Monday, July 17, 2017

Jane Austen, 1775-1817

Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1810 (detail)

As it is now probably impossible not to know, Jane Austen died 200 years ago on July 18, 1817. I thought I would mark the sad occasion by inviting you to visit (or perhaps re-visit) my posts on Austen, her novels, film and television adaptations of her books, and the some of the writers who influenced her.

Six months with Jane Austen: Last year I spent six months re-reading the six novels she prepared or intended for publication, and wrote about some of their implicit and explicit themes.

Six months with Jane Austen: The plan

"Hasn't enough been written already about Jane Austen?" I wrote, just before adding more words to the millions devoted to Austen and her novels. "Perhaps it's just my impression, but I seem to be detecting a bit of Austen fatigue. . .For some readers her novels may have come to seem too genteel: what relevance can love stories set among the 19th-century British gentry have for our time of seemingly endless war, rising inequality, and human trafficking?

"But war, inequality, and human trafficking were inescapable features of Austen's world as well, and the novels actually say quite a bit about these issues." I outlined my plan to do a post every month on Austen's novels in the order of their publication. In the end there were 11 posts in all, written in the hope "that they may inspire your own reading or re-reading."

Sense and Sensibility: Inheritance and money

"Questions of inheritance are central to all of Austen's novels, but are particularly fundamental to Sense and Sensibility," I wrote. When the Dashwood estate is bequeathed to a male relative, the Dashwood sisters and their mother discover that they are unwelcome guests in what was formerly their home. And over the course of the novel, Edward Ferrars (the undeclared beau of Elinor Dashwood) and Willoughby (the undeclared beau of her younger sister Marianne) are both disinherited. The loss of expected wealth results in romantic crises that bring joy to one sister, and tears to the other.

Pride and Prejudice: The marriage market

"At a time when few women had sufficient means to live independently and divorces were difficult to obtain, the choice of a marriage partner was a fateful one. It was also a difficult one, thanks to a combination of interrelated demographic, geographic, and economic factors," I wrote. "At the beginning of the 19th century only about a third of the population of England lived in towns of 2500 inhabitants or more, and London was the only city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most women faced a pool of potential suitors that was indeed 'confined and unvarying.'" As do the Bennet sisters—until, that is, dashing strangers come to the neighborhood of Longbourn. . .

Mansfield Park:

Mansfield Park, an estate built on "the ruin and labour of others"

"In Mansfield Park we learn that Sir Thomas Bertram is the owner of an 'Antigua estate.' Antigua was one of the 'sugar islands' of the West Indies, where virtually all the cultivable land had been converted to the production of sugar," I wrote. "Sugar was the main driver of the slave trade: about two-thirds of all the slaves brought from Africa to the New World were sent to areas of intensive sugar cultivation. . .Mansfield Park has been built with the wealth produced by slaves."

Lord Mansfield and the antislavery movement

That Austen intended the connection with the horrors of slavery to be made by her readers is evident from the name of Sir Thomas' estate. Lord Mansfield was the Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, the highest court in Britain, and had ruled against slave-owners in two important legal cases that were key to the antislavery movement.

Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle

Lord Mansfield was also the adoptive father of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of his nephew and a freed slave, Maria Belle. Dido held the role in his household of a "'loved but poor relation,'" and may have been a model for Mansfield Park's heroine, Fanny Price. Fanny has grown to young womanhood at Mansfield Park, and has long secretly loved her cousin Edmund, the younger son of Sir Thomas. But dazzled by the worldly Mary Crawford, will Edmund (and the rest of the Bertrams) ever recognize Fanny's true worth?

Emma: The fate of unmarried women

Emma Woodhouse is "handsome, clever and rich"; as an heiress she has no need (as most women do) to marry to assure her future financial security. But what of the "'immovable plight of the single woman without money'"? Emma, although it is Austen's sunniest novel, offers bleak portraits of three possible fates awaiting women from the genteel classes who lack means: parlour-border (Harriet Smith), impoverished old maid (Miss Bates), or governess (Jane Fairfax).

Northanger Abbey: Women writers and readers 
One way for a woman to gain an independent income was to become a writer. But such a choice was perilous: "it lay on the fringes of respectability, involved a substantial degree of financial risk, and offered only a modest promise of return." Nonetheless, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries women increasingly entered the literary marketplace as writers and readers. New modes of distribution such as circulating libraries made both publishing and reading more economically feasible, and Jane Austen tried to take full advantage of these new opportunities.

In the character of Northanger Abbey's heroine Catherine Morland, Austen gently satirizes her own teenaged taste for Gothic novels. There is a mystery at Northanger Abbey, to which Catherine is invited as a visitor, but "that mystery. . .has its roots not in some lurid crime, as originally imagined by Catherine, but in ordinary human failings: greed, self-deception, anger." Catherine will learn that her love of the sensational colors her imagination perhaps too strongly, but this does not call the value or pleasure of reading into question. As one of Austen's most appealing heroes, Henry Tilney, tells her, "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."


