At one point, there was just Jane Austen. A British lady, (by which I mean gentlewoman, not a member of the aristocracy) gifted with humor, keen powers of observation, and the tenacity to create fiction in a time where few men and no women were encouraged to write. Her novels were known to humorists and English Majors but considered too esoteric for the hoi polloi. In those days, she was just Jane Austen.
Now, Miss Austen is an industrial source. Her six major novels have been analyzed, adapted, pillaged, and parodied beyond belief (I have friends who debate the merits of filmed version of P&P), there are shelves heavy with revisionist tales drawn from her original stories and Jane-mania has spawned at least two books of its own: Austenland and the Jane Austen Book Society. None of this surprises me. In our culture, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. What I did not expect was murder, that darkest, most obsessive of crimes, would be linked to Jane Austen. And yet, the tie may be true. Of course, it would take a crime writer to see it.
The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen
Enter Lindsay Ashford, a crime journalist, late of the BBC. With a reference from one of Ms. Austen’s last letters and the analysis of a lock of Jane’s hair, Ms. Ashford realizes Chic Lit’s premier author may have expired, not from Addison’s disease, or tuberculosis, but arsenic poisoning. Add in some research, a few other strange deaths of near relations and the result is The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen, a story that irritates as much as it charms.
Sunny, sensible, practical Jane Austen: is there any less likely candidate for murder? Yet, Ms. Ashford concocts a theory, narrated by Anne Sharp one of the few non-relatives the real Jane Austen corresponded with. As a governess once employed by Jane’s brother, Edward, Miss Sharp has the education and sense to recognize literary genius when she sees it. She also has the perspective to see the tangled relationships and characters in the Austen clan.
Character is something Lindsay Ashford occasionally does well as she brings a younger brother, Henry, to life. This Henry, who reinvents himself and survives on his charm, has some characteristics of Jane’s ne’er-do-wells like Wickham and Henry Crawford but he is also his sister’s champion. Unfortunately, Jane Austen had six brothers and, in the interest of setting out her murder plot, Ms. Ashford forgets to give each of them the necessary distinguishing detail needed to understand her theory. In the end, you can see Jane’s murder was one in a series of attacks on the Austen family and you can see who had means and opportunity. A reasonable motive for this act is what’s lacking.
Still, The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is fascinating in the research behind it and the questions it poses. Why did Austen die at the young age of 41? Who were the real-life models behind her classic characters? What was contained in so many of Jane’s letters that after death, her sister, Cassandra, was compelled to destroy them? In the absence of real answers, we at least have the joy of imagining what they may be.
There’s a wonderful line in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that says, “Everything will be all right in the end…if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.” There’s more than mindless optimism in that phrase, that’s an expression of faith. It encourages you to keep going, and not be dismayed, even in the face of disaster. It’s a faith Jane Austen endorsed when she wrote Persuasion, her last story with a sensible heroine.
Austen wrote about two types of women, those who think before they speak and the rest of us. The impulsive, strong-willed ones like Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse and Catharine Moreland are easy to identify with because they say what they feel and they cause most of their own problems. The responsible heroines are a little bit deeper. Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are always aware that odds and circumstances are against them so they’re careful about what they say and when they speak. Most of the time, this is a good trait but in Persuasion, Austen shows the downside of being too careful.
In case you don’t know it, Persuasion’s set-up is simple. At nineteen, Anne Elliot broke her engagement to Lt. Frederick Wentworth. She didn’t want to but her best friend persuaded her that the couple was too broke and too young to create a happy life together. (Anne’s father thought a naval lieutenant wasn’t good enough for his daughter at the time.) Now, nine years later, Anne’s still unmarried, still missing Wentworth, and living in a house her father can’t afford to maintain. Her ex-fiance reappears, complete with a promotion, and his fortunes have climbed as much as her father’s have fallen. Anne can’t tell her ex-boyfriend she’s still nuts about him. If she does, she’ll just look like another gold-digging tramp and lose what little respect he may still have for her. So Anne has to be quiet and watch other unmarried girls chase after the man that she loves, knowing she made a mistake.
Amanda Root in the 2007 adaptations of Persuasion
What happens next is the rest of the book but this story’s already broken the Austen pattern. In the other books, when Austen’s girls get the right guy, the tale is told. Persuasion is about people making mistakes by relying on the judgment of others and whether anyone hurt so deeply can find the courage to try again. It’s also the story of a middle-class that fights to keep up all the wrong appearances. Anne’s father is so wrapped up in being a minor aristocrat (he’s a Baronet) that the benefits of the navy’s meritocracy completely escape him. When setbacks befall him, all he’s left with is his title. In contrast, Anne is the only one with the vision to see what really matters and where her true future lies.
If Austen ever sought another title for this book, Patience would have been as good an idea since it takes patience to correct a mistake. But in the meantime, if you are under stress, keep Anne Elliot’s faith to make the best of each bad situation and do the next right thing. If that doesn’t work, remember that everything will be all right in the end…so trouble now means the story’s not finished.
When you’re an English Major, you have to deal with Jane Austen. She’s one of the writers whose work you have to know before you graduate, like the medical students have to pass A&P. This can be a problem because readers love or they hate her books with a passion. There’s no middle ground. Granted, Mark Twain said an ideal library contains none of her stories but his heroes create their own destinies by ignoring the rules of their cultures. Miss Austen’s characters don’t have that luxury. They have to carve solutions to their problems out of a narrower field. Nevertheless, constraints don’t defeat Austen heroines, they enhance them. Difficulties turn Jane’s women into jewels.
Pressure abounds in Pride and Prejudice. The Bennet daughters are all old enough to marry but there’s an unspoken demand that at least one of the girls marry a man with money. Mr. Bennet has no savings and his death would leave any dependent family homeless. The two older sisters know this although both would rather marry for love than a fortune. They also live in a world that runs on gossip and rumor and it’s hard to find the truth. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bennet withstands the stress with good sense and humor, refusing to marry the wrong man or avoid the right one, once she sees him. She can be misled into a mistake but no one can push Elizabeth into acting against her own conscience or will. Instead, she stays true to her convictions and charms us with her sparkling wit. Pressure makes lesser women crumble; it shapes Miss Bennet into a diamond.
Pressure isn’t what bothers Elinore Dashwood as much as heartbreak. Within the first two chapters she’s loses her father and the only home she’s ever known. Then the family of the man she cares for treats her badly. Elinor keeps most of this incredibly painful stuff to herself since her mother and sisters share at least two-thirds of her heartbreak and she doesn’t want to add to their burdens. So Elinor becomes the Dashwood who faces reality and tries to get on with life, no matter how hard that is. She persuades her mother to live within a budget and maintain good friendships with the neighbors who like to help their family. She begs her younger sister, Marianne, to behave respectably in public since good manners and reputation are only assets their family has left. No matter how unhappy she is, Elinore returns malice with civility and kindness with generosity to make life as pleasant as she can for everyone. Her disappointments become the seeds that start her selfless generosity and compassion for others like a piece of sand becomes the instrument that starts a pearl. If Elizabeth sparkles like a diamond, Elinore’s kindness gleams through Sense and Sensibility like a pearl that’s caught the light.
Perhaps Miss Austen’s books aren’t for everyone and it’s odd they’re classified as tales of romance. They’re not about adventurers but conventional people living conventional lives and they’re downright unromantic when it comes to the subject of money. They honor the tedious virtues of patience, loyalty and truth while making fun of snobs and fools. But they are intelligent, humorous stories and they’re all about the art of the possible. And their heroines are gems. You just have to choose your preference, diamonds or pearls.