The oeuvre of Jane Austen is often regarded merely as a handbook for fashionable, upper-class life in the Regency period. But her own vision of her task was radically different. She was an aspiring and austere moralist who possessed an acute awareness of the shortcomings of human nature. Austen’s writing was driven by a desire to improve society and the people in it, encouraging them to be more fair and more diplomatic towards others.
In this post, I’ll discuss the literary inspirations that drive my work, and why we could all do with a bit more of Austen’s spirit in our lives.
For anyone working in a creative field, be they an interior designer or an artist, finding inspiration is essential in producing the final vision of a product. Such inspiration can come from anywhere, and you may find yourself inspired by anything, from music, to nature, to travel – for me, inspiration comes in the form of literature.
"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Literature possesses a transportive power, providing an escape from the banalities of everyday life. The tranquil reverie I find in a good book has provided inspiration for a number of products in our collections.
Reading literature not only affords us such escapism, however, but allows us to experience the points of view of other individuals, from other places or times beyond our reach. It develops our ability to sympathise with others, and makes us better people – something Jane Austen worked to do through her novels.
Austen’s words may ring a little harsh, but the positive power of literature is something that cannot be overstated. Take Pride and Prejudice, for example; the novel is astute in its assessment of society, using satire to make readers aware of a host of injustices, particularly towards women. It provides a scathing portrayal of the regency era’s gentry, all the while instilling hope through the story arc of the novel’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.
Though set in a long-past period, the topics of the novel are still relevant today; Austen’s work strikes a perfect balance, offering both an idyllic escape from day-to-day goings on, and a firm assessment of society’s failings.
“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Austen’s writing, as I’ve pointed out, served an important moral purpose in its revelation of the inequalities and injustices of society. Her writing often tried to expose the confining realities of regency era social stratification: women did not have careers, had no chance for experimentation, and were to hope to find a companionate and wealthy husband on whom they could rely.
Austen does, for all her staunch assessments of gender inequality, offer glimmers of hope. Her heroines are often quick, clever, articulate and witty, and they often have flaws not becoming of the typical regency period woman. The author was a revolutionary in this respect, offering a realistic presentation of what women of her contemporary era were to expect from life, while giving her characters more dimension and freedom to express themselves.
“Ah! There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”
Jane Austen, Emma
Though it would be remiss and reductive to take Austen’s work as a mere reflection of upper-class regency era society, the distinctive styles of the period offer us a medium through which we can invite her memory into our lives.
Taking tea, for example, was a staple of the gentry in the regency period, and is a trope found all across Austen’s work. The finest china would be used, and guests would pore over their drinks with laughter and merriment, enjoying intelligent company and conversation.
The Jane Austen Centre recommend hosting teas as a way to celebrate the author, and I couldn’t have suggested a better activity if I’d tried.
A truly remarkable author, Austen offered the real and ideal in one neat package, and allows us to enjoy the trappings of regency era Britain while encouraging us to become better people and be more mindful of others. This December, I’ll be breaking out my finest crockery in remembrance of one of the most revolutionary women to ever put pen to paper, and I sincerely hope you’ll join me – as Austen would have it, “think only of the past, as its remembrance gives you pleasure”.
To read about the work of the Jane Austen Centre, visit https://janeausten.co.uk/.