( From the Zach’s book, Fearless: Powerful Women of History. If you haven’t bought it, you really should. )
Zach – Okay, this time I guess we’re doing Jane Austen or something.
Anna – Don’t sound too excited.
Zach – Please. Guys don’t read this girl stuff.
Anna – Being a little judgmental, are we?
Zach – What? I’m not going to read about girls knitting and drinking tea or whatever.
Anna – Girl stuff? Is that what you believe this to be? I’d have you know that Jane Austen’s books are very popular two hundred years later because they are books that speak of the universality of the human condition. Everyone can read about these characters and say, “hey, I know a person just like that.” They still hold up after two centuries. Do you think that maybe it’s because it’s something more than “girl stuff.”
Zach – Whatever. It’s fine with me. Let’s do this.
Anna – Today we have a panel of women who have read Austen’s books.
Olga – I said I would, yes, but I did not.
Anna – Typical.
Olga – I was cleaning my flame thrower.
Anna – Moving on. We have St. Olga of Kiev, Countess Matilda of Tuscany and Hua Mulan.
Matilda – Before we get into what Jane accomplished, perhaps we should start with who she was.
Anna – Excellent idea. We’ll start with the basics then. Jane was born on December 16, 1775 in Steventon, England.
Zach – That means she’s a Sagittarius like me.
Anna – That was very educational.
Matilda – England at this time was the world’s super power. Their fleet was the most powerful fleet in the world and her colonies stretched across the globe. They said that the sun never sets on England. In fact, two of her brothers were in the navy and obtained the rank of admiral. Through much of her adult life, England was at war with France.
Olga – Where is that Napoleon fellow? He from France, dah?
Mulan – Yes, he was the leader of France during the Napoleonic Wars. That’s why they’re called…do I really have to explain this?
Olga – Dah.
Mulan – I refuse. Yes, the largest war the world had seen up to that point was raging and Jane Austen seldom mentions it. But we do see its effects. Jane Austen was…how to put this politely…not a big fan of the French. One of her cousins married a Frenchman who was later beheaded during the Revolution. After that she did not view them with much favor.
Anna – Jane grew up in what we’d call an “upper middle class” family. They were a part of what was called “the landed gentry.” This meant you weren’t a peasant and so were entitled to higher social privileges, but they weren’t rich aristocrats either. Her father was a rector of the Anglican Church. He was country clergy. This also meant that they didn’t have a lot of money. For income they would rent rooms out in their house and tutor students on the side.
Mulan – They weren’t without connections though. Her brother, Edward was adopted by some one of their rich uncles, Thomas Knight. He and his wife had no children of their own and so they adopted Edward.
Olga – Adopted? But he had family.
Mulan – This was actually common back then. A rich part of the family would often take in a child or two from some of their poorer relations. It was this rich aunt who was Jane’s patron and helped support her writing.
Anna – She also had a brother named George who was handicapped. He had seizures and was probably deaf as well. In one of her family’s letters it speaks of Jane who visited George often, as being able to talk to him with her hands. So, Jane possibly knew some sign language.
Mulan – Also, Jane was an Abolitionist. All her favorite authors were abolitionist and she hated the idea that one man could be property of another. She was considered quite liberal for her day because she also felt that people should make their own choices in life. How rebellious!
Matilda – Very well, more about her life then…Well, when her father retired they sold their and more painfully, their library. And then…
Olga – Wait, wait, wait. I do some homework. These books, they expensive, dah? Rich uncle who make lot of money in India, he pay for many books.
Matilida – Yes, that’s correct. Many of the books that shaped Jane’s literary identity were bought by her uncle-in-law who was governor of India. What is your point?
Olga – Well, well, this governor make much money selling opium. Yes, he sell other stuff, but he also sold opium.
Zach – Back then they didn’t understand the dangers of it.
Anna – Yes, this shows that Jane’s world wasn’t as closed off to the world as we often think. Her cousin-in-law was killed by French revolutionaries and her books and shawls came from India. In fact, one of her first unpublished books was about a girl that goes to India to find a husband.
