An account of ‘Celebrating Jane Austen’ in the style of Jane’s  letters. 

 

As part of the events to mark the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death, All Saints' Church ran a competition for adults.  The winning entry is published below the letter, with the kind permission of the winner.

Upper Clatford, 9 July 2017  

Dearest Jane  

The people of Upper Clatford and district celebrated your fascinating life last night with a very special event. This was one of many events this summer in your beloved Hampshire this year.  There was a ball but not in one of the big houses but in All Saints’ church!  

It was a very fine evening and luckily not as hot as of late.  Preparations for this grand event had started many months ago and there was a considerable sense of anticipation. The church flower arrangers had set the scene with some lovely arrangements of garden flowers in the porch and inside the church.  Local school children had drawn pictures of the village as it was in 1800 and we also had a literary competition.   

 

Our village is to the south of Andover – a town which you knew well, where some of your friends    lived. There was no direct connection, suffice to say that we were represented in Parliament for many years by one of Edward Knight’s descendants and we knew Sir George well. The Hampshire Regency dancers arrived early and were dressed impeccably. They made quite an impression on our visitors.   

There is now a society founded in your honour given the extensive interest in your life and books, so we invited a speaker from the Jane Austen Society to come and tell us more details about ‘Hampshire’s most famous lady’ as you are now known. Jane Maxwell introduced us to you, your parents and brothers and sisters in turn.  Your brothers did well in their respective careers. I am so pleased that you were able to enjoy London for a time – Sloane Square is quite a different atmosphere from a Hampshire village as I know well.  [You would appreciate the shops which are there now!]  We all felt for you when you had to leave Steventon and all your friends to go to Bath, a city with which I also have connections. We were so pleased that Edward was able to find you a permanent home in Chawton in the centre of the village.  We were all so moved as your final days in Winchester were described. 

As a guide at Winchester cathedral, Jane said that visitors always ask to see your grave in the north aisle – there is a beautiful stained glass window in your honour now, which I walk past frequently when I go there to sing.[ I, too, like this cathedral.] 

The audience was brought back to the 21st century when the Revd Katrina Dykes presented the prize to the winner’s mother of the literary competition which was run prior to this event. Entrants were asked to write an essay with the following title Is the quality of life today better or worse than in Jane Austen’s Regency England?  It   was won by an English teacher who had both studied and taught your works.  Your books are now used as part of examination syllabi for school children and university students. [I remember studying Emma at university]. You were one of our first female authors – women can now enter professions and even the Church of England agreed relatively recently to allow women to follow in your father’s footsteps and be ordained. 

The village ladies excelled at producing delicious refreshments before the ball commenced.  Everyone was so enthralled by the story of your life and family, I have never known such enthusiasm for one of our events – such was the affection shown for you.  

To set the scene for the second half of the entertainment, one of our church lesson readers read an extract from Pride and Prejudice of the occasion when the Bennett family receive the invitation to the ball at Netherfield from Mr Bingley.  The dancing went very well and we were introduced to the language of fans by one of the dancers.  How useful they would have been to us!  We were all transported back to Regency England through the music, dancing and beautiful costumes. I couldn’t match the glamour of the dancers in their Empire line dresses but wore a long pastel blue lacy blouse and skirt in keeping with your fashionable Regency colours.   

To bring the formal part of the evening to an end, I read an extract from one of your letters when you described a ball, in a letter to Cassandra on 1 November 1800.  The assembled company was then invited to take to the floor to dance as well. There was a scarcity of men but luckily enough  some ladies were able to dance with the Regency dancers. They enjoyed dancing and were still dancing at 10pm! 

As always, the church is still reliant on donations for its work and upkeep.  You inspired this wonderful event which raised £536 so we are exceedingly grateful to you.  

Yours, most sincerely, Jane. 

Is the quality of life today better or worse than in Jane Austen’s Regency England? Discuss. 

The winning entry is below:-

As an English teacher I have studied and taught the works of Jane Austen in great detail and cannot help but admire the lives her heroines lead. When I am stuck in a day-to-day routine of teaching, marking and meetings, I long for the chance to spend ‘6 hours reading’ as Marianne does in Sense and Sensibility. The long hours of free time that the people of the Regency period seem to have does have an enviable attraction for a modern career girl like me. It makes me long to go back into that time and don a bonnet. However I can’t help but wonder, wouldn’t I be bored? 