The British Navy at war
Jane Austen's sailor brothers
Of Austen's novels, Persuasion is the one "most profoundly affected by war." Several of its characters have been directly touched by it. Admiral Croft is a hero of Trafalgar; and his brother-in-law Captain Wentworth is home on leave after the Battle of Santo Domingo in 1806 when he proposes to Anne Elliot. Elements of the characters and careers of Captain Wentworth and his friend Captain Harville seem drawn from the wartime experiences of Jane Austen's sailor brothers, Francis and Charles: Francis, for example, was home on leave after the Battle of Santo Domingo in the summer of 1806 when he got married.

The naval prize-money he has won through his almost suicidal bravery enables Captain Wentworth to seek a wife once peace is apparently at hand in the summer of 1814. But eight years after Anne was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw her consent, it is doubtful that Wentworth will be interested in renewing his addresses to the "gentle, wise, and steadfast" woman who still loves him.

Favorite (and least favorite) adaptations

A survey of 18 film and television versions of Austen's novels, including favorites such as the 1995 Persuasion, musts-to-avoid such as the 2007 Mansfield Park, and unexpected delights such as Kandukondain Kandukondain, a Tamil-language updating of Sense and Sensibility. This post also includes my final thoughts about the richly rewarding six months spent in the company of Austen, and a list of works by passionate scholars that were consulted in the writing of the series.

Jane Austen's predecessors: A continuing series on the authors who influenced Austen. A selection from this series of the writers whose works are significantly echoed in hers:

Fanny Burney:
Jane Austen's favorite novelist

In Northanger Abbey the narrator extolls three novels by title; two of them were written by Burney. And plot developments in Northanger Abbey echo aspects of Burney's Evelina, Cecilia and Camilla.
Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?
In Cecilia the heroine is mortifyingly rejected by the family of the man she loves, Mortimer Delvile. Austen herself may have experienced something similar when she and a potential suitor, Tom Lefroy, were abruptly separated by his family.

Cecilia later accepts Delvile's proposal, but almost immediately regrets her consent. "Yet to disappoint Delvile so late, by forfeiting a promise so positively accorded; to trifle with a man who to her had been uniformly candid, to waver when her word was engaged, and retract when he thought himself secure,—honour, justice and shame told her the time was now past." Jane Austen faced a similar crisis when she accepted the proposal of a close friend's brother. Like Burney's heroine, though, Austen summoned the courage to withdraw her consent. Perhaps these parallels to her own experience were one reason she felt that Burney's novels expressed "the most thorough knowledge of human nature."

Sensibility and sense: Camilla and Jane Austen
"Camilla, like Pride and Prejudice, follows the fortunes of five young women entering the marriage market in a small village in rural England." In Camilla there are also pre-echoes of Emma and Persuasion. But Austen also "recognized that the time of the novel of sensibility was past," and satirized it in her "Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters."

Elizabeth Inchbald: "Do not read on—or be forever scarred": A Simple Story

Rehearsals for a performance of Elizabeth Inchbald's play A Lover's Vows, a translation and adaptation of German playwright August von Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe (Love Child), play a key role in Mansfield Park. So we know that Austen was familiar with Inchbald's work. It's not known whether Austen read Inchbald's novels, but in Inchbald's A Simple Story, "a beautiful and headstrong young heroine. . .disregards the admonishments of an older male mentor figure." I wrote that this "may sound familiar to readers of Emma."

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote

Jane Austen read and enjoyed The Female Quixote, writing to her sister Cassandra that "it now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it." Arabella, the heroine, takes the French romances she reads to be literal, to the confusion and puzzlement of those around her. "Austen seems to have modelled Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, in part on Arabella; both characters have perhaps immersed themselves a bit too deeply in the worlds of their fictional reading." However, while on the surface The Female Quixote would seem to join in the condemnation of novel-reading by susceptible women, there is a subversive subtext: Lennox "suggests that women, in order to be fit for marriage and domesticity, must be 'cured' of their imaginations."

Samuel Richardson: Clarissa on a smartphone

The dashing and charismatic rake Lovelace woos, abducts, and ultimately rapes the heroine Clarissa, who then wastes away until she dies. This monument of 18th-century literature "clearly influenced Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), in which the naïve heroine is subject to the aggressive pursuit of Sir Clement Willoughby, and Jane Austen's Elinor and Marianne (ca. 1795, later to be reworked in narrative form as Sense and Sensibility) in which the youthful Marianne is courted by the duplicitous Willoughby."

Charlotte Smith: "What have I to do now but learn to suffer?"

In Celestina, the orphaned heroine is raised (like Mansfield Park's Fanny Price) in the home of a wealthy relative. And, as in Mansfield Park, a son of this family falls in love with her. "His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby." This is only one of multiple parallels between Celestina and several of Austen's novels. And is it a coincidence that a character in Smith's The Old Manor House asks of another, "'Why has she invincible pride, and obstinate prejudice?'"

Tracing Austen's influences does not diminish her accomplishments, but magnifies them. Although it's clear that she borrowed elements from other writers, she transformed them, creating characters that are more subtle, complex, and recognizable than their models. To paraphrase Ben Jonson on Shakespeare, Austen's novels are "not of an age, but for all time."

Watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1804

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