Jane Austen and her World

I have been re-reading Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 in which she demonstrates very clearly how the Napoleonic Wars permeated every aspect of life for twenty-two long years and affected everybody – including Jane Austen’s characters  – as the country faced the urgent need for men for the armed forces, military supplies, ships, a modern transport system, efficient banking, and so on.

Captured Napoleonic Eagle of the 105th by the Royal Dragoons at the Battle of Waterloo,1815, in the Household Cavalry Museum (copy)

This post is a refutation of those critics who assert that Jane Austen’s novels concentrate only on domestic everyday life as lived by the English upper-middle classes.Jane  Austen, they say, ignores the wider picture and fails to mention the Napoleonic Wars. This, in my opinion, is simply not true. In fact, the war is a constant, and important, background to her novels; the problem is that most modern readers fail to recognize her references to it.

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On December 16th, 1775, in the rectory at Steventon, Hampshire, on a freezing winter’s day, the rector’s wife, gave birth to a daughter. The baby was, of course, Jane Austen, and she was to become one of our greatest novelists. Her books have given us so much pleasure, as well as inspiring numerous film and television adaptations. Then there are those books her works have influenced from Marghanita Laski’s completion of Sanditon in 1975, 200 years after Jane’s death; Amanda Grange’s clever Mr Darcy’s Diary; to Val McDermid’s witty and perceptive modern take on Northanger Abbey, to name but a few. Many Jane Austen characters have also had interesting afterlives as detectives, vampires or zombies; and some of them have even met up with Austen characters from her other books.

So today, on her birthday, it’s only fitting to pay tribute to many people’s favourite author, including mine.

Sanditon, a novel by Jane Austen and Another Lady, 1975

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I’ve always enjoyed pageantry. I confess that the sight of soldiers in uniform, wearing crested helmets and scarlet jackets, sitting on gleaming black horses and being put through their paces by an even smarter officer, gladdens my heart. So, today, I’m visiting the Household Cavalry.

Visitors watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony in Horse Guards Parade. 

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In every film or television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many) Mr Bennet comes across as a sympathetic character; a man we could like. We enjoy his irony with regard to the oleaginous Mr Collins: ‘It is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?’

He finds Mr Collins ‘as absurd as he had hoped; and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance…’ And we laugh with him.

But there is a less admirable side to Mr Bennet, one which leads to a great deal of unhappiness for his elder daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, and near disaster for the flighty Lydia who runs off with the caddish (though handsome) Wickham.

19th century reticule

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Jane Austen’s niece, Anna Austen Lefroy (1793-1872) was, as far as we know, her only relation who was also a novelist – though, in her case, an aspiring one. When she was nineteen, Anna asked her aunt various questions regarding her own novel Which is the Heroine? For example: does Dawlish have a decent library? Jane’s answer was that it was ‘pitiful and wretched’. What I found interesting was that Jane understood her niece’s concern to get things right. Both wrote contemporary novels and they both knew that accuracy was important.

 

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery

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The importance of precedence is a major theme in Jane Austen’s last novel Persuasion, and this post looks at the ramifications of this. Persuasion’s opening scene shows Sir Walter Elliot’s perusal of the Baronetage, the most important book in his library, which charts the lineage of the Elliot family from its first mention in Sir William Dugdale’s Baronetage of England (1675-6) to Sir Walter’s own entry in the 1790s.

The Importance of the Family Tree

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I want to look at what three of Jane Austen’s contemporaries thought of her novels: Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the inventor of the historical novel, nick-named the ‘the Wizard of the North’ for his spell-binding stories; Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), daughter of the Prince Regent, who died in childbirth; and Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), author of Jane Eyre. Miss Brontë was one year old when Jane Austen died. But she has some interesting things to say, so I’ve allowed her to remain.

Sir Walter Scott’s marble bust by Sir Francis Chantry, 1841, National Portrait Gallery

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My copy of this must-have book for the fashionable lady in 1831 is conveniently pocket-sized and comprises 244 pages of short stories, poems, articles on famous women, dozens of ‘preceptive distichs’, fashion advice and twenty-seven illustrations, including some ravishing hand-coloured fashion plates. Unfortunately, a number of the plates have been torn out. Still, enough remain to give a good idea of what The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine would have looked like.

Blue ball dress 1831

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In this post, I’m looking at how travel, for Jane Austen heroines, always indicates change of some sort. Take Northanger Abbey. Our heroine, the seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, is travelling to Bath with Mr and Mrs Allen. Catherine, who lives almost entirely inside her head with the Gothic romances she so loves, hopes for Adventure, with a capital A. But, as Jane Austen tells us, the journey ‘was performed with suitable quietness and uneventful safety. Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero.’

Three villains in horsemen’s greatcoats

There may not be a Gothic villain ready to abduct her, but the journey, nevertheless, signifies an important change. The Allens are not Catherine’s parents, and Mrs Allen proves to be a careless chaperone. She sees nothing wrong with Catherine becoming best friends with the flighty Isabella Thorpe, daughter of her old friend Mrs Thorpe, nor of Catherine driving out alone with that boastful rattle, John Thorpe.

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