We all revel in the support and encouragement we get from friends and family. We are grateful for our brethren authors who sympathize and encourage when reviews aren’t stellar. And stand and cheer when they are.
At a time when most families considered females a basic commodity, chattel. Something to be bartered or sold outright in exchange for land, money, position or all of the above; the Austens were different.
The key, I believe, was how Cassandra and George Austen reared all their children. While the girls learned the ladylike arts of domestic bliss they were also educated along-side their brothers up until university. For a short time Cassandra and Jane were sent to school in Oxford and Reading; but in less than three years they were home once again. So the bulk of their education was at the hands of their father as he taught their brothers. This in a time when most females were lucky to be taught to read and write. All the children had access to the Reverend’s sizable library which ultimately led to Jane’s heightened interest in history and politics. In fact, Jane was crushed when the entire library was sold off before the move to Bath.
But book learning was a relatively small part of the education I address here. It seems evident to me that the Reverend and Mrs. Austen created an environment of open mindedness and respect for everyone, male or female. While they stopped short of complete equality, the girls were very evidently allowed to express their own opinions. As Jane’s History of England shows, no subject was off-limits.
I believe this open-minded and accepting atmosphere in which the Austen children were reared made it possible for Jane to write as much as she liked. The other females, her mother, sister and family friend (later sister-in-law) Martha took care of the domestic chores of the household so Jane would have the time and privacy to write to her heart’s content.
And while George Austen did not live to see her success, he was the one who tried to get First Impressions published by Cadell in 1797 (it was rejected…so take heart). He must have been very proud and obviously thought the book strong enough to present to a publisher.
It was in that atmosphere of open mindedness that her brothers were active participants in making sure Jane had the time, place and where-with-all to write. Paper and ink were quite costly but that never seems to have been a problem for Jane. More importantly, along with the physical her brothers were acutely aware that women could be and often were strong, intelligent, talented and to a degree independent and accepted them that way. No doubt taking the lead of their father, the brothers encouraged Jane in her writings with Henry arranging all the publications of her books. And they were her loudest champions as well.
Jane had wanted a bit of anonymity but all of her brothers seemed to enjoy telling people that their sister had written Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice anytime someone mentioned that they had read the books. There is a story in the family that Edward and Henry met a man who was celebrated for his literary attainments and commented that Pride and Prejudice was the cleverest book he had ever read and would very much like to meet the author for the book was far too clever to have actually been written by a women. Since Edward and Henry were telling the story we can assume that they set the man to rights and I have no doubt with much pride.
So we are grateful to those who encourage and support us in our endeavors and to the entire Austen clan for giving Jane the freedom to become the iconic author she is today.
A woman of two centuries…and probably two more.