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Why We Read (and or Write about) Jane Austen By Jan Ashton

 

Jane Austen's body of work delivers a nuanced understanding of life—especially as a woman, family dynamics, insights into the historical context of the period, and the social norms between men and women. For the last two decades, I have been fascinated by Austen’s diverse and massive fan following, scholars, and writers, and I love discovering why her words and characters still resonate with so many these two hundred years later. Once a month in 2024, I feature one Austen fan to offer their insights.


Author, reader, and editor Jan Ashton is my guest writer for June. I became a fan of Jan's after reading her contemporary Pride and Prejudice variation A Searing Acquaintance. Ever since, you can count on me to queue up to read or listen to her next novel. In 2019, she added 'publisher' to her vitae as part of the partnership with the wildly successful, independent Austenesque publishing house, Quills & Quartos. Now, Jan overseas editing and their website.


By Jan Ashton

Not everyone has read Jane Austen, but like Shakespeare, everyone knows her words, her characters, or her plots. After all, she often is credited with inventing game theory and the modern novel (not to mention providing the framework for countless rom-coms and Hallmark movies).

 

As for me, I discovered her on my grandmother’s bedroom bookshelf, next to the collection of Agatha Christie novels that she so wanted me to read. I picked Body in the Library, but quickly set it aside to read Pride and Prejudice. Finding Jane Austen in my grandma’s lace and flower-bedecked house, when I was barely thirteen, seems on point for those who have disparaged her novels because they take place in ‘feminine spaces,’ such as sitting rooms, drawing rooms, and dining rooms, where conversations focus on teas, balls, matchmaking, and weddings.

 

How is that cause for criticism? Stories taking place within houses where people live hardly seem revolutionary or cause for annoyance. But remember the meme showcasing 2010’s one-star Amazon review of Pride and Prejudice: “Just a bunch of people going to each other’s houses.”

 

1-star review of Pride & Prejudice

The tongue-in-cheek reviewer, one ‘mr carlton b morgan’, broadly and hilariously understates the brilliance of Jane Austen’s masterpiece, but he is fairly correct that all the action on the page takes place while people are visiting other people’s houses (and gardens). Eight, to be precise: Longbourn, Netherfield Park, Lucas Lodge, the Philipses’ house, Hunsford Parsonage, Rosings Park, Gracechurch Street, and Pemberley.

 

Yes, important conversations are had at the inn at Lambton, a street in Meryton, and an unnamed inn between Cheapside and Hertfordshire. And, off the page, we know Darcy and Bingley dine elsewhere with the officers and Mr Bennet goes to Epsom and Clapham in search of Lydia after she leaves Brighton—not to mention all the unnamed places Darcy likely went in search of her and Wickham.

 

It’s much the same in all of her books—estates and homes that have become as familiar to us Janeites as our own cities and neighborhoods. In Emma, it is the houses and streets of Highbury, while Kellynch Hall, Camden, Uppercross House, and the Harvilles’ home in Lyme Regis form the core of scenes in Persuasion.

 

It is a sheltered, ordered, and stable world based in rural and domestic settings. Of course, there is always a parsonage, for the center of Jane Austen’s life was her longtime home, the rectory at Steventon. Home meant happiness and security for her and her heroines, and having to leave Steventon for Bath was said to have left her grief-stricken, perhaps as Marianne Dashwood felt upon leaving her childhood home: “Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more! – And you, ye well-known trees!”

 

I feel those words deeply, those sentiments toward a house and the memories formed there. While Jane Austen wrote her books in a time of little mobility, socially or otherwise, when one’s house and village was the entire world, it was little different for a child born decades before cable TV and the internet. I was uprooted every few years due to my father’s job and—faced with a new school in a new city in a new state, with new slang to learn and new friends to make—the library was a familiar place that smelled and looked and felt the same in Wisconsin as it had in Pennsylvania. As long as I had a place to find books, both new and old favorites, and a cozy place to read, I could be happy. And aren’t we all seeking happiness and familiar comforts like Jane and her heroines?

