Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What I Owe Jane Austen...

By Amber Leigh Williams

It would be fair to say that Jane Austen made my high school career easier. I vividly remember cracking open Pride and Prejudice for the first time in advanced English/Literature and discovering her voice for the first time. Later, when I accepted the challenge of reading all of Austen's other published works and began reading Sense and Sensibility, I wasn't just encountering another great story of love in Regency times. It was like getting reaquainted with a friend I once dearly appreciated and rediscovering that important relationship. As silly as it may seem, after reading Elizabeth and Darcy's HEA in that English/Literature class, I felt akin to Jane. Though writing novels wasn't viewed as a proper pastime, much less a career, for women of her time, she did what she wanted and stayed true to her own voice, refusing to conform to the Romantic or Victorian writing styles of the 19th century. Against the grain of the harsh public school system, I was maybe a little too romantic and dreamy. And reading Pride and Prejudice reaffirmed my faith in love and romance in a big way.

It's hard to know where to begin with Jane. She hardly needs an introduction. And not much is known about her, biographically. This is mostly due to the fact that, though she wrote many letters to various members of her family (primarily her sister, Cassandra) during her lifetime, they were burned or censored shortly after her death. Though she published less than a dozen books and didn't see much recognition of those works during her lifetime, they cemented her status as a great English writer in the 20th century when her realism became more widely popularized in literary circles.

And let's not forget, she introduced romance novels to the world! Austen's novels have their own fan culture. Her stories also are historically important because they highlight the social plight of nineteenth-century women in England and the strictures surrounding  love, marriage, family, and wealth that limited women like Jane. Famously, Jane herself never married despite a romance with an Irishman named Tom Lefroy. Probably because of the same social strictures she wrote about, they were never able to marry and in one of the surviving letters to her sister, Cassandra, she wrote...

...The day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea....

Perhaps as a testament to her belief in love, in 1802 she turned down the possibility of marriage to a man who could have presented several advantages to her and her family. In addition, shortly after when writing to her niece, Fanny Knight, she wrote the following when asked for advice on marrying for practical reasons...

...having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection....

Though her work was criticized by scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, there is no denying the literary impact her novels have had on the world. Virginia Woolf described as her as "the most perfect artist among women." Nowdays, popular movie adaptations and and sequels to her novels are proof of her impact on modern culture. Though she wrote about women in the 19th century whose plights you don't see everyday in today's world, it seems that everywhere someone identifies with her work. Her voice and tone and romantic themes transcend time and place and have comforted and entertained generations of readers. It's in fact because of Jane Austen that my belief in the romance genre was reaffirmed. I wonder how many other writers, particularly women, are grateful to Jane and her novels for inspiration. Something tells me the numbers are incalculable.


Interesting facts about Jane Austen and her work....

- Jane must have viewed Tuesday as the most pivotal day of the week. In all but one of her novels, major turning points or the climax of the story happen on a Tuesday.

- Although the heroine of Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland's imagination was fueled by The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, Jane noted to friends and family that she didn't care much for the book. It was the work of novelist Fanny Burney who most appealed to her.

- Jane was proud of her earnings, but her books made only 630 pounds during her lifetime. In fact, she paid 140 pounds for Sense and Sensibility to be published initially in 1811.

- In the 19th century, novels weren't well-received in literary society because they were seen as "wicked influences on the minds of young women."

- Historians suspect she wrote close to 3,000 letters over forty years, but only 160 remain.

- In the Regency period, dancing was very popular and for a good reason. It was the only proper way to further a romance or courtship. During that time, men and women didn't shake hands. Dancing presented them with the opportunity to touch in a public setting without causing a scandal. Jane herself was very fond of dancing.

- None of her publications during her lifetime gave her credit by name. Instead, her first novel Sense and Sensibility was "By a Lady." Pride and Prejudice was by "The Author of Sense and Sensibility."

- In addition to portaying the character of Elinor in the onscreen adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, actress Emma Thompson also wrote the screenplay for which she won a Golden Globe.

- Jane's brother, Frank, was a naval officer who was knighted in later life. Another brother, Charles, was an admiral in the Napoleonic Wars. Her favorite brother, however, was Henry who became her business partner and was charged with publishing her posthumous novels, Persuasion and Northhanger Abbey.

- A couple of the titles of Jane's work were chosen by her publishers. The working title of Persuasion, for example, was originally The Elliots. The first draft of Pride and Prejudice she entitled First Impressions.

- When Winston Churchill was ordered by his doctor to stay in bed and rest, he requested that Pride and Prejudice be read to him.

- In 1949, the house owned by Jane's family in Chawton was converted into a museum dedicated to her life and work.

- One of the authors inspired by Jane's novels: J.K. Rowling who has read Emma "at least twenty times."

- Jane took the name of hero Fitzwilliam Darcy from two prominent English families of the time - the Fitzwilliams and the D'Arcys.

- These days, first editions of Pride and Prejudice are sold for anywhere from 23,500 to 40,000 pounds.

- The first actor to portray Dr. Darcy onscreen in Pride and Prejudice was Laurence Olivier in 1940. However, it was of course Colin Firth's 1995 performance that created what is known as "Darcymania" despite the fact that he had never read the novel and nearly turned down the part.

10 comments:

Jerri Hines/Carrie James-Haynes said...

Amber,
One of my favorite authors. Love your blog. How sad she never found the fulfillment to love that she so skillfully wrote about.

Jannine Gallant said...

Loved all your facts about Jane. Do you think they'll make movies of our books long after we're gone? But then again, I'm no Jane!

Barbara Edwards said...

Wonderful blog about Jane. I wish I had her talent.
Barbara

Alison H. said...

Fantastic post, Amber! I was just waiting for someone to do Jane Austen, and you included so many previously unknown (by me, anyway) facts. I loved it. We all owe her so much.

Amber Leigh Williams said...

Jerri, I wonder why Cassandra chose to burn so many of her letters, what she thought might have damaged the "dear aunt Jane" image. It is nice to know that she did have some flirtation, enough to fuel her to write the stories that she did.

Amber Leigh Williams said...

Jannine, lol - we can dream! I wonder what Jane would have thought about the adaptations and sequels we see in such abundance nowdays.

Amber Leigh Williams said...

Barbara, thank you! I wish I did to - especially her voice. It's in a league of its own!

Amber Leigh Williams said...

Alison, a while back I bought a copy of the "Jane Austen Miscellany" which I keep on the bedtable in our guest room. It's always fun to rifle through it and learn fun little tidbits about her and the Regency perioud :)

Laura Breck said...

I loved all the fun facts. Especially that Churchill had Pride and Prejudice read to him. Proving that everyone needs romance in their lives!

Margaret Tanner said...

Wow, great blog. That was so interesting. Didn't know about Churchill being a fan. Now that is a fascinating fact, to think a gruff old man like him would be interested in a romance novel.

Regards

Margaret