Ode to Austen

While I draw the line at donning Regency garb and attending Pride and Prejudice conventions, I definitely consider myself to be a Janeite and have been marking this summer’s 200th anniversary of her tragically early death with a bit of a Jane-Austen-a-thon.

To start with, we marked the actual anniversary, on July 18th, by recreating the picnic on Box Hill from the brilliant Emma – although we had to settle for a window display in the Gerrards Cross shop with a wicker basket and tea set as the weather didn’t quite allow for an actual out-of-doors re-enactment. But still, we’re sure it would have met with the approval of even the snootiest of Jane’s characters.

Suitably inspired, I dug out my old copy of Claire Tomalin’s superlative biography, Jane Austen: A Life, and also treated myself to copies of Lucy Worsley’s beautiful hardback, Jane Austen at Home, and the new-in-paperback Jane Austen, The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly.

Despite the lack of biographical material to work from – Jane’s beloved sister Casssandra and her niece famously destroyed most of Jane’s letters after her death to preserve her reputation and protect family members from some of her more barbed comments – each of these three books had me so deeply immersed in the world of Jane’s family, her homes, her hopes, and the financial and social difficulties she suffered, that coming to her death, at the age of forty-one, in each one felt like a personal tragedy. (Read: I cried each time.)

To pick myself up, I’ve now embarked on a re-read of each of her six completed novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. I’m already struck by things that I didn’t fully appreciate reading them for the first time, twenty-odd years ago as a teenager: her impeccable comic timing; her biting wit; and the very real issue of women at that time being dependent on marriage, or at the least on male relatives, for economic security, an issue that Jane and her female characters both faced.

While I felt deeply for Jane in this last respect while reading about her, I can’t help but feel thankful that she saw spinsterhood as offering her the freedom to follow her dreams of becoming a writer that the other option, marriage and child-bearing, simply didn’t.

I’m already planning to read all the novels again in another twenty years’ time, and I have no doubt that my fellow Janeites will still be reading them in another two hundred years.

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