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Jane Austen - The Queen of English Literature

Jun 7, 2022
Arts & Culture
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22
minutes

She has been called the queen of English literature, and invented her own unique literary style.

In this episode, we'll learn about the amazing life of the writer of classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part one of a three-part series on great Victorian authors.

[00:00:30] In this episode, part one, we’ll talk about Jane Austen, the author of works such as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Emma.

[00:00:39] Next up, in part two, we’ll look at Charles Dickens, the author of books such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times.

[00:00:47] And in part three, our final part, we’ll actually look at three authors, the Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne, who between them wrote greats such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

[00:01:03] They all, in their own right, were fascinating people with fascinating lives, and their works are still as relevant and brilliant today as the day they were published. 

[00:01:14] So I hope you’ll enjoy them.

[00:01:17] OK then, let’s get straight into it and learn about the woman sometimes called the queen of English literature, Jane Austen.

[00:01:27] My great grandmother, who lived to the age of 99 and died when I was three years old, would read one particular book every year. 

[00:01:39] In the final years of her life, when she was in her mid 90s and, with her eyesight failing, she could no longer read, she would insist on having this same battered little blue book on the table in front of the chair where she sat all day. 

[00:01:57] Often she would simply put her hand on the book - it clearly meant as much to her as anything - perhaps apart from her family. 

[00:02:05] Maybe you are thinking that this book was The Bible, or another religious text. 

[00:02:11] It was not.

[00:02:12] This sacred, much-loved book, which became increasingly shiny from my great-grandmother’s hand, was in fact written by a very young woman right at the start of the same century in which my great grandmother was born, the 19th century. 

[00:02:29] Her name? 

[00:02:30] Jane Austen. The title of the blue book was Pride and Prejudice. 

[00:02:35] So, let me tell you a little bit about the life of this amazing woman, starting with her family and her early education. 

[00:02:44] Jane Austen was born in 1775 into a social class which is best described as gentry

[00:02:53] This means the class below the aristocracy but above the professional middle class. In today's terms, gentry would translate to something like upper middle class. 

[00:03:07] Her father was a clergyman in the Anglican Church or the Church of England, which meant that the family were provided with a spacious house, called a rectory, and some land. 

[00:03:19] However, relative to the social class that the Austens belonged to, they were not wealthy. 

[00:03:26] To ensure that they could live well, that they had enough money to provide them with a good life, Mr Austen ran a small boarding school in the rectory and did some farming. 

[00:03:38] The Austen family was, as was typical of many wealthy families of this class, a large one. 

[00:03:45] Jane Austen had six brothers and one, particularly beloved sister, Cassandra. 

[00:03:52] It was an immensely privileged family in terms of the education and stimulation provided by both parents and all the siblings

[00:04:02] Jane's father was, unusually for the time, very keen on novels, on fiction books. 

[00:04:09] This may sound a strange thing to point out, but, as the name suggests, this form of writing – i.e. prose fiction - was relatively new and regarded with much suspicion, at least in English. 

[00:04:24] Novels were seen as suitable material only for women. 

[00:04:29] Compared to poetry, prose was easy to read and write, and therefore even uneducated and uncultured women would be able to enjoy it. It sounds terrible to say now, but this was the predominant view at the time.

[00:04:45] The Austen household was clearly a stimulating place where poetry, storytelling, writing and acting was common. 

[00:04:54] And Jane's main influence and education undoubtedly came through this stimulating, cultured, highly literary family background. 

[00:05:04] But what about the wider context and the era in which she grew up? 

[00:05:10] Of the three subjects of this mini-series, she was the oldest. 

[00:05:15] Jane Austen was born in 1775, Charles Dickens was born in 1812, and the oldest of the famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte, was born in 1816.

[00:05:28] And in terms of what was going on in England and in Europe during Jane Austen’s lifetime, she was 14 when the French Revolution started and 17 when the Napoleonic Wars began. 

[00:05:42] In fact, these wars, which pitted Britain and its allies against Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies, would last for almost the entirety of Jane Austen's adult life. The war brought with it the very real fear of French invasion and occupation, and with it the collapse of the small-but-growing British empire.

[00:06:05] However, one of the curiosities of her novels is that massive world events, such as the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars have such a minor or insignificant influence on the self-contained world of her novels. 

[00:06:24] In this respect she is the complete opposite of a writer like Tolstoy who seized on the huge and sensational scale of an event like Napoleon's march on Russia in order to provide the backdrop to his epic novel, War and Peace. 

[00:06:42] This is, actually, kind of the point - the characters in Jane Austen’s works lived such isolated lives, focussed on marriage and family, that the events of the wider world were partially irrelevant. 

[00:06:57] Now, let's move on and discuss her works, which really means her six novels that she published over the course of six years. Three of these - Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice - were written when she was still in her 20s.

[00:07:15] Let’s remind ourselves that at this time, not only was the novel a very new and barely recognised form of literature in the English-speaking world, but also that writers were expected to be male and that being a female novelist was breaking relatively new ground

[00:07:35] For a woman, the family was meant to be the main occupation, and someone who was known to spend lots of time writing was often considered to be neglecting her duties to her husband and children.

[00:07:50] In Jane Austen’s case, she didn’t have a husband or children, but there was a certain stigma that was attached to the writing of novels.

