Jane Austen is coming in for a lot of attention at the moment. A new film supposedly about her life, Becoming Jane, is out at the cinema. 3 new TV adaptations are about to hit our screens, and newspapers are full of Austen, too.
Celia Brayfield attacked Austen recently, provoking a spirited defence from Libby Purves in the Times Online, which will surely delight the heart of any Austen lover:
"Celia Brayfield accuses Jane Austen of focusing on “young women’s fancies” while ignoring the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Chinese woman pirate Zheng Yi Sao. She berates Austen for not being Mary Wollstonecraft, for failing to “look out of the window” at poverty and recording a sexist society.
Being a middle-class girl in the 1800s, clinging on to the lower rungs of the financial ladder, was frightening. Daily life was arduous — all that sewing was not a hobby but household maintenance and the construction of clothes. In the country, livestock must be tended and a woman’s retreat to the drawing-room in a clean dress was often well earned. The older generation, especially if moneyed, held a power over the young unimaginable to our generation.
Beyond the walls of home the prospect was alarming: no social security, no pensions, no dole, no health service, antibiotics or reliable contraception; terrifying childbirths, no careers for single women without a slide down the social scale towards poverty."
Whilst cheering Libby Purves, I couldn't help thinking, Why and how has our society come to despise enjoyment for enjoyment's sake? Even if Jane Austen wrote about nothing but bonnets, what would be wrong with that? Pleasure is a necessary part of existence. Without it, life would be a dull affair; moreover, we would never be able to lift our spirits enough to do anything about the things that trouble us.
So long live Jane Austen, in whatever form people choose to appreciate her - social historian, woman of her times, comic genius or romantic novelist.
As Oscar Wilde almost said, We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at bonnets.