Obituary
Jane Austen's Regency World|88 – July/August 2017

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

Jane Austen

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.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM JANE AUSTEN'S REGENCY WORLDView All

How Did Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice Become A Christmas Story?

HO, HO, HO…how did Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice become a Christmas story? Devoney looser investigates

8 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
102 - November/December 2019

Jane's Beloved Friend

Judith Stove introduces her new biography of Anne Lefroy

4 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
102 - November/December 2019

Austen's Festive Music

A LARGE COLLECTION OF MUSIC WRITTEN OUT BY JANE AUSTEN REVEALS SOME POPULAR NURSERY RHYMES AND HER CHRISTMAS FAVOURITES, WRITES ROS OSWALD. PICTURES FROM THE NOVELS, BY CE BROCK

7 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
102 - November/December 2019

Darcy's Picture Gallery

WHAT MIGHT ELIZABETH BENNET HAVE SEEN AS SHE WANDERED THROUGH THE CORRIDORS OF PEMBERLEY? VICTORIA C SKELLY CONSIDERS HOW THE OWNERS OF GREAT ESTATES IN JANE AUSTEN’S TIME VIEWED ART

7 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
102 - November/December 2019

Women Of Peterloo

MEN WERE NOT THE ONLY ONES DEMANDING REFORM IN AUGUST 1819. MANY WOMEN CAME TO MANCHESTER FOR A DAY OF PROTEST, AND NOT ALL OF THEM MADE IT HOME, AS SUE WILKES REPORTS

8 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
102 - November/December 2019

Inside The Abbey

Jane Austen’s gothic novel was published shortly after her death, but it had been a long time in preparation. Liz Philosophos Cooper traces the history of this most unusual of Austen’s novels.

8 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
89 - September/October 2017

Candour And Comfort

Female friendships outside the family group rarely feature in Jane Austen’s fiction, yet she and Cassandra enjoyed a close relationship with the three youngest daughters of many down park, Hampshire as Hazel Jones explores 

6 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
89 - September/October 2017

Jane And The Duke

Military conflict was never far away during Jane Austen’s lifetime. Collins Hemingway explores its impact and a uncovers a remarkable connection between jane and a duke of wellington

6 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
89 - September/October 2017

Keeping The Faith

Quakers, Catholics and Methodists fared badly compared with Anglicans in the Christian Britain of a Jane Austen’s time, writes Penelope Friday

6 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
89 - September/October 2017

Austen In Australia

The Jane Austen society of Australia

4 mins read
Jane Austen's Regency World
89 - September/October 2017
RELATED STORIES

MERCURY

Weighing in at 860kg and holding the rank of major, this “gentle giant” drum horse is a professional on parade with the Household Cavalry

4 mins read
Horse & Hound
December 03, 2020

FINDING AUSTEN IN BATH

Spend a day walking around the spa town of Bath in the UK for its golden buildings, hot water baths, and literary monuments of Jane Austen’s worlds.

7 mins read
Travel+Leisure India
October 2020

Care of roses in autumn

The dormant months are ideal for nurturing and planting, says Ruth and national rose expert Kerry Austen

5 mins read
Amateur Gardening
September 19, 2020