[00:07:59] It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Jane chose to publish initially anonymously. Her first novel was titled simply “by a Lady”.

[00:08:10] Her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, was initially rejected in 1797 and was only eventually published in 1813, when it was an immediate hit, earning her the sum of £140, which was enough to cover her living expenses for three years. 

[00:08:30] Her growing reputation amongst the reading public and also the help of one of her most prosperous brothers, Henry, who started and part-owned a private bank, meant that the real identity of the author became known amongst well-connected social circles. 

[00:08:49] One of her most mature and thought-provoking novels, Emma, was published in 1814 by one of the country’s top publishers and was dedicated to the Prince Regent–the King's son–who incidentally was are a pleasure-loving, disreputable and deeply unattractive man whom Jane despised, she hated. 

[00:09:12] But the Prince's librarian had invited Jane Austen to meet, had hinted that the Prince would like her next novel to be dedicated to him, and she could hardly refuse.

[00:09:24] Now, if you are encountering Jane Austen and her works for the first time and know nothing about the world of her novels, let me try and give you a brief introduction. 

[00:09:37] In general, her novels are about the challenges of making the right choices in life, especially the choices that a young person of her social status might make when it comes to choosing a life partner and proceeding towards marriage. 

[00:09:54] Perhaps this might sound petty, small, or not such interesting material for a novel, but it’s hard to adequately stress the importance of these questions for a young lady growing up in this position of English society at this time.

[00:10:11] The expectation was that a young woman of this gentry class should find a suitable man who could provide her with the necessary economic status for her to maintain her position in life. That was the main goal, so it’s quite unsurprising that this is a recurrent theme in Jane Austen's work.

[00:10:33] What is surprising, perhaps, is that Jane Austen herself never married. 

[00:10:39] She had, it appears, every opportunity to marry and indeed accepted a proposal of marriage from a man in 1802. 

[00:10:49] However, overnight she changed her mind, as she realised she didn't love him. 

[00:10:55] Now, back to her work, her true genius was to create believable human beings who live in a beautifully structured fictional world into which we as readers are drawn

[00:11:09] You follow the characters in her novels and they grapple with fundamental questions like what makes for a good education, both intellectually and emotionally, and what does it take to be a good parent? 

[00:11:24] To state the obvious, these are questions that are so universal, so fundamentally human, that the books are as enjoyable and interesting now as they would have been when they were first published.

[00:11:38] Stylistically, she was revolutionary. 

[00:11:41] Now, “revolutionary” isn’t a word often used to describe Jane Austen, and indeed the stories in her novels aren’t about wars, revolutions, or epic battles.

[00:11:54] But she did create a completely new style of writing.

[00:11:59] Up to this point not many novels had been written, as poetry or theatre were the dominant genres, certainly in English. 

[00:12:09] These novels would often rely very heavily on the use of exchange of letters – in other words the novel was more or less a collection of letters from different characters. 

[00:12:23] For literary geeks, for people who are keen on literature, the term for this in English is the epistolary style. 

[00:12:31] The other form that these early novels took was by way of either someone telling a story in the form of a journal or diary or through having a narrator telling a story such as might happen, for example, in a fairytale

[00:12:48] In this case, the narrator “knows everything” – the technical term for this, again, is an omniscient narrator

[00:12:57] What Jane Austen did - and what was so revolutionary - was that she combined the use of a main character or protagonist, through whose eyes the story was told, with a flow of thoughts which reflected or dramatised the ideas going through that central character’s mind. 

[00:13:17] It's a style written both in the first person and third person, and allows the reader to see, for example, when the narrator is wrong or makes mistakes.

[00:13:31] This style of writing, known as free, indirect style, has become the standard style for so many modern novels. 

[00:13:40] It enables the writer to convey subtleties of human thinking to a degree not really possible before Austen’s innovation

[00:13:49] Indeed these are subtleties that can only really be conveyed through books, through writing, this style doesn’t really work as well through other forms of media, like film. 

[00:14:02] And perhaps the most amazing aspect of this innovation was that Jane Austen didn’t take part in fancy literary circles, where aspiring writers would discuss experimental techniques. 

[00:14:17] She came up with this completely herself, likely when she was still a teenager.

[00:14:23] Another revolutionary aspect to her work that is, to a certain extent, anti-revolutionary, was that she showed that you didn’t need huge epic external events to provide a backdrop to a compelling story.

[00:14:38] She showed that these small, self-contained worlds were more than enough, and in her own words all she needed was "three or four families" in a country setting.

[00:14:50] Now this might seem obvious to us, and so many great books and films have been created using only very few characters and very small, self-contained worlds, but Jane Austen was one of the first English writers to do this.

[00:15:07] She would, however, never know the true impact that her works would have.

[00:15:12] She died in 1817, at the age of 41, and it was only after her death that her novels started being published under her own name. 

[00:15:23] Now, in the interest of balance, Jane Austen isn’t without her critics.

[00:15:29] The themes of her novels might be universal, but the world in which they are set is very small, and forms only a tiny, tiny part of society.

[00:15:40] Charlotte Brontë, who you’ll hear more about in part three of this mini-series, remarked that “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her”. 

[00:15:50] She thought Jane Austen was superficial, and accused Pride and Prejudice of being “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers”. 

[00:16:03] The writer Joseph Conrad wrote to H.G. Wells, asking “What is all this about Jane Austen?”

