18th July 2017 marks the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. To this day, her engaging novels continue to captivate millions of readers all over the world, thus proving their great value despite the passing of time.
To celebrate the life and work of this outstanding Hampshire-born novelist, the Hampshire Cultural Trust and other partners have organised a range of events, competitions and exhibitions under the name Jane Austen 200, to take place in the UK over the course of a year (we’re eyeing up their fun-looking “Picnic Packs”).
Here at Creative, we too would like to honour Austen’s legacy with this article, by looking at her mysterious personality, as well as the defining characteristics of her writing. Read on to find out more about one of the most renowned English writers of all time.
The importance of Austen’s roots
Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire in 1775, and it is in this county on the southern coast of England that she spent most of her life. Indeed, she was particularly fond of Hampshire, which to her was more than just a place to call home: with its beautiful countryside and interesting society, it was a source of inspiration for both the characters and locations of her novels.
Many have argued that in 1801 she reluctantly moved to Bath in Somerset following her father’s retirement, with some scholars suggesting that this was precisely the cause of the break she took from writing. While in Bath, Austen’s urge to write was much less compelling than during her previous years in Steventon: it is thought she may have felt uninspired by the city’s superficial society and chaotic environment.
And despite being directly in contact with some of the big events of her time – her brothers, for example, fought in the Napoleonic Wars – Jane preferred to focus her novels on depicting the English gentry rooted in the countryside, to which she herself belonged.
Early feminism in Austen’s novels
One of the main features of Austen’s writing is the pivotal role played by women in her novels, which, broadly speaking, can be considered to fall into the category of romance. However, far from the weak and fragile women to be found in Radcliffe’s novels – which Austen used as a basis for Northanger Abbey, her satire of the Gothic novel – the majority of her heroines come off as strong, fully-formed female characters.
Rather than surrendering to the limitations imposed on them by the society they belonged to, Austen’s women act in spite of these to assert their personalities and achieve their goals. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth, she refuses because she cannot marry a man whom, as rich as he may be, she doesn’t love.
These actions appear illogical if we think about the material well-being Elizabeth could have achieved in marrying Mr. Darcy, a prospect many of her contemporaries would have found, if not exciting, at least satisfactory. Instead, Elizabeth is only ready to marry Mr. Darcy once she has undergone a journey of self-discovery, at the end of which she understands that she truly does love him.
This type of self-determination, which Austen’s heroines all have in common, is viewed by some scholars as a sign of her feminism. Although they are indeed part of a society that deems marriage to be the event in a woman’s life, one in which a woman’s fortune is defined by the wealth of her husband, female characters such as Emma and Elizabeth strike us as confident women who won’t let others make decisions for them.
Take, for example, Emma – the eponymous protagonist of Austen’s novel first published in 1815: to her, independence is more important than anything else. Throughout the novel, Emma shows no interest in abiding by society’s conventions, which would want her married, but rather focuses on maintaining her position of power among her acquaintances and friends. Once again, just like Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, only after having truly understood herself is she ready to welcome “romantic” love into her life.
Austen’s success over time
Surprisingly enough (or perhaps not!), Austen did not succeed in making a living out of her work. Although her books were appreciated by both critics and members of the public during her lifetime, publishers did not actually believe much in her talent. As a consequence, Jane ended up selling the copyright of her manuscripts for sums that seem insignificant if compared to the actual value of her novels, allowing publishers to profit from sales that exceeded their expectations.
Maybe it was due to the audacity of her heroines, which she herself thought might be unpopular. Of Emma, she says “I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like”. In any case, Austen was financially dependent on her father first and then her brothers all her life.
Nevertheless, her fame is indisputable and her work remains popular among readers to this day. Several adaptations of Austen’s novels have been made for the theatre, TV and cinema, and her literary works have lived on to inspire other authors, too. Famous actresses have starred as her heroines, from Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse to Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet. We wonder what the author would have thought of the recent zombie-infested Pride and Prejudice novel and film!
Austen in translation
If we look at how many languages Austen’s novels have been translated into (over 40!), it seems clear that her fame wasn’t confined to England, either. However, it took a long while before the value of Jane’s novels was finally recognised abroad too. Perhaps because of the little effort publishers put into promoting her writings during her lifetime, it was only in the past century that her works were translated into a large range of languages.
We think the bicentenary of Austen’s death is definitely a good excuse to read one (or all!) of her novels – if you haven’t already – in whichever language you choose 😊. Let us know in the comments below which one is your favourite, and why!