Gentle readers, this year marks the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice. This blog will feature a variety of posts about the novel and on its author, Jane Austen. Frequent contributor, Tony Grant (London Calling) recently visited the National Portrait Gallery in London and viewed the small watercolour portrait of her painted by Cassandra Austen. In this tribute, Tony demonstrates her star status among other literary superstars.
If you enter the National Portrait Gallery as you walk into the main atrium go up the tall escalator on the left and you come to a foyer area at the top off which there are entrances into two main galleries. On the right is the wonderful gallery displaying the powerfully evocative Tudor monarchs and their statesmen.
On the left are the 18th and 19th century galleries portraying the politicians, monarchs, reformers and writers of that period. It is here , many of you will know, is the tiny portrait of Jane Austen attributed to her sister Cassandra and drawn in 1810 using pencil and watercolours. It is an unprepossessing little picture. It’s great worth is in who it is. But, if you stand back from the plinth with the perspex box on its summit containing Jane and view the whole vista you will notice that Jane is surrounded by a halo of super star writers. She is the centre of the group.
Bottom left is Sir Walter Scott. Moving clockwise next comes Samuel Taylor Coleridge, at the top is John Keats and then as you move down right of Jane, Robert Southey follows and last, bottom right, is Robert Burns. Quite a group, and there she is in the middle, our Jane. If you think I am imagining the halo metaphor, walk behind the plinth with Jane displayed and you will notice that there is nothing on the wall, there is a space. The halo metaphor works. The only thing behind Jane is a handwritten catalogue number on the back of the portrait itself. It reads; “NPG 360, Jane Austen.” It’s written in pencil in a reasonably legible hand. A scrawled note such as somebody might write as a memo to themselves on a post it and stick on their fridge door.
All of these writers were geniuses and there is Jane right at their centre. The men were all Romantics. Jane perhaps ridiculed some aspects of Romanticism in Northanger Abbey but she wrote about romance and its vicissitudes. The men wrote about their emotional response to the world. Jane did not portray her own emotions, just the emotions of her characters.
Chivalry!—why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection—the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant —Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.” Ivanhoe
Many of Scott’s novels harked back to a supposed ideal period , the Middle Ages, when chivalry was the moral high ground for men and women fitted into the system as perfect idols worshipped by men. However this was for the aristocracy. Serfdom was really slavery. Serfs were possessions. Scott wrote in Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward and novels such as those about this ideal dreamlike world. It was the ultimate escapism.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) painted by Peter Van Dyke.
The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well nigh done !
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.
It seemeth him but the skeleton of a ship.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a friend of William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. They promoted Romanticism together which added a more emotional and personal response to the world in addition to the ways of thinking the Age of Enlightenment promoted.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome in February 1821. Joseph Severn, the portrait artist was his best friend and was with him in Rome when he died. Keats was another Romantic poet. When he first started publishing his poetry he was heavily criticised in Blackwood’s Magazine. Those with invested interests in the status quo and couldn’t think imaginatively beyond what they knew, seemed hell-bent on preventing the human race from progressing. It was ever thus.
We pursued our way
To the house of mirth, and with that idle talk
That passes o’er the mind and is forgot,
We wore away the time. But it was eve
When homewardly I went, and in the air
Was that cool freshness, that discolouring shade
That makes the eye turn inward.”
Robert Southey was another of the Romantic poets. He lived in the lakes with Wordsworth and Coleridge and is generally known as one of the Lakeland poets. He is now considered a lesser poet than either Wordsworth or Coleridge. In 1813 he became the poet laureate and Byron lambasted him for this.
We’ll gae down by Cluden side,
Thro’ the hazels spreading wide,
O’er the waves that sweetly glide
To the moon sae clearly.
Yonder Cluden’s silent towers,
Where at moonshine midnight hours,
O’er the dewy-bending flowers,
Fairies dance sae cheery.”
Robert Burns is a Scottish national hero. Websites dedicated to him use his name, his picture and his poems in an unashamedly mercenary way. He is probably the most marketed writer in this group and a real money spinner for the Scottish economy. He was actually a great poet it is sometimes worth stopping and remembering. What can be difficult for many readers is the Scottish dialect and use of colloquial phrases in his poems. His poetry is worth spending time with. They require deep emotional investment. They are rich with feelings and emotions. He was a romantic poet more by inclination than belief. It was just him, the way he was.
The first line of Pride and Prejudice goes such:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune , must be in want of a wife.”
However, the last lines of the penultimate chapter of Pride and Prejudice are also worth considering and shed light on Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy in particular.
…….she looked forward with delight to the time they should be removed from society so little pleasing to either, to all the comfort and elegance of their family party at Pemberley.”