[00:16:10] He simply couldn’t get it.

[00:16:12] Mark Twain wrote “I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

[00:16:34] But there’s a clue in that quote there. He writes that “every time” he reads Pride and Prejudice. 

[00:16:40] He might find it frustrating, but he can’t stop himself picking it up over and over again.

[00:16:47] And this is a theme throughout criticism of Jane Austen. 

[00:16:51] She can justifiably be accused of writing about small worlds that are completely detached from the lives of most people, where the main concern seems to be about finding a suitably rich partner and behaving the correct way in society. She doesn’t hide from that, indeed this is a theme throughout her books.

[00:17:14] But this is the world she knew, and it’s the life that she lived. Her life was spent trying to find a suitable marriage partner, trying to fit in to Victorian societal norms, trying to do the right thing, which certainly wasn’t easy as a woman. 

[00:17:34] Now, no discussion on Jane Austen would be complete without referring to the amazing range of popular adaptations that have been inspired by her novels. 

[00:17:45] For those critics who say that Jane Austen is irrelevant, given the tiny slither of society in which the stories take place, the amount of spin-offs and adaptations certainly suggests that the themes are more widely applicable.

[00:18:01] Perhaps the most famous of the adaptations is a 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, most famous for the scene when a character called Mr Darcy, played by Colin Firth, walks through a lake and comes out dripping wet. 

[00:18:18] But there are some more frivolous versions, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and an Indian version, Bride and Prejudice. 

[00:18:29] In some cases, the adaptations imagine a world after a particular novel has finished. The crime writer PD James wrote a thriller based on the married life of Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennet, called Death Comes to Pemberley. 

[00:18:45] In another film, an Austen enthusiast literally steps into the world of Pride and Prejudice – that’s called Lost in Austen. 

[00:18:54] There’s even a film which sets the novel Emma in 1990s America, called Clueless. 

[00:19:00] Now, from the English learner’s point of view, these films can be a very good way to engage with Jane Austen, and I’d definitely recommend watching some of them if you’d like an easier route than starting with the novels. 

[00:19:15] If you would like some safe recommendations of high quality films, I would go for the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, and the recent adaptation of Emma. 

[00:19:30] The final thing to say is that one of the great things about Jane Austen is that she is interpreted afresh, she is reinterpreted, by each new generation. 

[00:19:41] On that note, let me leave you with this image. 

[00:19:45] The heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie, is described by an awful character called Lady Catherine de Burgh as an “obstinate, headstrong girl”. 

[00:19:57] Obstinate means unwilling to change your mind or opinion, and headstrong means a similar thing, but is more like determined and impatient.

[00:20:08] For Victorian traditionalists, this might have been seen as a fitting insult, as women in Victorian times were expected to be submissive and accepting of their father’s and then their husband’s wishes.

[00:20:24] Now, of course, being determined and independent are qualities to be admired, and it is fitting that this insult, this slur, has now been embraced.

[00:20:36] You can see girls t-shirts and jumpers with the sloganobstinate, headstrong girl” emblazoned across the front.

[00:20:45] She might have died over 200 years ago, but if Jane Austen could see young women just like her wearing t-shirts with these words on, I’m sure it would bring a quiet smile to her face.

[00:21:01] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Jane Austen, the queen of English literature.

[00:21:08] As a reminder, this is going to be part one of a mini-series on great Victorian authors. Next up it’ll be Charles Dickens, then part three will be on the Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne.

[00:21:21] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:25] Have you read any Jane Austen, either in translation or in the original? Have you seen any of the films?

[00:21:32] If so, what did you think about them? Are there any writers in your language that Jane Austen reminds you of?

[00:21:38] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:41] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:50] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:55] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part one of a three-part series on great Victorian authors.

[00:00:30] In this episode, part one, we’ll talk about Jane Austen, the author of works such as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Emma.

[00:00:39] Next up, in part two, we’ll look at Charles Dickens, the author of books such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times.

[00:00:47] And in part three, our final part, we’ll actually look at three authors, the Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne, who between them wrote greats such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

[00:01:03] They all, in their own right, were fascinating people with fascinating lives, and their works are still as relevant and brilliant today as the day they were published. 

[00:01:14] So I hope you’ll enjoy them.

[00:01:17] OK then, let’s get straight into it and learn about the woman sometimes called the queen of English literature, Jane Austen.

[00:01:27] My great grandmother, who lived to the age of 99 and died when I was three years old, would read one particular book every year. 

[00:01:39] In the final years of her life, when she was in her mid 90s and, with her eyesight failing, she could no longer read, she would insist on having this same battered little blue book on the table in front of the chair where she sat all day. 

[00:01:57] Often she would simply put her hand on the book - it clearly meant as much to her as anything - perhaps apart from her family. 

[00:02:05] Maybe you are thinking that this book was The Bible, or another religious text. 

[00:02:11] It was not.

[00:02:12] This sacred, much-loved book, which became increasingly shiny from my great-grandmother’s hand, was in fact written by a very young woman right at the start of the same century in which my great grandmother was born, the 19th century. 

[00:02:29] Her name? 

[00:02:30] Jane Austen. The title of the blue book was Pride and Prejudice. 

[00:02:35] So, let me tell you a little bit about the life of this amazing woman, starting with her family and her early education. 

