The conversation in the adjacent vestibule petered out and the gentleman, seeking other entertainment, came through to find me leaning up against the coach end, leg cocked back against the bulkhead to take the weight off that foot, shoulder tucked into the corner against the door hinge and book in hand.
“Hey captain,” he remarked, “what’re you reading?”
I lifted the book for him to see the author and title across its pale green cover while I continued to read of Mr Elton’s enthusiasm for the emerging portrait of Miss Smith.
His face changed.
“What do you want to read that for?” he asked. “Is it for a college or university project?”
I said it was funny; – he took a doubtful pull on his vape-stick; – I discreetly lowered the droplight and turned a page, reflecting that for the second time this year I had seemingly passed for somewhat younger than my actual years.
He had come into my vestibule with two objectives; being proffered the unspoken suggestion that further vaping would be unpopular he would persist in the other of them, so while the air cleared I was obliged to abandon my perusal of Miss Austen’s Emma and engage in a discussion of her relative merits to Tolkein – a conversation that would have come much easier if I could ever have read any of his works.
– a recent rail journey with Emma, by Jane Austen (1814)
There are some five classic authors in English of sufficient stature over a sufficient duration to be regarded as the language’s classic fiction writers. They are Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. To these may be added, sooner or later and depending on longevity across the next century or so, the names Agatha Christie, Joanne Rowling and Terry Pratchett. The eight give a pleasingly even male/ female split.
Of these it is Jane Austen, who died in Winchester 200 years ago today, that this essay covers. There is generally little argument with assertions that she was one of the English language’s foremost writers. In her regrettably brief lifetime she basked in pleasing anonymity, even to the degree that her publishers did not always know who was writing for them; it was only after her death (though not long after) that her brother Henry finally exposed her identity in a particularly sweet summary slightly at odds with the tone of her works and surviving letters. The tombstone in Winchester Cathedral that her siblings arranged for her – in that they procured both the stone and that she should be buried there – is much noted for completely omitting to note amongst its praise that the person beneath wrote anything at all.
Austen was an early beginner with her writings; this summary will take them broadly from the top.
Three nicely-bound notebooks found their way into Jane’s possession in her younger years, into which she copied some of her youthful writings. There is nothing especially long in these writings; many are incomplete. Most are exceedingly funny. The below are a selection.
Frederic and Elfrida
This is dedicated to Miss Martha Lloyd for finishing Austen’s muslin cloak. It actually tells as much of the lovely Charlotte, who felt an obligation to oblige everyone – to the point of accepting two rather random offers of marriage within fifteen minutes. The resultant fall-out is described briefly and to the point, excepting a remark on Charlotte’s epitaph that “These sweet lines, as pathetic as beautiful as were never read by anyone who passed that way, without a shower of tears, which if they fail in exciting in you, Reader, your mind must be unworthy to peruse them.”
Austen would later improve her sentence structure a trifle.
When Frederic responds to Elfrida’s protestations of love and declarations that they should marry on the morrow with “you may marry tomorrow but I shan’t”, Elfrida ends up suffering from a series of fainting fits, where she barely has time to recover from one before falling into another. Fainting fits were obviously popular in late eighteenth-century literature, since they commonly arise in Austen’s rather satirical early works.
Love & Freindship
This is the story of Laura, told through a series of letters, of her travels around the country (starting in Usk, of all places). It is very silly in its own right, but has a definite air of the sort of send-up which benefits from knowing all the jokes.
Usk, from the castle site.
The first feature evidently intended as a joke is that, excepting Letter the First, the entire story is told from the perspective of Laura – and therefore might as well not be letters at all, excepting that they give Laura some sort of (apparently unreciprocated) reason for writing. What her within-novel audience makes of the story is never remarked upon. There is then the aside that Laura cannot return home because her family suddenly died somewhat previously, and until that point unnoticed by their daughter. Then we have Augustus and Sophia blushing at the idea of paying their debts (until Augustus is of course arrested, at which point Laura and Sophia “sighed and fainted on the Sofa”). Not to mention the abrupt reunion with a long-lost relative. And so on.
