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Jane Austen died almost 192 years ago, but her writing still captures our imagination. Austen and her works have become an increasingly important subject for academic study and all manner of popular biographies. But it is her novels that continue to echo down the generations. Not only are they still widely read, but books such as Pride And Prejudice are constantly adapted for film and television. More recently, Austen became a character in a dramatisation of her life.
Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor — which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony ...
Jane Austen, 1817
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n In Jane Austen’s time, fresh food such as salads were rarely eaten as uncooked food was thought to be hard on the digestion. the importance of vitamins was not yet realised. Austen’s family would have eaten meals centred around wellcooked vegetables, potatoes and mutton. Food such as bacon was generally looked down on as it was eaten by peasants. n Bathing was something of a chore during Austen’s time as they had very little plumbing, so only the hands, neck and arms were regularly washed. Most people relied on a full bath only once a week, in a big wooden tub in their rooms. n Austen’s heroes tended to wear a waistcoat and a linen shirt with a piece of cloth tied around the neck in a bow that was called a cravat, while women wore light muslin frocks and hats and bonnet were a must. n Whist is a card game often played by Austen’s characters. It is the ancestor of bridge, which is a popular game still played today. other card games played during Austen’s time were speculation, quadrille and casino. n Serious Austen fans are generally known as Janeites, a term that was coined in the 1890s. Most early Janeites were actually men and Rudyard Kipling actually published a short story called Janeites about a group of World War I soldiers who were Austen fans: Austen fans. Janeites
thERE are many myths surrounding the life of Jane Austen, particularly suggesting she was forced to write in secret because her family disapproved of her writing. In reality, Austen’s large family were intelligent, creative and fully supported all her literary endeavours, from writing novels to poetry to short plays. Austen was born on December 16, 1775, into a close-knit family. She had six brothers and one much adored sister, Cassandra. Austen and her sister were educated in both a small boarding school and at home and from an early age they were encouraged to read widely, to write stories and stage small performances for their family and close friends. her first novel was the short and little-known Lady Susan and this was followed up by First Impressions, which was later titled Pride And Prejudice, it became Austen’s best-known novel, and was completed when she was 21. Austen never married and lived with her parents and unmarried sister, first in Steventon, then Bath, and then briefly in Southampton before settling in a house in Chawton in hampshire, which is now the site of the Jane Austen’s house Museum. During her lifetime Austen published four of her novels; first Sense And Sensibility followed by Pride And Prejudice, Mansfield Park and, finally, Emma. After she died on July 18, 1817, from what has since been diagnosed as Addison’s disease, her brother henry arranged for her last two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, to be published.
Love in Austen’s life
loVE and marriage are major themes in all of Jane Austen’s novels, but not in her life. thomas lefroy, a poor relation of Austen’s neighbours, caught the attention of the 20-year-old and the two indulged in some heated conversations and flirtatious dancing before Austen’s family stepped in to stop her marrying into a life of poverty. Austen accepted an offer of marriage from wealthy landowner Reginald Bigg-Wither, who had the resources to provide for her entire family, but she changed her mind only a day later and resolved never to marry for money over love. She remained unmarried until she died.
Popular adaptation: Kate Winslet (far left) starred in Sense And Sensibility, as did Emma Thompson (far right) who also wrote the screenplay
Women in the 1800s
AloNg with the important changes in the economy and society that were taking place in the early 1800s, philosophers were questioning social hierarchies and the issue of individual rights. Women at the time did not have equal rights in society the way they do today. they could not vote, did not have equal opportunities in education or work, and were dependent on men – fathers, husbands and brothers – for their economic needs. Campaigner for the Bennet family in Pride And Prejudice, equality: Mary Wollstonecraft have five daughters so Mr Bennet’s estate must naturally go to his closest living male relative, the hideous Mr Collins, rather than his wife or daughters. this unfortunate situation meant that Mrs Bennet was always looking for a good match for her daughters, as marriage in those days was driven by the principles of a business transaction, rather than any idea of romantic love. But Austen shows her disapproval of marriage without love by rewarding her feisty heroines with passionate, romantic matches such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightly, and Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. Although Mary Wollstonecraft – often thought to be the first feminist philosopher – had published her work A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women in 1792, change was a slow process throughout the next few hundred years. however, Austen did draw attention to the restricted lives of women through her characters. Career booster: Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC miniseries, Pride And Prejudice, the role that made him famous
Now a museum: Austen’s house at Chawton, Hampshire Romantic thinker: A picture of Jane Austen based on a drawing by her sister
It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides
Jane Austen – Persuasion