[00:02:44] Jane Austen was born in 1775 into a social class which is best described as gentry

[00:02:53] This means the class below the aristocracy but above the professional middle class. In today's terms, gentry would translate to something like upper middle class. 

[00:03:07] Her father was a clergyman in the Anglican Church or the Church of England, which meant that the family were provided with a spacious house, called a rectory, and some land. 

[00:03:19] However, relative to the social class that the Austens belonged to, they were not wealthy. 

[00:03:26] To ensure that they could live well, that they had enough money to provide them with a good life, Mr Austen ran a small boarding school in the rectory and did some farming. 

[00:03:38] The Austen family was, as was typical of many wealthy families of this class, a large one. 

[00:03:45] Jane Austen had six brothers and one, particularly beloved sister, Cassandra. 

[00:03:52] It was an immensely privileged family in terms of the education and stimulation provided by both parents and all the siblings

[00:04:02] Jane's father was, unusually for the time, very keen on novels, on fiction books. 

[00:04:09] This may sound a strange thing to point out, but, as the name suggests, this form of writing – i.e. prose fiction - was relatively new and regarded with much suspicion, at least in English. 

[00:04:24] Novels were seen as suitable material only for women. 

[00:04:29] Compared to poetry, prose was easy to read and write, and therefore even uneducated and uncultured women would be able to enjoy it. It sounds terrible to say now, but this was the predominant view at the time.

[00:04:45] The Austen household was clearly a stimulating place where poetry, storytelling, writing and acting was common. 

[00:04:54] And Jane's main influence and education undoubtedly came through this stimulating, cultured, highly literary family background. 

[00:05:04] But what about the wider context and the era in which she grew up? 

[00:05:10] Of the three subjects of this mini-series, she was the oldest. 

[00:05:15] Jane Austen was born in 1775, Charles Dickens was born in 1812, and the oldest of the famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte, was born in 1816.

[00:05:28] And in terms of what was going on in England and in Europe during Jane Austen’s lifetime, she was 14 when the French Revolution started and 17 when the Napoleonic Wars began. 

[00:05:42] In fact, these wars, which pitted Britain and its allies against Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies, would last for almost the entirety of Jane Austen's adult life. The war brought with it the very real fear of French invasion and occupation, and with it the collapse of the small-but-growing British empire.

[00:06:05] However, one of the curiosities of her novels is that massive world events, such as the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars have such a minor or insignificant influence on the self-contained world of her novels. 

[00:06:24] In this respect she is the complete opposite of a writer like Tolstoy who seized on the huge and sensational scale of an event like Napoleon's march on Russia in order to provide the backdrop to his epic novel, War and Peace. 

[00:06:42] This is, actually, kind of the point - the characters in Jane Austen’s works lived such isolated lives, focussed on marriage and family, that the events of the wider world were partially irrelevant. 

[00:06:57] Now, let's move on and discuss her works, which really means her six novels that she published over the course of six years. Three of these - Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice - were written when she was still in her 20s.

[00:07:15] Let’s remind ourselves that at this time, not only was the novel a very new and barely recognised form of literature in the English-speaking world, but also that writers were expected to be male and that being a female novelist was breaking relatively new ground

[00:07:35] For a woman, the family was meant to be the main occupation, and someone who was known to spend lots of time writing was often considered to be neglecting her duties to her husband and children.

[00:07:50] In Jane Austen’s case, she didn’t have a husband or children, but there was a certain stigma that was attached to the writing of novels.

[00:07:59] It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Jane chose to publish initially anonymously. Her first novel was titled simply “by a Lady”.

[00:08:10] Her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, was initially rejected in 1797 and was only eventually published in 1813, when it was an immediate hit, earning her the sum of £140, which was enough to cover her living expenses for three years. 

[00:08:30] Her growing reputation amongst the reading public and also the help of one of her most prosperous brothers, Henry, who started and part-owned a private bank, meant that the real identity of the author became known amongst well-connected social circles. 

[00:08:49] One of her most mature and thought-provoking novels, Emma, was published in 1814 by one of the country’s top publishers and was dedicated to the Prince Regent–the King's son–who incidentally was are a pleasure-loving, disreputable and deeply unattractive man whom Jane despised, she hated. 

[00:09:12] But the Prince's librarian had invited Jane Austen to meet, had hinted that the Prince would like her next novel to be dedicated to him, and she could hardly refuse.

[00:09:24] Now, if you are encountering Jane Austen and her works for the first time and know nothing about the world of her novels, let me try and give you a brief introduction. 

[00:09:37] In general, her novels are about the challenges of making the right choices in life, especially the choices that a young person of her social status might make when it comes to choosing a life partner and proceeding towards marriage. 

[00:09:54] Perhaps this might sound petty, small, or not such interesting material for a novel, but it’s hard to adequately stress the importance of these questions for a young lady growing up in this position of English society at this time.

[00:10:11] The expectation was that a young woman of this gentry class should find a suitable man who could provide her with the necessary economic status for her to maintain her position in life. That was the main goal, so it’s quite unsurprising that this is a recurrent theme in Jane Austen's work.

[00:10:33] What is surprising, perhaps, is that Jane Austen herself never married. 

[00:10:39] She had, it appears, every opportunity to marry and indeed accepted a proposal of marriage from a man in 1802. 