Matilda – As I was saying, after her father sold the house, they moved to Bath which was an ancient Roman resort town. Gentry from all over would go to Bath during the summer to relax on vacation.
Olga – (laughs) Funny name. Why called Bath.
Anna – Because there were ancient Roman baths there, so they called it Bath.
Matilda – Many of Jane’s books feature Bath prominently and was quite influential on her life and writing.
Zach – Persuasion, especially. (Everyone looks at Zach.) Um…so I’ve heard.
Mulan – And then Jane’s father died and Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother were left with very little. They moved around and stayed with friends and family until their rich brother finally found a cheap cottage for them to live in and it was here that Jane wrote many of her famous books.
Olga – Why there?
Mulan – Simple. She needed the money. Jane was always writing. Even as a young girl she was writing stories and sharing them with her family.
Zach – In fact, she was somewhat of an amateur historian herself. She wrote “A History of England from the Reign of Henry IV to the Death of Charles 1st. By a partial, prejudiced and Ignorant Historian.”
Anna – Wow, Zach. Sounds like you two have a lot in common. Both born in mid-December, love reading and write inaccurate and awful histories.
Zach – Hers was meant to be comedic. It was actually a parody of a popular history book that she didn’t like.
Mulan – (Covers mouth as she laughs.) Sounds like Zach knows more about Jane Austen than he leads on.
Zach – What? No, that’s not it all. I don’t read chick-lit. I read books about war, pirates, and explosions. I just make it my business to know who else writes history. That’s all.
Olga – That all? (Olga laughs.)
Zach – Let’s move on.
Anna – Indeed. So, Jane started writing books and editing old books she wrote. Her brother, Henry, was her literary agent and sent in her books and organized the deals. At first her books were anonymous. It wasn’t the ideal social situation for a young woman to write novels for a living. That wasn’t scandalous and was becoming more common, but it wasn’t exactly a goal to aspire for.
Olga – Like Zachy, she write novels! Funny.
Matilda – Not funny because it was her only source of income. She wrote books because she loved writing, but she published them because she needed to eat.
Mulan – She never married. She fell in love once but the man’s family did everything they could to separate them. She apparently wasn’t high enough on the social ladder for them.
Zach – You can see this disillusionment in her books with Pride and Prejudice being sparkly and happy, like a fairy tale, but Persuasion is far more intimate and melancholy in its tone and portrayal of love. You see this pined for lost love and many think it came from her own lost chance at love.
Anna – You seem to know an awful lot about “chick-lit,” there, Zach.
Zach – Okay, I may have had to read one or two Austen novels in school or something. Everyone does.
Anna – Yes, but…
Zach – Drop it.
Matilda – She died in 1817 when she was 41. Some of her books were published in her lifetime and gained her some recognition, but really, she was just starting her career when she died and several of her books were published after her death by her brother.
Mulan – So, that covers the basics of her life, correct.
Anna – In a very brief manner, yes.
Mulan – But let’s find out more about who she was as a person. We tend to have this image of Jane Austen in our minds, one that is serious, painfully polite and somewhat tedious. We see her sipping tea and talking quietly with her neighbors while they knit or sew or whatever English women did. In the biography that her family wrote after her death, they did everything to paint this picture of her, that she was the height of decorum. But is this true? What was she really like?
Matilda – I have one. One of the first stories her family remembered about her was when she was a little girl, nine or ten years old. Her father was returning to town in a fancy coach of some kind and Jane wanted a ride in it but the coach would only go into town and no further. So, she grabbed her little brother Henry and walked the six miles to town to meet up with the coach. This is the first example of who she really was. She wasn’t some meek, take orders and stay silent kind of woman. She saw a goal and went after it.
Olga – She has spirit!
Mulan – As we said, her family took in boarders as a source of income and with six brothers, Jane was constantly surrounded by men. The stories she wrote during this time were filled with violence, horror, grossness, insanity, immorality and the occasional joke about gays in the navy. “Rears and Vices” she called it, making a play of words on the ranks of admirals.
Anna – So far this isn’t painting a picture of a quiet, unseen woman working on sewing in the parlor.
Olga – Oh! Oh! I know something!
