Understanding Jane Austen
I must admit that until recently I’ve never truly understood why everyone gets so excited about Jane Austen. To my mind her novels have always been classic romantic tales of girl meets boy. Through some disaster, usually a social disaster, girl gets torn away from boy, only to meet boy again, then live happily ever after. The end.
Not so fast. This is a highly simplistic way of viewing Austen’s work. Yes, I have been naïve in my understanding and comprehension of what she is actually showing us. When I studied Persuasion at school we all mocked Louisa’s stupidity for leaping off The Cobb when it was slippery, thus twisting her ankle. What was wrong with the woman? When we took a school trip to Austen’s home, Chawton House, we all gazed dumbfounded at the small round table she wrote at. Yeah, it’s a table, not even a proper desk. In my more mature years, like many other women, I’ve slow motioned the scene of Colin Firth, aka Mr Darcy, diving into the ornamental pond wearing a white shirt, which once wetted, turns semi-transparent. Hmm, very nice indeed, thank you.
Apart from Mr Firth’s shirt, what is all the fuss about?
I’m not a great historian, and although interested in historical events, my ability to retain specific data is sorely lacking. I’m one of those people who needs surround-sound educational material, with lots of pictures and associated stories before history means anything to me. A text book of dry words has me yawning and gazing out of the window. Fortunately, I own a television. It’s an appliance that sits in the corner and gets switched on once every few days. I’m not an addict. I trawl through the TV listings and record programmes I might be interested in. Out of mild curiosity I set my system to record ‘At Home with the Georgians.’
After watching the very first episode I began to comprehend Jane Austen’s novels. Yippee! At last! I already knew that in Georgian times it was impossible for a woman to inherit property or finances unless it was particularly specified in a will. Women were powerless in that respect. I also knew that the type of carriage one used was important, not only because it declared status, but also because it showed how modern you were, and whether you used the equivalent of a Ferrari or a 2CV. This latter fact didn’t escape my notice because I’m a bit of a petrol-head, and I can therefore easily make associations with my personal interest.
Property is what it’s all about
Property is the part that I had never understood. The house. What kind of gaff the bloke could offer. Wow! It’s a revelation. In Pride and Prejudice there’s an awkward scene in which Elizabeth Bennett visit’s Darcy’s home, Pemberley, with her aunt and uncle. Darcy is known to be away, but he returns unexpectedly, causing Elizabeth great embarrassment. Yeah, serves her right for snooping. Hang on, Georgian social conventions were different from ours. If someone owned a fine house with a large estate, it was normal and accepted behaviour for them to permit visitors to view their house while they were absent. A few people still offer private viewings of their homes, especially in London if they own an architecturally interesting property.
We’re now beginning to see that an understanding of Georgian social conduct gives us greater insight into Austen’s world. While watching ‘At Home with the Georgians,’ I’ve learnt that great importance was placed on owning your own home, as well as wallpaper being the new fashionable trend. The cabinet maker Chippendale was the first person to create a sales catalogue from which you could choose products from the comfort of your own home. Above all else, personal taste, as displayed by how you decorated your living quarters, was the in thing. This is why in Austen’s books women are always popping over to ‘take tea’ with some important lady or another. It isn’t for the genteel conversation, it’s to judge their host’s taste, and to decide whether or not they are worthy companions. These days we choose what to display on Facebook, in Georgian times people walked straight into your living room – so there was no picking or choosing choice tit-bits to show off, everything had to be socially acceptable.
No property = No taste
This is such an eye-opener. In Sense and Sensibility I’ve always fully understood why the Dashwood women should feel heartbroken at having to leave their beautiful estate, Norland, when their half-brother inherits. What I didn’t comprehend was that when they are left with meagre means, it’s not simply the lack of superior daily provisions, but also the lack of a fine home which makes them a less than attractive proposition to suitable husband material. This is why Willoughby jilts Marianne. She has no money, and is considered lacking by his aunt, on whom he’s dependant, due to the Dashwood’s inferior social status. In other words, they didn’t live in the right type of house as would befit any future wife of her precious nephew. No doubt they didn’t have the correct wallpaper either.
In Georgian middle-class England women were chosen on breeding and wealth. In fact there were published lists of how much each woman could be expected to bring as a dowry. Men would make a bee-line for the most prosperous women first. But let us not make these men all out to be gold-diggers. ‘At Home with the Georgians’ included readings from diaries and letters of men who thought themselves too unworthy to wed, mainly because they still lived under their father’s roofs and had no property to offer their prospective wife. To seduce a woman with a house was to offer her the opportunity to decorate it as she wished and to flourish within society. This is what a Georgian woman required in order to feel fulfilled.
I’m not certain that Austen was a true rebel
There were, of course, exceptions to this accepted notion of happiness, but I’m not certain that Austen was a true rebel. Just like the Dashwood women, Jane Austen, her mother and sister, were ousted from their family home when the eldest son inherited. Living in comfortable circumstances, on the fringes of society amongst the landed gentry, much of Austen’s work focuses on a woman’s need for security, how society gives women no power, and of the need for a home. Although Austen never married, it is said that she did receive at least one proposal of marriage, but there is nothing written as to why she refused him.
Austen’s home, Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, is only a short drive down the road from me. I live on the edge of Jane Austen country, and often pass many country estates which could readily stand in as Norland or Pemberley. Next summer I shall visit Chawton House again, look at the little table she sat at to write, and see if it’s grown in stature at all now that I understand more about the world she lived in.
Finding a modern day Pemberley. An article pondering which house Mr Darcy might buy now.
Which is your ideal Mr Darcy? Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen?