Happy 245th Birthday, Jane Austen!

If Jane were alive today, she would be isolated like the rest of us, but she would still be able to take one of the long country rambles that she loved in the Hampshire countryside around her home at Chawton. I wish I could tag along.

I’m recycling a post from a few years ago. It’s about an art exhibit that Jane attended. It’s a pity that Jane herself was never painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was not rich enough or grand enough, even though she had recently published one of the most beloved novels ever written in English, “Pride and Prejudice.” Of course the author was listed as “A Lady,” not Jane Austen. But lots of people eagerly read her work. My post was from 2013, which seems a tumultuous age ago. Here it is:

Through the wonders of technology, we are all invited to stand alongside Jane Austen at an art exhibit she attended on May 24, 1813–two hundred years ago. The date was just a few months after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. Jane mischievously told her companions that she fully expected to see her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in a portrait. Elizabeth had just become Mrs. Darcy, of course. “I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow,” Jane wrote to her sister.

Jane Austen

The exhibit was a retrospective of work by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had been painting the rich and famous for decades. In 1769 he was knighted by King George III, who appreciated the “Grand Style” in which Reynolds painted his mostly wealthy subjects.  When he painted unnamed allegorical or mythological figures, the models tended to be rich and/or famous, and everyone knew who they were. As it happened, Jane did not find a likely image of Elizabeth.  She joked later that surely Reynolds had painted her, but Mr. Darcy must have valued the portrait too much to put it on public display.  Jane did, however, enjoy mingling with the celebrities who crowded the exhibit.  We could think of this exhibit as the very first edition of the tabloids we all see in grocery checkout lanes (and read as a guilty pleasure). Everyone who was anyone wanted to fall under the gaze of Reynolds, just as our celebrities hire publicists to get themselves on the covers of magazines. Sir Joshua Reynolds was also renowned for tender portraits of children. My very first post described one of my favorite paintings by Joshua Reynolds, “Lady Caroline Scott as Winter,” painted in 1776. The post is at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2012/11/20/winter-as-a-child/. ‎The portrait is in private hands, but I saw it in a special exhibit at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum two years ago.

This child was an exact contemporary of Jane Austen. I like to imagine that Lady Caroline attended the same exhibit, and maybe rubbed shoulders with Jane. We tend to think of Jane Austen as a country mouse, a spinster who spent her days waiting on her family and shyly writing her novels in secret, in her spare time. Actually, she was fun-loving, always ready for a dance or an outing. She knew all about balls and country homes because she attended many balls, large and small. And she had relatives with grand country homes. To enter the exhibit, go to http://www.whatjanesaw.org/. The complete original catalog of the exhibit is there. If you click on a picture, an enlargement comes up, along with a description. If you have trouble getting into the site, go to the article below and click on the link. Historians at the University of Texas at Austin meticulously recreated the original exhibit, using accurate historical sources. So we can see the arrangement of the actual paintings in the 3 rooms of the exhibit. We can try to imagine Jane’s assessment of each painting–I’m hearing pithy comments, aren’t you? There’s an excellent article about the online exhibit in The New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/25/books/what-jane-saw-is-an-online-trip-for-jane-austen-fans.html?_r=0

Even during the great pandemic of 2020, I’m sure Jane has some respectful visitors at her final resting place in Winchester Cathedral. I’d like to hear her comments on how we’re all behaving, or not behaving. And I’m hoping for better times, when people can go to work and school and restaurants and shops and parties. Jane would be the first to say we all need to get out more.

I am thinking right now that even though I can’t travel, I’ve been to a lot of places. Time to catch up on posts!

Join me next time for more explorations in the places and faces of Europe and the British Isles!

9 thoughts on “Happy 245th Birthday, Jane Austen!

    1. Claudia Suzan Carley Post author

      I take it Jane is not your fave? I can think of “colds” central to the plots of two novels, Pride and Prejudice is one and Sense and Sensibility is the other. I’d point out that in Jane’s time, pre-antibiotics, people regularly died of what we might call “colds.” Point taken, though. I think we’re programmed to either love Jane Austen or to wonder what all the fuss is about. I happen to love her!

      1. The Wife of Bath

        Actually I really love the archness of her writing and I think she can be really elegant. I am maybe too schooled on Dickens—like I want Austen to tell me about the people who cook her character’s food and clean their houses so they can do all that receiving in their parlors and whatnot. Sorry for my tone. I’ve been pretty miserable and lonely (as I assume most people are these days) and I forget how to communicate properly.

      2. Claudia Suzan Carley Post author

        Oh, your tone was fine, no worries! I agree. I would totally recommend the novel “Longbourne” by Jo Baker, 2013. It’s a bracing look at the life of the servants behind the scenes of “Pride and Prejudice”—the ones who did the laundry and lived above the stables and had their own real-life troubles. It won a bunch of awards. I absolutely loved it. It’s gritty. In fact I think I’ll read it again.

      3. Claudia Suzan Carley Post author

        Disclaimer: now I see that there’s war and violence in the story of a male servant. I totally forgot that. Still, I remember I loved the book at the time I read it! I might be skipping parts…

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