Her novels may be mischaracterized as romantic escapism, but at their core, they have a lot to say about perseverance – and it makes them perfect reading for now, writes Heloise Wood.
Austen on prescription
In fact, Austen’s writing is so strongly associated with providing solace that, as e author and Austen expert Dr Paula Byrne discovered, she was prescribed to World War One soldiers suffering from severe shell-shock or what we would now know as PTSD: in a letter titled The Mission of English Lit to the Times Literary Supplement from 1984, Martin Jarrett-Kerr wrote: “My old Oxford tutor, H F Brett-Smith, was exempt from military service; but was employed by hospitals to advise on reading matters for the war-wounded. His job was to rate novels and poetry for the ‘fever chart’. For the severely shell-shocked he selected Jane Austen.” Byrne became fascinated by soldiers’ reading of her whilst researching her book The Genius of Jane Austen; in the very thick of World War One, she learned how they would keep classic texts in their pockets while in the trenches, and discovered that Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne had bonded with fellow soldiers over his love of Austen during his time fighting. Fellow Austen fan Lance Corporal Grainger followed Milne out on to the front line just to check on the author after they had become friends over their shared interest in the books – a gesture described by Milne in his memoir as “the greatest tribute to Jane Austen that I have ever heard.” Another notable figure who relied on her in times of war was the bedridden Winston Churchill in 1943, who was consoled during illness by having his daughter read Pride and Prejudice to him.
Read the article below and answer the questions:
- Where do you find examples of perseverance in Jane Austin’s work?
- What is your favorite Jane Austen novel and why?
- If you are unfamiliar with the author, read a chapter in one of the books provided here
- If you prefer to listen to a book choose an audiobook here.
- In the article below Heloise Wood mentions several movies, have you seen any of them? Make a list, see movie list here.
- Groups students and make sure each group has a student that has some knowledge of Jane Austen, discuss the movies using the theme of perseverance.
Movies mentioned in the article are; 1997’s Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, The young Austen played by Anne Hathaway in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, Sense, and Sensibility with Emma Thompson in the 1995 film
Austen only completed six novels in her lifetime, from “Sense and Sensibility” in 1811 to the posthumously published “Persuasion” in 1818. Much like Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” which also made a return to both big and small screens in the past few months (Gerwig’s adaptation in theaters, and a BBC miniseries for TV), Austen’s works were hits almost immediately, with her second novel, “Pride and Prejudice” becoming one of the best loved novels of the 19th and 20th centuries. And in the same vein as Alcott, Austen’s stories return every ten to 20 years, like clockwork. Shakespeare and Dickens never go out of fashion, but Austen disappears from the public consciousness for years at a stretch, surfacing when a new generation rediscovers her. Source: NBC News
The tumultuous nature of the last year has led each of us to find our own particular cultural coping mechanisms. One of the key ones for me has been reading the novels of Jane Austen. After writing her work off in my younger days as simpering and convoluted, featuring heroines with whom I could never empathize, I have now found myself drawn to her work in a way I never have been before.
But why should her novels be suited to this pandemic era? On one level, it might seem obvious: such is the image of them crystallized in the public imagination by many glossy TV and film adaptations, they would seem to offer the perfect romantic escapism. (Indeed, it seems no coincidence that the TV mega-hit of the moment, Netflix’s Bridgerton, is a romantic drama set in Austen’s Regency period, albeit with a decidedly more cartoonish and sexually-explicit sensibility). However, when you actually dig into the writing, you find Austen offers more unexpected consolations. Beyond their preoccupation with love and romance, there is a layer of steel and a celebration of resilience in her books that may well inspire us as we read them in these deeply uncertain and circumscribed times.
A model of perseverance
Austen’s own life was a lesson in forbearance. She published her six celebrated novels in the space of seven years and died at the age of only 41. “On paper it looks like she has a secure life but she is sent off to boarding school twice and she almost dies,” says Dr Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen: A Secret Radical. “In the first the whole school got typhus. Her aunt who came to nurse her died. Just imagine the psychological harm of that happening to you – and then she got sent off again.”
The general state of instability Austen suffered for much of her life is replicated in many of her heroines. In 1800, when she was 25, her father retired, passing the estate over to his oldest son “which was really unusual”, Kelly says; Austen and her parents and sister Cassandra spent the next eight years travelling between increasingly small properties in Bath, relatives’ homes and seaside resorts. “It’s a time we think she didn’t write very much because she was all over the place,” Kelly says. “They move back to Hampshire, Taunton in 1809 and it’s only when she’s somewhere psychologically secure, [in] a house she knows won’t be taken away from her, that she starts publishing.” Displacement and the fracturing of family life arises in much of her work, such as in Sense and Sensibility which begins when the Dashwood sisters and their mother must leave their family home and are then stripped of their inheritance from their father by their half-brother and his manipulative wife. “Austen is very, very precise about money in her novels,” says John Mullan, author and professor of English at University College London. “She knew what financial insecurity was like.”
There’s a constant low-level psychological stress that all her characters are under – Helena Kelly
The sensation of feeling both trapped and surrounded by familial friction is also a prevalent element in Austen’s work – and is something that many of us can relate to now especially when, as for many of her protagonists, walks are often the most liberating thing on offer. Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett appears to strive for freedom by striding about the countryside and getting muddy, enjoying peace away from her overcrowded family life. “There’s a constant low-level psychological stress that all her characters are under,” Kelly says. “On the whole, they are quite good at just getting on with stuff even if there’s not much to get on with.” She believes that Austen was also pioneering in the way she showed families as imperfect. “Before Austen, mothers and fathers tended to be dead or perfect and living in bliss together and in her work she makes this clear it is not the case.”
Read the rest of the article here: BBC