This year is being celebrated as the 200th death anniversary of Jane Austen. The English novelist who has lived over the centuries in many of our hearts and minds, in book shelves and as e-books, in movies and serials.
It was my father who introduced me to Jane Austen’s novels in my teens. He handed me his own copy of Pride and Prejudice, a 1954 edition, bought by him in 1959. A few days back I fished out my own copy of Emma, 1966 edition, bought by me in 1987. My son has recently started reading Austen on kindle. Her novels have never been out of print and surely there’s a reason for that. These have inspired a large number of essays, anthologies, prequels, sequels, adaptations, films, television serials and theatre productions.
Irony, realism, social commentary and above all the intelligence of her adult woman protagonist was very attractive to me as a teenage reader. The plots highlighted women’s dependence on marriage. Both for social acceptance and financial security. In our very middle-class household where at any given time we had a couple of generations of educators living – this was an oft discussed matter. There was realism, romance and drama in the narrative. I remember discussing then, whether Austen was critiquing the society or upholding the values of the Regency. As I know now, whether it was reverence or ridicule she meant with her words, it always led to a debate in our house. Much like it was in the Austen house hold, where debate and discussion was a way of life.
Her literature is art and as such is completely subjective. Different people will always react to art in different ways. That it evokes debate and not conform to the then contemporary expectations of romantic and Victorian enthralls the educator in me. Her heroines did not marry for money or power but for love, appealed to the feminist side of me and made a deep impression alongside my father’s advice to me (to my mother and his own mother as well) to always work towards personal financial independence. To me, Jane Austen embodies the strong headed women in her stories. They came from different backgrounds and sought true love. This is seen reflected in her own life. The one and only proposal of marriage she ever got was from her child hood friend. He was well off, about to inherit considerable real-estate and could provide for her and her family’s future. Jane agrees to this marriage. However, having no love for him, she declines this proposal the next day.
“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility.
A Visit to Bath, the Jane Austen Centre
Having grown up on a range of great European authors like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carol, Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl and others, it has been my keen interest to go to at least one of their tours or house-museums each time I am in the U.K. While some are still on my wish list, I have been able to cover quite a few of them over the years. I will share my experiences about these over time. For now, it’s the Jane Austen Center.
So, a trip to Bath was planned from Cambridge U.K. (driving distance from London to Bath is about 200 Kms and Cambridge to Bath is about 270kms. This can be done easily as a day trip however there are some interesting 2/3 day trips covering various Jane Austen tour sights including London, Ash village, Southampton, Winchester, Chawton and Bath).
The Georgian city of Bath is known for the Roman baths, built around the hot springs unique in Britain and the architectural attractions of Queen’s square, the magnificent Royal crescent, fan vaulting monuments especially the Abbey where Edgar, the first king of England was coronated. The Jane Austen Centre is here, a few doors away from her original house. A waxwork of Jane Austen welcomes and a costumed guide takes us on a tour into the small exhibition space. We watched a video of “Jane” taking a walk in the city of Bath that formed a back drop to several of her novels. Miles of Georgian houses still look pretty much the same as they would have looked during her times. Jane had moved into this town at the age of 27 with her family after the retirement of her father from the clergy.
There are dress-up possibilities in the costumes set out in the center offering photo opportunities (and selfies!) next to Mr. Darcy, in the Regency Tea Room. There is a memorabilia shop with all the books invitingly lined up besides the usual key-chains and cookie cutters. We tried writing with a quill pen and created our own memorabilia from the center.
About her works:
- Jane Austen is known mainly for the following 6 works:
- Northanger Abbey: A comic love story written in her early twenties. It was entitled Susan. The work was never published. It was published after her death by her brother Henry Austen.
- Sense and Sensibility: It was the first published novel on which she worked for many years. The book was a success but was not published in her name. The title page said that it was written “By a lady”. It was a romantic novel about love gone sour for one sister and hidden romance of the other and the frustrations thereof.
- Pride and Prejudice: The most popular of her novels, it was entitled First Impressions. The novel unfolds in 61 chapters, dealing with misjudgments that change as one gets to know an individual better. One of the most satisfying of all her novels though many look upon Persuasion as the most exquisite of her works.
