Why read Jane Austen?

{2017 celebrates the life of Jane Austen, and her death 200 years ago, on 18th July 1817}

I suppose most of us were made to read one or another of Jane Austen’s small output of novels while we were at school, and many didn’t enjoy the experience. Something about the combination of old-fashioned language and compulsory reading can be off-putting. Still, haven’t we all watched the TV or film adaptations, and enjoyed her portrayals of the high life in Eighteenth Century England? But it’s all a far cry from the modern world, where’s there’s surely no place for essays in etiquette, or comedies of manners.

Au contraire. For in Jane Austen, we have someone who may have danced at balls, guested at fine mansions, and observed the behaviours of high society, but she didn’t belong to the upper echelons. Jane was a vicarage child; her parents were would-be gentry without the means to achieve gentility. Due in part to her brother’s Edward’s adoption by genuinely wealthy people, Jane frequently visited and stayed in the smart and expensive households of the era, but she never belonged there. She was always the observer. And as she was clever, and witty, and enjoyed writing about her experiences, we are graced today with some of the best observations on human behaviour ever recorded.

You don’t have to plough through Pride and Prejudice, or suffer Sense and Sensibility, to see the truth of this. If you hated the novels – or simply didn’t get on with them – you can get a quick and clear sense of Jane’s wit from reading her letters. Here she is replying to her niece, Fanny Knight, who has forced her boyfriend to read one of Jane’s books, only to discover that he didn’t enjoy it:

Do not oblige him to read any more. Have mercy on him, tell him the truth, and make him an apology. He and I should not in the least agree, of course, in our ideas of novels and heroines. Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked: but there is some very good sense in what he says, and I particularly respect him for wishing to think well of all young ladies; it shows an amiable and a delicate mind. And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my works.

A pithy sentence deals with the poet Byron – she gives the clear impression she doesn’t think much of him.

I have read [Byron’s] The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do.

On the other hand, if you read between the lines of her apparent complaint about Sir Walter Scott, it’s clear that she likes his writing very much. This is the writing style seen in the novels, where keen observation of humanity’s follies is delivered in a droll and humorous style, with the wit carefully concealed in words that can be read two ways. Does she ever write straight? Or is her view always slightly slant?

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. — It is not fair. — He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. — I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it — but fear I must.

She can be just as tart in making non-literary references. To her sister Cassandra (with whom she kept up a long and extensive correspondence):

I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.

And in another:

Next week [I] shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.

This is both amusing and poignant. As Jane’s income was limited, and she wished to continue to move in the wealthier circles frequented by members of her extended family, such a comment is both a joke (we know perfectly well she is too intelligent to take more than a superficial happiness in material goods) and heartfelt – the hat represents her need to present herself well, despite her circumstances, and it therefore stands for her material condition, which well might affect her ability to feel happy.

One of her most famous quotes – now enshrined on the new English £10 note – simply says:

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! 

(It continues, How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.)

On the surface, and particularly if you haven’t read the book, this is a straightforward comment. Of course Jane Austen feels this way about reading. How lovely. However, she puts these words into the mouth of Caroline Bingley, a woman who most definitely does not enjoy reading, but pretends she does in order to impress her wannabe beau, Mr Darcy. Wicked Jane. We know she believes this – but in the novel it actually means the opposite of what it says. Do you feel manipulated? So you should – that is her intent – and the disjunct between the superficial meaning of the words and the intent of the character who speaks them is deliberate. It has caused much discussion online, as Janeites and literary scholars weight out in favour of, or against, the quote on the bank note.

How nice to see Jane getting lots of free press in this, the bicentenary of her death!

Sources:

Quotes came from the wonderful Pemberly.com, a tremendous resort for Janeites of all stripes.

Some of the information came from Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home – a well-written and very entertaining biography which gives us Jane for our age. Previous biographies have been quite different, and this new take is well worth reading.