I am currently writing a JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) Pride and Prejudice vagary novel that includes LOTS of references to Shakespeare, for in it, Mr. Bennet is a renown Shakespeare scholar. The relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth in this piece is a mixture of Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew, When I was still teaching high school English, I often chose these two comedic plays for my students to read (along with either Othello or Macbeth).
This process has me thinking on Austen and her life. We all are aware that Austen wrote what she knew. Most authors do, except perchance those who write paranormal or science fiction or fantasy (although I would argue that these made-up worlds have similarities to the present day) and to an extent, historical fiction, but even with historical fiction, I often include something that occurred in my personal life. For example, in Christmas at Pemberley, I have Elizabeth grieving for the babies she had yet to carry to term. She goes so far as not to permit anyone even to mention the child or to present her with clothing for it. This came from my life. I experienced an ectopic pregnancy and two miscarriages before my son Joshua made it into the world. I refused all baby showers, talking of the pregnancy, speculating on the child’s sex, etc., until I was six months along. I thought if I could carry to six months, that he would make it. [Incidentally, my Josh was anxious for the world. He came at 7 and a half months.]
Like it or not, our dear Jane wrote about the economics and the restrictions upon her life. She spoke of status and social class. Although Henry Austen attempted to mold Jane’s image when his sister died in 1817, the fact is Jane’s every day life also held questions of her future. Should she marry to secure a home? We know what happens to her and her mother and sister when her father dies unexpectedly. Henry tells us in a biographical note as part of the preface of the posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion that his sister Jane was not interested in financial matters. In Henry’s words, Jane Austen knew amazement at having earned £150 from the publication of Sense and Sensibility. “Few so gifted were so truly unpretending,” Henry assures us. “She regarded the above sum as a prodigious recompense for that which cost her nothing.” That being said, have you not seen the letter from Jane to a friend where she complained about a lack of a larger advance that the £110 she received for Pride and Prejudice.
In Austen, we view parts of the Regency culture through a microcosm of a handful of families in each village Austen creates. Women married for security (and hopefully, for love). But if there was no love in equation, these women would likely still marry the man (for example, Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice). They sought out someone of their social class. Remember Elizabeth Bennet’s retort to Lady Catherine De Bourgh: He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” (Ch. 56) Those who were obsessed with high rank are satirized by Austen. The few members of the aristocracy that she includes in her tales are dunderheads, who are consumed with their own consequence. They range from the all-knowing Lady Catherine de Bourgh to the amiable, but dense, Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility to the calculating Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park and the conceited Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion.
Speaking of the gentlemen in Austen’s novels, they are usually wealthy and landed. Even most men “in trade” are treated well in her novels. Look at Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.
Austen uses the setting as part of her story. There are a multitude of highly intelligent women and successful men as the main characters of a story. But by making the setting as important as the characters, Austen changes the story. Those who write contemporary versions of Pride and Prejudice hit a roadblock when we think of Lydia Bennet’s loss of reputation when she runs off with Mr. Wickham, but nowadays, no such stigma exists because if the family truly objects, a quickie divorce is as accessible as a quickie marriage. But during the Regency, a divorce was not possible for the average person, for they were very public, very expensive, and took a parliamentary decree. Once the couple said “I do,” they were joined for LIFE. Austen’s depiction of the rural country life of the early 1800s is so precise that it becomes part of the plot line. The expectations of society control the characters as surely as the laws of the land controlled society. All of Austen’s stories revolve around a relationship of equals—in intelligence, social standing, compassion, confidence, wit, etc.
Note: You might find John Mullan’s piece on “Status, Rank, and Class in Jane Austen’s Novels,” May 2014 interesting.