Getting Comfortable with “Jane” (Austen)
For many Austen fans, reading one of her novels is taking an armchair vacation back to England in the early 1800s, known as the Regency. They see this period as a time of tea and etiquette. The Austen who conjures up such ideas may even inspire people to take up Regency dancing and Regency fashion. This is when Austen, the novelist, becomes to her readers “Jane,” their friend.
Hearing the friendly, welcoming narrator
Readers may love Dickens, but you likely won’t hear Dickens’s fans calling him “Charles.” Yet Austen fans easily call Austen “Jane.” Jane is that wonderfully witty, wise, and well-spoken narrator who’s a friendly and welcome companion as you read the novel.
For example, in Austen’s early, frustrated attempt at getting published, the narrator in Northanger Abbey tells you of the marriage of the lovely and charming Eleanor Tilney to a presumably equally lovely and charming young Viscount, who never appears in the novel, but whose laundry lists do appear from Catherine Morland’s snooping. Listen to the narrator:
My own joy on the occasion is very sincere. . . . [Eleanor’s] husband was really very deserving of her; independent of his peerage, his wealth, and his attachment, being to a precision the most charming young man in the world. Any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all.
The narrative voice you’ve just heard is attractive; it invited you into the book by saying “us all.” Keep in mind the obvious — that it’s only in a novel that you encounter a narrator in whose company you read for hundreds of pages. Can you point to a narrator who’s more lovely and charming than Austen?
Hearing “Jane, the friend” become the witty, terse narrator
Sometimes, however, “Jane, the friend” gets a little terse, but never with the reader. Instead, Austen uses her characters as the butts of her jokes. For example, in Persuasion, she sets up a conversation between Mrs. Musgrove and Mrs. Croft. Mrs. Musgrove exclaims to her new friend, ” ‘What a great traveler you must have been!’ ” and Mrs. Croft replies:
Pretty well, ma’am, in the fifteen years of my marriage. I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been more than once to the East Indies and back again . . . But I never went beyond the Streights — and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies.
Now “Jane,” the narrative voice, enters: “Mrs. Musgrove had not a word to say in dissent; she could not accuse herself of having ever called them anything in the whole course of her life.” So much for Mrs. Musgrove’s knowledge of geography! Although this narrative voice sounds like it has quite a little bite to it, remember that in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet’s delightful sarcasm has to come from someone. And that someone, of course, is Austen.
The sarcasm that appears in the narrator’s quip about Mrs. Musgrove’s ignorance of geography and throughout Mr. Bennet’s speech first appeared coming from Austen, herself, in the first full publication of her remaining letters in 1932 under the editorship of R. W. Chapman. These letters reveal an Austen who could be cynical, nasty, cruel, and sarcastic. Here are some examples:
Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband. (October 27, 1798)
Poor Mr. Hall: He’s now down in history as having such a frightening face that his wife’s glancing at him caused her to immediately bear a premature dead baby.
She was only 22 when she wrote that. But she didn’t soften with age. Here she is at 32:
Only think of Mrs. Holder’s being dead! — Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the world she could possibly do to make one cease to abuse her! (October 14, 1813)
Not only does Austen make jokes about dead babies, but about dead ladies, too! And even in speaking of Mrs. Holder’s death, Austen shows neither kindness nor sympathy for the recently deceased.