Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Currency Is More Than Cash

Three foot up on the wall from my nose is an original "Punch" cartoon from the early 1960's. It was the prize in a Toby Competition, then an item of not more than I think, 400 words.  It was a literary exercise set in the style of a well known author.  Despite having read little of her work and knowing less about her, I took a pot at Jane Austen.

At present there is a debate about the rights and wrongs of using an alleged image of her on the latest issues of £10 notes.  In her day this would have been an annual income to many.  It was also the cost of an expensive dressmaker frock, which explains why she and her sister, Cassandra, had to spend so much time on making and mending their clothes.

Down the decades since there has been a great deal of attention to her, notably all the TV series and films.  There has also been the literary debate about the essence of her work, her standing in the pantheon of authors and a good deal of other matters.  For some she is a member of a class and social world that they dislike intensely. For others she a part of a golden age of literature and for many a great story teller that somehow strikes a chord in the minds.

There are two things that interest me.  One is all the things that are not plainly there in the works, some barely hinted at.  The other is that I have not been able to avoid her.  Was my choice of competition entry perhaps a twitch in the Jungian folk memory?  It is not just that we found ourselves in and around Hampshire for ordinary reasons but in both our cases we are all too close in parts of our family history.

It is clear that she was a child of her time, albeit that many argue that her insights and critical faculty have a meaning for later ages.  She lived between 1775 and 1817, certainly a period of history that was full of turmoil, wars, drastic changes, uncertainty, tragedy and where fear and greed were all too evident.  1816 was The Year Without Summer, of which she may have been an incidental casualty.

She grew up as a child of a clergyman who had a weakness for books.  There were hundreds of them,  Assuming she read a few, possibly many, there was not a lot else to do apart from household routines, which ones were they and with what influence?  In short what works provided her moral compass along with the preaching of her Church?

Back calculating this from her own writing against which works might have been on the shelves and  is an intricate task at best.  Especially, if you do not know the exact books.  But given that her writing evidently impacted on a good many people then despite the negligible reference to Church theology and the rest there may have been something there that was common to them but not to later generations.

I have a theory but am shutting up about it because that kind of argument is not wanted.  Another was assessing the real background of the society in which she lived.  Who were the broader range of families in and around Hampshire that provided the wider setting and maybe the characterisations?  Some families are mentioned who can be fingered but they are rare.

They were also highly risky.  Because if you trawl around the area in that period and look at who was around and more to the point connected to who then loud bells start ringing.  But the devil is in the detail and knowing who was who is complicated.  Her work was allusive and not direct and the hints are subtle.  Clearly very many of the leading characters in her works are fiction, but at times the fiction connects to fact.

One thing in Bath made me think.  It was that at one point when the Austen's were there the directory has a Mrs. Piozzi just along the street. She was married to Gabriel Mario Piozzi who died in 1809.  They had married in 1784 three years after her first husband's death.  She is known to history as Hester Thrale (see Wikipedia) who had been at the centre of literary London.  It is possible to connect that literary London directly to Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in Jane's time as an adult.

One key matter is how and what could Jane write that would be published and command an audience given the number of subjects that would be closed to her as a female author?  Whatever it was that she wanted to say had a only a limited framework available to say it in.  Within its immediate context it did represent a truncated and limited social realism, however much we may not understand or like and dislike it.

One thing we do not understand because of the violence of the period and life as it was that there was not just the monied greed that she points to in marital arrangements but ever present fear.  This is not just medical or the expectation of life.  There was social mobility and a great deal of it for many people, especially in the Austen's class, was downward.

It did not take much to trigger the slide of a family into social oblivion, one bad mistake in money affairs, one bad marriage or the freak of one bad misfortune and it was all gone.  Reading Jane, for all the lightness it is possible at times to smell the fear of loss of standing and income.

And there were no prizes for failures.

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