If there is one author I turn to for the ultimate in comfort reading, it’s Jane Austen. A collection of her complete works, a present for my 15th birthday, has been with me ever since in a state of increasingly advanced disintegration. The pages may be falling apart, but the words are reassuringly timeless. Austen’s beautifully barbed prose, the foibles to laugh at, the sure knowledge that everyone decent triumphs in the end: it’s like a slice of cake and a warm bath and stroking a kitten all rolled up into book form.
It’s tempting to assume that the writer who produced such effervescent heroines as Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse herself led a charmed, sunny life, and that her books are as free of shadows as they first appear. But as a new book, The Austen Girls, by Helen Amy (Amberley Publishing), reminds us, the truth is a good deal darker.
Having demolished a few assumptions about the author, including the idea that a lack of suitors forced her into spinsterhood, Amy writes: “Another myth about Jane Austen, which was started by some of her early biographers including her nephew, was that she led a calm and untroubled life. The Austen family, like most others, had their share of bereavement and tragedy.”
These included the sudden premature deaths of Jane’s beloved elder sister Cassandra’s fiancé, Thomas Fowle, from yellow fever, of the only man Jane herself was suspected to have had serious feelings for, and myriad unfortunate relations. Death in childbirth was so common that Amy notes how Jane Austen hushed up the fact that two local women had recently died in labour to a sister-in-law nervously expecting her first child. Another sister-in-law, Elizabeth Austen, struggled through pregnancy with her 11th child only to die suddenly, days after giving birth. As her stunned daughter Fanny wrote in her diary, extracted in Austen Girls:
“Oh! The miserable events of this day! My mother, my beloved mother torn from us after eating a hearty dinner. She was taken violently ill & expired (God have mercy upon us) after half an hour!!!”
Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817, at the age of just 41, from a condition she played down as “bile” or “rheumatism” but was retrospectively thought to be either Addison’s disease, a serious adrenal disorder, or Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer. Her lifespan ended before modern medicine really began: it was a time of apothecaries, sudden deaths, invalids sipping spa waters, leeches for her mother’s headaches and listening to the screams as she sat waiting for her niece at the dentist. Georgian England may have had better manners and spectacular hats but it was not a period for the faint-hearted. And that was true even for the privileged gentry, the class Austen belonged to and wrote about. For the poorest classes, as Amy writes, “living standards were lower in the 18th century than during the medieval period”, and “life… was a relentless struggle to survive”.
How did the harsh realities of life at the turn of the 19th century make their way into Austen’s pearlescent prose? The answer is indirectly. Her best-loved novels are all uplifting romances, written first to entertain her own family with life-like portraits and cosy parodies. The main indicator of her precarious times is the rich cast of the bereaved: widows, widowers, orphans. It is also telling that the finale of every plot is the marriage proposal, rather than actual marriage. While this is no doubt due to literary and social convention, it also reflects a world where marriage meant a frightening loss of control. Would Elizabeth Bennet’s happily ever after as Mrs Darcy have been quite so happy if she had to go through pregnancy and birth 11 times in a row with no medical care?
This is the kind of question that I never ask myself as I happily guzzle Pride and Prejudice whenever I’m feeling low or stressed. But reading Amy’s account of the lives of Jane Austen and her elder sister, meticulously pieced together from letters and diary extracts, throws the context of her books into sharp relief. Marriage as a kind of mental calculus – on the one hand, not wanting to be a burden to your family; on the other, hoping to marry for love – was as familiar to the author as it was pivotal to her plots. With her father unable to afford a dowry, Austen was in a similar position to the Bennet sisters: she initially accepted a proposal from a wealthy suitor she didn’t love, before sleeping on it and rejecting him the next day. There is something quietly horrifying, if you think about it, in the subplot of Pride and Prejudice, where the sharp, likeable Charlotte Lucas chooses marriage to the simpering buffoon Mr Collins as preferable to life as a dependent “old maid”.
A proposal ended every novel not just because it was romantic but because for the women Austen wrote about, that one yes-or-no answer was every choice they would ever make: their private lives, where they would live, their friendships, how they would spend their days when work and serious education were both thought “unwomanly”. Jane Austen’s fictional world turns the ruthless lottery of the marriage market into a soothing, well-ordered paradise, where there is a Mr Darcy to balance out every Elizabeth Bennet, a steadfast Frederick Wentworth for every Anne Elliot, a pious Edmund Bertram for every Fanny Price.
It appears the author herself decided the ticket she had between her hands – a contented family life with her sister, countless nieces and nephews, and time to write – was a safer bet than real-world marriage. She continued working much of her illness, with Persuasion, her final novel, published six months after her death in 1817. Over two centuries later, her novels still comfort and inspire, however many shadows lurked between the lines.
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