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Artillery Row

Plain Janeites

For all their admirable dedication, keepers of the Austen flame cannot be so protective

The fuss being made about the proposed statue of Jane Austen, being created for the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of her birth next year, is worthy of one of those scenes in Austen’s novels where trivial concerns are raised into sharp-edged comedy. Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, has commissioned Martin Jennings to make the statue, which depicts Austen standing next to a table with writing implements on it. Predictably, the opposition is coming from Austen’s most devoted followers.

Part of the problem is that this group of people, sometimes derisively known as the Janeites, thinks they own Austen’s legacy

At a recent public meeting, Elizabeth Proudman, a leading member of the Jane Austen Society, opposed the statue because it was a Disneyfication of Austen and of the Cathedral grounds. If put up, the statue would attract tourists taking selfies. Other complaints, as you can imagine, niggle at the specifics. One letter in the Hampshire Chronicle bemoans Austen’s hatless state: “She would never have gone out without a bonnet.” Put aside the fact that we simply don’t know whether Jane Austen ever did dare go out without a bonnet, the statue is of her next to her writing desk, where she was presumably able to work unbonneted.  

Part of the problem is that this group of people, sometimes derisively known as the Janeites, thinks they own Austen’s legacy. “We go to her grave and we worship her,” Proudman said. And indeed, in many ways, the members of the Jane Austen Society are the keepers of the flame. Ever since the society was formed in 1940, by Dorothy Darnell, it has been responsible for purchasing and maintaining Austen’s home, Chawton, and for hosting and publishing the work of many hugely knowledgeable people. The Society reports are full of wonderful material about Austen and her work. Austen’s first biographer, Elizabeth Jenkins, was a pillar of the society for many decades.

And Austen stands for a particular set of English values. She is the ultimate symbol of restraint and reserve. The only portrait of Jane Austen that we can guarantee to be authentic does not show her face. The image of her face that everybody knows, the one that appears on the ten-pound banknote, is supposedly a drawing made by her sister. But the first record of the image comes from 1869, half a century after Austen’s death. It is another of Cassandra Austen’s watercolours that has the claim to be the one true image of Austen; it is an image of Austen sitting outside, her face turned away.

Her six complete novels are, among many other things, exemplary repositories of those sorts of English manners and customs. But this is not Austen’s only legacy. Jane Austen is far more than her books—and she has been for some time. Indeed, the fact that her house was purchased and turned into a museum is a major part of the Jane Austen industry, of which this statue is only the latest instalment. As are the many adaptations of her work for film and television. Whatever we think of these things, we must accept that Jane Austen lives on outside her work—and that brings her work all the more attention. The head of the Chawton museum opposed the statue, but last year the museum put on display the famous wet shirt that Mr Darcy wore in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, a scene that, of course, never appears in the novel. One wonders where the Disneyfication really starts and ends.

As with Austen’s novels, too, a different cause lurks beneath the stated complaint. Snobbish nimbyism

Some will baulk at the comparison of this statue with the museum at Chawton, but what this argument amounts to is to say that when one group worships at Austen’s tomb, or next to her sopha, it is a worthy act, yet when another group takes a picture by her statue, it is a desecration of her memory, an affront to the Cathedral. In their hand-wringing denunciations of “Disney-on-Itchen” or in their complaints that Austen hated publicity, these defenders of the faith remind me more of Mrs Elton than the glorious Jane. Admirers of Austen’s novels can well imagine what she would have made of this Aunt Norris type behaviour.

As with Austen’s novels, too, a different cause lurks beneath the stated complaint. Snobbish nimbyism. “I don’t think the Inner Close is the place to attract a lot of lovely American tourists to come and have a selfie with Jane Austen,” Proudman said. Others have complained that adding any statue to the close intrudes on the “semblance of the peace and quiet of the monastic life that it once had.” Heaven forbid, indeed, that Winchester Cathedral should attract tourists — American tourists, at that! — to their grounds. 

Austen wrote her novels at the time when consumer culture first arrived in England. She was born in the time of the industrial revolution, the year before Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. All over the country, people were suddenly buying themselves fabrics and furniture, buttons and buckles, pottery and silverware. (It was Smith who called England a “nation of shopkeepers.”) This new commercialism meant that the class system was disrupted. Fashion became fast moving and universal. And shopping was developed as a national pastime. These are the dynamics of her fiction.

Tourists travelling round the world and taking selfies is the latest evolution of that ongoing process of commercialisation. Austen was notably interested in and sympathetic to commerciality. In her novels, the snobs come to grief and the stick-in-the-mud traditionalists must reform or take the consequences. I doubt that she would have wanted the statue. I doubt that she looked quite like that. But I’m glad it’s being built. I’m glad more people will think about her, talk about her, maybe even read her books. 

And I’m glad that the Janeites do their admirable work to preserve her legacy. Long may they continue. 

But Austen herself would have made short work of their complaints, as readers of her novels well know. This whole business is, in her own words, “a quick succession of busy nothings.”

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