Finding Jane

by
21 July 2017

Amid the plethora of events marking the 200th anniversary of her death, Michael Wheeler goes in search of the real Jane Austen

World History Archive/Alamy

The real deal? portrait of Jane Austen (1775-1817)

The real deal? portrait of Jane Austen (1775-1817)

JANE AUSTEN would be surprised and amused to discover that she is now regarded by some as second only to Shakespeare among English writers, and that in Winchester Cathedral — where the bones of Saxon kings and bishops lie — her grave is the most frequently visited.

She would be surprised and de­­lighted by Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Jane’s Marriage”, in which she is reunited in paradise with Captain Wentworth. Kipling’s opening lines — “Jane went to Paradise, That was only fair” — are quoted by the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), whose AGM in this bicentenary year of Austen’s death “celebrates her unique and pro­found contribution to the culture and literature of not only her native England, but the world”.

The venue for this celebration, “Jane Austen in Paradise: Intima­tions of Immortality”, is the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa in California, where “a paradise in­­deed awaits. . . World-famous surf and a vibrant down­town make Huntingdon Beach the perfect place to ponder Austen’s continuous influence on popular culture.”

Some JASNA delegates like to dress up in historical costume — as did those who attended the Bicen­tenary Regency Costume Summer Ball presented by the Jane Austen Festival in Bath on 1 July. The wide range of current exhibitions, talks, tours, and weekend breaks organ­ised by Jane Austen 200: A Life in Hampshire, includes an exhibition, “The Mysterious Miss Austen”, which “explores the intriguing ques­tion — who is Jane Austen?” Treas­ures on display at the Winchester Discovery Centre (aka the public library) in­­clude the manuscript of an alter­native ending to Persuasion, and Grayson Perry’s ceramic Jane Austen in E17, “evidence of her last­ing legacy and influence on the arts”.

 

INVESTIGATIONS into who Jane Austen actually was have been un­­dertaken by biographers such as Claire Tomalin; specialists in wo­­men’s writing of the 18th century, such as Emma Clery; historians of landscape, such as Alastair Duck­worth; and the contributors to Jane Austen in Context, edited by Janet Todd.

Everett Collection Inc/AlamyWet, wet, wet: Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and PrejudiceFor the less scholarly Janeite, however, the pursuit of the histor­ical Jane can feel like visiting a richly endowed museum that can be entered only via the shop. The merchandise and “as seen on TV” spin-offs impede access. How can we get past the wet shirt (Colin Firth, Pride and Prejudice, BBC, 1995) to “discover” the Mr Darcy of the novel? And how can we get past Mr Darcy to “meet” his creator?

A good place to start is the now famous ledger stone in the north nave aisle of Winchester Cathedral, beneath which rest the physical remains of Jane Austen:

 

In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd. GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She de­­parted this Life on the 18th. of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevol­ence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary en­­dowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her, and the warmest love of her intimate con­nections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.

 

It is thought that these words were written by her favourite brother, Henry, who had recently been ex­­amined for ordination by the Bishop of Winchester, Brownlow North. Henry certainly seems to have taken charge after his sister’s death, but on the matter of the wording he would most probably have con­sulted other members of that very close family of “intimate connec­tions”, including old Mrs Austen, who still lived in the cottage at Chawton which, from 1809, had also been her daughters’ home. We hear in the inscription the blended voices of a bereaved Christian family.

Most visitors wonder why the inscription makes no reference to Austen as a writer. In the first place, it was historically perfectly normal to make no reference on memorial tablets to a writer’s calling: the cases of Swift, George Herbert, and Dickens are examples. Second, as in a funeral address (and, indeed, throughout the burial service that was said over her, a week after her death), the emphasis is not on her worldly achievements but her spir­itual gifts; not upon her fame (or lack of it) in the world, but the sense of loss among those she loved; not on the life that was lost, but the life that is to come. Third, the beautiful, high-flown language that might to us seem rather remote reflects what was then customary, as does the intensity of the inscription.

 

Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/AlamyDear sister: letter from Jane to Cassandra, 1775TO SPEAK of remoteness is to acknowledge the “otherness” of Austen. Her robust 18th-century attitudes can shock modern sensib­ilities, as when she writes to her sister Cassandra in 1798, reporting that “Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she ex­­pected, oweing to a fright — I sup­pose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

I suspect that a meeting with Austen would have been rather daunting: she would have seen straight through you. She under­stood the follies and vanities of her own generation, and thus of every generation. That she knew her own limitations is clear from three sur­viving prayers she wrote for use in the family, one of which includes the words, “Pardon oh! God The offences of the past day. We are conscious of many frailties. . .”.

