10 New Things We’ve Learned About Jane Austen
This year marks the Jane Austen bi-centennary. Here, we look at what the latest crop of Austenalia tells us about her.
The celebrated author, who died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41, completed six novels (two published posthumously) and remains more popular today than she was in her lifetime. Not a year goes by without several new examinations, theories and analysis of her work. To say nothing of the adaptations!
We look at what the latest crop of Austenalia tells us about her.
1. Austen was obsessed with real estate
“My work is so small, my canvas just a little bit of ivory, two inches wide, in which I paint with such a fine brush,” Austen wrote to her sister. But while the ostensible scope of her domestic novels seems narrow, she treats the country house as microcosm. Behaviour behind closed doors and in private spaces had a personal resonance for the author, not least because of her own family’s precarious and often peripatetic living arrangements.
As British historian and popular TV presenter Lucy Worsley details in her new book Jane Austen At Home (Hodder & Stoughton), the search for a home is an idea that’s central to her fiction. It offers an original and entertaining—but also poignant—biography of Austen through the places she lived, because the question of living weighed heavily on her. The death of her father forced her into a makeshift life in rented lodgings,” Worsley writes, as Austen was shunted between the relatives who used her as cheap child care. “Home was a perennial problem…How could she find the time to write? Where could she keep her manuscripts safe?”
2. Austen loved fashion
Consider the loving detail lavished on Miss Tilney’s romantic fixation on white muslin and the ensuing conversations about them in Northanger Abbey (“sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings”). Austen also often mentions sewing and clothing in her personal correspondence and the refurbishment of bonnets to suit new occasions, even once illustrating the patterns of lace in a cloak in a letter to sister Cassandra. “Our abuse of our gowns amuses but does not discourage me; I shall take mine to be made up next week, and the more I look at it the better it pleases me,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister. “My cloak came on Tuesday, and, though I expected a good deal, the beauty of the lace astonished me. It is too handsome to be worn—almost too handsome to be looked at.”
3. Austen herself practiced slow fashion
It’s an attitude in vogue today that has a precedent. Jonathan Walford, curatorial director of Canada’s Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario, curates their latest exhibition “Jane Austen’s World” (on until December 17, 2017) and features several antique dresses from the period and many accessories like shoes, hats, fans and bonnets that demonstrate how surprisingly wearable Regency fashion was in the brief time after the French Revolution and before the Victorian era.
With high waist, narrow skirt and minimal corseting the classical Grecian style develops and the silhouette stays that way for 15 years. “One thing I’m doing in the exhibition is mirroring it with 1992 to today,” he explains. “Because like Austen’s era of 1792-1817, things in fashion have fundamentally stayed kind of the same. I think part of that there has been so much emphasis on everything else changing — they were so focused on the Napoleonic Wars and their own advances in machinery, the Luddidte Revolution. And since they’re at war with France, you don’t get fashion information from Paris. On gowns between 1805 and 1811, you often can’t tell the difference!”
“Women in Canada didn’t want to appear colonial,” Wolford adds. “So the only difference in styles between England to Canada was however long it took for information to get across the Atlantic.” Accordingly, the show also displays the oldest known Canadian dress in the Museum’s 15,000-piece archives: an 1816 wedding dress from Quebec City, dressmaker-made from imported embroidered Indian cotton. It would be right at home in the wardrobe of Anne Elliott or Emma Woodhouse.
4. Austen practiced sartorial diplomacy as deftly as Michelle Obama
“She understands the social power of fashion, with characters who worry about how they look,” FHM curator Walford adds. “They don’t want to appear shabby or too eager or too fashionable.” Austen not only used clothing to define character and class but as a plot device.
To contextualize Austen as a keen observer of clothing and a dedicated follower of fashion (“she often refers to stylish details like spencers and tippets”, he notes), in addition to fashion artefacts like a pink cotton print dress from 1797 Halifax by way of Scotland, there are examples from the period fashion magazines that Austen would have read. Two bound volumes of Ackerman’s journal, aka Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, the influential early style journal published monthly in London that contained hand-painted plates of the latest fashions. Those on display still have actual fabric samples in them, Walford says, “including a faux-fur with a giraffe print, probably meant for making men’s vests. “More for Mr. Wickham,” he laughs, “who when he wasn’t in uniform probably wore this!”
5. Austen is also very much in fashion again—literally
She’s also very much in fashion as a muse. For his last Givenchy collection, Alexander McQueen referenced her literary heroines. Her empire waists fill Molly Godard dreamy fall 2017’s runway, and Regency-inspired splendour in the latest Gucci show. The invitation was a vinyl record that included a recitation from Persuasion. On the runway itself, Gucci designer Alessandro Michele sent models carrying embroidered floral clutches that were trompe l’oeil of her celebrated novel.
