Another day, another Jane Austen news story. Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen can still make headlines. This summer has seen the successful campaign to put Austen on a ten pound note followed by a scarcely believable misogynist backlash. And then there is dispute over the sale of a ring that she once owned. Does it matter if American singer, Kelly Clarkson, gets to take the ring home or should it be saved for the British nation? Whatever happens to the ring, Austen‘s ‘image’ will be appearing on the ten pound note in 2017. Given her acute understanding of the significance of money and the precarious nature of her own financial status for most of her life, this mark of recognition seems both apt and (appropriately) ironic.
The Jane Austen who will appear on the notes is a version of the memoir portrait by James Andrews, itself an adaptation of Cassandra Austen’s watercolour sketch of her younger sister. This will be combined with two background images, one of Austen writing and the other of Godmersham, her brother Edward’s home. Edward Austen-Knight, was fortunate to acquire his money by means of his adoption by the childless Knights. Jane Austen was merely a visitor at his house in Kent. She joked in a letter: ‘Kent is the only place for happiness, Everybody is rich there.’ Opinions on the likeness of Cassandra’s sketch are contradictory but so too are descriptions of the author’s appearance. Until relatively recently Cassandra’s work has been the standard vision of Austen but in 2011 the case for another image has been put by Paula Byrne, who champions a more formal portrait as an accurate representation of Jane Austen as accomplished author. She reiterates this in her audaciously titled biography, The Real Jane Austen, published earlier this year.
The Real Jane Austen, written in the form of a series of essays, each taking a particular artefact as the basis for a meditation on some aspect of Austen’s life or cultural context, is a highly enjoyable and engaging read. And Byrne’s Austen is a woman for our times, even as she is presented as a woman absolutely of her own. Austen likes to act, dance, walk, visit the theatre, travel, sea-bathe, and keep up with fashion. Whilst Byrne acknowledges the work of previous Austen scholars in her biography, it is undoubtedly a revisionist work. I was surprised to find that the only specific reference to Claire Tomalin’s celebrated 1997 study was in a critical footnote. Despite the fact that both Tomalin and Byrne argue the case against seeing Austen’s life as one of quiet obscurity, the character of the author and the tenor of her life are contested. Tomalin’s work is a much more melancholy affair. It emphasises the humiliating dependency of the Austen women on their male relatives, particularly after the death of Jane’s father when Jane, her sister and her mother lacked a place to call home. And it relates this unsettled period to a lack of productivity in the writer. Byrne argues against this. Despite a postscript which ends with an image of Austen laughing, as a cradle to the grave biography, Tomalin’s work pays close attention to the illness which caused Austen’s death at the age of 41. By contrast, Byrne does not dwell on this and concludes with an appealing vignette of Jane looking out to sea. This image, another sketch by Cassandra, showing bonnet and back rather than face, necessarily maintains the enigma of Austen’s appearance. Readers see her as they will.
For me, Jane Austen is the writer who first made school English lessons interesting. At the age of fourteen I started reading Northanger Abbey, the first of our ‘O’ level texts. How wonderful it was to read a novel about a fifteen year old heroine, neither beautiful nor rich, often misunderstood or misinterpreted, who had problems both with a young man that she fancied and a young man that she didn’t; and who also had to work out who her best friend should be. The etiquette of the school disco was not quite that of the Assembly Rooms but Austen would have understood the agonies of ‘the slowie’. And better still, she would have written about that ordeal in gloriously sarky prose. I started reading Austen at exactly the right age but have returned to her razor sharp romances both as books and in their many adaptations and each time I have seen something afresh. I am looking forward to re-reading her major novels and re-viewing her twenty-first century appeal.
By Shirley Jones
Shirley’s course ten-week course, The Novels of Jane Austen, starts on Thursday 26th September, 2- 4pm. She says, “If you have never read Austen before or if you are a fully paid up member of the fan-club come along to share your ideas. We shall discuss all of Austen’s major novels as well as considering her status in contemporary culture.” Sign up today at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Continuing Education.