“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
What has changed since 1813, the year Jane Austen’s most famous novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was first published? NOTHING. Absolutely nothing. We think we have evolved, after all we have computers and smart phones now, we even drive electric cars. Women can access safe abortions (maybe not in Italy, where the Vatican still rules!), have careers and are free to enter politics.
YET – dig under the surface and what do you find? Young women rushing to marry rich football players to instantly access fame and fortune, powerful men having a series of trophy wives – Donald Trump the prime example – and most societies finding it an unspeakable act to marry outside one’s social class. Basically, when you dig under the surface, you find the same 19th century society described by my beloved Jane.
I’ll admit it, I’m a great fan of Austen and have read every word she has ever written plus much that has been written about her. She is the centre of my literary universe. Never having wandered far from the small area in the south of England where she spent her 41 years of life (between Steventon, Bath, Southampton, Chawton and Winchester), her works have reached across the globe and across the ages in a way so extraordinary that it could never have been predicted or foreseen by the ever humble Jane.
“The little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory, on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” is how she once described her work to her nephew Edward with typical modesty.
Having refused an offer of marriage, this most influential of all female writers has lived a quiet, simple life. Supported by her dear sister Cassandra, she has devoted her time to writing. From the tiny corner of her small world and limited life experience, she has simply observed. Like a forensic scientist Jane has applied herself to describing the rules of society, the nature of human relations and the dramas of love and other passions. The intensity of her emotions always inversely proportional to the restrain of her prose. Austen’s reflections are harsh and reveal her to be a realist, yet the message is made digestible by a wit and irony that make us laugh at what we recognize to be our and our society’s cardinal sins. The style of her writing makes her both cynical and compassionate at once.
“He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed” – is said about Mr John Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’.
She points out the everlasting truths that money rules, most men and women are hypocrites, social class is a prison that’s hard to break out of, but perhaps needed to give us all an illusion of order.
Her characters come alive with their unforgettable and often humorous personal weaknesses, foibles and vanities, sometimes with their noble virtues and strengths.
She reveals the unquestionable fact that love remains a mystery so great and so powerful as to blossom even in the most unfavourable circumstances and in defiance of all attempts at control by social mores and rules.
Jane Austen’s message is essential, it transcends the boundaries of culture and time and is therefore, by definition, true art. It proves that a woman’s mind, ability and vocation cannot and must not be squashed or suppressed – something most institutions (especially religious ones) and indeed a large number of people in this world still haven’t understood.
All of Jane Austen’s books are available in Italian:
‘Ragione e sentimento’
‘Orgoglio e pregiudizio’
‘L’abbazia di Northanger’
‘I Watson’ (incompiuto)