The unseen faces of Jane Austen
Jane Austen is many things to many people, but have you thought of her as any of the following before? Perhaps you'll see her in a whole new light.
A champion for platonic friendships
Long before When Harry met Sally Jane was writing about friendships between men and women. Although, unlike Harry, Jane shows us men and women can be friends. As Maria Jerinic writes in Cocktails with Miss Austen, ‘Austen paints pictures of friendship between men and women that are 'uncomplicated by frustrated desire or ulterior sexual motives’. Mr. Knightley is a true friend to Jane Fairfax in Emma, and Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor and Colonel Brandon might also have seemed a good match when, in fact, they are much better as friends.
What’s behind this? Who knows, but one clue might be found from her time living in Bath. When living in the city Austen spent time out and about with someone she referred to in letters as Mr. E, a man with a fancy open carriage, a talent for conversation and a reputation as an adulterer. She must have known he was never going to be an appropriate suitor but she still enjoyed the friendship and the fun he brought to her life.
The wartime writer
Winston Churchill, a big Austen fan, wrote of Jane’s characters:
‘What calm lives they had...
No worries about the French Revolution, or the crushing struggles of the Napoleonic wars.’
But Jane knew full well the horrors unfolding in the world when she was writing. Her cousin’s husband was executed by guillotine in France and three of her dear brothers were in the Navy and saw plenty of battles. This was the background to Jane’s writing. Indeed, her writing may have offered her an escape from the stress of wondering whether the people she loved would make their way home to her. Just as her books, years later, would offer Churchill and others a respite from the darkness of the first and second world wars.
The insecure artist
Pride and Prejudice is one of the world’s most beloved books. It has been dissected by academics the world over. But Jane worried it wasn’t serious enough. ‘
The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling,’ she wrote. ‘It wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had.’
It just goes to show, even the finest writers fret over whether their work has value. A lesson for all of us to help quiet the voice inside when imposter syndrome rears it's ugly head.