["You must allow me to present this young lady to you."]
Over the past few weeks, my blogging voice seems to have evaporated from this site. That’s not because I’ve slipped into some eerie library limbo. My time and energies have instead been devoted to preparing a public presentation, “Elusive Jane: In Search of Jane Austen at the New York Public Library.” For ages, it seems, my desk has been buried under a small mountain of books by and about Jane Austen, necessitating a major excavation every time I needed a pencil or a piece of tape. But the hard part is over, and I’m finally ready to meet anyone curious about the life of Jane Austen this Friday, November 6, at 2:15.
Of the many facets of my job here at the New York Public Library, my favorite is the opportunity to get in front of a crowd of people and share my enthusiasm for my favorite authors. Don’t tell anyone, but I also get to read Jane Austen and call it work.
Is it necessary to know anything about Jane Austen’s life in order to appreciate her novels? Certainly not. But after researching the biographies and background materials available here at the library, I found that the novels I had always loved took on a depth and an emotional resonance they hadn’t had before.
Although there are more available biographies of Jane Austen than you would probably care to count, and the facts they contain remain quite consistently the facts, the interpretation of those facts seems to differ from biographer to biographer. It began with James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt’s life, which first appeared fifty years after her death. This gracefully written, kind, and loving work helped to rekindle interest in Jane Austen’s life and writing and was used by all later biographies as their foundation. At the same time, the Memoir created an essentially false image of a placid spinster who wrote her novels as a sort of hobby and didn’t pay much heed to the world outside her own narrow scope. “Of events her life was singularly barren,” he wrote, “few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of her life.”
This of a woman whose life paralleled the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution; who lived through the fears of a French invasion of British soil; whose wide reading included not only novels but histories, accounts of current events, travel books, essays, and religious works; whose cousin brought the French Revolution directly into the family home when her husband lost his head to the guillotine; and whose brothers (both Admirals in the Royal Navy) kept her well informed of events beyond the boundaries of rural Hampshire. It is now clear, as Tony Tanner points out in his critical study Jane Austen that she “was much more aware of contemporary events, debates and issues, of the wars and domestic unrest, of the incipiently visible results of the Industrial Revolution, and of a radical change taking place in the constitution of English society, than the conventional view allows, or perhaps wants to allow.” In addition, Jane Austen was very much a professional author who spent her life developing and perfecting her own manuscripts (which she referred to as her “children”), wrangled with publishers, and was honored by the Prince Regent. She was eventually able to earn an independent living from her writing--a feat few women of the day could boast.
This is the Jane Austen I will be discussing on Friday, November 6th, at 2:15 in the first floor classroom of the New York Public Library. If you can’t make it that afternoon--I’ll be giving the same talk again on December 3rd and January 8th, also at 2:15.
These talks will be alternating with Out of the Blacking Factory, the Charles Dickens presentation I introduced last year, on November 20th, December 18th, and January 22nd.