6. Austen was a political wonk
That the author was shrewd observer of world politics and dispensed pithy and relevant critique is what Helena Kelly argues in Jane Austen: The Secret Radical. No thanks to the 1990s boom in costume drama adaptations of her novels that foregrounds the taffeta and romance. Austen’s actual work—as opposed to the culturally received Jane Austen—is often misremembered as celebrating gentility and old-fashionedness. It doesn’t. Take Amma Asante’s recent movie Belle, where the titular heroine Dido lives and breathes Jane Austen. As critic Sophie Mayer points out, Dido and her cousin experience the economic anxiety and are chaperoned in public, subject to classed and gendered surveillance, but Belle gives back political life and breath to Austen’s economically-anxious heroines, “who have been rendered safe entertainment by multiple chocolate-box adaptations.”
7. Austen still inspires many writers, including—gasp!—men
Admired by Kipling and cherished by Churchill, Austen is more than the chick-lit or ‘lady novelist’ many dismiss her as today. She was a true ironist who has inspired many writers. “It was an interesting time, it was before anybody started to say there are boys’ books or girls’ books or Irish books or English books”
Irish novelist Colm Tóibín (Nora Webster, Brooklyn) recalls of reading Persuasion as part of high school curriculum in the late 1960s, in the recent documentary The Divine Jane. “We didn’t question for a single moment when we were given this book to read, English, which was about girls, which was written by a woman. Almost from moment one I found the book amused me, interested me and what I learned about from them was the inwardness of good behaviour,” he continues. “About being someone who reflects a lot, that those were qualities to be recognized and to be appreciated. The idea of repose, the idea of some people being worthy of our full sympathy and others not, interested me greatly—and still do.”
8. Austen was a proto-feminist
Austen was a subversive with bite and in the Morgan Library’s documentary The Divine Jane, Fran Lebowitz posits that Austen’s enduring mainstream popularity is based on the enormous extent to which she’s misunderstood. “The popularity has to do with misreading of her, an adolescent reading of Austen and the worst kind of girlishness.”
Although she wrote about women too smart for their own good, would-be overachievers and aggressive matchmakers who nevertheless had happily-ever-afters ending with the peal of wedding bells, it is believed Austen received at least one marriage proposal but chose to remain single. Much to her own financial and social detriment.
9. Austen isn’t as genteel as most people think she is
Further proof emerged last year, when writer and director Whit Stillman adapted Austen’s unfinished and mostly-forgotten epistolary novella Lady Susan as both a novel and film called Love & Friendship, the latter starring Kate Beckinsale. Beckinsale’s tour-de-force performance as the titular lady resists the ineffably camp destiny even earnest adaptations can indulge in. Written around 1795 by a young and very irreverent Austen, is almost unfailingly deadpan as an acid commentary on a time that required women to live by their wits and depend on the kindness of husbands or (relative) strangers.
Set in the 1790s and earlier than most Austen tales, it concerns a beautiful and recently-widowed designing woman and the comedy of drawing room terrors that ensues. The caustic comedy helps restore Austen’s reputation to its rightful place as a serious critic of the social and economic position of women. “Rich is just another word for safe,” Lady Susan declares. “It’s quite muscular writing—it’s not dainty as people expect it to be,” says actor Harriett Walter, who played antagonist Fanny Dashwood in Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility. “It’s taut and grown up. But I think one of the reason people love her is that she’s quite wicked but she’s not really viciously cruel.
10. Austen herself was into mashups—more than her purists are
The Austen Project series pairs bestselling contemporary authors like Alexander McCall Smith and Joanna Trollope with her six complete works, each using that story as a base but offering their own modern take. And writers from Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary to Jo Baker’s below-stairs take Longbourn and the P.D. James whodunit Death Comes to Pemberley offer canon-adjacent original tales and continuations on her now-public domain work, while cinematic mashups populate her world with sea monsters or recast the Bennet sisters as Regency-era wuxia warriors fighting zombies. Fanfic like Austenland veers dangerously into cheap pastiche.
Some Janeites are less fond of these sassy spinster retellings than others. Director Whit Stillman, for example, stands in defiance of today’s remix culture—Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, et. al.as well as the modernizations like The Austen Project (the latest last spring being Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld). He prefers that creation happen differently. “Maybe people are doing good work in it, but it’s just an idea I hate,’ Stillman says. “Oh we’re a publisher and we’re going to commission a series…Bridget Jones is fine, if a writer gets and idea and wants to do something new, great, but I do hate that sort of industrializing.”
Follow freelance culture critic Nathalie Atkinson on Twitter at @Nathat