“But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.” Jane Austen
(Extract from letter written to Rev. James Stanier Clarke, 1st April 1816, in response to his advice on a plot for the next novel).
2017 marks the bicentennial of one of the greatest literary heroes of the English language – Jane Austen. Bodleian Library (University of Oxford) is commemorating this momentous occasion with an exhibition, Which Jane Austen?, challenging the narrative we believe to be true of her life.
A Life Unlaced
Upon Austen’s death, on 18 July 1817, concerned that an outsider may publish a biography, her family set about creating the image of a quiet spinster who wrote in her spare time. Anxious that they might fall in to the wrong hands, her sister and confidante Cassandra destroyed thousands of private letters. All but 161 survived. This largely shaped her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh’s publication A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869). At a time when public interest in Austen was stirring, the book was used to construct an image of a middle class country woman not motivated by “…the hope of fame nor profit…”. Thus manufacturing a contrived heroine.
“War, Empire and Business”
200 years on and the University of Oxford presents an exhibition challenging this notion of Austen. Curator of the exhibition, Kathryn Sutherland, presents a wartime writer whose world stretched from India to China, an ambitious woman who possessed an uncompromising vision and an unparalleled understanding of her craft.
Through a collection of books, letters and personal effects the exhibition unlocks an identity influenced by war, gossip, scandal and the political climate of her time. It provokes an author who spent most of her life in the shadow of war from the American Revolution to the Napoleonic Wars. Moreover, we discover a woman who savoured her professional career. She made regular visits to the capital when her books were in the process of publication. She nurtured and built a successful relationship with her publisher John Murray II. When her business day was over she enjoyed an active social life at the theatre, arts and culture in London. All of which are supported by Bodleian Library’s rich Austen material.
This is a remarkable exhibition which examines everything that influenced the author from childhood into her last days.
Which Jane Austen?
So we come to the ultimate question – Which Jane Austen? I was introduced to Pride and Prejudice at the age of 15. When I turned the first page into her life I could have never known that decades later I would be browsing through personal letters, admiring her silk plisse dress and be mere inches a away from the desk where she penned what is arguably her most famous novel.
As a young reader I found her subjects uninspiring. I imagined (without evidence) her life to have been simple, her circles small and her relationships uninteresting. As I grew and my own world became bigger, wider and more exciting I abandoned Ms. Austen in favour of Marquez, Allende, du Maurier, Atwood.
The invitation to Which Jane Austen? therefore, was a chance meeting. Akin to bumping in to a jilted lover on a platform waiting to board the same train. Flight or fight? As I could no longer plead youth, I decided I would fight. So I set off to Oxford to see her once more. I was met with first editions of her major works, greeted by her hand copied music books and awed by a selection of hilarious short stories written in her childhood. As I moved around the room in silence she wooed me. I was enmeshed in her world – the one she really occupied. A world full of wonder, fun, excitement, wit, social consciousness, charm and elegance. It was difficult to imagine such an effervescent personality being contained in a small English country village resigned to her fate of dying a spinster.
Which Jane Austen? corroborates that she lived fully, authentically, uncompromisingly. Without a doubt she left an imprint on all those she encountered. Rev. James Stanier Clarke (Librarian to George, Prince of Wales) was so struck by her at their meeting that he painted an image of her from memory in his “Liber Amicorum” (Book of Friends).
Austen was a story teller of the best kind; one that could tell a story about a story. Her genius lay in weaving an under current of emotion and intrigue in to familiar routines, people and situations. What might otherwise be a mundane event transformed itself in to a gigantic wave under her penmanship. So, which Jane Austen you ask me? I choose the woman who’s life is displayed in the Bodleian. She will forever be etched in my memory.
Which Jane Austen? runs until October 2017 at the Weston Library. Admission is free. For more information visit: www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson.