Nicola here. Last week I was in Oxford at the Bodleain Library to see the Jane Austen exhibition. I love “The Bod” as it’s known; when you join you have to swear an oath that dates back to when the library was first open to scholars in 1602. Amongst other things you have to promise not to set fire to the place which suggests that those 17th century students were a bit unruly, not unlike some of their modern Oxford counterparts!
The exhibition was quite small, just one room, and I did wonder when I went in whether there was anything new that could be said about Jane Austen or any new slant that could be taken on her life and work. It was titled “Which Jane Austen” and had the theme of “the writer in the world.” So it focussed on objects and writing associated with specific times and places in her life. There was a section on the juvenilia she wrote with other members of her family (in the photo), with her original diaries and notebooks on show. There were features on her time in Bath and her connections to London, with many letters on show. There was a book of recipes Jane’s family used at Chawton House. A particularly interesting section focussed on Jane as a woman writing in a time of war which pointed out that she was one of the first writers from the “home front” giving a domestic view of life for those living through the Napoleonic Wars. It’s always mind-blowing to see original possessions and belongings on display and one of the things that moved me most was a pair of Jane’s spectacles resting on her writing desk! I imagine a lot of us could relate to that!
In a studio next door they were playing extracts from all the different films and TV adaptations of Jane Austen’s books. The idea was that you could sit and draw your own comparisons between the different versions of the story and see how they could be depicted in so many ways. Or, if you were like me, you could admire the houses, the fashions and the different Mr Darcys!
It’s fascinating to fill out the background life and influences of a writer like Jane Austen. She attended the balls and parties we read and write about. She met the people and danced the steps of the country dances. I love the fact that like many writers, she used aspects of the people she knew to inspire the characters in her books. One of the most exciting things that I discovered when researching the history of Ashdown House was a completely unexpected connection between the Craven family and the Austen family. Sir Charles Craven, who was Governor of Carolina between 1711 and 1716 was married to a very beautiful younger woman called Elizabeth Staples. This woman was the grandmother of three of Jane Austen’s closest friends, Martha, Mary and Eliza Lloyd. They regaled Jane with tales of Elizabeth’s private cruelty and vice, and the outrageously scandalous life she led after she was widowed. It’s said that she was the model for Lady Susan Vernon in the book Lady Susan and recent film Love and Friendship. Similarly, John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility was supposedly based on the Earl of Craven of whose morals in keeping his mistress at Ashdown House Jane Austen so clearly disapproved! Willoughby is charming, extravagant and amoral. William Craven was, arguably… well, you guessed it!
The relationship between William Craven and the famous Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson, which was said that been reflected in Sense and Sensibility, was also the inspiration for the story thread involving the courtesan Lavinia Flyte in my own book, House of Shadows. Jane Austen, in writing about the fate of Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility was completely aware of the restrictions on the lives of women in Regency England, the balance of power and the way that the wider world worked. She was indeed a “writer in the world.”
Do you think Jane Austen was a writer who reflects the wider world? Do you have a favourite adaptation or a favourite re-imagining of her work? To celebrate the US publication of House of Shadows next week I'm giving away a copy of the book to one commenter between now and midnight Saturday!