What Jane Austen can teach us about resilience
Sales figures would suggest I’m far from the only one relying on her humor and heart to get me through these strange days. In the UK, as Kiera O’Brien, charts and data editor of the Bookseller, notes, Austen experienced a sales rise of 20% in the UK between 15 June and 7 November last year, compared to the same period in 2019. Last December saw the 245th anniversary of her birth and her popularity only seems to be getting stronger.ADVERTISE
The tumultuous nature of the last year has led each of us to find our own particular cultural coping mechanisms. One of the key ones for me has been reading the novels of Jane Austen. After writing her work off in my younger days as simpering and convoluted, featuring heroines with whom I could never empathize, I have now found myself drawn to her work in a way I never have been before.
But why should her novels be suited to this pandemic era? On one level, it might seem obvious: such is the image of them crystallized in the public imagination by many glossy TV and film adaptations, they would seem to offer the perfect romantic escapism. (Indeed, it seems no coincidence that the TV mega-hit of the moment, Netflix’s Bridgerton, is a romantic drama set in Austen’s Regency period, albeit with a decidedly more cartoonish and sexually explicit sensibility). However, when you actually dig into the writing, you find Austen offers more unexpected consolations. Beyond their preoccupation with love and romance, there is a layer of steel and a celebration of resilience in her books that may well inspire us as we read them in these deeply uncertain and circumscribed times.
A model of perseverance
Austen’s own life was a lesson in forbearance. She published her six celebrated novels in the space of seven years and died at the age of only 41. “On paper, it looks like she has a secure life but she is sent off to boarding school twice and she almost dies,” says Dr. Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen: A Secret Radical. “In the first the whole school got typhus. Her aunt who came to nurse her died. Just imagine the psychological harm of that happening to you – and then she got sent off again.”
The general state of instability Austen suffered for much of her life is replicated in many of her heroines. In 1800, when she was 25, her rector father retired, passing the parish over to his oldest son “which was really unusual”, Kelly says; Austen and her parents and sister Cassandra spent the next eight years traveling between increasingly small properties in Bath, relatives’ homes and seaside resorts. “It’s a time we think she didn’t write very much because she was all over the place,” Kelly says. “They move back to Chawton, Hampshire in 1809 and it’s only when she’s somewhere psychologically secure, [in] a house she knows won’t be taken away from her, that she starts publishing.” Displacement and the fracturing of family life arise in much of her work, such as in Sense and Sensibility which begins when the Dashwood sisters and their mother must leave their family home and are then stripped of their inheritance from their father by their half-brother and his manipulative wife. “Austen is very, very precise about money in her novels,” says John Mullan, author, and professor of English at University College London. “She knew what financial insecurity was like.”
There’s a constant low-level psychological stress that all her characters are under – Helena Kelly
The sensation of feeling both trapped and surrounded by familial friction is also a prevalent element in Austen’s work – and is something that many of us can relate to now especially when, as for many of her protagonists, walks are often the most liberating thing on offer. Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett appears to strive for freedom by striding about the countryside and getting muddy, enjoying peace away from her overcrowded family life. “There’s a constant low-level psychological stress that all her characters are under,” Kelly says. “On the whole, they are quite good at just getting on with stuff even if there’s not much to get on with.” She believes that Austen was also pioneering in the way she showed families as imperfect. “Before Austen, mothers and fathers tended to be dead or perfect and living in bliss together and in her work, she makes this clear it is not the case.”
Meanwhile, Austen’s journey to publication can also be seen as a lesson in resilience, paved with rejection and false starts. After starting to write at around the age of 12, she began doing it seriously in her 20s but did not get published until her mid-30s. When she was aged 22, in 1797, her father sent off an early draft of Pride and Prejudice to the London publisher Cadell & Davies, which was rejected curtly by the return of post, while six years later, another novel named Susan was accepted for £10 by Crosby and Co but never published by the London firm. “The disappointment of that must have been absolutely crippling,” says Kelly. “It’s clearly something she [had] been dreaming about for years and years.” In 1809, Austen wrote an aggrieved letter to Crosby and Co – “not a template of what to write to your publishers”, according to Kelly – which proved ineffectual. Then in 1816, just a year before she died, she finally bought the manuscript back – leading to it being published posthumously as Northanger Abbey (accompanied by a disgruntled ‘Advertisement by the Authoress’ lamenting the earlier non-publication). “It took a lot of grit to carry on especially when her brothers wanted her to look after their motherless boys,” Kelly says.