Considering that she was the seventh child, out a family of eight, of an obscure Hampshire parson, Jane Austen has done rather well: in the early 18th Century women were not meant to write. When Jane got her quill out, she listened for the creaking floorboards which warned her that she had to hide her manuscript. Her family insisted that her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published anonymously.
Remarkably a global Austen industry has sprung-up. You can buy Jane Austen aprons, mugs, car stickers, versions of her books for Guinea Pigs and Jane Austen wallpaper. There is an online Jane Austen jewellery shop too.
Hollywood borrowed Emma’s characters and plot for Clueless while Bollywood produced a Bride and Prejudice spin-off. Then there was the Bridget Jones Diary film updating Pride and Prejudice. Johanna Trollope added Alfa Romeos and I-phones to her rewrite of Sense and Sensibility: taking it from Regency times when madness side-lined Kung George lll to the age of David Cameron.
Pilgrims from afar journey to Jane Austen’s House and Museum to stare in awe at the tiny desk where she wrote and at the ordinary single bed where she slept. Austen never married, though she turned down a proposal. She died at the age of 41 from either Addison’s Disease, arsenic poisoning from the medicine she took for her arthritis or cancer. It all depends on which book you read.
Two of her six novels were published posthumously but Austen was neither rich nor famous in her day. Yet, academics vehemently claim that Austen was vital in creating the piece of work that we now know as the novel. Without Jane Austen, Gone Girl may never have existed. For a woman requiring just a size 4 or 6 for her pelisse, this slight figure had enormous influence.
That’s why Jane Austen, with her mop cap, is on our £10 banknotes: a few curls modestly cascading down in the slightly dishevelled style of a Roman Goddess who has had a hard day at the office.
Visit Jane Austen’s House and you can see the Regency look yourself. The aim is to appear like a Roman Goddess in silhouette: any exposed flesh was modestly covered with a shawl.
The look maybe repressed but Jane Austen observed a world full of dancing, riding, walking – and flirtation. The reality was that women needed to marry and to marry well. Mr Darcy, owning half of Derbyshire, and with an income of £10,000 was a dream catch. In Jane Austen’s world Darcy never actually ripped off his shirt, that was just ratings-bait from the BBC.
Until the 31st December 2018, the Museum is running an exhibition on “Persuasion and War” through 27 exhibits. Although England was at war with America, France, Holland, Russia and Spain in Austen’s lifetime there were only oblique references to war in her last completed novel. Her boundaries rarely stretched beyond the walk to her brother’s house to observe a world of afternoon tea, carriage rides, dinner and the occasional dance.
She understood that romantic love, money and class were at the heart of what is meant to be a refined society. In Austen’s humorous novels characters, who are forever putting their foot in it, are mocked.
Jane Austen is something of a Marmite person. Her fans, probably lead by TV historian Lucy Worsley, who is rather fond of delving in the Regency dressing-up box, adore her. On the other hand, Giles Coren presented a programme for Sky Arts TV provocatively titled I hate Jane Austen. Ultimately, after re-reading the books he realises that it is not the novels that he hates but the exploitative Jane Austen industry. Once again, Jane had gained another fan.
The House and Museum is open 7 days a week, according to the following seasonal hours:
February – May: 10.30 – 16.30
June – August: 10.00 – 17.00
September – December: 10.30 – 16.30
The museum is closed 24, 25, 26 December and January 1 2019.Last modified: June 10, 2021