Although Jane Austen’s novels focused on the domestic life of her characters, her books are set at a time of great change. the decades in which she lived are now known as the Industrial Revolution. It was a time when the old order, the landed gentry who owned the estates worked on by farmers, were no longer the only rich and powerful people in society. Inventions such as the steam engine led to the growth of factories and made travel easier, helping the economy grow and evolve. People moved to the city to work in the new factories and the social classes of factory owners and other people involved in commerce and trade were growing. In Pride And Prejudice, Mr Darcy’s family is an example of the landed gentry who passed their wealth down through the generations, in contrast to Elizabeth Bennet’s beloved uncle Mr gardiner, who gained his wealth by working in a trade and is looked down upon by some characters for living in Cheapside, an industrial suburb of london. overseas, the British had lost their American colonies with the end of the American War of Independence and the 1783 treaty of Paris. But the British were rapidly taking over India, and in 1788 had sent a fleet to colonise Australia. In Africa there were colonies filled with British-owned plantations such as the one in Antigua run by Fanny Price’s wealthy uncle Sir Bertram in Mansfield Park. Meanwhile, in France, the turbulence of the French Revolution in the late 1700s had given way to the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte who was, for much of Austen’s later adult life, attempting to conquer Europe. Such historical incidents are reflected in Austen’s novels. For example, in the beginning of Persuasion, Captain Wentworth reappears in the heroine Ann Elliot’s life after having made a huge profit fighting in the Napoleonic wars. Place in history: French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte Modern-day Emma: Alicia Silverstone in Clueless
Contemporary female writers
AuStEN was certainly well ahead of her time, but she wasn’t the only female writer publishing novels during this period. Another famous woman writer in the early 19th century was Mary Shelley, second wife of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote several novels, including the classic Frankenstein in 1818. Ann Radcliffe was another popular writer in Austen’s time, who wrote several gothic romances, including The Italian and The Mysteries Of Udolfo, which was a strong influence on Austen’s work, especially in the novel Northanger Abbey. Although there were several other women writers publishing work during Austen’s time, such as Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, few are still well known today and none achieved anywhere near the Famous author: influence or popularity of Austen’s novels. Mary Shelley
Books we know and love
Sense And Sensibility (1811)
WhEN Mr Dashwood dies unexpectedly he leaves his gentle wife and their daughters – sensible Elinor, romantic Marianne and young tomboy Margaret – to fend for themselves. they move to a little cottage in Devonshire, where the older sisters juggle romance thanks to visits from Edward Ferrars, the dashing John Willoughby and Colonel Brandon. intrigues and dramas of her cousins, especially the virtuous Edmund Bertram, and local siblings henry and Mary Crawford.
thE privileged and beautiful Emma Woodhouse has it all: she lives with her wealthy and doting father and she is adored by all her friends, including her brother-in-law Mr Knightly. But when she turns her hand to match-making and tries to influence the lives around her, she realises she has a lot to learn.
SINCE the early days of the film industry, Jane Austen has been a popular source of material. one of the first was the 1940 version of Pride And Prejudice, which starred greer garson and laurence olivier. Since the advent of television, versions of Austen novels have also been popular small-screen fodder. In 1995, the BBC version of Pride And Prejudice, starring Colin Firth, pushed the actor into the spotlight. Film versions of Sense And Sensibility (1995), starring hugh grant, and Pride And Prejudice (2005), starring Keira Knightley, were also popular. Not all adaptations have been literal versions of Austen’s novels. the 1995 hollywood hit Clueless was a modern version of her novel Emma, while the 2001 film of Bridget Jones’s Diary referenced Austen heavily, and 2007’s The Jane Austen Book Club used an Austen discussion group to look at the lives of its characters. In the same year, Becoming Jane, starring Anne hathaway, used Austen’s letters to look at the life of the author. the ItV series Lost In Austen, aired in March on the ABC, told the tale of a present-day Jane Austen fan, who trades places with the Austen character Elizabeth Bennet. Books have also taken Austen’s lead, with Australian author Colleen McCullough’s 2008 novel The Independence Of Miss Mary Bennet describing events in Austen’s character’s life 20 years after the end of Pride And Prejudice. A more unusual book adaptation called Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, by Seth grahame-Smith, came out last month in the uS, and expands the original story to include flesh-eating monsters.
Pride And Prejudice (1813)
ElIzABEth Bennet is the clever and feisty heroine of Austen’s most popular novel. When wealthy young Mr Bingley moves into the neighbourhood, accompanied by his haughty friend Mr Darcy, it is clear marriage is on everyone’s minds, including those of lizzie and her four sisters. But not everyone makes the right decisions.
Find out more
Sources and further study: What Jane Austen Ate And Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool (Simon & Schuster) Jane’s Fame by Claire harman (text Publishing) the Jane Austen Centre, www.janeausten.co.uk the Jane Austen Society of Australia Inc. www.jasa.net.au Lost In Austen DVD, ABC video Trading places: Gemma Arterton, Jemima Rooper and Elliot Cowan in the ITV series Lost In Austen, which aired on the ABC
Editor: Troy Lennon Writers: Chris Hook and Alex Lalak Graphics: Paul Leigh and Will Pearce
Northanger Abbey (1817)
AuStEN’S gothic spoof was published after she died and centres on the young heroine Catherine Morland who goes to stay with the mysterious tilney family and uncovers some of their secrets.
Mansfield Park (1814)
PooR, shy Fanny Price is sent to live with her wealthy relatives, the Bertram family, at their vast estate Mansfield Park, where she is meant to be educated and raised like a lady. But she also gets caught up in the
IN thE final novel to be completed by Austen, reliable Anne Elliot is the overlooked middle daughter who struggles to keep her cool when former flame Captain Wentworth resurfaces in her life.
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