[00:10:49] However, overnight she changed her mind, as she realised she didn't love him. 

[00:10:55] Now, back to her work, her true genius was to create believable human beings who live in a beautifully structured fictional world into which we as readers are drawn

[00:11:09] You follow the characters in her novels and they grapple with fundamental questions like what makes for a good education, both intellectually and emotionally, and what does it take to be a good parent? 

[00:11:24] To state the obvious, these are questions that are so universal, so fundamentally human, that the books are as enjoyable and interesting now as they would have been when they were first published.

[00:11:38] Stylistically, she was revolutionary. 

[00:11:41] Now, “revolutionary” isn’t a word often used to describe Jane Austen, and indeed the stories in her novels aren’t about wars, revolutions, or epic battles.

[00:11:54] But she did create a completely new style of writing.

[00:11:59] Up to this point not many novels had been written, as poetry or theatre were the dominant genres, certainly in English. 

[00:12:09] These novels would often rely very heavily on the use of exchange of letters – in other words the novel was more or less a collection of letters from different characters. 

[00:12:23] For literary geeks, for people who are keen on literature, the term for this in English is the epistolary style. 

[00:12:31] The other form that these early novels took was by way of either someone telling a story in the form of a journal or diary or through having a narrator telling a story such as might happen, for example, in a fairytale

[00:12:48] In this case, the narrator “knows everything” – the technical term for this, again, is an omniscient narrator

[00:12:57] What Jane Austen did - and what was so revolutionary - was that she combined the use of a main character or protagonist, through whose eyes the story was told, with a flow of thoughts which reflected or dramatised the ideas going through that central character’s mind. 

[00:13:17] It's a style written both in the first person and third person, and allows the reader to see, for example, when the narrator is wrong or makes mistakes.

[00:13:31] This style of writing, known as free, indirect style, has become the standard style for so many modern novels. 

[00:13:40] It enables the writer to convey subtleties of human thinking to a degree not really possible before Austen’s innovation

[00:13:49] Indeed these are subtleties that can only really be conveyed through books, through writing, this style doesn’t really work as well through other forms of media, like film. 

[00:14:02] And perhaps the most amazing aspect of this innovation was that Jane Austen didn’t take part in fancy literary circles, where aspiring writers would discuss experimental techniques. 

[00:14:17] She came up with this completely herself, likely when she was still a teenager.

[00:14:23] Another revolutionary aspect to her work that is, to a certain extent, anti-revolutionary, was that she showed that you didn’t need huge epic external events to provide a backdrop to a compelling story.

[00:14:38] She showed that these small, self-contained worlds were more than enough, and in her own words all she needed was "three or four families" in a country setting.

[00:14:50] Now this might seem obvious to us, and so many great books and films have been created using only very few characters and very small, self-contained worlds, but Jane Austen was one of the first English writers to do this.

[00:15:07] She would, however, never know the true impact that her works would have.

[00:15:12] She died in 1817, at the age of 41, and it was only after her death that her novels started being published under her own name. 

[00:15:23] Now, in the interest of balance, Jane Austen isn’t without her critics.

[00:15:29] The themes of her novels might be universal, but the world in which they are set is very small, and forms only a tiny, tiny part of society.

[00:15:40] Charlotte Brontë, who you’ll hear more about in part three of this mini-series, remarked that “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her”. 

[00:15:50] She thought Jane Austen was superficial, and accused Pride and Prejudice of being “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers”. 

[00:16:03] The writer Joseph Conrad wrote to H.G. Wells, asking “What is all this about Jane Austen?”

[00:16:10] He simply couldn’t get it.

[00:16:12] Mark Twain wrote “I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

[00:16:34] But there’s a clue in that quote there. He writes that “every time” he reads Pride and Prejudice. 

[00:16:40] He might find it frustrating, but he can’t stop himself picking it up over and over again.

[00:16:47] And this is a theme throughout criticism of Jane Austen. 

[00:16:51] She can justifiably be accused of writing about small worlds that are completely detached from the lives of most people, where the main concern seems to be about finding a suitably rich partner and behaving the correct way in society. She doesn’t hide from that, indeed this is a theme throughout her books.

[00:17:14] But this is the world she knew, and it’s the life that she lived. Her life was spent trying to find a suitable marriage partner, trying to fit in to Victorian societal norms, trying to do the right thing, which certainly wasn’t easy as a woman. 

[00:17:34] Now, no discussion on Jane Austen would be complete without referring to the amazing range of popular adaptations that have been inspired by her novels. 

[00:17:45] For those critics who say that Jane Austen is irrelevant, given the tiny slither of society in which the stories take place, the amount of spin-offs and adaptations certainly suggests that the themes are more widely applicable.

[00:18:01] Perhaps the most famous of the adaptations is a 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, most famous for the scene when a character called Mr Darcy, played by Colin Firth, walks through a lake and comes out dripping wet. 

[00:18:18] But there are some more frivolous versions, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and an Indian version, Bride and Prejudice. 

[00:18:29] In some cases, the adaptations imagine a world after a particular novel has finished. The crime writer PD James wrote a thriller based on the married life of Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennet, called Death Comes to Pemberley. 

[00:18:45] In another film, an Austen enthusiast literally steps into the world of Pride and Prejudice – that’s called Lost in Austen. 

[00:18:54] There’s even a film which sets the novel Emma in 1990s America, called Clueless. 

