Jane Austen is known today as one of the most remarkable, if not revolutionary authors’ in history, and it is no surprise why.
The works of Austen have not only survived, but flourished throughout time, where her witty books provide a deep insight into the lives of early 19th century women. Through her exceptional use of satire carved cleverly into tales of dramas of the high class, we can understand the fickle conflicts and overly analytical mindsets that plagued those who wore sweeping gowns daily.
While we have a magnitude of information surrounding the society of Jane Austen, we do not have nearly half as many details about the author herself. Born on the 17th December 1775, the seventh of eight children, she grew up among the social class that all her books were set in, the gentry.
Fine dresses and noble connections, however, did not help her to achieve what most women sought after, marriage. Alongside her favourite sister, Cassandra, she never married, yet happily grew up in a lively household that highly valued the arts and creativity, the outlet of this creativity taking up the form of impromptu acting, the family’s favourite method of entertainment.
It was in this household that her passion for writing was nurtured. Even though she spent most of her life in her hometown, Steventon, Hampshire, her connections by both blood and friendship provided her with riveting experience that she was to portray in her works.
As to Austen’s family, her father, George Austen, was a Church of England clergyman who held a respectable income of around 600 pounds a year, yet with eight children, was by no means rich. Meanwhile Jane and her older sister, Cassandra, were inseparable, where their mother was reported to have said that “if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too”. Amazingly, the only education Austen received outside of her home was a year at the Abbey Boarding School, which was said to resemble Mrs. Goddard’s casual school in “Emma”.
Surprisingly, although she started writing from a very young age, she only published four of her six major novels in the span of four years. That is, the last years of her life. This productive period resulted in the creation of Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, then Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and finally Emma.
“[Austen] is writing about people and their problems, their dysfunctional families, why, and even if, women should marry. These issues were relevant then, and they’re relevant now” said Marilyn Joice, chairman of the northern branch of the Jane Austen society. Although the tales surrounding our society nowadays seem far removed from the sophisticated lifestyles of the landed gentry that Austen depicts, they do share a common thread in the idea that we find them relatable.
Through realising her repeated fable of a young woman’s journey to self-discovery through love and marriage, we can see that it is this concentration on character, personality, and conflicts between her characters’ society that relates her novels closer to our modern world than to the traditions of the 18th century.
We can see this through how she looks at her society through a comedic screen, examining the problems of a male dominated society, where her works deal with the timeless problems of money, class and misunderstandings.
Yet of course, it is not simply the content of her works that we find so appealing; rather, it is her stylistic brilliance. Eloquent and meticulous, Jane Austen used parody and burlesque for comedic effect and to critique the portrayal of women and their society in 18th century novels.
For those who understand the complexities of the gender barrier present before and during the 18th century, it would come as no surprise to hear that she published her books anonymously. The reason being that it was simply not “ladylike” for a woman to publish her works for money at that time could be why she made no claim to fame. Of course, we do not have Jane Austen’s autobiography, so we cannot know exactly what her motivation was.
Although her family and friends were highly encouraging towards her writing, perhaps she did not want to face the potential criticism of the public if her novels were not successful. Nevertheless, her identity was revealed to the world by her brother, after her tragic death at the age of only 41 years.
It is suspected that our beloved author was dragged to her deathbed by Addison’s disease, a disorder in which one’s body does not produce enough hormones, resulting in its victim’s weakness and eventual death.
Despite Austen’s short life span, her works remain beloved to all generations that follow and continue to proceed her.
So, what was it about Georgian society that made it an era that would go down in history as England’s golden age? This thirty-year period was one that showcased a peak in Georgian confidence, vitality and culture. Why was this the case?
The Peace Treaty of Paris marked the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, leaving Britain as the world’s dominant colonial power, and the most powerful maritime nation.
Britain also had a fresh new king on the throne in the form of George III, and technological advancements in terms of farming and manufacturing were resulting in the increase of wealth in the people. In addition, a new wave of optimism was washing over the citizens, this peak in mental state one that would last until 1793, following the news of the French
Revolution and the start of the French Revolutionary War. Thus, we can see that this time of prosperity in England resulted in the formation of a growing, educated middle class, with an appetite for entertainment and the arts. This was the society that Austen grew up in, which we can see reflected in her novels, where her characters are immersed in this lifestyle of wealth and luxury.
