Episode 43: Austen-tatious

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Jane Austen is rightly considered perhaps the greatest British novelist of her day, or any age. Her novels about women, marriage and family among the English gentry, especially Pride and Prejudice, have defined how we think about British society in the late Georgian and Regency eras for all time. Like almost no other person, Austen is the living historical embodiment of the 1810s, the decade that saw the publication of all of her novels—and her untimely death. But how did she come to be? What was her story? What drove her, and why, after a lifetime of writing, did she finally achieve her long-awaited success during the Second Decade?

In this episode of Second Decade, Dr. Sean Munger takes you into the modest bedrooms and parlors of Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen’s home for the most productive period of her life, and investigates how Jane’s wonderful literary creations came to be and why they reflect the spirit of the time and the society in which she lived. You’ll get a crash course in the tangled relations of Austen’s family, you’ll learn how and why Jane kept her literary vocation a secret from all but her closest kin, and you’ll gorge on Hog’s Puddings, Vegetable Pie and Toasted Cheese at the dinner table of the Austen women. This is a fascinating look at a genius at work in a very special historical and cultural moment, one that has come to define a country and an age in popular consciousness.

Correction: in this episode I mistakenly refer to Tom Lefroy as English-born. I meant to say he was Irish-born.

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Additional Materials About This Episode

[Above] This is the most famous picture of Jane Austen, drawn by her sister, Cassandra. As very few pictures of her exist besides this one and Cassandra’s artistic skills leave something to be desired, no one is really sure what Jane looked like. Jane’s appearance is often thought to be relevant to the question of why she never married, but I suspect that factor is largely irrelevant—it was the Austen family’s lack of money, and not Jane’s looks, that probably explain her spinsterhood.

[Above] Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister and closest confidante for life. This miniature silhouette is one of the few pictures of her. Cassandra was one of the first audiences of Jane’s work, and she was by Jane’s bedside when she died in July 1817. After her death Cassandra became the primary custodian of her sister’s memory, but burned two thirds of the letters that passed between them.

[Above] Edward Austen Knight (1768-1852). Adopted as the substitute son of a wealthy MP and landowner, Edward’s story is itself like something out of one of Jane’s books. He spent much of his long life tending the gardens and making improvements at Chawton House.

[Above] The title page of the original 1813 edition of Pride and Prejudice, volume I. This is one of the most valuable books in the English-speaking world. Since the Second Decade, Jane’s books have never been out of print, though she did have a period of relative obscurity from her death in 1817 until the 1833 reprints of her works.

[Above] Chawton Cottage, where Jane lived with her mother, sister and Martha Lloyd. It is today the Jane Austen House Museum, dedicated to the writer’s memory and a holy pilgrimage site for “Janeites.” She left it for the last time in the late spring of 1817 as she was entering her final illness. Photo by Pierre Terre, used under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

[Above] Chawton House, the main manor owned by Edward, who permitted his sisters and mother to stay at the nearby property. The house survived the terrible mortality of English manor houses in the early decades of the 20th century; this view was taken only a few years ago.

[Above] The quintessential moment of the 1995 BBC television version of Pride and Prejudice, now considered the definitive film adaptation. The movie made Colin Firth a star, and this scene in particular has dogged him for his entire career, as a generation of viewers still see him as no one other than ‘Mr. Darcy.’ The scene was lampooned in the 2009 TV film Lost in Austen, with Elliot Cowan as Darcy.

All pictures are believed to be in the public domain except for the photo of Chawton Cottage.
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