-read, well-informed, with a curious and enquiring mind, who played the piano, sewed and embroidered and loved to dance. An enthusiastic traveller, excited by the London shops, theatres and galleries. But I could apply those adjectives to many of my friends.
Biographies gave me snippets about her physical appearance – yet those are only opinions. I was no closer to the real woman. Her letters, novels, poetry and prayers have tantalising hints of her character and personality which have already been interpreted in a thousand different ways. Would I have enjoyed sitting next to her at dinner? She would have found me a very dull elf.
At our November meeting I had nothing worthwhile to offer. I had failed utterly. And you know what? I don’t mind admitting defeat. I don’t think I want to have her pinned down like a butterfly with a classifying tag. For me she remains one of the greatest writers of English literature ever and the most dazzling, delightful, subversive and brilliant mind of the late 18th century. That’s enough.
I started from the idea that ‘the child is mother to the woman’ and so decided to research the Juvenilia. I didn’t get much past ‘The History of England’, written when Jane was sixteen, which disclosed the fact that there was political division in the Austen family. The women, following Mary Leigh, Mrs Austen’s kinswoman and author of ‘History of the Leigh Family’, were strong supporters of the Stuarts whilst the men were Hanoverians. Jane had a detailed knowledge of British History and had strong political opinions as a girl, shown in her championing of Mary Queen of Scots. She appears to have maintained an interest in politics all her life and Australian academic, Mary Spongberg*, suggested all her fiction were stories of disempowered women. This surely is reflected in her position as an early feminist – a characteristic often overlooked in many of her admirers’ estimation of her character.
* See her ‘Jane Austen and the Jacobite Past’ in Sensibilities (51), December 2015.