The Mysterious MISS AUSTEN

Article excerpt

In May 1813, JANE AUSTEN MINGLED AMONG LONDON'S FASHIONABLE CROWD AS she took in an exhibition of oils and watercolors at Wigley's Great Room at Spring Gardens. Since the beginning of the year, the "ton" had been chattering about and passing around a delicious new book, Pride and Prejudice, which chronicled the travails of the Bennet sisters as they navigated the marriage market. The author, to the dismay of polite society, remained anonymous. So it was with some ease that Austen strolled through the gallery playing a secret game: Which of the portraits that hung on the walls looked like the characters she had created for Pride and Prejudice? Might she see the sweet Jane who marries the equally pleasant-tempered Mr. Bingley? Or Elizabeth, whose fine eyes and formidable wit crack the shell of the aloof Mr. Darcy?

Austen finally stumbled upon a portrait that she thought looked liked Jane or "Mrs. Bingley." "Mrs. Bingley's is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there was never a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favorite colour with her," she wrote her sister Cassandra. Austen didn't see "Mrs. Darcy" in any of the portraits, but suspected that her heroine would have been wearing yellow.

A few days later, Austen played the same game when she attended an exhibition of paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds at the Royal Academy at Somerset House. "Mrs. Darcy" once again proved elusive. A disappointed Austen told Cassandra that "I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should it be exposed to the public eye." Darcy, she believed, would regard Elizabeth with a mixture of "Love, Pride & Delicacy."

It's not surprising to see Austen think of her characters as living, breathing people. Austen had lived with Elizabeth, Jane, Bingley, and Darcy for more than fifteen years. She began writing Pride and Prejudice when she was twenty, working on the book from October 1796 to August 1797. But Pride and Prejudice wasn't published until January 1813, which raises the question of what caused such an extended delay between its writing and publication.

For the past two centuries, historians and literary scholars have attempted to solve the mystery that is Jane Austen's life. How did a woman from a small village in Hampshire come to write six of the most beloved novels in the English language? Their search for answers has been complicated by the fact that Austen lived a quiet life. Women didn't leave much of a historical footprint in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

If you assumed that Austen was a regular letter writer, you'd be correct, but the majority of those letters and her personal archive were destroyed. Cassandra, who served as her executor, scissored some letters and burned hundreds more. Other letters held by the family were destroyed over the years as well. In 1990, when Jo Modert published Jane Austen's Manuscript Letters in Facsimile, a project undertaken with NEH support, there were 130-odd known Austen letters. The count is now up to 160. What remains is illuminating. Scholars have used the letters, along with family diaries, correspondence by friends and family, and county records to reconstruct much of Austen's life. When everything is assembled, it reveals a woman at the mercy of her family's finances for her very existence, yet nurtured and supported by her relatives when they recognized an uncommon talent in their midst.

The Surety of Steventon

Austen was born on December 16, 1775, which was a month later than her parents, George and Cassandra, reckoned she should arrive. With six other children - James, George, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, and Francis - the Austens might have been more adept at counting the weeks. They were happy for the arrival of another daughter, and George, a parson, baptized Jane at home. Another brother, Charles, followed four years later, marking an end to the family's expansion, much to the relief of the household's budget. …

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