Jane Austen Knits 2013
“But, Lizzy, you look as if you did not enjoy it. You are not going to be missish, I hope, and pretend to be affronted at an idle report. For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” —Mr. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter LVII
When the news broke this summer that the Bank of England would be issuing a £10 note graced with the portrait of Jane Austen in 2017 (see page 144), I was thrilled. It seemed so right that Jane Austen would represent the best of what England has given the world. Soon after, however, we heard about how Twitter in the United Kingdom was shut down over a weekend because of threats of violence against the women who had advocated for Jane Austen’s portrait on the banknote. Just the juxtaposition of the image of Jane Austen (an author who concealed her writing from all but her most trusted companions) to Twitter (and our modern age of sharing every thought with the world in a couple of seconds) seems to illustrate how times have changed in the two hundred years since she wrote. And yet, how much has really changed? Perhaps this is one reason why her work still resonates so profoundly with us.
In the furor that erupted over the controversy, it was clear that some very literate and influential people didn’t think that Jane Austen’s work merited such prestigious recognition. I’ve noticed that Jane Austen’s works are sometimes dismissed as fairy tales because they seem so easily understood. But, like fairy tales, which on the surface seem to be stories designed to entertain children or help them fall asleep, they contain road maps to the human experience. More’s the pity for those who overlook the novels; I feel they miss the depth and breadth of understanding contained in the pages. Jane Austen’s stories contain layers upon layers of meaning, if one only looks. Each time I go back to her novels, I find something newly relevant to where I am on my journey.
If one looks no further than the surface, any one of Jane Austen’s novels is nothing more than a well-written and engaging romance— enjoyable and entertaining. But when one takes the time to look deeper, riches of social, political, and economic insight can be found. In the pages of the novels, clothed in muslin and broadcloth, you’ll find commentary on the significant forces that were shaping our modern world at the time.
Consider some of the world events that were taking place during Jane Austen’s brief lifetime (1775–1817): the Industrial Revolution; Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations published; the American Revolution; the French Revolution; Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women published; the Napoleonic Wars; the formation of the United Kingdom; and the slave trade abolished in the British Empire. All these events are noted and referenced, questioned and examined by one of the most brilliant minds of the time.
While many of her references would have been more obvious to her contemporaries than they are to us today, it’s clear that she didn’t align herself with one way of thinking or one political agenda—rather, she questioned everything, examined the strengths and weaknesses, and assessed its value.
Jane Austen probed decisions, norms, and the long-standing traditions of the time in such an astute and subtle way, and in the guise of a mere novel—yet her works are still relevant today, still inspiring conversation and debate and still engaging our minds and our hearts, and in this case, our knitting needles. Happy knitting,
Amy Clarke Moore, editor