Jane Austen: 200 Years Gone and Still Relevant

I am by no means an expert on Jane Austen, I’m just an avid fan, and by that I mean fanatic! I took a trip in June 2023 to Alton (and Chawton) in Hampshire, UK to enjoy Regency Week. Walks, talks, tours, tea, supper, and Regency dancing! What a blast! But that being said, I would like to share some thoughts for those of you who haven’t read any of her books.

In the garden at Chawton House, which was inherited by Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight. When Edward was 16 years old, an agreement was reached between his parents and his third cousin, Thomas Knight, that Edward would be adopted as the heir to Thomas’ estates.

You might have avoided reading the classics because you find the language difficult. I know I did! That’s why I got a copy of The Jane Austen Dictionary by Emmalee Haskell, which is available in paperback on Amazon. Any good dictionary will suffice. I have found though, that if I just read a phrase at a time, most words are understandable by their context. Sometimes I tend to read quickly through some parts to get to the next plot point, a failing on my part, so I am trying to slow down and read it “aloud” to myself. This helps make sense of the long sentences and the language of the early nineteenth century.

What are the most basic needs in life? Food, shelter, clothing, income. Deeper needs like love and respect, and beyond that purpose and a place in society. In Jane Austen’s day one hoped to have a place in polite society, and without good moral character, that was out of the question. Today that is unfortunately a foreign concept. But virtue in a woman was vitally important to women of the early nineteenth century. This is the stuff of Austen’s novels and why she is still relevant today. We need women like her heroines and men like her heroes!

I fell in love with Jane Austen’s work after seeing Emma Thompson’s 1995 adaptation of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, but it took many years for me to actually start reading the novels. I happened upon a copy of LADY SUSAN, an early work of Austen’s, written in the form of letters. It revolved around a lady desperately wrangling for the best marriage match for her daughter. It was all about the money and status.

After several years, I made it my goal to read all of Jane Austen’s novels. While reading SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, I discovered how much was missing from the movie and even from the 2008 miniseries. This taught me a very valuable lesson:

Don’t judge a book by its movie!

In some circles SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is not considered Austen’s greatest book, but it delves into some weighty matters such as morality and duty, charm versus character, as well as issues of the day, including inheritance laws, and popular philosophies of her time, including Romanticism. We learn what happens to a young woman when her virtue is lost, and what could happen to our heroine if she is not careful.

Jane Austen’s writing table and chair in the dining room of Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire, England. Jane lived there with her mother and sister Cassandra from 1809 to 1817, when she was moved to Winchester to be near her physician. She died a couple of weeks later and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. It is said that in the cottage in Chawton, Jane forbade anyone to oil the hinges on the dining room door. She could hear when someone was entering and cover her work. I took this photo while on the “Sense and Sensibility” Tour last June during Regency Week.

Next I read NORTHANGER ABBEY, a satire of the Gothic novels so popular during Jane Austen’s time, and which were avidly read by our heroine Catherine Moreland. Poor Catherine lets her imagination get away from her, yet doesn’t see what is really happening with some so-called friends.

I just finished my second read of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, after doing the same with SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. P & P is chock full of wit and irony, yet very dramatic. The plot revolves around a family with five daughters, no sons, and their estate entailed away from the female line, to an odious cousin, Mr. Collins, who is a clergyman. How’s this for an opening line?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

As the daughter of a clergyman, and a devout Christian, Jane Austen’s novels are indicative of her worldview. She deals with love, duty, honor, and respect. The stories are still so compelling because she understands the deep needs of the heart within the culture of her time, though in fact those needs are timeless. Characters who shirk their duty or behave dishonorably are revealed to be either scoundrels or fools. Yet Austen shows grace to the ones who just don’t have the intellect to understand their own misdeeds and the effect they had on others, for example Lydia Bennet in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. But she doesn’t pull any punches when dealing with the actions of Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham.

I loved loved loved PERSUASION! You might be tempted to judge Anne Elliot by twenty-first century standards, but this would be a mistake. In Jane Austen’s day, a young woman was under the authority of her father until she married. That she had a vain, arrogant, prejudiced and rather stupid father didn’t matter a bit. If Anne had a fortune of her own, she could leave her loathsome family and seek a life of her own. This is not the case with Anne. At the age of nineteen, she was persuaded to refuse Wentworth’s offer of marriage on the grounds that he had neither title nor fortune, was a nobody in her father’s mind. The story begins eight years later. Her father’s extravagance has forced the family to let out their estate, Kellynch Hall to (unhappy Sir Walter Elliot — a naval officer in his home!) Admiral Croft, now wealthy Captain Wentworth’s brother-in-law. We see Anne become stronger and more in control of her own life

I plan to read EMMA next. Poor Emma fancies herself a matchmaker, with some unfortunate results. The 2009 miniseries with Romola Garai, as a Emma and dishy Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, was delightful, so I know the book will be even better.

I can’t even discuss MANSFIELD PARK, which I have read, but need to read again to really understand these people. I have even watched two adaptations on the screen, but they interpreted the characters differently, so I’m at a loss.

Movies and miniseries (of most books) often lack the depth, the “why” behind what the characters are about. They also sometimes abbreviate scenes or leave out characters entirely. So please, read the book. You’ll thank me later.

I just can’t help sharing this website! My friend Brenda Cox has so much knowledge of Jane Austen, her writing, her time, her faith. Check it out! https://topazcrossbooks.com

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