Monday, May 20, 2013

The Ghost of Jane Austen

It has been 200 years since Jane Austen published her first book. She is still one of the world’s most beloved writers. Hundreds of pieces have been written about Austen and why her six novels are so enduring. People wonder how this sheltered 18th century woman was able to write about characters and form plots that still resound in today’s modern world. 

The answer to this is simple. Austen made her characters human and she placed them in the real world. She wrote about real people and their real problems. Her plots dealt with everyday life and how not only to survive it but how to thrive.

The strands that ran through Jane’s own life also run through her novels. She used her own families’ middle class experience to reflect the real social issues of the time. Her mother born at a higher rank than her father was allowed to marry him because of his education and standing in the community as a clergyman. She watched her mother thrive within this union as opposed to becoming bitter. 

Her characters often showed this same resilience. Austin well educated, understood the irony that society expected her as a female to never be above a man either socially or intellectually. She did not agree so she adroitly presented this concept in her stories with good-natured humor. She stayed away from bitterness because she wanted her readers to see the absurdity of this concept.

She brought joy and a love of life to her female characters because she had experienced this in her own life. In her youth she attended parties in Bath where she loved to dance, laugh, converse and flirt with the opposite sex. She fell madly in love. Unfortunately, despite her gentility she was not considered a “good catch”. 

She fell in love with an Irishman, Tom Lefroy who was the nephew of one of her best friends Anne Lefroy. But Tom’s Aunt Anne worried his connection to Jane would ultimately mean his disownment so she whisked him away to the country. He later became Chief Justice of Ireland. 

In 1801 Jane did have another brief romance while vacationing on the coast with her family. She met and fell in love with a young clergyman. The pair arranged for her to meet his family but he died suddenly.

Jane’s own disappointment in love again did not make her bitter. She understood that marriage was a good goal, besides the financial benefits for her female characters, she was always careful to emphasize that affection was an important component to matrimony. This belief was adverse to the societal norms of the time. 

Despite her lost loves Jane did not live without love. Her family was always supportive of her. Very shy by nature Jane’s older sister Cassandra was her best friend. The two sisters’ bond was even made closer because Cassandra had also lost her fianc√© to death. This strong sisterly bond was reflected in many of her female characters. In her novel Pride and Prejudice her character Elizabeth understands the importance of being a good sister.

In her first book Sense and Sensibility she showed her understanding of lost love. In Persuasion her female character has a second chance at love, later in life. This reflected Austen’s own unwavering hope.

Jane was also very close to her older six brothers. She admired their oxford educations but she was the only one in her family to be published. The heroes in her novels all had similar professions to the men in her life. 

Her male characters were landed gentlemen, clergymen, and navel officers. Jane’s brother Frank had a successful career in the British navy. She used this information when she wrote Persuasion. When her father died, her mother, sister and herself where thrown on the mercy of her older brother, Edward who in 1809 gave them his cottage in Chawton to live in. Again shades of Sense and Sensibility.

Austin used her two main characters in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett to reflect what 18th century society expected, including all of its restraints. Her character Elizabeth reflected her own desire for freewill. By the time she wrote Pride and Prejudice she had become self-reliant in her own life. Austin made Darcy’s character sympatric as well by showing he could change through self-reflection, this trait made his character more relatable and human. 

Austin was careful never to make her characters too perfect or too inhuman. Even in dealing with the character of Mr. Wickham who is morally corrupt she has Elizabeth take the high ground and forgive.

One overriding theme in all Austen’s novels was the human fallacy people have to misjudge each other. She showed through her character’s trails and tribulations what a mistake it is to misjudge someone on just a first impression. She points out time and time again how human perception is not necessarily reality. 

Austin also always redeemed her characters in the end by allowing them to make mistakes, learn and grow and change their minds. 

Having the compassion to give her characters the opportunity to improve also draws the reader to her stories. She effectively conveys that regardless of the mistakes we make, we as humans can still attain happiness.

Austin’s novels were well received by the public and critics while she was still alive. 

She like many female Georgian writers remained anonymous. She published Sense in Sensibility in 1811 with the byline, “By a Lady. When Pride and Prejudice 1813, Mansfield Park 1814 and Emma 1815 were published the byline was, “By the author of Sense and Sensibility.” It wasn’t until her death in 1817 at age 41, probably from cancer, that her brother finally revealed her true name to the public when her last two novels were published posthumously.

Since her death millions of her books have been sold worldwide. She is number “70” on a list of 100 of Great Briton's most famous people. Her novels have been made into television and films productions numerous times. Her books remain as relevant today as they did when she first wrote them.

Jane lived at Chawton Cottage for eight happy years. Today it is a museum. Many of Jane’s personal items remain in this home, her furniture including a small table where she wrote her novels, a lock of her hair, her library of favorite books, her letters of which she wrote many, and her jewelry. It is stated that her ghost still haunts this house as well as Chawton Village. The following video shows Chawton Cottage.

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