The press announcements of Jane Austen’s death in 1817 were brief and failed to do her justice. here is how her obituary might look if it appeared in the Times of London today
Colin firth emerging from a lake wearing a wet shirt may not have been what Jane Austen had in mind when she wrote the character of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, but the BBC television adaptation by Andrew Davies in 1995 helped to catapult her from household name to global superstar – and it did no harm to Firth’s career either.
Pride and Prejudice was one of Austen’s six mature novels, and over the past two centuries it has consistently been her most popular. The opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”, has become one of the most repeated, and most parodied, lines in literature. She once described the work, which tells how Elizabeth Bennet only gradually comes to appreciate the charms of Mr Darcy, and vice versa, as “my own darling child”.
Austen was by no means the only female author of the early 19th century: Fanny Burney, the Brontë sisters and hundreds of others are represented today among the 16,000 books at Chawton House Library of Early English Women’s Writing, located in the Elizabethan manor house in Hampshire that was once her brother’s home. Yet Austen is the only one to have achieved such worldwide acclaim.
Pride and Prejudice was not the first novel she wrote – that honour goes to Northanger Abbey, which appeared posthumously. Nor was P&P the first to be published; Sense and Sensibility, originally named Elinor and Marianne and telling the tale of the Dashwood sisters and their respective journeys towards marriage, came out in 1811. It was published “on commission”, effectively at the author’s own risk. To the Austen family’s delight it quickly ran to a second edition. This led Thomas Egerton, the publisher, to inquire what else she had written, hence the appearance of P&P, for which he paid a fee of £110 – although she had hoped for £150.
Mansfield Park (1814) was the third to appear, the only one of her six major novels explicitly to mention matters political – in this case slavery. Indeed, although filled with soldiers and sailors, at first reading much of Austen’s work seems largely oblivious to events in the wider world, notably the Napoleonic wars that dominated British foreign policy during much of her life. However, some have detected subtle themes, with Lucy Worsley, for example, claiming to have identified an “anti-French feeling running through her novels”.
Of Emma (1815), which tells of Emma Woodhouse and her clumsy attempts at matchmaking, Austen said she was “going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. And she was good to her word, creating a wealthy and rather spoilt title character with whom readers have often struggled to empathise. James Stanier Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent (later George IV), requested – and was granted – a fawning dedication for his employer. This was a reluctant move on the part of the author, who abhorred the prince’s profligate ways.
All four were published anonymously (“By a Lady”), as was typical for a respectable family of the time, although her brother Henry, who often handled her business affairs, was not as discreet as she would have wished. “The truth is that the Secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now,” she wrote to another brother, Frank, in September 1813.
These novels were mentioned in the few, and invariably brief, announcements of Austen’s death that appeared in 1817. Two more, published in the months after her death, completed the canon that we know today: Persuasion, which tells of second chances in love between Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth, and Northanger Abbey, known as her Gothic novel. They were bound together with a “biographical notice”, written by Henry, that was intended not only to confirm her identity as the author of all six, but also put to rest inquiries about her life – although the evidence of the past 200 years suggests that it had the opposite effect.
Since then Austen’s work has barely been out of print, while the demand from readers anxious to know more about her has risen inexorably. A Memoir of Jane Austen, published by James Austen-Leigh, her nephew, in 1869, revealed little more and only served to whet the appetite further, while another memoir written in the early 1870s by her niece, Caroline Austen – who as a child her proudly sent Aunt Jane her own stories for comment – offers little enlightenment. Claire Harman reports in Jane’s Fame: “By the 1860s, when the first tourists sought out the writer’s grave in Winchester Cathedral, the verger had no idea what she was famous for.”
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