Gentle Readers, ‘The Many Lovers of Jane Austen’, a television special hosted by Amanda Vickery, was aired in Great Britain just before Christmas. Frequent contributer Tony Grant, who lives in Wimbledon and is the blog author of London Calling, graciously sent in his review. Those who cannot watch the show might enjoy this BBC radio interview. During the last eight minutes, Amanda Vickery discusses ‘The Many Lovers of Jane Austen’ with Libbie Purvves. You will need to download aBBC iPlayer.
On Friday 23rd December at 9.30pm BBC 2 showed Amanda Vickery’s exploration of the world of Jane Austen.
Amanda Vickery wanted to explore how and why generations of readers have been won over to Jane Austen by just six classic novels. She takes us from the JASNA annual conference at Fort Worth, Texas; to Althorpe House, the ancestral home of Princess Diana’s family; Chawton Cottage, where she lived the last years of her life; her tomb in Winchester Cathedral; Bath, where Jane Austen is revered and celebrated; the trenches of The First World War; Sotheby’s auction house in London, where a global bidding war ensues over a fragment of Jane Austen’s writing; to Hollywood and the silver screen, and tries to discover how Jane Austen became a national treasure.
The programme starts with Amanda Vickery strolling around the multitudinous market stalls laid out within a vast arena in the conference centre at Fort Worth. There are country and western singers and hundreds of people dressed in Regency fashions supplied by a costume company doing a very brisk trade. This is what the conference appears to be about, trade and commerce, almost “rampant commercialisation,” as Amanda Vickery describes the scene. The spin-off culture and the merchandising of Jane Austen is very evident at the Fort Worth conference. Amanda Vickery is almost surprised to find that there are actually many committed readers of the novels present. There is a mixture of popular devotion and academic prestige.
Trade and commerce, this is what lies at the heart of America and what has made America. The great driving force that drives a nation appears to drive the American people response to all they encounter, including Jane Austen. This intense commercial activity could actually be their way; their only way, of saying they love Jane Austen. It’s their default reaction. I think commercialisation and art have a very close relationship. Art and literature are made and written but they also have to be sold and for writers to develop they need to make money. But the balance has to be kept. The piece of art or novel has to be paramount. All this spin-off culture of nick knacks, crafts and spin-off novels can be in danger of burying the original creation.
Amanda Vickery next moves to London and visits Sotheby’s, the auction house, where she attends the auction of a fragment of Jane Austen’s handwriting. It is an edited piece of The Watsons, one of her two uncompleted novels. Vickery handles the piece reverentially and reads it to us straight from Jane Austen’s very own handwriting. A great privilege for her and for us. She discusses the meaning of the fragment with the curator at Sothebys. It is the only piece of first draft written in Jane’s own hand still in existence. The words on the page are the first words that formed in her mind, which she then wrote on the paper – a very special document.
The Sotheby’s expert estimates a price of £ 300, 000 for the document. Amanda Vickery watches the auction taking place and we are there with her. The price soon goes past the £300,000 mark and continues on and upwards. It is eventually sold to the Bodleian Library in Oxford for a colossal, £850, 000. Nearly a million pounds. Everybody in the auction room is shocked and amazed. I could feel my heart thumping away just looking at the TV screen. Amanda looked flushed too. The document is a financial investment but in going to the Bodleian it will be displayed and used for academic and literary purposes. The importance to the Bodleain is obvious but it also means that it is kept here in the United Kingdom and remains a national treasure.
So how did Jane Austen become a national treasure herself?
To start with her first readers were members of her own family. Jane would read to Cassandra, her sister, in their shared bedroom before the fireplace at Chawton. They would read, reread, act out scenes and discuss ideas together. Her brother, Henry, the banker, negotiated with publishers on her behalf. Professor John Mulllen suggests that Jane Austen wasn’t as private and shy as some make out. The statement of “By a lady,” on the title page of Sense and Sensibility, was not so much an attempt to be anonymous but to portray to the buyer of her book certain expectations. A novel,” by a lady,” suggested a certain plot arc; unmarried woman meets eligible bachelor, then courtship with certain misunderstandings occur, but all works out in the end and they marry. She was advertising a social and psychological drama of courtship. It was a commonplace deceit. Jane was aiming her novels at a certain readership. However there is little evidence and few clues about who first bought her novels. Lady Bessborough, a distant ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer, who lived at Althorpe, bought Sense and Sensibility, because she discusses the novel in letters to her friends. Austen’s novels would have been read out loud in the drawing rooms of the aristocracy as a sort of group event.”
Soon after Jane died in 1817 at the age of 41, her novels went out of print and for a few years and they were no longer sold. The Romanticism of the 1840’s epitomised by the Brontes with stories set on wild moors and characters with wild passions, became all the vogue. Emily Bronte thought that Jane Austen was in “denial about human psychology.” But if you really read Jane’s novels all the emotions and human frailty, the passions and the lusts, are quietly there beneath the surface not being broadcast loudly from some windswept moor. The Brontes for all their brilliance probably misread Austen because they were so caught up with their own wild passions. The emergence of circulating librarie,s however, saw her novels being reprinted. These libraries needed a vast source of material to fill their shelves, and writers who had gone out of fashion were brought back into fashion for new readers who had a great appetite for novels. As these became accessible to a broad swathe of society an increasing number of lower middle class people started to read her novels.