[00:19:00] Now, from the English learner’s point of view, these films can be a very good way to engage with Jane Austen, and I’d definitely recommend watching some of them if you’d like an easier route than starting with the novels. 

[00:19:15] If you would like some safe recommendations of high quality films, I would go for the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, and the recent adaptation of Emma. 

[00:19:30] The final thing to say is that one of the great things about Jane Austen is that she is interpreted afresh, she is reinterpreted, by each new generation. 

[00:19:41] On that note, let me leave you with this image. 

[00:19:45] The heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie, is described by an awful character called Lady Catherine de Burgh as an “obstinate, headstrong girl”. 

[00:19:57] Obstinate means unwilling to change your mind or opinion, and headstrong means a similar thing, but is more like determined and impatient.

[00:20:08] For Victorian traditionalists, this might have been seen as a fitting insult, as women in Victorian times were expected to be submissive and accepting of their father’s and then their husband’s wishes.

[00:20:24] Now, of course, being determined and independent are qualities to be admired, and it is fitting that this insult, this slur, has now been embraced.

[00:20:36] You can see girls t-shirts and jumpers with the sloganobstinate, headstrong girl” emblazoned across the front.

[00:20:45] She might have died over 200 years ago, but if Jane Austen could see young women just like her wearing t-shirts with these words on, I’m sure it would bring a quiet smile to her face.

[00:21:01] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Jane Austen, the queen of English literature.

[00:21:08] As a reminder, this is going to be part one of a mini-series on great Victorian authors. Next up it’ll be Charles Dickens, then part three will be on the Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne.

[00:21:21] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:25] Have you read any Jane Austen, either in translation or in the original? Have you seen any of the films?

[00:21:32] If so, what did you think about them? Are there any writers in your language that Jane Austen reminds you of?

[00:21:38] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:41] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:50] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:55] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part one of a three-part series on great Victorian authors.

[00:00:30] In this episode, part one, we’ll talk about Jane Austen, the author of works such as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Emma.

[00:00:39] Next up, in part two, we’ll look at Charles Dickens, the author of books such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times.

[00:00:47] And in part three, our final part, we’ll actually look at three authors, the Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne, who between them wrote greats such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

[00:01:03] They all, in their own right, were fascinating people with fascinating lives, and their works are still as relevant and brilliant today as the day they were published. 

[00:01:14] So I hope you’ll enjoy them.

[00:01:17] OK then, let’s get straight into it and learn about the woman sometimes called the queen of English literature, Jane Austen.

[00:01:27] My great grandmother, who lived to the age of 99 and died when I was three years old, would read one particular book every year. 

[00:01:39] In the final years of her life, when she was in her mid 90s and, with her eyesight failing, she could no longer read, she would insist on having this same battered little blue book on the table in front of the chair where she sat all day. 

[00:01:57] Often she would simply put her hand on the book - it clearly meant as much to her as anything - perhaps apart from her family. 

[00:02:05] Maybe you are thinking that this book was The Bible, or another religious text. 

[00:02:11] It was not.

[00:02:12] This sacred, much-loved book, which became increasingly shiny from my great-grandmother’s hand, was in fact written by a very young woman right at the start of the same century in which my great grandmother was born, the 19th century. 

[00:02:29] Her name? 

[00:02:30] Jane Austen. The title of the blue book was Pride and Prejudice. 

[00:02:35] So, let me tell you a little bit about the life of this amazing woman, starting with her family and her early education. 

[00:02:44] Jane Austen was born in 1775 into a social class which is best described as gentry

[00:02:53] This means the class below the aristocracy but above the professional middle class. In today's terms, gentry would translate to something like upper middle class. 

[00:03:07] Her father was a clergyman in the Anglican Church or the Church of England, which meant that the family were provided with a spacious house, called a rectory, and some land. 

[00:03:19] However, relative to the social class that the Austens belonged to, they were not wealthy. 

[00:03:26] To ensure that they could live well, that they had enough money to provide them with a good life, Mr Austen ran a small boarding school in the rectory and did some farming. 

[00:03:38] The Austen family was, as was typical of many wealthy families of this class, a large one. 

[00:03:45] Jane Austen had six brothers and one, particularly beloved sister, Cassandra. 

[00:03:52] It was an immensely privileged family in terms of the education and stimulation provided by both parents and all the siblings

[00:04:02] Jane's father was, unusually for the time, very keen on novels, on fiction books. 

[00:04:09] This may sound a strange thing to point out, but, as the name suggests, this form of writing – i.e. prose fiction - was relatively new and regarded with much suspicion, at least in English. 

[00:04:24] Novels were seen as suitable material only for women. 

[00:04:29] Compared to poetry, prose was easy to read and write, and therefore even uneducated and uncultured women would be able to enjoy it. It sounds terrible to say now, but this was the predominant view at the time.

[00:04:45] The Austen household was clearly a stimulating place where poetry, storytelling, writing and acting was common. 

[00:04:54] And Jane's main influence and education undoubtedly came through this stimulating, cultured, highly literary family background. 

[00:05:04] But what about the wider context and the era in which she grew up? 

[00:05:10] Of the three subjects of this mini-series, she was the oldest. 

[00:05:15] Jane Austen was born in 1775, Charles Dickens was born in 1812, and the oldest of the famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte, was born in 1816.

