PORTRAIT OF A LADY
An account of the work and life of novelist Jane Austen who died 200 years ago this summer
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 the filming of Pride & Prejudice
Groombridge Place in Kent used in the filming of Pride & Prejudice