The moderate Anglicanism that she imbibed from her father, the Revd George Austen, at St Nicholas’s, Steventon, emphasised divine wisdom and atonement in theology, order and patriotism in politics (the Austens were quiet Tories), and common sense and morality in private life. Most Church of England clergy of the period steered a middle course between Enlightenment rationalism (with its attendant dangers of deism and agnosticism) and Evangelical “enthusiasm”, characterised by intense personal piety.

In the tumultuous final years of the 18th century, religion still mattered to the majority of English men and women, and certainly mattered very much to Austen, whose family bonds were strength­ened by private and public devo­tions, and whose novels reflect the teaching and rhythms of the Authorised Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

 

JANE’s elder brother Frank — known as “the officer who knelt in church” — and younger brother Charles, both of whom became admirals, kept her in touch with the customs and naming of parts be­­loved of the Royal Navy. (She was not above retailing a coarse joke about “Rears” and “Vices”.)

Steve Vidler/AlamyRe-enactors? greeter and model outside the Jane Austen Centre, BathBeing a parson’s daughter, with two clergy brothers (James and Henry) and four clergy cousins, she also knew about advowsons and simony, glebes and tithes, nominal residence and pluralism. The late Irene Collins’s book Jane Austen and the Clergy reminds us of the differences between the clerical world of patronage and the reading of printed sermons, and our own. Yet who has not encountered a modern version of Mr Collins, or Dr Grant, or Mr Elton?

When Mansfield Park was pub­lished in 1814 (the year of Napo­leon’s defeat and subsequent escape from Elba), Austen was anxious that the reading public would find it too serious. And, indeed, Fanny Price is often dismissed as being too passive and too “Victorian”, while Edmund Bertram is regarded as too pious an ordinand, with his solemn words about the pastoral duties of a resident clergyman in a remote village.

Read against the background of the war, however, the novel repre­sents its author’s most powerful defence of English values in the face of the threat of foreign invasion, scaled down to a study of the incur­sion of flash London man­ners and easy morals into a rural community built on centuries of tradition.

 

IT IS as a brilliant, satirical, disturb­ingly penetrating moralist that Austen transcends her own time and place. Take, for example, the opening of her last completed novel, Persuasion, and that devastating critique of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall: “Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.” His character is fixed: in terms of human potential for growth, he is emotionally and spiritually dead — “Vanity was the beginning and end of [his] character.”

For the first two chapters, the heroine of the novel — his daughter Anne — says nothing: an eloquent silence that speaks of her status as a nobody within this deeply dys­functional family. When she does finally speak, in the third chapter, it is to present a view that is contrary to that of her father.

Sir Walter has over-stretched himself financially, in order to keep up appearances. He is forced to rent out his house, but cannot bear the idea of its being taken by a mere naval officer, however senior he may be. My dear, such men were often of obscure birth; worse, their appear­ance was so frightful, with their wrinkled skin, bronzed from years at sea. . .

Jeff Morgan 13/AlamyJaneites: participants in Regency costume at the start of the 2012 Jane Austen Festival in BathAll this, when the navy had done so much to save England from invasion by Napoleon — a threat which, as Austen knew only too well from the experience of her brothers, had been very real. So Anne’s quiet intervention in chapter three of Persuasion comes from the heart, not only of the character, but also of her creator:

”The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow.”

 

ANNE’s father is of the world, worldly. His “book of books” is not the Bible, but the Baronetage, where he finds “occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one”. Anne, on the other hand, takes no thought for herself, for the fact that she is about to lose her own home; rather, she thinks of what her family might do, in a small way, to repay a debt of gratitude.

What Austen said of her heroines, she also applied to herself: “Pictures of perfection . . . make me sick & wicked.” She was a realist, in every sense, who grounded her Christian­ity in ethics and in our actions in the world. She is our great ironist, cun­ningly playing with the human language to expose the frailties of society, with its snobbery, material­ism, and egotism. As we celebrate Jane Austen 200, the ending of Kipling’s poem seems apposite:

 

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!

 

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, chairman of Gladstone’s Library, and a Lay Canon Emeritus of Win­chester Cathedral. He was formerly co-director of Chawton House Library, and is the author of Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral (Winchester Cathedral), and the essay on “Religion” in Jane Austen in Context, ed. Janet Todd (CUP).

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