An ac­count of the work and life of nov­el­ist Jane Austen who died 200 years ago this sum­mer

Exclusively British - - CONTENTS - Words Diana Woolf

JANE AUSTEN’S SIX nov­els have earned her a rep­u­ta­tion as one of English lit­er­a­ture’s lead­ing stars, a po­si­tion cel­e­brated this year by the launch of the new £10 note fea­tur­ing her por­trait. And al­though per­haps not all her fans have read all her nov­els, her much-loved char­ac­ters, such as the moody Mr Darcy and the spoilt Emma Wode­house, have been pop­u­larised by the var­i­ous highly suc­cess­ful films and TV adap­tions. Austen’s ap­peal lies in an abil­ity to de­pict re­al­is­tic char­ac­ters cou­pled with her dry sense of hu­mour and her nov­els are pep­pered with de­light­fully caus­tic lines such as: ‘ A large in­come is the best recipe for hap­pi­ness I ever heard of’ or more, fa­mously, ‘It is a truth uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged that a sin­gle man in pos­ses­sion of a good for­tune must be in want of a wife.’ Like most of her char­ac­ters, Austen led a fairly quiet life, liv­ing mainly in Hamp­shire with a brief pe­riod spent in Bath. She was born into a large fam­ily in 1775 in Steven­ton, a small vil­lage where her fa­ther Ge­orge was the rec­tor. The Austen fam­ily were not well off, but they were def­i­nitely ‘gen­try’ and, more im­por­tantly for Austen, were great booklovers. She was en­cour­aged to read as much as she could, her fa­ther - some­what un­usu­ally for the pe­riod - be­ing in­ter­ested in his daugh­ters’ ed­u­ca­tion as much as that of his sons. It was clearly both a fun-lov­ing and an in­tel­lec­tual house­hold with fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment in­clud­ing stag­ing plays writ­ten by the chil­dren. As well as plays, the young Austen wrote po­ems, sto­ries and, at the age of 15, she com­pleted A His­tory of Eng­land, de­scrib­ing her­self with her char­ac­ter­is­tic wit as ‘A par­tial, prej­u­diced and ig­no­rant His­to­rian’. When she was 19, Jane started work on what was to even­tu­ally be­come Sense and Sen­si­b­lity, which de­scribes the plight of two daugh­ters, who, left with­out money af­ter their fa­ther’s death, try to bal­ance the needs to find a rich hus­band with a de­sire to marry for love. Women’s lack of fi­nan­cial (and so so­cial) in­de­pen­dence was a reg­u­lar theme in Austen’s work, and one that was sadly made more rel­e­vant for her through per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. At the age of 20, she had fallen in love with a trainee barrister Tom Le­froy, but as Jane had no dowry and Tom was fi­nan­cially de­pen­dent on a great-un­cle, his fam­ily put a stop to what was seen as an un­suit­able re­la­tion­ship and the two never met again. An­other near mat­ri­mo­nial miss

hap­pened in 1802 when Austen ac­cepted an of­fer of mar­riage from the wealthy Har­ris Bigg-wither. The en­gage­ment lasted for a night, as the next morn­ing Austen re­alised that, in spite of the fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity the match of­fered, she couldn’t bring her­self to marry the so­cially awk­ward younger man. Austen was to live with her fam­ily for the rest of her short life and her loss of suit­ors (suit­able and oth­er­wise) is def­i­nitely our gain as it al­lowed her to con­cen­trate on her writ­ing. Af­ter her fa­ther re­tired in 1801, the fam­ily moved to Bath where they stayed for sev­eral years and two of Austen’s books, Northanger Abbey and Per­sua­sion, are par­tially set in the city. To­day vis­i­tors can stroll down the el­e­gant Re­gency pa­rades and ex­plore the gar­dens Austen de­scribes so vividly as well as ad­mir­ing the Pump Room where her young hero­ine Cather­ine More­land de­scribes parad­ing up and down ‘look­ing at ev­ery­one and speak­ing to no one’. Her fa­ther’s death in 1805 left Austen, her mother and sis­ter in a fi­nan­cially pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion and they spent sev­eral years stay­ing with var­i­ous rel­a­tives and in lodg­ings, be­fore they were fi­nally of­fered a cot­tage at Chaw­ton by Austen’s brother Ed­ward. The three set­tled here hap­pily and it was at Chaw­ton that Austen pub­lished four nov­els. All were pub­lished anony­mously, with the first, Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity de­scribed as be­ing ‘ By A Lady’. Chaw­ton is

now the Jane Austen’s House Mu­seum and vis­i­tors can see the ta­ble and chair where Austen worked, as well as the creak­ing door, which warned of the ar­rival of vis­i­tors and so al­lowed Austen to cover her work from pry­ing eyes. This year the Mu­seum is cel­e­brat­ing Austen’s 200th an­niver­sary with a va­ri­ety of com­mem­o­ra­tive events through­out the year. Other an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions in­clude an ex­hi­bi­tion at Winch­ester Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre, the Mys­te­ri­ous Miss Austen, which opens in May. It will fea­ture por­traits as well as an orig­i­nal man­u­script by Austen and her silk walk­ing coat, the only gar­ment that is known to have ac­tu­ally be­longed to Austen. Hamp­shire Cul­tural Trust will also be or­gan­is­ing a se­ries of Big Pic­nics – in­spired by the fa­mous Box Hill out­ing de­scribed in Emma – where vis­i­tors can watch per­for­mances while sam­pling Re­gency style del­i­ca­cies. While in Winch­ester, Austen en­thu­si­asts can pay homage to her grave. Austen fell ill in 1816 and spent the last cou­ple of months liv­ing in Winch­ester’s Col­lege Street so she could be near her doc­tors. On her death in July 1817 her brother Henry ar­ranged to have Austen buried in Winch­ester Cathe­dral and a me­mo­rial plaque erected prais­ing the ‘ ex­tra­or­di­nary en­dow­ments of her mind’. There was no men­tion of her writ­ing and al­though her work was ad­mired by con­tem­po­raries such as the writer Sir Wal­ter Scott, it took an­other cen­tury for her to be­come bet­ter known. This lack of suc­cess dur­ing her life time was per­haps due to Austen liv­ing up to her own ironic dic­tum: ‘ A woman, es­pe­cially if she have the mis­for­tune of know­ing any­thing, should con­ceal it as well as she can.’ How­ever by the 20th cen­tury her work was greatly ad­mired: the prime min­ster Harold Macmil­lan was a fan and Winston Churchill is said to have cred­ited her with help­ing him win World War II – a se­ri­ous claim to fame for the anony­mous lady author from Hamp­shire.

Pic­tured above; Lyme Park starred on screen as the home of Mr Darcy. Pic­tured right: Goodne­stone Park in Kent, an Austen-fam­ily home and pic­tured be­low: Chatsworth House in the Peak Dis­trict, the lo­ca­tion for Pem­ber­ley, the res­i­dence of Mr Darcy, in...

Groom­bridge Place in Kent used in the film­ing of Pride & Prej­u­dice

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