Lady A~, Authoress of "Merits and Mercenaries", the first novel of The Bath Novels of Lady A~ Collection, is my guest again with a brilliant, thought-provoking blogpost. Don't miss it and, don't miss the chance to win a copy of her remarkable book. Open worldwide, this giveaway contest ends on October 30th. Please, don't forget to add your e-mail address to your comment.
Before Jane Austen was cold in her grave, a sweet and endearing ‘portrait’ for her admirers was etched in stone by the politically correct patriarchs of her family. The memorial message that was conveyed to the world, of arguably the greatest novelist in all of English literature, was a 3-verse ode to (amongst other saintly features) Jane’s Christianity, benevolence, humility and purity. Undoubtedly, by that same patronizing male rationale, these ‘qualities’ were just the ticket to temper ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’. The latter ‘blessing’ seemed rather blotted away amidst all the attributes of an unassuming, selfless ‘old maid’ who, ‘on the side’, had been formerly thinking, writing and publishing things rather polemical—and much to the delight of aristocrats and meritocrats—of all genders—alike.
These self-evident, contradicting aspects of the single-minded, ‘political’ Jane was what instantly intrigued me, when first I read Austen; and amidst the seemingly prolix pages of Mansfield Park. There appeared to be something positively poking out from under every line, gradually altering my ‘first impressions’: a cutting ‘political’ satire vividly exposing the universal foibles of humanity, in microcosm. So, what exactly was Jane Austen really about? Did she have a partisan agenda? Was she putting forward a social commentary based upon the politics of the day?
In forming my notion to write under the novel Regency pen name assigned to her by fashionable society, Jane’s transformation from ‘A Lady—’ to ‘Lady A—’ was, for me, the most telling talisman of her truest character—her ‘mischievous alter ego’, if you will. The unknown, unmarried, unmoneyed ‘lady’ was socially elevated, in an instant, to ‘someone’, and by popular decree in the simple rearrangement of an article and a noun! Why? Why did the beau monde give her this honorary moniker and salute? Because this ‘lady’ wrote like no other. Unflinchingly she emerged from nowhere to emulate the celebrated female authors of her time—moving in much more elevated circles than she—and to trump them squarely at their game. And she did not stop there. She particularly singled out the ‘Queens of the Terrific’ [popular Gothic writers like Anne Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith] and made an unholy mockery of them all. For good measure too, she also inadvertently put the puffed-up, male, writing fraternity properly in its place—‘lower’! So how did the sweet and saintly ‘dear Jane/ dear Aunt Jane/ dearest Jane’ make such a success out of being ‘impolitic’? Simply, she was a politician-extraordinaire. Though surrounded by conservative male custodians—some friendly to her ‘bent’, and others less so—Jane carved through a voice for her activist alter ego with the aplomb of a seasoned democrat. She fashioned her strong messages about the hypocrisy of a male-driven, mercenary, amoral society with the unparading confidence of one elected to high office. The pen was Jane’s platform and she employed it liberally, and counter to the full-blooded ‘Tory’ philosophies of most of her male relations and friends.
It is very easy to get caught up in the ‘romance’ of Austen’s novels, but therein lies the ‘trick’ of her free-thinking, strategist formula. As we enter the charming and alluring worlds of heroines being matched to heroes, all around these ‘instruments’ the more interesting social malevolence is showcased with the equal and opposing ease of unparalleled genius. Sycophantic hypocrisy, sexual misdemeanours, sexism,
elitism, fraud, bigotry, betrayal, ‘polite lies’, discrimination, exploitation, extortion, ‘legal ‘prostitution and malfeasance are just some of the provocative things being publicly laundered about the Bennets and Darcys, Prices and Bertrams, Morlands and Tilneys, Dashwoods and Ferrarses/Willoughbys/ Brandons, Elliots and Wentworths, and Woodhouses and Knightleys. These matches are made so very interesting because of what is polemically transpiring around them in the regular and elegant ‘harmony’ of the English-gentry milieu. And it is Jane’s arch use of the ‘status’ of that ambiance which is what first intrigues the reader. How delicious it is to take grand tours of those marvellous homes, assembly rooms, parks and estates, and in the constant and reassuring company of ‘3 or 4 families in a country village’, where seemingly all is exceedingly genteel. But while we are busy ‘escaping’ blissfully into Austen’s intoxicating ‘drawing-room trap’, she seamlessly begins ‘indoctrinating’ the reader with her satirical doctrine, and at the expense of those who most particularly deserve it. From heiresses to blackguards, from aristocrats to parsons, every sitting duck gets bagged by this veteran politician of wit.