- Mansfield Park: her identity as the author continued to be unknown for this one as well beyond her immediate family and friends. It is known to be one of her most complex novels and I have not read it. Yet. Would want to amend that status soon as it deals with amongst other things, the education of children.
- Emma: This one is dedicated (as was suggested/commanded) to The Prince Regent, His Royal Highness. The dedication written by her is almost mocking in it’s tone, camouflaging her dislike of the Prince and his philandering ways.
- Persuasion: It’s known as a story of second chances and constancy of love. Jane was fatally ill while writing it. Henry Austen, her brother and literary agent published it posthumously.
- Junenilia is her work that’s most fun to read. This is from her childhood. It has silly spellings and is incomplete. It’s said to be goofy and fun. I am yet to lay my hands on it. Saw portions of ‘History of England’ illustrated by her sister Cassandra. It says, written by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian! And another one reads “His Majesty died, and was succeeded by his son Henry, whose only merit was his not being so bad as his daughter Elizabeth.” She might as well be writing about Indian political history! Worth digging into right? Imagine 12 year old Austen at the start of her literary career. She used to read her works-in-progress to her family, who would not only support but also suggest improvements to her works.
Jane’s own story:
- She was born on December 16, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, England.
- She had one sister and seven brothers. Her father was Oxford-educated and a respected member of the Anglican parish.
- The family laid emphasis on creative thinking, learning, discussions and reading from their father’s extensive library.
- The children would regularly write and put up plays and charades with liberal sprinkling of debate and humour.
- Jane was close to her sister Cassandra and wrote many letters to her over her lifetime and who was also to remain unmarried like herself. Both of them were sent to boarding schools for formal education which included mainly foreign language – French, music and dance.
- Jane spent her adult years playing piano, running their family home and socializing with neighbors. She became an accomplished dancer as nights and weekends were spent on Cotillions – the elaborate 18th century French country dance that went on to be known as the square dance.
- After her father died, she moved from place to place with her mother and sister, between homes of relatives and rented flats due to financial constraints.
- In her 30s, she began to publish her works, anonymously. It was only after her death that Hernry, her brother and literary agent, made it known that she was the author.
- She died at the age of 41, on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, Hampshire, England.
- The Janeites is a Jane Austen fan club. The word was originally coined by the literary scholar George Saintsbury.
Both Hollywood and Bollywood have discovered Jane Austen in the last two decades. Here are some of them to check out if you haven’t yet. Besides fishing out your own old books or downloading the e-books.
- Pride and Prejudice (1995), BBC mini series
- Sense and Sensibility (1995), Oscar winner (Emma Thomson’s screen play, Kate Winslet’s first film, Ang Lee’s first Western film direction)
- Clueless (1995), inspired by Emma, the incorrigible match maker.
- Bride and Prejudice (2009), Bollywood style musical with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Martin Henderson as Lizzie and Darcy.
- The Lizzie Bennett Diaries (2013), a witty adaptation for modern times with social media accounts.
- Lost in Austen (2009), when Lizzie time-travels to present day London.
- Becoming Jane (2007), Ann Hathaway plays Jane with a twist at the end of the tale.
- Mansfield Park (1999), a difficult story that is adapted to talk about charming women in their world of unrequited love.
- Persuasion (1995), the dashing Captain Frederick Wentworth and Anne Elliot’s romance face the reversal of situation over 10 years.
- Emma (1996), a charming portrayal of Emma the quintessential match maker.
- Bridget Jone’s Diary (2001) adapted from the basic plot of Pride and Prejudice.
Radical in her critique of economics, gender-politics, society, the six stories of Jane Austen continue to attract attention and inspire passion amongst generations of readers, litterateurs, directors and playwrights. There’s no ignoring or forgetting Jane Austen.
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
For free e- books, visit:
Recommended readings for Janeites:
For Jane Austen tours, visit:
Nivedita Mukerjee is a journalist and an educator. She enjoys travelling and writes about travel and education with equal passion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.