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, and Joanna Trollope’s terrific 21st century version of Sense & Sensibility, 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
Here’s what the 1907 Nobel Prizewinner for Literature, Rudyard Kipling, has to say in her praise:.
Jane went to Paradise:
That was only fair.
Good Sir Walter followed her,
And armed her up the stair.
Henry and Tobias,
And Miguel of Spain,
Stood with Shakespeare at the top
To welcome Jane.
Then the Three Archangels
Offered out of hand,
Anything in Heaven’s gift
That she might command.
Azrael’s eyes upon her,
Raphael’s wings above,
Michael’s sword against her heart,
Jane said, ‘Love.’
Instantly the under-
Laid their fingers to their lips
And went to look for him.
Stole across the Zodiac,
Harnessed Charles’s Wain,
And whispered round the Nebulæ
‘Who loved Jane?’
In a private limbo
Where none had thought to look,
Sat a Hampshire gentleman
Reading of a book.
It was called Persuasion
And it told the plain
Story of the love between
Him and Jane.
He heard the question
Circle Heaven through –
Closed the book and answered:
‘I did – and do!’
Quietly but speedily
(as Captain Wentworth moved)
Entered into Paradise
The man Jane loved!
Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And, while the stones of Winchester – or Milsom Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!
So, who are all these men waiting to escort Jane into Paradise?
Sir Walter Scott by Edwin Landseer, National Portrait Gallery
Sir Walter, of course, is Sir Walter Scott, 1771-1832, Jane’s contemporary. We know, from her letters, that she read his works. She complains that she can’t get involved with Scott’s poem Marmion which her brother James read out loud on October 15th, 1808. But, as only five days earlier, Jane’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth, had died in childbirth; Jane’s lack of interest is, surely, understandable.
Elsewhere in her letters, passing mentions of Scott’s works make it clear that she was well acquainted with his novels.
Scott himself was a great admirer of Jane’s work. He wrote of her writing in The Quarterly Review: ‘The Big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.’
Mr Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange, 2007
‘Henry’ is Henry Fielding (1707-1754), dramatist and novelist, whose picaresque novels, like Tom Jones, feature the adventures of low-life characters with kind hearts who come good after a number of rollicking and often raunchy adventures. Jane refers to Tom Jones in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, in January 1796 – with no note of condemnation. One might expect such a book to be considered too shocking for a clergyman’s daughter to read. The fact that it obviously wasn’t, reminds us that Jane, by education and outlook, was a product of the liberal eighteenth century.
Tobias Smollett, National Portrait Gallery
‘Tobias’ is the novelist Tobias Smollett (1721-71). His most famous book is Humphry Clinker (1771) a rollicking first person, epistolary novel about the eponymous hero’s adventures around England, and the eccentric people he meets. It’s a fun read, even today, and, by the end, all the main characters have learnt a lot about themselves and the world. I can find no mention of Smollett in my Selected Letters of Jane Austen, but as she was well read in other 18th century writers, I can see no reason why she should not have enjoyed Smollett, too.
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, 2014
‘Miguel of Spain’ refers to Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), the great Spanish dramatist and novelist, and author of the comic novel Don Quixote, which had been translated into English a number of times, including a well-received translation by Smollett, which Jane Austen might well have read.
William Shakespeare, National Portrait Gallery
Shakespeare is at the top of the stairs to Paradise, to greet Jane, and we know that she was well acquainted with his plays; there are many references to his works in her Juvenilia, particularly his History plays. When visiting her brother Henry in London in 1811, they saw Hamlet and Macbeth; and in 1813, she saw Edmund Kean as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and in 1814, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, she writes that she hopes to see him act Shylock again.
Rudyard Kipling by Sir Philip Burne-Jones, 1899, National Portrait Gallery
And what does Kipling himself say about Jane Austen? He wrote to a friend that ‘the more I read the more I admire and respect and do reverence… When she looks straight at a man or a woman she is greater than those who were alive with her – by a whole head… with a more delicate hand and a keener scalpel.’
He believed that her writing was equal to that of the great male writers of the past, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Smollett, Fielding and Sir Walter Scott, whom he imagines waiting for Jane’s arrival at the gates of Paradise. It’s as if he’s saying: you don’t have to have lashings of testosterone and write scenes of blood, violence and debauchery to be a great writer. An epistolary scalpel – an interesting image of an implement Jane Austen herself, as a mere woman, would never have been allowed to use professionally – can be just as effective for dissecting a character, providing your eye is true and you tell it like it is, whatever sex you are.
Amen to that. Happy Birthday, Jane.
The photographs of Sir Walter Scott, Tobias Smollett, William Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling are all courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. The other photographs are by Elizabeth Hawksley.
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