As we go through our lives, we always assume that one day we shall find our soulmate, fall in love, get married. It is in our programming to seek out a partner, to immerse oneself in a relationship, to find someone to share our life with.
Therefore, it surprises many when they realise that Jane Austen, one of the greatest romance novelists of all time, never in fact, married. Upon understanding this, many assume she simply never found “the one”.
Yet is this true? Was there perhaps more to her love life, even if it did not result in marriage? It seems this may be the case, especially where it comes to a man called D’Arcy Wentworth.
Wentworth, an Irish surgeon who was one of the first paying passengers to arrive in the new colony of New South Wales, has been claimed to be Austen’s own Aussie Darcy. The founder of Sydney Hospital, he was a handsome and friendly intellectual, who grew rich from his profession.
For evidence on their potential connection, we look to Wal Walker, a direct descendant of Darcy Wentworth. The Wentworth family line has hinted at a relationship throughout the decades, yet it took Walker to delve deeper, and write two volumes on why his family would propose the idea of a connection between an Australian surgeon and an English novelist. In this, he depicts Austen not as the “tame spinster” her family wished the world to see following her death, but rather as flirtatious, a mimicker of people and a questioner of authority.
This seemingly “inexperienced” character Jane was portrayed to be by her family, wrote so vividly about human passion, rebelling against the norms of society, grief, emotional breakdown, anxiety, love, family scandal and tragedy, that it is seems almost absurd to assume Austen had no first-hand experience herself.
Walker presents us with the idea of the pair meeting in an inn in Reading, England (before Wentworth moved to Australia), when Austen was just a schoolgirl. The two were distant relatives, Jane Austen’s mother connecting the pair, and Jane’s older brothers also were mixed in the same middle class and aristocratic circles D’Arcy had joined upon coming to England.
The five years Wentworth spent in London were filled with gambling, a method he used to pay his way as a student surgeon. Scandal followed wherever he set foot, in which he often found those who had lost to him at cards and not paid their debts. He was tried three times for highway robbery and accused of robbing those who had lost to him at gambling – yet although he was never found guilty, his last trial only fell through on the grounds of lack of evidence.
Hence, he agreed to the terms in which he would have to join the Second Fleet to Australia. Two weeks following Wentworth’s departure to Australia, Jane’s brother wrote an article in the newspaper, where he congratulated society for “getting rid of its superfluous inhabitants”, “in short, all those who have too much cunning or too little money…shipped off with the very first cargo of Convicts to Botany Bay”.
D'Arcy Wentworth was also known for his womanising. Immediately upon setting foot on the Neptune, the ship that would carry him to Australia, his convict woman, Catherine Crowley, became his mistress and she gave birth upon their arrival. Was Austen another one to fall for his charms, even if it did not result as extremely as it did with Crowley?
We see flaws in the Austen family’s claim that Jane had little to no experience in London during her teenage years; our author uses this very setting in some of her novels, such as Sense and Sensibility. This novel initially started as Elinor and Marianne, which she wrote during her adolescent years, and her depiction could only be the result of direct experience. Her family also argued that she never set foot in Scotland, a comment contradicted by Jane Austen’s own words.
Perhaps the greatest clue to their relationship is the absence of evidence for it. In other words, all her letters written before 1796 were destroyed by family. Which begs the ultimate question; why? What scandal was her family trying to cover up? What did Jane do in her youth that was so disreputable that caused her family to destroy all written evidence?
So, the big question is doing he marry Jane? Did they attempt to make off to Scotland, in pursuit of a respectable
marriage, only to be halted by Jane’s outraged family, who would ensure she was kept out of “danger” for the rest of her life? Many have also noticed Austen’s fondness for names surrounding this man’s name, such as Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, as well as Frederick Wentworth in ‘Persuasion’. Notice these two are central characters where the female protagonists yearn for each of these men’s love.
