Dear Jane

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Jackie Hemond

Jackie Hemond

Jane Austen is wildly popular. Her six novels are rarely out of print. Every few years, a movie is made, based on one of her books. Authors write parodies of her parodies including the book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Although her books were well-received in her lifetime, Jane Austen wrote them anonymously, perhaps because proper ladies were not authors. Nevertheless, after her death, she skyrocketed to stardom and acquired Janeites, her fans, as rabid as Trekkies are for Star Trek.

Last July, marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Her worldwide fan club celebrated. (It is surprising to me that her death and not her birth, created such festivities.) The Bank of England created a Jane Austen ten-pound note, a Jane Austen statue was placed near her childhood home. Winchester Cathedral held an anniversary funeral service with a reenactment of her funeral procession, and the annual 10-day Jane Austen Festival in Bath featured 80 programs, and there were lots and lots of tea parties. Even the Kent Memorial Library had one.

Would Jane be amused… to find herself a role model for #MeToo? an alt-right hero for (as they claim) defending traditional marriage? a master game theorist? that her honor was hotly defended by Twitter fans? that in 1892, in Parliament, she was cited on both sides for the women’s vote debate? Who was Jane Austen?

Unfortunately, little is known about her. She died at 41. She was a voluminous letter writer, but her family, perhaps embarrassed by her frank portrayals, destroyed much of her correspondence. However, her frankness, irony, and humor remain in her books. Her female heroines rise above foolish social mannerisms but are still bound by customs and dependent upon males, just as Jane was herself. In Jane Austen’s world, a woman’s life depended upon a father, landlord, husband, son. She could not own property, represent herself in court or vote. When Jane’s father died, Jane, her mother and sister became impoverished, living for years with relatives. Jane never married, although she once accepted a marriage proposal from a wealthy but boorish man. She quickly changed her mind, preferring to live on family welfare and her potential earnings as a writer. She gained some financial independence from her work, but never the amount she would have received had she married her suitor. Isn’t it interesting that her books end happily in marriages?

Who was Jane Austen?

A social commentator. A feminist. A traditionalist. A realist. A satirist. A wit. A genius.

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