Anna Tomforde –
There is still something mysterious about the small round desk in the dining room where Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote her world-renowned novels. The young woman chose that room because its door creaked, a warning that somebody was approaching. When that happened, she would quickly hide her manuscripts.
Jane Austen, known at the time simply as “the lady who writes,” is now being honoured again, the occasion being the 200th anniversary of her death on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41.
At the Jane Austen’s House Museum, the house in the Hampshire region of southern England where she lived and wrote, and in many other places, the search is on to find the “real” Jane Austen and explore her relevance that prevails to this day.
It was in that house in the town of Chawton where Jane lived with her mother and beloved sister Cassandra. It was also where she worked on her first novels “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and ‘‘Northanger Abbey.” She also wrote “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” and ‘‘Persuasion” there.
Her works — which dealt mainly with such themes as love, propriety and money — are ranked among the classics of English-language literature and have been filmed many times over. Her standing as a keen observer and analytical critic of the society of Georgian England of around 1800 is unchallenged.
“I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an author,” she wrote in one of her countless letters that showed her typical understatement and dry wit.
What is and remains striking is how Austen gathered the material for her books from her daily life.
In her childhood, she was the seventh of eight children of a country pastor of the Anglican Church. She had been close to her father, who secretly encouraged her but died early on. She was close to two brothers who were serving in the powerful Royal Navy, and to her sister Cassandra, at a time when the other women in the family were bearing one child after the other.
Then there was the difficult dependency relationship with her older brother Edward, who was adopted by a wealthy relative and inherited everything.
Edward gave Jane, Cassandra and their mother a place to live — one of the cottages at Chawton — but otherwise kept them in modest circumstances.
“Chawton is like a stage set and Austen’s final years there read like a story from her books,” the Daily Telegraph commented.
Writer and TV historian Lucy Worsley, who has come out with a newbook, said about Austen: “Most of all, she’s personal. Every word of her is written with integrity, conviction and love.”
Museum guide Andrew Constantine notes that Jane Austen understood perfectly how to tap into the “social network” surrounding the powerful church of those times.
“She was socially very skilled. She knew everyone in the church and was surrounded by young men. She would hold her own in conversation amid her clever brothers. And then she would go to her room and write it all down.”
And so the creation of such characters as Mr Darcy, Elizabeth Bennetund Emma Woodhouse.
In the nearby Chawton House Library, in the imposing manor where Edward lived and where today Austen’s works are archived, library director Gillian Dow proudly shows the manuscripts of early plays,which show passages that were crossed out, corrected, and notes jotted down.
Austen’s significance is because she created characters people can recognise and who had their flaws.
“Her characters are timeless, her language is beautiful,” the director added.
According to Dow, Austen’s achievements had become “forgotten” in the 19th Century, but this has changed. “She is now more popular than at any time since her death.”
A similar view is held by Louise West, curator of the exhibition “The Mysterious Miss Austen” in Winchester.
“It was not that uncommon for women at the time to write. But she was a genius — her knowledge of the human psyche was phenomenal — long before Freud,” West said.
It is in Winchester Cathedral that Jane Austen was buried, not because of her fame but because of her close ties with the church. It was only many decades after her death that a tablet was placed near her grave saying “Jane Austen was known to many by her writings.” Among the many special events and commemorations, the Bank of England is joining in the tributes to the woman who was a keen observer of the power of money: Jane Austen’s image is soon to grace the new 10-pound note and 2-pound coin.