Hence, from the information presented, we can see that although the possibility of a relationship between D’Arcy and Jane was very likely, it seems our beloved author’s family succeeded in burying all evidence. Perhaps this mystery will forever remain only that, something that will keep scholars questioning the legitimacy behind Austen’s “virtuous” youth for decades to come.
Yet what is it about Jane Austen that makes her so special? Why is she trending two hundred years after her death? Austen was by no means extraordinary – in reality, she was just an ordinary woman in the 18th century - yet her works certainly expressed a flash of brilliance that showed her wisdom beyond her years. Her appeal basically boils down to one thing – her writing. She managed to fill her stories with irony and rigorous social critique, whilst examining the problems with her male dominated society, this controversial subject one that she lightened with her witty approach.
“In reality, she didn’t bother describing the dresses or the houses or what people look like – she’s only interested in the psychology, not the image,” said John Mullan, Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London.
Jane Austen’s style is quite unique; no one else has managed her distinctive blend of romance, satire, comedy and a cleareyed, if not unnerving anatomy of the world in which she lived – all expressed by ordinary characters living in small towns in the English countryside. She vividly depicted the social nuances of the 18th / early 19th century yet managed to engage and relate to her audience through her satirical style.
One topic that is pondered repeatedly is one that surrounds Austen’s characters; why do we find them so easy to empathise with? Why do we smile with delight when one gets their happy ending, why do we also cry when another is pained?
Again, this answer lies in our beloved author’s writing style. She created these amazingly relatable characters with whom we could link ourselves to. Austen overcame the boundaries of class, overlooked status and instead created very real problems that we could relate to, even in our modern world. In her novels, we see that she focused on empathy, not social appropriation, an aspect that earnt our hearts. Hence, we allow ourselves to link our lives to her created ones and feel each conflict her characters face as if it were our own.
A personal favourite is Pride and Prejudice, for the reason that I was constantly surprised by each chapter, each conflict. In the beginning of the story, we see Mrs. Bennet frantically trying to marry off her daughters for financial security and social status. As the reader is carried through the story, Jane Bennet falls in love with Mr. Bingley, yet when our dynamic protagonist, Elizabeth, meets Mr. Darcy, she perceives him to be snobbish and proud. We are also positioned to hold this perspective towards him, and as Elizabeth swears to loathe him forever, we expect he shall forever be portrayed as the “villain”.
Yet through the novel, Mr. Darcy catches feelings for our protagonist, and we witness his attempts to quench these in vain. Yet we are still shocked when he expresses his love for Elizabeth, followed by a marriage proposal, which she refuses. We expect this from her, due to her resolute viewpoint that he is arrogant and unfriendly, hence we are stunned when she begins to fall in love with him, although Jane Austen still does manage to help us understand Elizabeth’s flipped feelings.
Eventually, the two unwilling, yet star crossed, lovers accept defeat and decide to marry, which shows us that first impressions can be misleading. Basing her assumptions on a few experiences of his reserve, as well as a misleading account by Mr. Wickham, Lizzy constructed an incorrect narrative of Mr. Darcy’s life, yet the scales then eventually fell from her eyes.
“Till this moment,” declares Elizabeth at the climax, “I never knew myself”. Her failure to understand his true story confronts us with the idea that we must also try to understand another’s story before judging. Pride and Prejudice is so compelling because it is the ultimate “happy ending”, and who doesn’t love believing that endings that mirror Lizzy and Mr. Darcy’s are possible?
The entire plot is exciting, where we have these five girls facing possible poverty if they do not find partners before their father dies, yet the novel is still filled with comedic situations and characters, such as the pompous and slightly idiotic Mr. Collins.
Jane Austen was one of the most revolutionary gamechangers of English literature and will likely remain so until the end of time. Her works display unmatched skill, a blend of romance, satire and a cleareyed insight into the lives of the 18th / early 19th century gentry. I would strongly encourage anyone to pick up one of her novels and bask themselves in the glory of a classic piece of literature, one that will leave its reader in awe of Austen’s talent.
As Professor Mullan, a man who recently travelled as far as Russia and Canada to speak about Jane Austen, says, “there was absolutely no reason for her to become famous – except for the fact she’s a genius.”