Jane Austen died 200 years ago today: July 18, 1817. The Georgian and Regency novelist of relationships among the English gentry especially focused on women needing marriage to achieve economic security and a betterment of their social status. She herself never married.
She sold some books, but was not a “big star” during her lifetime. Her novels fell somewhat out of favor as the 19th century progressed. The tales were seen as too cool and her characters too aloof and lacking in emotional depth.
She began to enjoy a gradual revival in the 20th century. (In the 1950s and 1960s, British prime minister Harold Macmillan would read Pride and Prejudice to relax.) Her novels have by now been translated into all major languages, and have been adapted into films countless times. Anyone who dares pen a romantic/historical novel is to some extent affected by her. In our 2017, Austen is a global icon rivaling even William Shakespeare.
What is it about her stories? Everyone has an opinion.
She fictionalized, as many of us do if we write, what she knew, places she lived, and people she encountered. Her world is intimate, simple, and agrarian, which may be part of her appeal in our frenetic, internet-driven, warp-speed lives. Compared to now, where all is “out there” and everything is deemed “acceptable,” her romances are restrained and her courtships formal. She is clearly at times also poking fun at the people of the drawing rooms: her asides on social norms and status-chasing can be bitingly sarcastic.
I find intriguing as well what she mostly omits references to: the French Revolution/Napoleonic wars, which Great Britain had fought nearly non-stop with France from early 1793 until 1815. Her “Mr. Darcys,” “Mr. Wickhams,” and other “gentlemen” would have invariably included those who had been officers in the Royal Navy, or in Spain with the Duke of Wellington’s army, or even at Waterloo – and may have died abroad. In her tales, though, one would think there was hardly “a world” out there beyond her gentry homes and dinner gatherings.
Yet that emphasis on the “domestic” doubtless was based on her own experiences too. We have to remember that there was no “mass media” in “1812” as there is now, so most people knew only vaguely of what was going on in the neighboring English county, much less on the other side of Europe. Women in particular were also usually not routinely included in “male” discussions either, so if the likes of “Mr. Darcy” and “Mr. Wickham” did ever talk about “the French” they would almost certainly not have done so in front of the “Bennet” young ladies.
Her six full novels contain many of the same aspects. Pride And Prejudice is probably her best known. If you are interested, I would start with that one.
If you do read her, brace yourself for seriously old-fashioned English: she wrote in the early 1800s, remember. From 2017, her books are not always an “easy” read – given how language and writing has evolved since then. By our standards they may seem at times “slow”-paced as well.
However, they are more than worth the reading effort.
Have a good Tuesday, wherever you are. 🙂