An open letter to Jane Austen on her incredible posthumous success...
Dear Miss Austen,
Who would have guessed that the microcosm in deepest rural Hampshire you depict so tellingly would have been invaded by a clamouring public right across the globe two centuries later?
You little suspected, when you kept the creaking hinge in the door you scribbled behind, that the product of your guilty secret was destined to be sprung upon a readership from Alton to Alexandria, Towcester to Tasmania. One hardly dares reflect how a spot of goose lard might have robbed our English literary heritage of one of its gilt-edged treasures.
You taught many of us the meaning of 'valetudinarian' and 'solecism' and 'cotillon' (or cotillion), not to mention 'arch' and 'hauteur' and 'silver loo'. You beguiled us with intrigues and candlelight and misapprehension, destinies forged over the chink of teacups. You delighted us with tomboyish Lizzie Bennet romping around the chicken yard and fields, her hem slimed in cow-dung, her petticoats dew-drenched, whilst her mischievous tongue craved the next dialectic adventure. You gave us Fitzwilliam Darcy who inspired the smouldering ice of Mr Colin Firth and the lovelorn gravity of Mr Matthew McFadyen. You gave us absurd Mr Collins at whom we might justly poke fun, memorably captured by Mr Tom Hollander.
That early book failed to achieve an airing for many years, but I will always think of it as the best and most representative of your talents; your astute observation, exquisite wit and verve. No wonder your quill scratched in haste behind closed doors! You wicked girl!
Yet, for the life of me, I cannot understand the fascination for photos of Bath where modern young women, got up in their period bonnets and frocks, pay tribute to your works. They have none of the atmosphere of an aquatint, or a painting by Mr Reynolds, Mr Romney or Mr Gainsborough. Or a passage from one of your books. I ask myself why, in an age that revels in Rowling and Tolkien, Avatar, space odysseys, vampires and the chilling macabre, the fast and furious, even in Georgette Heyer, you have gone from strength to strength? Perhaps it is partly because Miss Heyer helped to span the breach of the centuries that you've flourished outside the walls of academe, well beyond your era.
Your world was so cloistered and constrained, not to mention mannered, every move orchestrated like a minuet.The quaintness of it! The mortifying fear of having put a foot wrong! No one cares a button for their reputation nowadays. As long as the keen appetite for publicity is satisfied, one is alive and well. And who would have guessed the Napoleonic Wars were in progress with British servicemen deployed across the atlas? Who would suspect that monarchs had been guillotined and that bloody Revolution was in full spate less than a couple of dozen miles across the Channel? You did admit you found it difficult to imagine a discourse between gentlemen over their port, or in their clubs, so that even a peep through that squint was denied.
Above the culture and propriety, could your appeal be that the K per annum shouts loudest to us? The 'success' of your characters was so often underscored, in the most genteel fashion, by fiscal benefit. We understand the language of income all too well, though we no longer accept that it should only rightfully accrue to the humane, the industrious and the guiltless. Sound principle is rarer than it was then. Human nature may be what it has ever been, but there are reaches it has been unwise to pioneer. Many realise this. We have a phrase for it: Don't go there, we say.
Perhaps we are hooked on the sheer power of your storytelling, in narrative rhythms that echo in the soul, unlike our truncated phrases pandering to a short attention span and the cost of paper and ink. (Deplorable as it may seem, your elegant prose wouldn't pass an editor of recent decades.) And it cannot be for your spelling of 'connexion', or of 'surprize' and 'crape' in the style perpetrated by our transatlantic cousins.
No, the secret must lie within our hankering for a world that is gone, where, come what may, nuclear annihilation was not a possibility and where the decline and fall of civilisation was safely confined to the prolix pages of Mr Edward Gibbon.
You have also indulged us in our well-developed love of gossip. What would you have made of Tatler, OK and Globe, I wonder?
And last, but not least, there's not a shadow of doubt that we yearn for sterling romance, for the days when a fine tension between the sexes was strung out to breaking point in that rapturous sanctum behind the bedroom door. It is true that some sections of Georgian society suffered no curb upon their amorous activities, but doubtful that they would find any appeal in intimate union accomplished beside the office Xerox, or in the neighbourly confines of the stationery cupboard during the first ten minutes of encounter.
Ah, what we have lost...
If only we had not opened all the doors.
© © Rosy Cole 2010