Saturday, June 17, 2006

Genteel Jane

There's been talk around the web recently about whether Jane Austen intended some rather risque references in her novels. I have no strong opinion on that, but I do have on Jane herself. Now this is entirely my own reading of her, but I hurt for Jane when I see people today trying to keep her crammed in a box of genteel propriety that confined her in life.

I see Jane Austen as a woman torn between family affection and loyalty and a soaring intelligence, creativity, and spirit. I can imagine the sort of powerful objections that led her to cover her writing whenever the family wanted her attention in order to keep the peace. How she delighted in earning money. Did she secretly dream of the time when she could afford to go off on her own and explore the wider world?

Jane was not a Victorian miss. Her early years were 18th century, not 19th.

Only consider Jane's History of England, written when she was sixteen. Her passage on Edward IV already shows a lovely, irreverant tone and absolutely no prudery about mistresses.

"This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him, & his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs. His Wife was Elizabeth Woodville, a Widow who, poor woman! was afterwards confined in a Convent by that Monster of Iniquity & Avarice Henry the 7th. One of Edward's Mistresses was Jane Shore, who had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son."

My main objection to the Genteel Jane cult, however, is the portrait that is commonly used. Something like this.

However, that is a prettified Victorian version of the sketch by her sister, Cassandra. I've darkened some lines to make the folded arms and assertive posture clearer.

This is a close up of her face. Not genteel at all, no. Not Jane.


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