The publication of this issue of Persuasions On-Line in December 2005 comes at the end of a celebratory year: the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, at which The Right Honourable Horatio, Viscount Nelson, Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, made Britain safe from the French, and a year that brings Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice onto the big screens in all the local cinemas, where nothing is safe. It is perhaps worth thinking about the fact that although it was Nelson who said that “England expects that every man will do his duty,” Jane Austen held an identical sentiment, as demonstrated by the main characters in all her books.
To honor Nelson’s historic victory and his death at the Battle of Trafalgar, symbolic re-enactments have abounded during the anniversary year: there was due pomp and circumstance in the shipyard at Portsmouth, in the seas off the south coast of England, and all along the river in London. The year-long mania for all things Nelson, naval, and Napoleonic found a fitting conclusion with fireworks port and starboard aboard the HMS Victory and with a Regency re-creation of Admiral Nelson’s funeral cortège down the choppy Thames. A muffled drumbeat hammered out the pace as a crew of hearties stroked the black-mantled barge from Greenwich to London. A Canaletto-inspired flotilla of all manner of boats filled the river. Salutes blasted from the guns of the HMS Belfast. It was a London event full of sound and fury and signifying—well, everything. Jane Austen and her naval family would have loved it.
The launch of the flashy new film of Pride and Prejudice is, of course, the second great event of the season (this one pseudo-literary rather than historical). Garnering very good notices from The New York Times, The London Times, The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, etc. etc. etc., the movie version of the pursuit of love at Longbourn has stirred up controversy and debate, elements that are good not only for the box office but also for the study of Jane Austen’s books. Houses, clothes, manners, crowds, pigs, dialogue, and, of course, the kiss—all has been analyzed and commented upon in newspapers, magazines, talk shows, websites, and the JASNA AGM. The value of the enthusiastic publicity accompanying the film cannot be overestimated: the fanfare will produce a new generation of Janeites who are drawn not only to this film but to the novels—all of them. It is tempting to think that Jane Austen and her literary family would have found much to amuse to themselves in the re-enactment, flawed though it is, of Pride and Prejudice.
Of course, Nelson’s funeral cortège and the lavish movie of Jane Austen’s most popular novel are re-creations, but both re-enactments have stirred up interest in the period during which both the glamorous and adulterous Lord Nelson and the anonymous and unmarried writer from Chawton lived.
This issue of Persuasions On-Line includes five essays from the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, held in October 2005 in Milwaukee, on the topic of Jane Austen’s Letters in Fact and Fiction (it is interesting to note that Admiral Nelson was not only a man of action on the high seas but also was also a prodigious writer of letters). Political, religious, social, amatory, formal, personal—Austen’s own letters as well as her characters’ missives offer critics a wide variety of creative approaches. The Miscellany in this issue includes a selection of essays focusing on some of the individual novels: Mansfield Park, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice are all analyzed here; there are also essays that explore the idea of “home” in the novels as well as the reality of home life for the Austen family while the children were growing up.
We present these essays to you in this year of Austen mania so that you can continue to create your own imaginative re-enactment of Jane Austen’s life and fiction. And in this year of the anniversary of Trafalgar we might speculate about what Admiral Nelson would have written to Jane Austen, had they been acquainted. They might have approached a variety of inflammatory subjects—duty and marriage, for example, but also war and novels.
Even as we who lined the banks of the Thames cheered the cortège on, we all knew that Nelson’s pickled body was not really in the draped barge heading up the Thames toward St. Paul’s Cathedral; and even as we enjoy the trappings of the film, we all know that Keira Knightley is NOT Elizabeth Bennet. Re-creation is an art. Let’s see some more!