Jane was, in fact, a very bold democrat. Perhaps her feminist voice echoes this most strongly. Her enchanting, though fallible, female protagonists rise almost politically within their societies. In the end they gain status, power, money and, most significantly, ideological ‘influence’ over the establishment status quo. Each of them creates a small revolution that overthrows their opponents and wholly captivates their (male) counterparts. Indeed, no feminist could have written better resolutions to the trials and tribulations of six ladies who were, each in their way, ostensibly ‘disadvantaged’. Austen, the great Leveller, subtly ensures that when each of these ladies gets the better of their ‘beaus’ in the marriage race, the force at the controls changes to ‘emancipation’. The resultant sextet of ‘matches’ brings no deals, no trade-offs, but rather equality accepted, uplifted and ‘politically’ enforced.
If the Misters Austen did not happen to read any of that in the masterful pages of six perfectly political novels, perhaps the epitaph on Jane’s black marble grave stone might have resonated more credibly than it does some 200 years on? Most assuredly they read it and, in the case of some, possibly even ruminated over at how these works were to be received, as each novel debuted. Is it any wonder, then, that no mention of her most remarkable ‘gift’ was decorously omitted from her family’s most definitive and enduring dedication? Even at such a posthumous stage in this inimitable writer’s history, did her relatives silently endorse the fear of those ‘poking’ impolitic things that they could not ‘manage’ in both Jane’s public and private musings. Think only how many of Austen’s letters were excised/destroyed after her demise. The ‘burning’ question, besides the most obvious answer of preservation of privacy, is why?
It was all of this that made me want to write yet further of the ‘things’ that Jane daringly ventured upon in her time, privately and in satirical plain sight. Through that ‘mischievous alter ego’ I imagined, in The Bath Novels of Lady A~, seven new ‘romances’ motivated by Austen’s slicing satire and set in her particular socio-political realm. Through the polemical pen of ‘a lady’ frustratingly sequestered in the ‘white glare of Bath’, I teasingly turned Jane’s ‘fallow’ years there (and beyond) into Lady A~’s season of polemic fruitfulness. In tribute, then, to their redoubtable political progenitor, each ‘Bath Novel’, in such conceit, dares to: overhear the private musings of men amongst men, incite ‘the revolutionary progress of the new order over the old’, explore the injustice of ‘inequity’ and reveal, rather colourfully, ‘the perils of dangerous (Regency) liaisons’.
In an age where the likes of free speech and civil liberty are not privileges but fundamental rights, it is this striking and early vision of such necessary freedoms that we universally admire in Austen’s work. She makes a ‘kind of art’ of them. By means of her (social) ’politics at play’, she very ably transcends the disadvantages of her gender, her singledom and her lack of personal fortune to raise her very polemical voice above the (establishment) powers that strove to muzzle it. Plainly, she outmanoeuvred them all! Just as a politician crafts a visionary manifesto to sway mass consciousness, Jane Austen put the pen in her hand to wittily transfer her most enlightened opinions to the published page. As she did so, she modestly stepped into the anonymous guise of ‘A Lady’, only to really compete in the very prejudiced arena of a patriarchal world as the arch luminary, and very political, Lady A~!
The Inscription on Jane Austen’s Grave Stone:
In Memory of
youngest daughter of the late
Revd GEORGE AUSTEN,
formerly Rector of Steventon in this County
she departed this life on the 18th July 1817,
aged 41, after a long illness supported with
the patience and hopes of a Christian.
The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind,
obtained the regards of all who knew her
and the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Their grief is in proportion to their affection
they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in their deepest affliction they are consoled
by a firm though humble hope that her charity,
devotion, faith and purity have rendered
her soul acceptable in the sight of her