Actually, right now we are having a break from the Austen machine. The past couple of years were basically one long Austen carnival, as devised deftly and wonderfully, by Hollywood, and ably assisted by the doughty BBC. There were a couple of interpretations of Austen’s all-time classic, Pride and Prejudice (and no, I’m not including Gurinder Chadha’s far-from-felicitous tweaking of the novel). There was Becoming Jane, which traced the early, carefree days of the novelist. There was The Jane Austen Book Club, where a group met and discussed the works of their favourite author. Then there was Miss Austen regrets, which gave us a glimpse of the might-have-been romantic life of Miss Austen. All of it, good, bad, indifferent, was lapped up eagerly by the legion of Austen fans, amongst whom there is and has always been, a respectable number of men. And in the interim, life went on as usual, with regular small screen screenings of Mansfield Park and Emma. So, there you have it: Jane Austen, in her avatar as queen of chick flicks!
In other words, Jane Austen, as she has done in the 192 years since her untimely death, lives on. The legends surrounding her live on, too. Like the one where David Lassman, director of the Jane Austen festival at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, sent in a manuscript titled First Impressions, which was the not-in-the-least-artfully-concealed first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, to publishers Penguin and Christopher Little. Penguin was extremely doubtful that the book would sell, Christopher Little said an outright ‘no.’ All of which, of course, adds immediate lustre to the book Austen called her ‘darling child,’ which actually sold as many as 1,10,000 copies just last year — that’s a good 195 years after it was first published!
Endowed with a keen eye for observation and a witty tongue and pen, Austen wrote romances (using the credit line ‘By a Lady’) full of a sly humour and sharp social insi­ghts, all of which hold good all these years later. While she never married, Austen’s take on love, marriage, money and self-control are all enduring ones.
She wrote Sense and Sensibility first, got it published with some difficulty, followed that up with Pride And Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and then Emma. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously. The last two novels were largely set in Bath. She died in 1817, probably suffering from Addison’s Disease, an endocrinal disorder, aged just 41 years old and nowhere near foreseeing or imagining just what a cult figure she would become.
The little house at Chawton in Hampshire, where Jane wrote most of her novels, is now an Austen museum. The Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street in Bath is a loving memorial for the author where visitors trace her history, as one of the daughters of a parson of modest means, with seven siblings and much reason to damp down the leaping fires of her creativity. While the family did not spend a very long time at Bath, Austen wrote extensively about the city in both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, and Bath treasures that.
The Jane Austen centre is a sort of permanent exhibition, complete with a period atmosphere, exclusive films, Regency costumes, contemporary exhibits, maps and books…and the ubiquitous gift shop, of course! Right till the end of October, the Romance and Reality Exhibition is on; during the latter part of September, the annual Jane Austen Festival is held with highlights such as a costumed Promenade along the Georgian terraces of Bath, outdoor festivities and entertainment, a special reproduction of Northanger Abbey, country dances, walking tours and talks by specialists. And from March-end this year, BAFTA and Emmy award-winning designer Andrea Galer is exhibiting the key costumes from the BBC drama Miss Austen Regrets, at the Centre. In other words, life goes on even though Miss Austen left the building, as it were.
The picture we get of the novelist from the Jane Austen Centre is one of a demure, quietly coping woman, an avid reader who had some French and Italian at her command, was accomplished at both the piano and embroidery, someone who wrote copiously even though she didn’t have a room of her own, (she penned her manuscripts on pieces of scrap paper at a desk in the parlour), helped to take care of her many siblings, attended social events of a modest scale, generally lived a quiet life.
Well, what do you know, Hollywood begs to differ. The Jane we meet in the films that trace her life, is a vivacious young woman, whose somewhat plain looks are more than compensated by her sparkling wit and personality; she is something of a dedicated flirt, in fact. While much poetic license is permitted where details are scarce, history has done its bit too, since Cassandra burned most of Jane Austen’s correspondence after the latter’s death, thus depriving Austen fans of what must be a trove of information and insights.
And what insights. This is Austen on the world:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. A woman especially if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can. Yes, I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.
Those who do not complain are never pitied; We do not look in our great cities for our best morality; With men he can be rational and unaffected, but when he has ladies to please, every feature works; A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.
While Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath both commanded much adulation for their works and indeed, it must be said, for the tragic manner of their deaths, the legacy of Jane Austen is at par with that of Shakespeare. Sir Walter Scott wrote of her, “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements, and feelings, and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful thing I ever met with....What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!” The reading world, and of late, the cinema-going world, echoes this sentiment.