Archive for December 16th, 2016

Happy birthday to Jane Austen, “the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.”

Friday, December 16th, 2016
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austenIt’s Jane Austen‘s birthday, and time to revisit a National Endowment for the Humanities article by Meredith Hindley, celebrating the life of the author of Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I’ve only known the broadest outlines of Austen’s life – it always seemed rather dull to me –  so the piece in the NEH magazine Humanities was rather a pleasant surprise – and unpleasant, too, when one considers the wandering and dependent life even rather well-heeled spinsters endured.

Austen completed her formal education at age ten. She compared herself to someone “who like me knows only her mother tongue, and has read little in that … I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.” However, the article notes, Austen’s father kept “a sizable library—one bookcase reportedly covered sixty-four square feet of wall—which his children were encouraged to explore.” Sounds impressive, until you note that an 8 x 8 bookcase isn’t all that much. I have lots more than that.

Here’s a language note: “In Emma, she writes scathingly of schools that ‘professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity.’” I always thought the use of “screw,” in that sense, had its origins in a more vulgar usage, but hey, what do I know?

An excerpt on her literary roots:

The Austen household revolved around language. Henry once described his father as “a profound scholar, professing a most exquisite taste in every species of literature.” Mother Cassandra wrote humorous verses, while the brothers dabbled in essays and playwriting. We know that Jane read Samuel Richardson from cover to cover, plowed through Hume’s History, and marked up Goldsmith’s History of England and Dodsley’s Collection of Poems. She also read popular works, such as Fanny Burney’s Camilla. And, despite her protestations, Austen probably spoke passable French and knew enough Italian to translate opera, as she has Anne Elliot do in Persuasion.

But the thrust of the piece is, of course, on Pride and Prejudice, which, as the article notes, is considered the U.K.’s second best-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice, after J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, according to a 2003 BBC poll.

While marriage might be the central force of Pride and Prejudice—after all, the novel opens with the now-legendary line “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—the novel has endured because of the other universals Austen captured: money woes, troublesome sisters, unwanted suitors, embarrassing mothers, meddlesome neighbors, snap judgments, the trauma of public humiliation, the agony of not knowing if your love is returned, and the desire for a happy-ever-after ending.

birthday cake“Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice,” wrote Sir Walter Scott in March 1826. Scott was known for sweeping historical romances, but he also valued Austen’s limited canvas. “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early.”

Read the whole thing here.