The short (though complete) tale seems unlikely to find its way onto the silver screen, not least because the title has been poached for the film adaptation of Lady Susan.
Again told through letters, this story is incomplete. It is named after the castle owned by the Lesley family, who provide the majority of the leading characters. This castle is located about two miles from Perth, high up on a rock. (Austen was probably not that familiar with the area, but there are several hills around the city which would suit. The most dramatic would of course be on the southern flanks of Birnam Wood, where the Highlands abruptly end along the Highland faultline a few miles to the north of Perth.)
But despite being Lesley Castle, the most memorable feature of the story is the character Charlotte Lutterell, who writes to both of the (mutually antagonistic) Lesleys and passes remarks on her sister’s wedding. She had just finished doing all the cooking for it when she was horrified to hear it had been called off – what is one to do with the food? A running joke ensues of the various people it has been fed to, and the need to persuade the tearful bride-that-was-to-have-been of the need to leave her bed for long enough to consume some of the cake.
Not the worst of matches for Lesley Castle, Rohallion Lodge lies amongst the trees of Birnam Wood, north of Perth. The wood is rather patchy, much of it having gone to Dunsinane in 1057.
The History of England
Pity the people obliged to grow up in the same house as an aspiring satirical author! James Austen had a nice copy of the four volumes of Oliver Goldsmith’s sensible, mainstream, Anglican History of England. One can picture his little sister expressing an interest in it and James letting her take it away for bedtime reading. Far from ensuring Jane came back properly informed on English history from a proper viewpoint, the volumes came back littered with marginalia taking a vehemently pro-Stuart, pro-Catholic agenda. Shortly afterwards this was followed by The History of England, by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian. Jane had some opportunity to meet other historical viewpoints at the time, but the precise lines taken suggest there is either a desire to be highly perverse (in an Anglican rector’s daughter, too!) or an extremely sensitive nose to detecting biased rubbish – or both.
As well as Goldsmith, Jane also had access to Shakespeare’s plays, which inspire various comments about “it is to be supposed that Henry was married” (in the absence of any appearance in Henry IV by the King’s wife) and otherwise provide something else for her to twirl on its head.
It is impossible to draw out specific brilliant quotes from The History of England without simply quoting the whole thing – from its opening remark that Henry IV ascended the throne “much to his own satisfaction” via Richard III being a York and so a “very respectable man” through Henry VIII dissolving the monasteries to benefit the English landscape via a Sharade on James I that might be now considered a bit risque – “My first is what my second was to King James, and you tread on my whole” – culminating in the unanswerable argument that Charles I was an honourable man unsuited to be executed “because he was a Stuart.” (And remarks about James I allowing his mother’s death, when he was a year old). Footnotes in certain editions can be inclined to over-expand on the jokes.
The History is illustrated with miniatures by Jane’s sister Cassandra. These seem to be based on various members of the family. Their mother is the basis for a most unflattering image of Elizabeth I (which Queen the Prejudiced Historian is particularly cruel about). Alongside is a picture of a pretty young lady, with alert features, red cheeks and flowing blonde hair. The basis for this image of Mary Queen of Scots is reckoned to be Jane herself; one of just two pictures done during her lifetime, and the only one completed. Unfortunately it is also the one with much artistic licence.
Cassandra’s miniature of Mary Queen of Scots. Cassandra did all the History illustrations, apparently basing them largely on family members. Regrettably they are usually reproduced small and monochrome.
Two of the Austen siblings never sat for their portrait to be painted. One was George, who the family preferred to keep out of the way. The other was Jane, with the result that there is no professional picture of her drawn from life (the common portrait is a late Victorian creation). Cassandra did both portraits that we have of Jane. Aside from the “Mary” image, the other is a half-sketch of a figure with brown curly hair, sharp nose, folded arms and an air that she did not appreciate being used for drawing practice by her elder sister. As if to back up this assertion, the picture is primarily notable for being incomplete. Perhaps she never had the patience to sit for a professional artist either.