Zach – Go for it.
Olga – She went to school at Oxford!
Anna – In a way, you are correct, Olga. She did in fact go to school in Oxford…the town of Oxford, not the famous university there. Like many girls of her age (7 years old) and social standing, she was sent away for private tutoring.
Mulan – Many said that Jane was shy around strangers and sometimes came off as aloof, but very funny, witty and sharp around people that got to know her. From what I gathered, I believe she was an introvert and spent most of her time in her head. She didn’t go out of her way to make friends and preferred to observe human nature with a select few people she trusted. This is why we get sometimes contradictory images of her. One, the quiet almost anti-social girl that didn’t want to talk and the sharp tongued fire brand of her letters and friends observations.
Matilda – We can see that fiery and sometimes irreverent personality far more clearly in her notebooks she wrote as a girl and young woman. She loved to parody and make fun of famous writers and politicians of her day. She also really loved to make fun of her own society. She was an English woman through and through, but even she saw that some things in her culture were ridiculous and wasn’t afraid of pointing them out. In her books you can see this in a far more subtle way. Her books are always quietly mocking and shedding light on the things she thought stupid.
Zach – I have a few quotes here where she makes fun of stuff…here they are.
“A large income is the best recipe for happiness I have ever heard of.”
Keep in mind, later in life she was offered marriage to a somewhat wealthy man but turned it down because she did not love him.
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.”
Mulan – Xie Xie, Zach. Those quotes are nice but to really see her sword sharp wit, you must read her books.
Olga – I no read books. Any killing?
Mulan – No.
Olga – Mutilations?
Mulan – No.
Olga – At least a good burning?
Mulan – No burnings. Sorry. There is a lot of human struggle, but mostly of the normal life variety. What she does is take the normal life that she knew so well and wrote about it in detail. No, her heroines don’t save the world from evil tyrants, their struggles seem just as important and harrowing because the characters seem real to us. But there are seductions.
Olga – Okay, I can go for that.
Anna – I know something of writing books, having written one myself. Jane’s books are at the start of the modern novel. Her earlier works were more like the old morality plays that were full of melodrama and dues ex machinas. However, novels like Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion are firmly in the modern novel category. Unlike her predecessors, she tried to capture the realities of life. So, all those modern books you’re reading? Austen was a pioneer of that.
Matilda – And many of the places in her books were places she had visited. In fact, she was quite well traveled within England. The war made it impossible to travel elsewhere, especially through French occupied territory.
Olga – Dah, I go read Janey’s book. Which one?
Mulan – Sense and Sensibility. I love the battle of reason versus emotion. As a soldier, I appreciate the honor and respect shown from the colonel character.
Anna – Pride and Prejudice. It the funniest, most dramatic and well crafted of her stories.
Matilda – Emma. It’s light hearted but has a serious lesson about right and wrong and helping people.
Zach – Persuasion. It’s so much more personal and tender while showing some of the harsh realities of love and uncaring family. It’s about a lost love and a second chance.
Anna – Really, Zach?
Zach – What?
Anna – You seem to know an awful lot about this.
Zach – Well, I just, you know. Read it once. For school.
Olga – Why is Zachy looking around like he nervous?
Zach – I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Mulan – (whispers to Anna) Let me try something. (Speaks up to Zach) So, on to characters now. In Mansfield Park, we have the main character of Fanny Price. Is she a weak willed wimp or deceptively strong? Zach, what do you think?
Zach – Oh, I don’t know. Whatever.
Matilda – I think she’s a spineless nobody.
Mulan – Total wimp.
Zach – Now hold on. Just because she’s quiet and meek doesn’t mean she’s weak. She just has different priorities than we do.
Mulan – No, Zach, you’re wrong.
Matilda – Yes indeed, she’s aweak-willed coward.
Zach – No she’s not! She’s a deeply complex and fascinating woman!
(Anna, Mulan and Matilda look at each other and nod. Olga just looks confused.)
Anna – And with that, startling revelation, we’ll end it here.
Zach – Startling revelation? I don’t know what you mean. You’re blowing things out of proportion.
Anna – Of course, Zach. Of course.