9th November 2022
Richard Jenkyns is a distinguished classicist and author who has written books on aspects of Greek and Roman literature and history; also a monograph about Westminster Abbey. On this evening, he spoke in his role as President of the Jane Austen Society and offered us a sideways view of Austen and her work in a revealing and fascinating manner.
He began by arguing that Jane Austen is now the most well known English writer after Shakespeare, a position that she did not always hold. As he spoke he was able to explode some myths about Austen’s work and comment on the extraordinary way that the Regency period has caught the public imagination over the last few years.
Richard debunked the stereotypes by explaining that Austen never portrays a Cinderella type situation. For example none of the heroines in her novels really marries outside her social sphere. Even with Elizabeth Bennet, there is compatibility: she is the daughter of a gentleman and Mr Darcy lacks a title. The world of Jane Austen’s novels is not a comfortable one; it is a harsh dark world beneath the surface, with, at times, unpleasant human behaviour, poverty and violence.
It is striking that all six of Austen’s completed novels are still popular, being continuously in print and they are read and re-read avidly. This is something which cannot be said for the works of her contemporaries. Richard showed how Austen is a very modern writer in so many of her books. He suggested that the author was moving in new directions in her work Sanditon which, left unfinished at the time of her death, can be seen as an experimental novel. I think this is something that could be said of Richard’s talk: it offered new ways of looking at an author we all think we know.