Its incomplete nature leaves the assumption that her clothing was never fully sketched out. As a result she seems to be wearing a T-shirt under an over-the-shoulder dress, combined with a bonnet of some kind. It is now resident at the National Portrait Gallery, which would no doubt please Cassandra on some level.
This sketch was done early enough to lack Jane’s spectacles, which were in the news in March 2017 due to considerations that she suffered from rheumatism, the “cure” for which was then to give the patient arsenic (which stops patients complaining about a lot of things), which in turn was suggested to be causing her to go blind. Also likely to have crippled her sight would have been sitting up in the evenings reading or writing by candlelight.
Two Austen stories told through letters were finished and left in that state for Posterity; neither is very long. Love & Freindship was the first and this was the second. Neither was published in her lifetime. Love & Freindship appears in the Juvenalia; Lady Susan is usually published with The Watsons and Sanditon, which are both incomplete.
Lady Susan is a thoroughly amoral woman, who has created too much hot water for herself where she was living and has decided to abruptly move to stay with her in-laws in Hertfordshire. Her sister-in-law does not wish to see Lady Susan, and writes to her mother to say so. Meanwhile Lady Susan writes at length to her friend Mrs Johnson. This forms the basic frame for the story, which plays with the technique strikingly well – including letters chasing each other an hour apart with very different news.
This Correspondence, by a meeting between some of the Parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue, be continued longer. So opens the final chapter of Lady Susan – a narrative tie-up which settles most things quite tidily. It also ends Austen’s sole attempt to give an amoral character a true starring role. Lady Susan Vernon is strikingly well-fleshed out. It is a pity that the sarky, off-the-wall attitudes of History of England were not combined with this unpleasant sort of character again. Austen instead now settled on her small parties of people in a rural setting. In some ways though that is the more interesting concept – the lively, humorous books with a reputation for not seeing anything very much happen, which has made them entertaining escapism for two hundred years. Writing an interesting three-volume novel where nothing happens requires a remarkable grasp of the human condition. Writing sarky stories about unpleasant people who get everyone else’s backs up is much easier – though Austen gives Lady Susan a certain sympathetic power that does take an artistic flourish, particularly for a rector’s daughter.
It was recently used as the basis for a fairly faithful film adaptation, curiously named Love & Friendship instead of Lady Susan, where it turned out the book was almost the perfect length for film purposes. There is therefore unusually little left out.
This is Austen’s first completed full-length novel. By the author’s own account, it was completed in 1803 and sent to a publisher. The publisher bought it, advertised it and then did not publish it. Jane Austen remained puzzled as to why someone should think it worth buying a book they did not think it work publishing, but was unable to raise funds to buy it back until 1816. It does not appear to have been edited much before its postumous publication at the end of the following year, beyond renaming the leading character from Susan to Catherine and the book from Susan to Northanger Abbey. The author’s account is still published with the book, although whether it was set or published in 1803 or 1816 is now of more academic note.
The other five Jane Austen novels can be enjoyed as they stand and used as an entry-point to the fashions and attitudes of the time. Northanger may be readable on this basis, but some degree of background is handy. At the very least one of the cited Ann Radcliffe novels should be read before picking up Northanger to get a grasp of Catherine’s attitudes and interpretations during the latter parts of the book (Romance of the Forest is good for this, Mysteries of Udolpho is also featured at length). There is other background study that can be carried out by people who wish to understand every joke going.
Northanger Abbey is especially notable – indeed, practically unique – for the moment when Jane discards the narrative, throws the characters aside mid-chapter, breaks the fourth wall and has a two-page rant direct to the reader about popular attitudes to the concept of novels. One is left to wonder how much, between writing the book in 1803 and its publication in 1817, she had contributed towards making this rant obsolete. One should also bear in mind that the tale is a joke about what happens to people who read too many books, particularly horrors or romances.
This sequence in particular, but the book as a whole and in general, benefits from being read aloud. This was how the stories were originally run past the Austen family. Reading at night by a flickering candle for the evening scenes in Northanger Abbey adds something to the proceedings as well. The Abbey does not appear until well into the second half of the book, by which point the story’s title is easily forgotten.
