Saturday, April 4, 2015

Guest Post: Jane Austen recovers in Winchester

What if Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Sanditon had been finished? (first published on Today in Alternate History)

 Just after beginning to write Sanditon at forty-two years old, "at the height of her powers" and "just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success" Jane Austen was struck down by a reoccurrence of typhus, which she had suffered as a child. She was taken to lodgings in Winchester for medical treatment spending many long months recuperating in the house on College Street. Fortunately she recovered and in the second half of her life redefined herself as a forerunner of Henry James and Marcel Proust.
"I doubt," wrote Mr. Austen Leigh, "whether it would be possible to mention any other author of note whose personal obscurity was so complete". However notwithstanding this observation during this extended period of her writing career she began to embark upon some very significant changes to her lifestyle, actually coming out of herself to become something of a minor celebrity, almost a figure from one of her own novels. Virginia Woolf writing in 1924 said that "She1 stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure".

And so she had survived to finish Sanditon then Persuasion, "the most beautiful of her works", also Northanger Abbey, fine novels that would otherwise have been unfinished. What a tremendous loss that would have been, indeed it was said that "She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness". And so perhaps more importantly she would get to work collaboratively with a young English novelist and poet called Charlotte Brontë. Of course she was only one year old when Austen's life was in danger and it would have been a travesty if these contemporary figures had been cruelly robbed of the opportunity to energize each other's writing. Certainly Austen was something of a mentor, encouraging Brontë to develop her poetry which she was sorely tempted to abandon in favour of novel writing after the critical success of Jane Eyre and her sister Emily's novel Wuthering Heights. After all, Austen had decades of life yet to come, her brother the Admiral lived to the ripe old age of ninety-one.

Also of future significance the Austen-Brontë collaboration later inspired Charles Dickens to work in a similar vein with Wilkie Collins and in so doing abandon his plans to write a number of turgid large tomes of social criticism. Instead of bemoaning Victorian Society he would be greatly uplifted in spirit, ultimately he re-emerged as a celebrated romantic figure of that golden era of literature.


1] Woolf inserted the words "would have" because she was imagining a life Austen never got to live.

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