My history hero: Jane Austen (1775–1817)

Broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh explains why he admires an 18th century author

Jane Austen

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Jane Austen (1775–1817) is one of the best-loved novelists in the history of English literature. She was born into the lower ranks of the landed gentry in Hampshire – the county in which, apart from a five-year spell living in Bath, she spent all of her life. Austen’s novels Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815) were critically ignored during her lifetime but have since won global acclaim for their wit, biting irony and brilliant social commentaries on Regency England. Two further novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, were published after Jane’s death, probably from Addison’s disease, in 1817.

When did you first learn about Jane Austen?

Way back in my adolescence when I read Pride and Prejudice, quickly followed by Emma and Sense and Sensibility. I’ve long felt a connection with her because I live in Jane Austen country. My home is about a mile from where she lived in Hampshire, and I have a piece of land in the county that she must have walked through. She also knew Sir Thomas Miller, the man who owned our house in the early 19th century – in fact, one of her letters to her sister Cassandra laments Miller’s death.

What was Austen’s finest hour?

For me it has to be Emma. It’s a novel that had me captivated from the moment I read its opening sentence: “[Emma] lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” That’s such a brilliant character sketch. Then, a few chapters on, you find Mr Knightley admonishing Emma with the words: “It was badly done, indeed!” For me, that was heartbreaking.

I have a confession to make, however: I haven’t read Persuasion or Northanger Abbey. I’m not too disappointed about that – I’d hate the thought of not having any more Austen novels left to read.

What made her a hero?

For me, it was her genius for reading human nature – especially its darker side – and bringing it to life in her novels. She was a quite wonderful observer of the human condition and the society in which she lived. I’ve always been fascinated by the Regency period, and Austen’s novels give you an incredible window into that world – especially the boredom that the daughters of middle- and upper-class families must have experienced. These were people who really had nothing to do except embroidery.

You could also argue that it was heroic that she wrote at all. This was a time when women simply didn’t write novels – borne out by the fact that she wasn’t credited on the title page of Sense and Sensibility. She wrote her books quietly, in a tiny room with a creaking door, and she’d hide away her pen and paper whenever that door creaked. I think that’s incredibly courageous.

What kind of person was she?

I think she must have been a pretty gregarious person in some respects – she couldn’t have written all those brilliant character sketches without having some experience of the world around her. And, judging by her razor-sharp and highly comic dissections of her characters’ frailties, she must have had a pretty good sense of humour, too.

Are there any parallels between her life and your own?

I, too, have written a number of novels, so I’d say that we’ve both experienced the pleasure of the solitude of writing. I really feel a special tie with my characters, and am bereft when I have to say goodbye to them at the end of my novels. I suspect that would have been the same for Austen. However, the physical task of writing must have been so much more strenuous for her. While I can merrily tap away at a keyboard, she had to write all of those words with a scratchy pen.

If you could meet Austen, what would you ask her?

I’m not sure I’d like to ask her anything at all. I think I’d be too star-struck – anything I’d ask her would, no doubt, appear trite. Having said that, I’d love to invite her round for a dinner party and then quietly sit in the background watching her in conversation with someone else. I’d love to know what she was like in real life.

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Alan Titchmarsh was talking to Spencer Mizen. Alan Titchmarsh is a gardener, broadcaster and novelist. His latest book is The Queen’s Houses: Royal Britain at Home (BBC Books, 2014)