Catherine is horribly and uncomfortably relatable; the friends who wish to carry her along in their wild (and occasionally truncated) trips to Clifton give a certain tinge to the story as she tries to get in with Henry Tilney. A notable social feature is seen in both Northanger with Catherine and the Tilneys and later with Jane Bennet and the Bingleys in Pride & Prejudice; the girl might love the boy, and might really want to see the family primarily for the boy, but her “dear friend” whom she is invited to things by and is closely associated with (and through whom she gets to spend time with the boy on the side) is actually the boy’s sister.
Perhaps nothing happens in the way of alien invasions, or zombie apocalypses, or kidnappings on the streets of Bath – or Catherine being nearly murdered by General Tilney as she has grounds to expect after reading too much Gothic horror – but the book contains plenty of human incident, suspense and charm to carry the reader. Central Bath has not changed much since the story was written and the story can therefore be followed on the ground – something which Bath likes to play on. The other novels – Persuasion excepted – feature a greater degree of fictional locations which leaves more imagination to the reader.
The view from the hills above Bath, overlooking the meadows at Bathampton, easily traipsed across thinking of Henry Tilney lapsing from politics to silence.
Sense & Sensibility
For the person not overly familiar with early 19th-century literature it can be tempting to assume that many books of the era – or at least most Jane Austen books – have titles in this “Something & Something” style. It is an assumption much encouraged by the television series Blackadder the Third, for which the episodes are all titled in this style (“Dish & Dishonesty”, “Dual and Duality” and so forth). Further thought will generate only two books in this category – Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice.
Sense is Austen’s final coming of age – or the beginning of the production run of books – or however you wish to look at it. There is note in letters that she had previously written a manuscript called Elinor & Marianne, told through a series of letters like Lady Susan. This does not survive, but the matching character names suggest that it was reworked into Sense & Sensibility. The original title remains in one form; Elinor is the Sense and Marianne is the Sensibility.
With Austen now providing the narrator’s voice, the reader gets to enjoy her humour in a way that does not come across so much in Lady Susan. When Robert Ferrars is going on about the benefit of cottages, throwing plans of perfectly respectably houses on the fire along the way, Elinor can be remarked as deciding not to object because she does not feel his arguments deserve the compliment of rational opposition.
The suggestion of “not much happening” in Austen’s works seems rather inappropriate in Sense. A great deal goes up and down, including Marianne’s state of health – from youthful ideology and enthusiasm to the verge of an early grave. Elinor has barely an easier time of it, with the plot being bustled along by the machinations of Lucy Steele. A “handbags at dawn” scene would be out of place in an Austen novel, but there is no lost love between some of the characters. At the same time, after finishing the lively and amusing tale it can be rather hard to think of much that actually happens, except for the striking moment of Lucy Steele leaning out of the coach in Exeter, the ghastly moment when Marianne finally meets Willoughby in London (a man almost worse than Pride‘s Wickham) and the brilliant sequence early in the book where Mrs Dashwood talks her husband out of making any provision for his family at all, apart from something along the lines of a bit of crockery.
Both Elinor and Marianne can be tiresome at times; Elinor takes much delight in her level-headedness and Marianne spends much time in her bedroom sobbing. But Marianne also makes many remarks that polite society greatly deserved and her depression (and distraction) at Willoughby’s slow start in London is highly relatable. Where Love & Freindship is deeply scathing of the cult of sensibility, here it gets a more human and developed face.
Pride & Prejudice
“By the Author of Emma” announced one trailer for the 2005 cinema adaptation of this novel. One almost wonders who needs drawing into Pride & Prejudice by announcing the list of stuff that its author also wrote. The early 20th Century featured a view that the two periods of Austen’s writing each produced one classic. Readers can argue the toss between Mansfield Park and Emma for the second period. For the first, it is Pride & Prejudice. It has a reputation as one of the great works of English literature and a lightness of touch to its storytelling that completely belies any such concept. Classics are not supposed to be this much fun to read.