By the end of the 19th century Jane Austen got a boost through the development of the railway system throughout the British Isles. People on long journeys needed something to do so W.H.Smiths opened book shops and newspaper booths on the railway platforms. They published books that had been out of print and out of copyright because they could do this cheaply. Published in standard yellow covers, they became known as yellow backs. Jane Austen’s novels were one such series of yellow backs that were sold to travellers on long train journeys. They became popular again. In the late 1800’s, Persuasion became what we might term low price pulp fiction.
The real turning point in the success of Jane Austen was in 1870 when James Edward Austen Leigh wrote a biography of his relative’s life and so created the Jane Austen myth. Professor Kathryn Sutherland, talking to Amanda Vickery at Chawton Cottage, describes how the family took the only portrait they had of Jane, the rough sketch drawn by Cassandra and commissioned an artist to create a new, beautified copy of it so that they could publish it with James Austen Lee’s biography.
There was very much a sense of the Austen family beginning to shape a view of Jane that they wanted the world to know. Amanda Vickery describes this mythical Jane as “Saint Jane.”
These days, Bath, in Somerset, likes to think of itself as the spiritual heart of the Jane Austen culture. The fact that Hampshire, where she loved most of her life, has far more to do with Jane Austen appears to pass them by; perhaps more accurately, the Bathites would like us not to notice. Jane Austen used the setting of Bath in two of her novels, Persuasion and Northangar Abbey. In Persuasion especially Jane portrays the underclass side of Bath alongside the rich upper-class side. She herself was never reverential of Bath.
Today Bath holds its festival once a year with balls and hundreds of people parading the streets in 18th century costumes. It is the home of the Jane Austen Centre positioned half way up the hill in Gay Street. But it appears to me that these are more attempts to create a tourist trade. They want the custom. Jane Austen herself did live in Bath for four years in various houses around the city, the family seemed to be forever on the move, but she was not particularly happy there. She felt that she had been torn from her dear Steventon in Hampshire by her parent’s sudden wish to retire and move to Bath to have a good time. Similar to the Fort Worth experience, Bath appears to be out to make money from Jane. Bath does create a world focus for Jane Austen and brings her to the attention of many. So it’s not all bad.
In 1894 Sir George Saintsbury coined the term, Janeite. Rudyard Kipling was a renowned Janeite and so were other writers and academics.Rudyard Kipling wrote an article about a group of World War I soldiers in the trenches who read Jane Austen novels. Life in the trenches was horrific from more than one point of view. It wasn’t just the horrors of “going over the top,” but it also included boredom, filth, lack of clean water and the deafening sounds of artillery, shell shock,and just grinding fear. Soldiers required a reading material that could take them away from this hell on earth. Jane Austen became very popular amongst soldiers in the trenches because she took them back to a pleasant land, a good, a peaceful England of quiet gentle manners and drawing rooms. William Boyd Henderson writing a letter home describes how much he enjoyed reading Jane Austen’s Emma. Winston Churchill is renowned to have said, when he was ill with a fever, “antibiotics and Pride and Prejudice have cured me.” Rudyard Kipling is said to have read Jane Austen constantly after hearing of his son, Jack’s, death in the trenches of the First World War.
After the First World War there was a great need for the civilising power of culture , the humanities and English Literature, to be part of the salving cure for damaged and bereft lives. F.R. Leavis, the great English Literature don at Downing College Cambridge was the driving force behind all analysis of English literature. The Professor of English literature at Downing College between the 1930’s and 1960, his was the dominant and dominating view that all others looked to. He talked about the great tradition and said there were only five great writers of the novel: D.H.Lawrence, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, George Elliot and the mother of them all, Jane Austen. Leavis’s view held dominant for decades and few could survive criticism of this view. Careers could be and were destroyed or limited if anybody went against him. Professor Janet Todd tells Amanda Vickery that Leavis thought English literature could save the world.
In 1940 Hollywood took on Jane Austen when Pride and Prejudice with Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson was produced. In the 1960’s the BBC produced a whole series of costume dramas portraying Jane Austen’s novels. In 1980, Pride and Prejudice was filmed again. Amanda Vickery says, ” It was as though Jane Austen was trapped in the Quallity Street tin.” It was a Laura Ashley version of Austen. This suggests that perhaps each generation gets the Austen they deserve. Each decade produces productions of Austen that reflect the age they are made in.
In 1995 came Andrew Davis’s wet t-shirt version with Colin Firth emerging from the lake at Pemberley, wet to the skin, pumping testosterone. A film for the young with hormones. There is lovely scene with Amanda Vickery taking the part of Elizabeth Bennett as Darcy/Firth emerges from the lake and Amanda gives Elizabeth Bennett’s lines in response to Darcy and the two films are cut together as though they are one. The 1995 film still appears to be the most popular version, even now in 2011, anyway it appeared to be so with the hordes of fans at The Forth Worth assemblage. Andrew Davies was the main guest speaker and he was very very popular. Do Janeites create a hysterical response like a form of Beatle mania? Well, perhaps not. They don’t throw their knickers at Andrew Davies; they just receive, rather cheekily, tiny black lace thongs in little black net bags provided with Willoughby’s phone number. Apparently Willoughby is sounding rather exhausted, if polite, on the phone these days!!
Dr Cheryl Kinney, a gynaecologist and the organiser of this year’s JASNA conference at Fort Worth, denies that the Willoughby knickers are a way of increasing the likelihood of sexually transmitted diseases so that she can make money curing people. The contemplation of this possibility makes Amanda Vickery laugh like a drain. Yes, we DO get the Austen we want.
We are left with a thought for the future: Austen has peaked in the west. Could China and Japan be the next stops perhaps?
Other reviews: These will give you more insights and images!
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