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Introducing Jane Austen's "Old" Novels to a New Generation of Readers
By Barbara Smith
"Whatever is, has been long ago; and whatever is going to be has been before; God brings to pass again what was in the distant past and disappeared." (Ecclesiastes 3:15 LB)
The entertainment industry recently marketed lavish productions that are based Jane Austen's books, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, and the response has been overwhelming enthusiastic. Stories that are almost 200 years old are delighting large movie audiences in our times, and the sale of her books is substantial. Movie and television audiences rediscovered the appeal of unpretentious English country life over urban sophistication; they paid to see that devotion and diligence are more attractive than nonchalance and dalliance; that good sense is preferable to unrestrained passion; and that a clear conscience and a good name are more valuable than riches or position.
Readers have been enjoying this reclusive novelist's gentle works continuously since the mid-nineteenth century. From that time, her novels have never been out of print. Moreover, her work has been translated into other languages so that worldwide Jane Austen enthusiasts continue to read about life in 18th century rural England.
Who was Jane Austen -- and why do her old novels remain timely to generations of readers? How can we incorporate her work into our homeschool literature studies?
A Sketchy Profile
She was born on December 16, in 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire, the youngest of eight children, and the second daughter of a well-to-do Anglican clergyman, George Austen. He was a kind, intelligent man who was a scholar, and his wife, Cassandra, was an accomplished story teller and witty poet who delighted their intimate circle of friends. Both encouraged Jane's love of reading. She read Henry Fielding, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney and the poet George Crabbe.
Good books, however, were expensive to buy and novels were not, therefore, indispensable expenditures. Consequently, the English public depended upon "circulating" libraries that catered often to the lowest common denominator of taste to support themselves. In fact, cost so dominated writers, that they coerced novelists to produce mediocre dull books. By 1790, the typical English novel was full of false sentiment and morbid sensibility — a fact that probably spurred Jane to write with crisp and discerning credibility.
Jane and her sister, Cassandra, her closest companion, received five years of formal education, and continued their studies at home. Her siblings' more active lives gave her a wider window on the world; two of her brothers served in the navy. James, a don at Oxford and her oldest brother, shaped many of her literary tastes. Her favorite brother, Henry, eventually became an earnest evangelical preacher, who had a hand in publicizing her work.
Jane's family was a part of the minor landed gentry, and from them she gleaned ideas and developed the memorable characters and scenes. They never traveled abroad, but made short journeys between English villages, and occasionally to Bath and London.
An accomplished pianist, Jane also loved dancing which was the one thing that released her from the bonds of shyness. She began writing as a young girl, literally in the parlor of her bustling and loving home. By twelve years old she wrote plays, verses, short novels, and other prose to amuse her family: usually burlesques of the excessive romantic or gothic novels that writers were grinding out. One of her family's chief delights was acting in their parlor.
Jane attracted suitors, but never married, and in fact declined a proposal she received. She moved with her family to other villages; after her father died in 1805, she lived with her mother and sister in a cottage her brother Edward could provide for them.
She enjoyed the knowledge that her novels were well-received by critics and readers. Sir Walter Scott's reviewed Emma in the Quarterly Review for March 1816, complimenting the "nameless author" as a masterful exponent of "the modern novel" in the new realist tradition.
She died on July 18, 1817 at age forty-two from what some suspect was bile, but others believe was Addison's disease. Her beloved sister, Cassandra, was at her side, to whom she said her last words, "God grant me patience. Pray for me, oh pray for me." After she died a London newspaper noted, she was "the authoress of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility." Her obituary was the first time they that she was publicly identified as a novelist. (John Kehoe, LIFE FILE, Biography, Internet)
She simply wrote about what she knew.
Although national and international tumult of the eighteenth century raged about her, her focus remained on tales of a few families and their fortunes and failures. Miss Austen advised a niece who wanted to write, "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on." Also, she wrote: "an artist cannot do anything slovenly." (The Oxford Illustrated History of the English Language, p. 319.) The ageless elegance of her prose affirms her good advice.
So Jane did not comment upon the American or French Revolution (though one of her distant family perished on the guillotine), Lord Nelson's great victories, the abolition of the English slave trade in the British Empire or Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Nor did she discuss the sweep of evangelicalism and the dissenters who left an impression upon 18th and 19th century England.
Her novels revolve around the life of a few families who life lives quite similar to Jane's, but we do not need a history lesson to appreciate their stories! For we know the people she describes. She was a keen observer of human nature, and could tell tales of the human condition with wit and gentle irony. Their strengths and weaknesses, their intelligence and pettiness, their tricks and triumphs are so like our own. Still, she was discreet, and never exposed human passions. Instead, she let a character's boredom or mortification, or his or her delight in the family and self-control and perseverance create dramatic tension.
Though commentators regard her as a forthright moralist in English literature, she is never smug or judgmental. While she refrained from dramatizing religious feelings, Jane Austen developed her characters - usually young women on the verge of adulthood - in the midst of their circumstances.
She concentrates on her heroines' reactions to commonplace topics, but weaves in varying points of view. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, we understand why Elizabeth Bennett firmly rejects the gauche Mr. Collins, but we also see why her friend Charlotte Lucas, a woman with few prospects of marrying, accepts Mr. Collins' proposal of marriage.
The position of unmarried women was very precarious in 19th century England, and one recurring theme in Jane Austen's novels is the importance of making a good marriage. For 19th century daughters, a good marriage was very important; perhaps more important than college education and career are today.
Critics Say . . .
Nevertheless, her novels have been admired as among the finest in the English language. Sir Walter Scott, admired her work and said she had, "that exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting." One hundred years later, W. Somerset Maugham said she had "the most precious gift a writer can possess," of keeping the reader's interest. At the turn of this century, Professor William J. Long described her writing as "absolute true to life," having "the perfection of a delicate miniature painting." Finally, Andrew Sanders said in 1993: "Her moral message is infused with ideological insistence on the merits of good conduct, good manners, sound reason, and marriage as an admirable social institution. She never scorns love, but balances it often . . . with a firm advocacy of . . . the qualities of self-knowledge, self-discipline, and practicality." (The Short Oxford History of English Literature, p.369.)
Enjoying Jane Austen's Novels
Her novels, though laced with wit and gentle satire, are realistic and sympathetic portraits. In such novels as Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, (published posthumously, 1817), she created several enduring comedies of manners. Literary critics credit her as the first English writer who gave the novel its distinctly modern character through her treatment of ordinary people in everyday life in England during the 18th century. The continuing delight is that Jane Austen can teach this generation's readers more than an understanding 19th century society and manners, but her insight into her times reflects light and truth on today's society. "Everything old is new again."
© Barbara W. Smith 1998, all rights reserved
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