Originally it went by the title of First Impressions, and it was under this name when Jane Austen’s father submitted it to a London publisher called Thomas Cadell. He was a notable and honourable publisher who handled many great books. But his major claim to fame nowadays is that he rejected Pride & Prejudice.
He rejected it practically by return of post, so even if the line was there by then he probably did not peruse Austen’s remark that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
And we’re off. Jane has written a namesake into this novel, though how much resemblance Jane Bennet bears to Jane Austen is quite another matter. Jane Bennet is the eldest of five daughters. Headstrong Lydia is the youngest; Catherine, or Kitty, is older than Lydia but nonetheless led on by her; Mary, in the middle, is a rather flat character that Austen justifies on the basis that she was a flat and characterless sort of person. And then there is Lizzie – the lively figure who walks across muddy fields to see her sister convalesing at the Hall and who develops a rapid prejudice against Mr Darcy.
Mr Darcy kindly reciprocates by showing too much pride to express interest in a girl who has a family like Lizzie’s.
There are three major points in their relationship – the outcome of which is perhaps inevitable, but that merely allows us to enjoy getting there. The first is the chapter of Lizzie reading Darcy’s letter; a long epistle that allows both her and the reader to see things from his point of view for a change. (While not first-person, the tale is Lizzie’s.) The second is the meeting at Pemberley – inadvertent, awkward and an opportunity to refresh opinions. Then towards the end of the book we have a beautiful chapter with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, where her Ladyship – backed up by the fawning Mr Collins, by post – proves to Lizzie that Darcy is still interested in her, and proves to Darcy when ranting on the conversation later that Lizzie would like to reciprocate. But the chapter itself is hilarious. Even if the rest of the book was terrible, it would be worth reading for that moment.
But it isn’t terrible. All jostles neatly together for a neat fairytale ending to an adult fairytale. A slight revision on Oscar Wilde’s definition of fiction, for the good end happily and the bad reformed.
For those who dislike Jane Austen, Pride is the ultimate symbol of her vacuity. For those who like her, it is often (though not always) the favourite. A strange range of people can be found showing enthusiasm for the book, up to the current prime minister. Much as the closest she might come to any of the characters is Lady Catherine – the supposedly-powerful woman who marches around knocking heads together, and whom it is terribly satisfying to deflate and ignore.
After finishing Susan, Elinor & Marianne and First Impressions Austen settled down to this little tale. Elements of it appear in the next three books here and there – mostly Mansfield Park – but it in itself remains nine-tenths incomplete. It is known where it was to go, but it never gets very near and its limited draft form awaiting fleshing-out gives relatively few indications of how it was to get to its destination. This is a pity, as The Watsons is a promising tale slightly out of the usual oeuvre of the author.
The heroine, Emma Watson, is freshly returned to her rather poverty-stricken family home after many years being brought up by a wealthy aunt and uncle (the concept of such wealthy relations taking on a fortunate child being present in Austen’s life and one that would be recycled in Mansfield Park). Her father is gravely unwell and usually trapped at home (which concept would be modified and recycled in Emma, along with the heroine’s forename and initials). She attracts a steadily-growing level of interest from several quarters, not all of them satisfactory. The next stage was to be the death of the father, scattering his family.
Sometime around when Austen was working up to this point in the book her father died. This had two impacts – writing about the death of a father was rather more personal, and the remains of his family were now touring the South of England looking for a home. The Watsons survives as part of Austen’s mass of manuscripts, but was never to be resumed.
For some years Austen was merely the author of three novels; one theoretically out for publication and the other two carefully carried from place to place as she, her mother and her sister looked for somewhere to settle down. With Sense and Pride thriving in the then-limited book market, Mansfield Park was the first of her second tranche of novels and the first written at her new home in Chawton (just outside Alton, Hampshire).
It divides opinion. There are people who sing its praises; people who will observe what a marvellous contrast it makes with Pride & Prejudice; people who will happy teach it as an introduction to Jane Austen. And then there are the people who will remark “it’s about the house of course”, people who will delicately observe on how none of the characters are very likeable and people who will leave it quietly nestling on the bookshelf.
