200 years on, Jane Austen still shines

Saturday July 15 2017

An original family portrait of Jane Austen.

An original family portrait of Jane Austen. PHOTO | CREDIT 

By KARI MUTU
More by this Author

Jane Austen died 200 years ago on July 18, yet her books remain popular and have been turned into theatre productions and motion pictures.

Bicentennial celebration events are currently being held across the UK, and this September the Bank of England will release a new £10 note with her portrait on it.

Austen lived in Bath from 1800 to 1806. The town is planning special events that include a Jane Austen Summer Ball this month — Regency dress is requested — and a 10-day Jane Austen Festival in September that will feature more than 80 events.

Partly romantic comedies and partly satirical reviews of society, there is a timelessness about the novels and Austen’s astute understanding of human relations.

Born in 1775, Austen grew up in the countryside during the Georgian era of wealthy landowners, rural communities and country clergy.

Modern readers remain fascinated with the idiosyncrasies of Georgian society, classism, gender roles and daily life.

Austen brings all these out in beautifully detailed, 19th century prose: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

The opening sentence of the book Pride and Prejudice by English novelist Jane Austen remains one of the greatest lines in literature.

Her stories about middle class women who face and overcome enormous social constraints are still appealing today.

Like Austen, these women were generally home-schooled and learned useful skills such as needlework and managing a house in preparation to marry well.

They were chaperoned everywhere, because intimacy with a man before marriage could ruin a woman’s reputation and stain her family’s name.

“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody,” she wrote in Mansfield Park.

In Pride and Prejudice, the most popular of Austen’s books, Mr Bennet advises his favourite daughter Elizabeth to choose a spouse she can respect otherwise she would be “in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage.”

Austen’s powers of observation are evident in her ability to illustrate human folly. Elizabeth Bennet’s tendency to preconceived judgement is just as bad as Mr Darcy’s proud manner.

Mrs Norris is terrible in her treatment of her low-born niece whom she helped bring into her rich sister’s household.

Not all of the heroines find marital bliss with rich men. The leading ladies of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility find true love with church ministers.

Austen never married, yet she demonstrates an in-depth understanding of misconstrued love and the struggles of marriage. She had a suitor when she was 20 years old, but he married somebody else who had more money.

Jane Austen's first book Sense and Sensibility.

Jane Austen's first book Sense and Sensibility. PHOTO | CREDIT

Later, she was reportedly devastated when her sister “stole” the affections of a pastor whom Austen liked.

She created an eclectic cast of characters in each novel, including hypochondriac mothers, fawning clergy, awful aunts, rich bachelors, fortune-seekers, frivolous girls and haughty women.
Austen’s books are not short of heroes. There is the affable and gentlemanly Mr Knightly in Emma, who berates the heroine for her snobbishness and disastrous attempts at matchmaking.

The much older and reserved Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first book, proves a more stable partner to the pretty Marianne when she is spurned by the charismatic and youthful John Willoughby.

Mansfield Park, published in 1814, shows Austen’s ability to make heroines out of the most unlikely people. The meek and plain Fanny Price is the opposite of the pretty-eyed and outspoken Elizebeth Bennet.

Mansfield Park is also where Austen briefly addresses the slave trade, although her views on the matter remain debatable.

The book was named after the home of the British abolitionist, Lord Mansfield, and the main woman character was based on Mansfield’s adopted mixed-race daughter, all suggesting that Austen was pro-abolition.

During her lifetime, her books were published anonymously since female authors did not receive the same respect as their male counterparts. She died in 1817 after a long illness, at just 41 years of age. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were both published posthumously.