Discussing Jane Austen's talent and legacy on the 200th anniversary of her death

Jane Austen

On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, Olivia Kelleher, talks to Trinity lecturer Daragh Downes about the woman, her talent and her legacy

JANE Austen, who died 200 years ago this year, was far from the stereotype of “Aunt Jane” the eternal spinster, but instead was an independent and worldly wise woman who wielded a sardonic pen, according to Trinity College English lecturer Dr Daragh Downes.

Dr Downes says Austen was a “mischievous” character who created fictitious entries in a marriage register linking herself with two separate men. Records from the Hampshire Archives, which prove that Austen made the handwritten entries in the record books while a teenager in Hampshire in the late 18th century, are due to go on display this month. Austen had access to the book because her father, George Austen, was the rector of the parish.

The book includes a fake entry for the publication of banns (announcements) of marriage between Henry Frederic Howard Fitzwilliam of London and Jane Austen of Steventon. Another details the marriage of the author to Edmund Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool. It is not known whether either of the men actually existed.

Dr Downes says Austens’ love life was far from dull.

“She was very romantic in an understated way. She fell in love with an Irishman but his family intervened and destroyed that. She was engaged after that but she pulled out of it. She was far from the stereotype of the frigid spinster. Those entries in the marriage banns were very mischievous. Part of me would like to think that they were real engagements.”

Titles by Jane Austen, who at the time of her death, aged 41, was working on a novel called ‘Sanditon’.

In recent years academics from the left and the far right have both claimed Austen as their own. Dr Downes says Jane Austen wasn’t an activist. She wasn’t a “Mary Wollstonecraft writing pamphlets on women’s liberation”.

However, members of the alt-right in the States who have jumped on the bandwagon of making Austen an advocate of racial purity and set gender structures also fall far from the mark.

Dr Downes insists ultimately Austen was a masterful writer who concentrated on the world she knew rather than on making political points.

“Her radicalism has been exaggerated. She came from a Tory family. If she had a problem with their views she kept it a secret. The time in which Austen lived was a period of appalling poverty and she didn’t cover that poverty. Then you have the far right delving into this type of ethnic homogeneity. The period involved clear sexual roles. That was not Jane Austen’s fault. That was part of her time. There is this type of ‘bottled Britishness’ which is in vogue now.

“Ultimately, Austen was an extraordinarily talented woman. One of the things that is great about Austen is what a critic called her ‘regulated hatred’. It is very restrained. There is a great tension in her writing. She is not being polemical. There are two ways of undermining a social world. One is being direct and attacking. Another is being ironic like Austen. It is an insincere narrator or a narrator who is winking at the reader.”

Dr Downes says that Austen’s great gift was her use of irony. Dying at a relatively young age he wonders how her writing would have developed as an older woman.

“Nobody does irony as well as Austen. She just had this technique for getting into the head of the character. She made an enormous contribution to the development of the novel. She was just a brilliant woman.

“She died at 41 having nearly died as a kid at a time when infant mortality rates were high. Back then 41 would have been a normal age to die. When she died she was working on a novel called Sanditon.

“It is tantalising to read the first few chapters of it. It would have been amazing if she had lived on into the Victorian era. Imagine if she had met Dickens?”

Dr Downes says one of the attractions of Austen is this sense of cultural nostalgia and the yearning for the apparent simplicity of a more innocent age. However, he stresses that Austen was “modern for her time.”

“The irony of all this is that they [fans] are nostalgic for a world that in many ways Austen herself was lampooning or at least subtly undermining through parody.

“It is a bit like 200 years from now somebody reading the Ross O’Carroll Kelly books and saying ‘we need to get back to the manly virtues of Leinster Schools Rugby’.

“A certain species of Jane Austen fan who dresses up in the costume and has tea and crumpets and feels that is at the heart of what Jane Austen is talking about.

Jane Austen didn’t think like that. If Jane Austen had thought like that in that nostalgic way she would have been writing novels set in Shakespeare’s time. She was modern.”

 


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