[00:05:28] And in terms of what was going on in England and in Europe during Jane Austen’s lifetime, she was 14 when the French Revolution started and 17 when the Napoleonic Wars began. 

[00:05:42] In fact, these wars, which pitted Britain and its allies against Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies, would last for almost the entirety of Jane Austen's adult life. The war brought with it the very real fear of French invasion and occupation, and with it the collapse of the small-but-growing British empire.

[00:06:05] However, one of the curiosities of her novels is that massive world events, such as the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars have such a minor or insignificant influence on the self-contained world of her novels. 

[00:06:24] In this respect she is the complete opposite of a writer like Tolstoy who seized on the huge and sensational scale of an event like Napoleon's march on Russia in order to provide the backdrop to his epic novel, War and Peace. 

[00:06:42] This is, actually, kind of the point - the characters in Jane Austen’s works lived such isolated lives, focussed on marriage and family, that the events of the wider world were partially irrelevant. 

[00:06:57] Now, let's move on and discuss her works, which really means her six novels that she published over the course of six years. Three of these - Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice - were written when she was still in her 20s.

[00:07:15] Let’s remind ourselves that at this time, not only was the novel a very new and barely recognised form of literature in the English-speaking world, but also that writers were expected to be male and that being a female novelist was breaking relatively new ground

[00:07:35] For a woman, the family was meant to be the main occupation, and someone who was known to spend lots of time writing was often considered to be neglecting her duties to her husband and children.

[00:07:50] In Jane Austen’s case, she didn’t have a husband or children, but there was a certain stigma that was attached to the writing of novels.

[00:07:59] It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Jane chose to publish initially anonymously. Her first novel was titled simply “by a Lady”.

[00:08:10] Her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, was initially rejected in 1797 and was only eventually published in 1813, when it was an immediate hit, earning her the sum of £140, which was enough to cover her living expenses for three years. 

[00:08:30] Her growing reputation amongst the reading public and also the help of one of her most prosperous brothers, Henry, who started and part-owned a private bank, meant that the real identity of the author became known amongst well-connected social circles. 

[00:08:49] One of her most mature and thought-provoking novels, Emma, was published in 1814 by one of the country’s top publishers and was dedicated to the Prince Regent–the King's son–who incidentally was are a pleasure-loving, disreputable and deeply unattractive man whom Jane despised, she hated. 

[00:09:12] But the Prince's librarian had invited Jane Austen to meet, had hinted that the Prince would like her next novel to be dedicated to him, and she could hardly refuse.

[00:09:24] Now, if you are encountering Jane Austen and her works for the first time and know nothing about the world of her novels, let me try and give you a brief introduction. 

[00:09:37] In general, her novels are about the challenges of making the right choices in life, especially the choices that a young person of her social status might make when it comes to choosing a life partner and proceeding towards marriage. 

[00:09:54] Perhaps this might sound petty, small, or not such interesting material for a novel, but it’s hard to adequately stress the importance of these questions for a young lady growing up in this position of English society at this time.

[00:10:11] The expectation was that a young woman of this gentry class should find a suitable man who could provide her with the necessary economic status for her to maintain her position in life. That was the main goal, so it’s quite unsurprising that this is a recurrent theme in Jane Austen's work.

[00:10:33] What is surprising, perhaps, is that Jane Austen herself never married. 

[00:10:39] She had, it appears, every opportunity to marry and indeed accepted a proposal of marriage from a man in 1802. 

[00:10:49] However, overnight she changed her mind, as she realised she didn't love him. 

[00:10:55] Now, back to her work, her true genius was to create believable human beings who live in a beautifully structured fictional world into which we as readers are drawn

[00:11:09] You follow the characters in her novels and they grapple with fundamental questions like what makes for a good education, both intellectually and emotionally, and what does it take to be a good parent? 

[00:11:24] To state the obvious, these are questions that are so universal, so fundamentally human, that the books are as enjoyable and interesting now as they would have been when they were first published.

[00:11:38] Stylistically, she was revolutionary. 

[00:11:41] Now, “revolutionary” isn’t a word often used to describe Jane Austen, and indeed the stories in her novels aren’t about wars, revolutions, or epic battles.

[00:11:54] But she did create a completely new style of writing.

[00:11:59] Up to this point not many novels had been written, as poetry or theatre were the dominant genres, certainly in English. 

[00:12:09] These novels would often rely very heavily on the use of exchange of letters – in other words the novel was more or less a collection of letters from different characters. 

[00:12:23] For literary geeks, for people who are keen on literature, the term for this in English is the epistolary style. 

[00:12:31] The other form that these early novels took was by way of either someone telling a story in the form of a journal or diary or through having a narrator telling a story such as might happen, for example, in a fairytale

[00:12:48] In this case, the narrator “knows everything” – the technical term for this, again, is an omniscient narrator

[00:12:57] What Jane Austen did - and what was so revolutionary - was that she combined the use of a main character or protagonist, through whose eyes the story was told, with a flow of thoughts which reflected or dramatised the ideas going through that central character’s mind. 

[00:13:17] It's a style written both in the first person and third person, and allows the reader to see, for example, when the narrator is wrong or makes mistakes.

[00:13:31] This style of writing, known as free, indirect style, has become the standard style for so many modern novels. 

[00:13:40] It enables the writer to convey subtleties of human thinking to a degree not really possible before Austen’s innovation

[00:13:49] Indeed these are subtleties that can only really be conveyed through books, through writing, this style doesn’t really work as well through other forms of media, like film. 

[00:14:02] And perhaps the most amazing aspect of this innovation was that Jane Austen didn’t take part in fancy literary circles, where aspiring writers would discuss experimental techniques. 

[00:14:17] She came up with this completely herself, likely when she was still a teenager.

[00:14:23] Another revolutionary aspect to her work that is, to a certain extent, anti-revolutionary, was that she showed that you didn’t need huge epic external events to provide a backdrop to a compelling story.

[00:14:38] She showed that these small, self-contained worlds were more than enough, and in her own words all she needed was "three or four families" in a country setting.

[00:14:50] Now this might seem obvious to us, and so many great books and films have been created using only very few characters and very small, self-contained worlds, but Jane Austen was one of the first English writers to do this.

[00:15:07] She would, however, never know the true impact that her works would have.

[00:15:12] She died in 1817, at the age of 41, and it was only after her death that her novels started being published under her own name. 

[00:15:23] Now, in the interest of balance, Jane Austen isn’t without her critics.

[00:15:29] The themes of her novels might be universal, but the world in which they are set is very small, and forms only a tiny, tiny part of society.

[00:15:40] Charlotte Brontë, who you’ll hear more about in part three of this mini-series, remarked that “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her”. 

[00:15:50] She thought Jane Austen was superficial, and accused Pride and Prejudice of being “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers”. 

[00:16:03] The writer Joseph Conrad wrote to H.G. Wells, asking “What is all this about Jane Austen?”

[00:16:10] He simply couldn’t get it.

[00:16:12] Mark Twain wrote “I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

[00:16:34] But there’s a clue in that quote there. He writes that “every time” he reads Pride and Prejudice. 

[00:16:40] He might find it frustrating, but he can’t stop himself picking it up over and over again.

[00:16:47] And this is a theme throughout criticism of Jane Austen. 

[00:16:51] She can justifiably be accused of writing about small worlds that are completely detached from the lives of most people, where the main concern seems to be about finding a suitably rich partner and behaving the correct way in society. She doesn’t hide from that, indeed this is a theme throughout her books.

[00:17:14] But this is the world she knew, and it’s the life that she lived. Her life was spent trying to find a suitable marriage partner, trying to fit in to Victorian societal norms, trying to do the right thing, which certainly wasn’t easy as a woman. 

[00:17:34] Now, no discussion on Jane Austen would be complete without referring to the amazing range of popular adaptations that have been inspired by her novels. 

[00:17:45] For those critics who say that Jane Austen is irrelevant, given the tiny slither of society in which the stories take place, the amount of spin-offs and adaptations certainly suggests that the themes are more widely applicable.

[00:18:01] Perhaps the most famous of the adaptations is a 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, most famous for the scene when a character called Mr Darcy, played by Colin Firth, walks through a lake and comes out dripping wet. 

[00:18:18] But there are some more frivolous versions, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and an Indian version, Bride and Prejudice. 

[00:18:29] In some cases, the adaptations imagine a world after a particular novel has finished. The crime writer PD James wrote a thriller based on the married life of Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennet, called Death Comes to Pemberley. 

[00:18:45] In another film, an Austen enthusiast literally steps into the world of Pride and Prejudice – that’s called Lost in Austen. 

[00:18:54] There’s even a film which sets the novel Emma in 1990s America, called Clueless. 

[00:19:00] Now, from the English learner’s point of view, these films can be a very good way to engage with Jane Austen, and I’d definitely recommend watching some of them if you’d like an easier route than starting with the novels. 

[00:19:15] If you would like some safe recommendations of high quality films, I would go for the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, and the recent adaptation of Emma. 

[00:19:30] The final thing to say is that one of the great things about Jane Austen is that she is interpreted afresh, she is reinterpreted, by each new generation. 

[00:19:41] On that note, let me leave you with this image. 

[00:19:45] The heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie, is described by an awful character called Lady Catherine de Burgh as an “obstinate, headstrong girl”. 

[00:19:57] Obstinate means unwilling to change your mind or opinion, and headstrong means a similar thing, but is more like determined and impatient.

[00:20:08] For Victorian traditionalists, this might have been seen as a fitting insult, as women in Victorian times were expected to be submissive and accepting of their father’s and then their husband’s wishes.

[00:20:24] Now, of course, being determined and independent are qualities to be admired, and it is fitting that this insult, this slur, has now been embraced.

[00:20:36] You can see girls t-shirts and jumpers with the sloganobstinate, headstrong girl” emblazoned across the front.

[00:20:45] She might have died over 200 years ago, but if Jane Austen could see young women just like her wearing t-shirts with these words on, I’m sure it would bring a quiet smile to her face.

[00:21:01] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Jane Austen, the queen of English literature.

[00:21:08] As a reminder, this is going to be part one of a mini-series on great Victorian authors. Next up it’ll be Charles Dickens, then part three will be on the Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne.

[00:21:21] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:25] Have you read any Jane Austen, either in translation or in the original? Have you seen any of the films?

[00:21:32] If so, what did you think about them? Are there any writers in your language that Jane Austen reminds you of?

[00:21:38] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:41] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:50] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:55] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]