The story goes through the upbringing of Fanny Price with her aunt’s family (her mother married inadvisedly and without this generosity Fanny has no prospects worth speaking of). It is a tale of things that happen to and around Fanny; she doesn’t manage to influence a great deal herself, although she periodically refuses to marry people.
From a point of view of social commentary – Sir Thomas’s views on slavery, Edmund’s explanation of the clergy, an enthusiasm amongst the idle gentry for putting on plays for their own amusement (James Austen liked doing this; sometimes one feels that his outlook on life could come off better in his sister’s novels) and the need for Fanny to be adopted by her aunt if she is to make any progress in life – it is a very worthy book. As an evening read it may end up being taken slowly. Readers who came into Austen via Mansfield and didn’t like it much are advised to pick up one of the others for luck (but readers who came into Austen via Mansfield and loved every page are reassured that this does not necessarily mean they won’t like the others).
Perhaps the problem is that it is too biting – too much of a social commentary, and therefore of course the perfect book for English students because it is more than just a book. To take one example, it features a long and splendid study of a modern corporate board meeting under the cover of deciding which play to perform.
Portsmouth, home of Fanny’s family and where she spends relatively little of her life.
Mansfield Park business estate at Four Marks, Hampshire.
After years of writing mock dedications in her juvenalia, Austen was finally obliged to write a genuine one. George, the Prince Regent, had acquired one of her novels and rather enjoyed it. Very heavy hints duly descended on Austen from the highest in the land that she might care to dedicate her next book to him.
Unfortunately Jane did not care for the Prince Regent that much, but a heavy hint from his Office is an instruction to be obeyed and so the book carries, to this day, an appropriately flowery dedication.
The title, at four characters, is one of the shortest in English literature. With the renaming of Susan to Northanger Abbey, it is the only one of her full-length novels named after its main character. Emma is a woman that Austen predicted “no-one but myself will much like”. She is one of the most human main characters in literature. There are no grand heroics and no great speeches of pride and pleasure. The long letters of Pride & Prejudice are missing, as is the usual involvement with London and travel far away. This is the definitive book for Austen’s self-defined concept of a few people in a village. It merely gives us the sight of Emma repeatedly, with great self-confidence and aplomb, lovably putting her foot in it on every possible occasion. She offends half the village; guides a girl with nobody else to turn to away from a mutually agreeable marriage; organises a great many things in the knowledge that she knows best and finally has to face the prospect of someone marrying the wrong person.
The happy ending comes suddenly, with a fair chunk of book still to go. For Emma still has her father to keep happy, her friend to apologise to and the vicar’s wife to watch being annoyed. This extension makes the book nicely rounded off – even more so than the final chapter of tidying in the first three novels – and gives a sense of how the book is more about Emma’s coming of age and awareness than it is about her romance (such as it is). It is certainly a happier ending than it could be said she deserves.
Numerous parellels can be drawn to Pride & Prejudice, particularly if the books are read consecutively. The treatment of the clergy is similar on both counts, although comparisons of the wives suggests Mr Collins is blessed with much better sense than Mr Elton (who can perhaps most reasonably be suggested as having been on a rebound at the time). The leading lady is intelligent, feisty and not wholly given to the concept of matrimony for herself. But Pride has the awful Mrs Bennet to hold the plot from sliding forward too fast. Emma’s mother is long dead and Emma is established as a good catch; her father’s hypochondria is a theme that would have appeared extensively in Sanditon had the author lived long enough to complete it. One is left to wonder how much this was based on Austen’s own mother. Emma also contains another Jane, in the form of Miss Fairfax, who has her own little subplots tangled in with Emma’s affairs.
The rather intermittant appearances of the piano after its sudden arrival – and the extensive typically Austen-esque discussion and speculation that follows said arrival – inspired a sequence in Jasper Fforde’s First Among Sequels where one of the characters redirects a piano into the previously piano-less Emma and it promptly gets itself wedged into the plot. (The sequence is worth remarking upon, but hard to explain. Go and read First Among Sequels for details; it also features a dastardly attempt on the plot of Pride & Prejudice.)
