PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.36, NO.1 (Winter 2015)

Exploring Jane Austen’s World

Susan Allen Ford

 

Susan Allen Ford (email: sford@deltastate.edu) is Editor of Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line.

 

Jane Austen’s formula of “3 OR 4 Families in a Country Village” is still sometimes applied as a measure of the limitation of her world.  But even Emma, the novel that most fits that description, bursts through those dimensions.  Miss Taylor, a governess, changes her status and acquires a home, marrying a man who has made his fortune in trade.  The illegitimate Harriet Smith, the adopted Frank Churchill, and the orphaned Jane Fairfax are all incorporated into the social life of Hartfield.  Mr. Elton, the local vicar, brings a Bristol-bred wife to town.  And the newly prosperous Coles host a party, inviting the neighborhood’s established families to dine.

 

Change—and a sense of the world elsewhere—has come to Highbury.  But perhaps those elements were always there, waiting for us to recognize them.  The morning after the Coles’ party, while Harriet is “hanging over muslins and changing her mind,” Austen trains Emma’s attention and ours on the world in which these characters are living.

 

Emma went to the door for amusement.—Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;—Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole’s carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door.

 

This world is suddenly populated—through Emma’s thoughts about what she might see as well as through what she actually sees—by more than the few ladies and gentlemen with whom we walk between Donwell and Hartfield, between Randalls and Highbury:  an apothecary, a lawyer, the horses of a man of business, a boy delivering a letter, a butcher, an old woman, village children.  It’s a scene that also reminds us of the stuff of the world that Austen doesn’t usually specify:  muslins, animals, foods, and—as the scene enlarges—pianofortes.

 

The economy of Jane Austen’s art means that the workings of her world—institutions, professions, places, the materials that define them—are often taken for granted.  This year’s Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, coordinated by Bonny Wise and Alana Gillett, explored the dimensions of Living in Jane Austen’s World.  The first section of this issue of Persuasions On-Line represents a sample of the perspectives from that meeting in Louisville, surveying some of the principles shaping that world (marriage law, economics, and religion), aspects of its material culture (needlework, jewelry, and horses), the plight of those (like one of Austen’s own brothers) with intellectual disabilities, and the influence of Regency celebrities (Beau Brummell and William Wickham).

 

The Miscellany reveals further characteristics of Jane Austen’s world:  philosophical influences and ideas (Aristotle and home as telos), the possible stimulus of a fellow novelist (Sarah Harriet Burney), landscapes (Bristol, London, the fictional Highbury, and wildernesses), and women at sea.  Two essays suggest ways in which Austen’s world have been newly translated in Japan:  into the form of manga and into a musical version for a women’s theater company.  And finally Deborah Barnum’s annual bibliography captures the world of Jane Austen studies and spinoffs.

 

This issue is the result of much effort by many:  the authors whose work appears here; the members of the editorial board (listed on the title page), who give so generously of their time and energy; Marsha Huff, who read these essays with keen attention; and Carol Moss, who built and rebuilt these pages with dedication and skill.  For all these contributions I am grateful.

 

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