To understand Jane Austen one must visit the cottage at Chawton in Hampshire where she spent the last eight years of her life and where she wrote Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.
The village is understandably different now, but in the cottage she shared with her mother and sister it is no great leap of the imagination to picture Jane seated at the tiny writing table in the parlour conjuring up a world of characters not far removed from those she met in daily life.
Many of the events described in Austen’s novels played out in the lives of her close family and many of the traits and foibles of her characters reflect those with whom she was on intimate terms. The novels are full of Austen’s acute observations and understanding of human relationships and which clearly originate in first-hand knowledge. It is her own voice we hear when she writes in Pride and Prejudice:
“The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.”
Social scheming – especially in regard to marriage and family fortune – is another prominent theme of her writings: “There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere” (Mansfield Park).
During her lifetime, Austen’s novels brought her little personal fame. Like many women writers, she chose to publish anonymously and it was only among members of the aristocracy (including the Prince Regent) that her authorship was an open secret. At the time, the novels were considered fashionable by members of high society, but received few positive reviews. Soon after their publication in Britain, in 1813 a French translation of Pride and Prejudice appeared, quickly followed by German, Danish, and Swedish editions. But Austen was not well known in Russia and the first translation of an Austen novel into Russian did not appear – astonishingly – until 1967.
Many disparaged the novel as a form of literature, a fact that Jane Austen sardonically critiques in Northanger Abbey whose heroine, Catherine Morland, expresses Jane’s own view of the power of the novel:
“‘I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.’ Such is the common cant. ‘And what are you reading, Miss?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
In 1924, Virginia Woolf penned a eulogy to Jane Austen that was published in New Republic and speculated on how she might have developed as a writer had she lived another forty years. Woolf concluded:
“She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but (if we may be pardoned the vagueness of the expression) what life is. She would have stood further away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals. Her satire, while it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe. She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust – but enough. Vain are these speculations: she died just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success.”
In placid Chawton, the muddy lanes have vanished, but several old houses remain, including Clinkers, where the blacksmith lived, the Elizabethan manor house, inherited by Jane’s brother, Edward, and St Nicholas Church (much changed after a fire in 1871) where her mother and sister, Cassandra, are buried.
Meanwhile, the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death approaches and the village can look forward to hundreds of visitors in search of the shy author who not only knew her own mind but the minds of her characters too.