It is a notable feature of the works of this rector’s daughter that her characters rarely go to church. There is an explicit scene in Northanger and references in Pride while Lizzie is staying with Charlotte. In Emma, the one obvious church reference is when Emma does not go to the Christmas service because of the snow. Did Austen not trust herself to take it seriously? – was it too boring? – not an opportunity for character displays? – simply too routine, like remarking on the characters breathing, and hard to work into a plot? – we presume she went herself. Nowadays it gives the agnostic portion of the audience less to distance the books from their own lives. There are a few strange chance features like this which give the books an unthinkingly current feel, leaving aside as read the lack of motor-vehicles, internet and Game of Thrones or Doctor Who speculation. Similarly Charlotte Bronte wrote of characters who would stand on the terrace with a cigar, but none of Austen’s characters smoke.
Film versions of Emma have the problem that on paper the reader can mentally tone Emma’s conduct to their own choosing – innocent, humorous, misjudged calculation. On screen there is no such flex. She stands before the audience, bending matters to what she thinks is her will. She is much more likeable on paper, and it is perhaps best to leave her there.
The last and shortest completed Austen novel was published with Northanger Abbey shortly after her death. It is split neatly into two parts, both focused on its heroine Anne Elliot. The first has her in Somerset, with a brief visit to Lyme Regis. The second places her firmly in Bath, and so Austen’s storytelling ends where it began.
Much of the plot is in its backstory. Anne was once engaged to the young Captain Wentworth. She was persuaded to break it off by her surrogate mother Lady Russell and, having fulfilled her duty, has been regretting it ever since. Now Captain Wentworth is returning to find Anne, now twenty-seven and generally viewed as past her prime, resigned to spinsterhood and yet with an air that if she dared hope so much she would still be waiting for him.
But she has to watch as he becomes a favourite with everyone else, while she is cautious about admitting to herself that she might still love him.
The conclusion is sudden and, as ever, beautifully played. If the book was intended to be fattened up later, this could not have included the conclusion. Its whole raison d’etre is its sudden explosion upon Anne, leaving the rest of the story to find its feet again in the sudden aftermath.
Persuasion in some ways has a certain grey air, perhaps simply reflecting the tale being played out over winter (a contrast to Emma starting in autumn and running through the following twelve months). There is also the element that Anne, being 27 and all, is doomed to a life alone. It brightens considerably in the final chapter.
From a construction point of view, the character of Mrs Smith in the “Bath” portion is useful for both developing Anne’s character and showing what a dedicated woman she is to former friends and planned appointments (shades of Catherine) but the chapter where they discuss Mr Elliot is, dramatic as it may be, rather too much of a plot dump.
A minor point of note is that Austen has inconsiderately called two characters in this story “Charles”. One is hoping to marry the sister of the other. They are therefore frequently mentioned in the same scene. Readers must be prepared for this to be mildly confusing.
Bath in January. For all its old yellow stones, fairly consistent architecture and surviving Pump Rooms, the place has still managed to see some changes since Austen’s day.
Having brought Persuasion to some degree of completion, perhaps with ideas of going back later to fatten it up and smooth the odd point, Austen lost little time in getting going on the next book. This tale centres on the development of a new seaside community near Eastbourne, and in particular on its developers.
After six books on the idle rich – the landed gentry, of various degrees of wealth, whose status precludes them engaging in trade but whose land management no longer occupies all their time – we twirl to the things these people can do to keep themselves occupied when not playing cards, learning the piano or tilting at Pemberley. They can establish seaside resorts; – they can read more than they understand; – they can organise the lives of people that they have never met at considerable expense to themselves; – or they can pretend to be ill, spending their time in the fresh sea air closeted beside a fire with the windows closed. The only sensible characters to emerge in the early pages are Sidney Parker, who we barely meet; Clara Brereton, whose uncertain liaison only has the briefest chance to be remarked on; and the heroine.
A touch of the Juvenalia crops up with comments of the local men going out of their way in the hope of seeing the Miss Beauforts standing in their window. The humour generally has an extra spike over previous published works and there is little sign of the heroine’s love interest, though perhaps Sidney Parker would have developed into this role. It has a very definite air of being the doyenne of a further trio of books, distinct from the Mansfield/ Emma/ Persuasion batch.
Yet it has the tragic element that we are only just introduced to Lady Denham’s house when a page turn reveals a blank sheet of paper. Sanditon is unfinished, and revels in the relatively rare status of a book not abandoned for boredom, writer’s block or changing circumstances. Perhaps its commentary on uninformed literary criticism makes a good point at which to begin drawing this summary to a close.
We are left to wonder if perhaps part of the hypochondriac element of Sanditon is based on Austen laughing at herself for her developing physical weakness, decaying eyesight and blotching skin. Unlike the Sanditon brigade, who are written as being willing contributors to their physician’s pension fund, there was actually something seriously wrong with Jane. The pen had to be laid down in March 1817 and she travelled from Chawton “over the Alps” along what is now the A31 to Winchester for medical treatment. There she died, just round the corner from the cathedral, on the 18th of July 1817. She was forty-one years old.
Out of her and the three Bronte sisters – the great early-19th-century female novellists – she was the longest-lived. That by the standards of her career choice she was a ripe old woman of 41 says something, though what is quite another matter.
The last residence of Jane Austen – a stolid house just round the corner from the cathedral. Still a private property, and no doubt a slightly odd one to spend time in with the tourists stopping outside.
Winchester Cathedral – a very old, grand structure, also the resting place of several bits of King William II.
Her brother Henry, having acted as her manager for some years, was instrumental in getting her buried in Winchester Cathedral, in arranging the tombstone that ignores her writing career and in driving the publication of Northanger and Persuasion. This remained her published output for some time.
Her papers and possessions ended up in the hands of various nieces and nephews. A biography followed, renewing interest and helping to cement her status, as did the unfortunate burning of rather a lot of her letters. It is perhaps a surprise that her unpublished manuscripts were not lost as well; certainly there was some question as to whether the appearance of, say, Lady Susan before the public eye would cheapen the reputation of the others.
Cassandra’s portrait of her sister plus her draft of a rarely-seen rear view of Jane sat on a Hampshire bank were used as the very loose basis for a Victorian portrait. Jane is shown as a demure, tidily-dressed figure in blue with pen and book to hand as indicators of her profession. There is perhaps something in the eyes and the straight Austen nose of the original picture. There is a slightly different version without the raised eyebrows, looking especially demure. The two have been combined into the attractive girl on the new £10 banknote. The blue-dress portrait completes the family’s official portrayal of her as an innocent, lovable figure who wrote delicate Victorian romance. And who happened to make rude comments about hypochondriacs, officious rectors and Britain’s brave boys – and whose Juvenalia includes a girl who spent a day stealing ices and refusing to pay for cabs.
Perhaps it was the publication of the bumpf that she tossed off in her youth, as fresh and lively as could be wished, which cemented her status. But despite its content she has now achieved the status of an establishment author who is forcibly taught to schoolchildren. There is a general body of thought that this is not the best way to introduce her to the next generation of readers, by forcing them to look at the social positions of Bingley and Jane rather than letting them laugh at the jokes and hope that, despite the fairly obvious social divide and the ambitions of Miss Bingley for a better connection than the near-penniless Jane Bennet, there will nonetheless be a happy union at some point in the next three- or four-hundred pages.
Failing such arguments swaying the National Curriculum, it is as good a ground as any for not doing an English A-level. It does not take much effort to find the names of the great authors around the place a few years later in life, and it takes particularly little effort for someone to come to Austen in their own time, courtesy perhaps of a pink-covered copy of Pride and Prejudice left for some reason in an office “please wander off with” corner…
An idle afternoon. Sunshine, Austen and ginger beer in a wineglass.