Despite being an English teacher, I have only just gained a passion for Austen after teaching Persuasion at A Level. This has been an error that I am greatly glad to have redressed; I am enchanted by her works and long to study her more. I have noticed that Austen’s heroines (such as Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot and Emma Woodhouse) all seem to have a lot of time on their hands. Their lives seem to be a constant array of dinners, balls and long periods staying at someone else’s home. What I would give to be able to go and stay with a distant relative in a beautiful rural cottage and have my days spent visiting friends in the neighbourhood! For Regency women life did not seem to be difficult. Their main pressures were to be ‘well read, musical, have a beautiful singing voice and to be able to dance well’, all of which outlines them to be an ‘accomplished woman’ (according to Mr Darcy of course). Pressures for women are not the same in the modern world; women have to earn money as well as being mothers and there is little time for sitting at a piano for hours. The modern world seems to be all about time and chiefly the lack of it. For women of the Regency period this seems to, in my book, makes their position the better one.  

I am, of course, basing all of my statements on Jane Austen’s characters and it cannot be ignored that they are all of a certain class; the middle-upper class. In the late 18th century the class divides were far more rigid than they are today and it was very hard to move between them. It was possible (as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet) to move from the middle classes to the upper classes, but only if you were from a family of repute and not without some opposition (Lady Catherine DeBurgh). When we talk about class in the 18th century we do not necessarily mean money. The Elliots from Persuasion are upper-class but they do not have much money. The Bennet sisters have little money to their names, hence why Mrs Bennett is so keen to marry them off. Nowadays money can equate to a higher status, not so much your family name. This has to be a negative. For the working classes of the Regency period (a group of people whose views Austen neglects) it could not be much fun to be ‘stuck with your lot’ just because of the situation of your birth. Anybody who attempts to move up the ladder is often met with resentment (as with Harriet Smith from Emma who is found at the end of the novel to be better off with someone from her own class). The rigidity of the class system in the Regency period is something that should not be longed for again.  

Class was not the only limitation of the late 18th century; women were also limited by their sex. In the Regency period women still did not have the vote and could not own property in their own right. Jane Austen is sometimes criticised for the lack of feminist views in her novels and considering that she was a contemporary of the founder of feminism Mary Wollstonecraft, this is not a surprising view. It is a view, however, which I disagree with. Jane Austen described life how it was and in doing so, I believe she highlights the plight of women at the time. Her characters spend their time gossiping about marriages and spending 6 hours reading because there was nothing else to do. A Regency woman had two possibilities: marry and live off your husband’s money, or become a spinster and hope for the generosity of your relatives. The latter was what Jane Austen did herself. In a recent BBC documentary, the famous historian Lucy Worsley took a trip round all of the houses Austen lived in. In doing so she revealed how much of Austen’s life was spent relying on the good will of the male members of her family. Austen had no independence of her own and even when her novels started to become more popular, she still did not have enough income to support herself independently. For a woman of the time this was almost impossible to do. 

Austen’s own struggles, therefore, could be an argument in favour of modern society. However there was still many things that a Regency woman could do which would be almost impossible for a woman of the 21st century to do. I return to my argument regarding time. I cannot completely give up the wish to live life like that of an Austen heroine because of what they can do with their time. They read, they sew, they sing, they make music, they dance and most of all they have time for themselves. I am always surprised when reading Austen how much time the heroines have for quiet reflection. Despite their issues of the heart, they have a moment to sit and think about their feelings. All the heroines do it: Emma, Elizabeth, Eleanor, Anne, and I wish we could do it more. In schools today there is more of an onus on mindfulness; this is the idea of spending time in quiet reflection. The reason for this being that with the increase of pressures of the modern society, there has been an increase in cases of mental illness. We do not have time to feel and reflect on our feelings. For this reason I would relish that chance to be shut away in a country cottage and just think. It would do many people the world of good. 

There are many benefits for the Regency period and having a slower pace of life is definitely the most persuasive. Even though I am only 25 and just starting the world of work, I already feel that everything needs to slow down slightly. We should take a leaf out of one of Austen’s books and have time for quiet reflection. A bit more of this today would prevent a lot of problems with mental illness in the future. However I cannot completely resign myself to becoming a 18th century woman. Even though I would enjoy spending more moments reading and visiting friends, the limits of travel and the restrictions on women would make it disagreeable. It would not necessarily make life hard but it would make it boring. There is only a certain amount of time I could spend sewing and staring out of a window. Personally, I think I would struggle as an Austen heroine; just talking about who is going to marry whom constantly seems superficial. Women have a much wider range of topics to talk about today and I am glad for it. 

I feel we should look at Austen’s period, have time to reflect on it, and think of ways to implement elements in the modern world to help us develop in the future. 

Return to home page