 

four woman standing with cardboard cutout of actor Colin Firth
Cat Andrews, Jan Ashton, Gail Warner, and Ruth Phillips Oakland with Mr Darcy at 2023 JAFF meetup

That was the idea during World War I, when British soldiers in the thick of fighting or recuperating were given her novels. These young men, only a hundred years past the times Jane wrote of, had left their villages and farms, and were dealing with culture shock, shell shock, homesickness, fear, and death. Her novels gave them a picture of home, hearth, and family—an emotional escape to an idealized England. Maybe her depictions of small, well-ordered communities bound by complex sets of social rules was as appealing to soldiers as it was (and is) to readers curled up in comfortable sitting rooms.

 

Of course, her novels are far more than mere escapism. The men reading her books in the trenches (and we who continue to read her—over and over again) did so for her brilliant writing, sly humor, and memorable characters. But we also savor her smart, biting observations on class, marriage, clergymen, social issues, and the behaviors of men and women. Her characters are not living amid the chaos and changes that seems to surround us today and they speak more elegantly than we do. But they share with us these timeless settings: small, homey, familiar ‘feminine spaces,’ allowing us to see that basic human nature, emotions, and concerns have not really changed that much.

 

Last summer, after a year-long delay due to the pandemic, our daughter, Emma, was married. It was a huge and joyous wedding, and like Mrs. Bennet, I felt great relief and happiness. Although by their wedding day, Emma and her new husband had been together for eight years, their happily-ever-after was realized in the same way Jane Austen ensures her characters achieve it: marriage and home.

 

For me, domesticity, especially in homes with plenty of ‘feminine space’, cannot be overrated. Of course, Elizabeth Bennet finds her happily-ever-after with Mr. Darcy at his grand estate, Pemberley, but often Jane Austen’s heroines settle into homes similar to the place she was most content: a parsonage. Fanny Price with Edmund Bertram in the parsonage, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney at Woodston, and Elinor Dashwood with Edward Ferrars at Delaford find their HEAs [happily ever afters] ensconced in cozy familiarity.

 

How can we not want to read their stories and be inspired to try our hand at writing variations, prequels, and sequels to her work—even (or especially) those that take the characters on a roller-coaster journey to achieve that happy ending? That, I suppose, is really a form of escapism for some of us—it’s so much fun to re-imagine how Elizabeth and Darcy finally get together or how Lydia might overcome her worst instincts. I know I want to continue to play a small part in my corner of Jane’s ‘feminine spaces’—reading, writing, editing, and publishing—for years to come.

 

blonde, white woman smiling
Author, editor, publisher Jan Ashton

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jan Ashton lives in suburban Chicago with her husband, an avid golfer and great reader, amid assorted cats, overstuffed bookshelves, grown kids, and grandchildren. A former magazine editor, she has shifted from eating out far too often while covering the restaurant business to writing and editing Jane Austen variations and Regency and contemporary romances. Jan has written nine Austen-inspired novels and edited more than two dozen variations and historical and contemporary romances. Her newest novel, A Hopeless Business, will be released later this year. Follow the Quills & Quartos blog.

 

4 Comments


Love Mr Morgan's review and the resultant "turning a lemon into lemonade" explanation. Wish I had been introduced earlier to JA. Nice interview.

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Replying to

Indeed! Haha.


Thanks for stopping by.

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First of all, I'm so excited to see you have a new book coming out soon, Jan! Also, I hear you on moving often while growing up -- and how books and libraries provided a welcome anchor during times of change. (Unfortunately, though, and for reasons I can't explain, I didn't actually read Austen until I was in college!) I loved your points about how Austen's seemingly orderly settings provide spaces are, on one level, comfortable -- but on another level, invite us to be unsettled (about class, love, human nature, and so many other big topics)! Thanks for sharing all of these wonderful insights with us.

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Jun 18
Replying to

Thanks, Christina! You sum up my meandering thoughts so well! Jane really did have small universes of emotion going on in the most mundane spaces. --Jan

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