From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Ask any fan of Jane Austen what they love about her works and they can readily describe cherished characters, pithy quotes, and probably several screen adaptations that are especially close to their hearts. But what about what Austen loved? Jane’s niece Anna Lefroy remembered her aunt as a lover of the outdoors and natural scenery. Her letters are filled with walks in all kinds of weather and you don’t have to search her novels long to find numerous scenes that take place not in a stuffy drawing room, but on a tree-lined path or windswept hill. Jane Austen’s Country Life focuses on the Hampshire countryside where she spent three-quarters of her life:
“This first-hand knowledge of country life underpins her writing and gives the time-frame against which she constructs her plots; she was not only a clergyman’s daughter, but a farmer’s daughter as well…” (8)
The first chapter “Hampshire” begins with an overview of the county, explaining the then-controversial process of enclosure that deprived the rural poor of the use of common land. Enclosure features in three Austen novels: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Emma. Descriptions and illustrations of the villages of Steventon and Deane follow, as well as those of nearby Oakley and Ashe. The larger towns of Overton, Basingstoke and Odiham provided the Austen family with well-stocked market places for shopping and assembly balls for dancing and socializing. While Le Faye includes several lovely antique maps of Hampshire, I longed for a simple map showing the villages and towns in relation to one another at this point in the book.
“Life at Steventon Rectory” describes the family’s domestic routines, the love of amateur theatricals, and Austen’s early comic works now known as The Juvenelia. Young Jane and her sister also spent a short time away from Steventon at a girls’ boarding school in Reading. Le Faye suggests that as the academic regime was “very casual” and the girls were allowed to spend their afternoons as they pleased, this may have been when Jane immersed herself in the romantic popular novels that she later parodied in Northanger Abbey.
My favorite chapter “A Year in the Countryside” charts the seasons from January through December. Beginning with Plough Monday in early January when the Steventon farming community would have marked the start of the English agricultural year and finishing with the twelve days of Christmas and the New Year, Le Faye seamlessly weaves events from the agricultural calendar with Austen’s life, as well as the action in her novels. Highlights from the year include sheep shearing in June, haymaking in July, and harvesting crops from August to October. Seasonal rhythms dictate the lives of Austen’s characters as much as her family and neighbors:
“No fewer than four of Jane’s novels start their main action in September: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion. This is not accidental, but tacitly acknowledges that the slight pause after the hectic and anxious time of harvesting gave the opportunity for both farmers and gentry to plan for agricultural and social life respectively.” (105)
Continuing with “The Hardships and Pleasures of Rural Life” and “Crops, Livestock and Pleasure-Grounds” Le Faye’s text and choice of illustrations create a vivid and lively picture of English rural life in Jane Austen’s time. Just as the reader is feeling at home in Hampshire, and agreeing with Austen that “there is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort,” an abrupt removal to Bath described in the chapter titled “Urban Interlude” turns Austen’s world on its head. While Austen seemed to dislike Bath as much as her heroine Anne Elliot, the city’s relative proximity to a number of seaside resorts made possible some of her most beloved visits to the English coast. Austen uncharacteristically describes the scenery of Lyme and the surrounding countryside in Persuasion:
“…the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.” (226)
Concluding with “Life at Godmersham and Chawton” Le Faye describes how Mrs. Austen and her daughters settled back into a comfortable country life when Edward Austen Knight offered them a rent-free cottage in Chawton. The author also notes a subtle shift in Austen’s novels from this time. Their author was no longer a farmer’s daughter, but the squire’s sister:
“…the novels of her maturity—Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion—are written much more from the point of view of that rank of society: the domestic lives of the men who have the responsibility of managing large estates and leading their local communities.” (253)
Regardless of her choice of subject matter, a return to country life must have appealed to Austen. With Deidre Le Faye as our knowledgeable guide, we can re-visit this vanished rural landscape and gain a greater appreciation of Jane’s delight in natural scenery. We love Austen’s characters and stories, but may not realize how her realistic depiction of time and place contributes to our sense of her works, unless we explore Jane Austen’s Country Life.
5 out of 5 Stars
Jane Austen’s Country Life: Uncovering the rural backdrop to her life, her letters and her novels, by Deirdre Le Faye
Francis Lincoln Ltd., (2014)
Hardcover (256) pages
Cover image courtesy of Francis Lincoln Ltd., © 2014; text Tracy Hickman © 2014, Austenprose.com
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