Sunday, March 8, 2009

It Was a Cheerful Home at the Austens'

The Steventon Rectory, the house in which Jane Austen grew up with her parents and five brothers and sisters. Here she wrote her youthful History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st, which she prefaced thusly: "By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian. To Miss Austen eldest daughter of the Revd George Austen, this book is inscribed with all due respect by The Author N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History."

One reason why Jane Austen might make a distinction between house and home was the liveliness and love in her own family, which exhibited a spirit of playfulness that seems curiously missing in the film Becoming Jane.

According to David Cecil's A Portrait of Jane Austen, her mother, Cassandra, had more aristocatic connections than her husband but "much enjoyed jokes. She was herself a humorist -- writing entertaining light verses -- and a vivacious talker 'uniting,' it was said, 'strong common sense with a lively imagination' and a crisp epigrammatic phrase....

"Born and bred a country woman and by nature contented, she threw herself into the duties of the rural and domestic existence in which fate had placed her. It did not bother her that she was forced to arrive for the first time at her new home sitting alone with many of her belongings on a feather bed perched on top of a wagon; the track leading to Steventon Rectory was too rough going for any more genteel conveyance; and from that day on, her small slight determined figure, dressed usually during these first years in a scarlet riding habit, was always on the go, seeing after children and household and superintending brewing and baking, and cows and chickens.... She did the family mending in the drawing room and went on doing it, even if interrupted by strangers paying a formal call. Yet she still found time and spirit to talk entertainingly and write lively chatty letters reporting family news to her friends and relations....

Jane's bedroom in Chawton, her last home, where she produced most of her novels. The furnishings in the Austen home were always sparse but not displeasing. Wrote the young Jane, of her favored queen, Mary Stuart: "Oh! What must this bewitching Princess, whose only friend was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight and myself..."

"Indeed home life at Steventon was affectionate, cheerful, untroubled.... Home had fostered their cleverness especially on its literary side. They had inherited this from their father and he had encouraged it, partly by reading aloud to them -- reading aloud was a great feature of Austen family life -- and partly by giving them the run of the library. There they grew acquainted with Pope's poems and Shakespeare's, with the essays of Addison and Johnson, with the novels of Richardson and Sterne and Fielding and Fanny Burney....

"From reading it was a short step to writing; several of the Austens went in for writing if only skits and occasional verses. They also amused themselves with word games and paper games; and with conversation. Their talk, one gathers, was lively and lighthearted in tone, more concerned with personalities than with ideas or public affairs. What is rare in clever families, it was uncontroversial. 'It was not their habit to dispute or argue with each other, even about small matters,' said an observer.... Their principles were those of the moral and religious orthodox Anglicanism instilled into them by their father; they set a special value on the virtues of unselfishness and self-control, prudence and good humour. When young, this more serious side of them was less in evidence than their jokes. The sense of comedy flourished at Steventon Rectory, exuberant, mischievous, delighting in human absurdity, detecting and making fun of any kind of affectation or silliness or false sentiment....

"The Austen corporate personality combined qualities not often found together. It was at once affectionate and unsentimental, satirical and good-tempered, orthodox and highly intelligent."

Jane was a devout Anglican all of her life and, in her last years when she was ill, also wrote prayers that were filled with both repentance and thanksgiving and also hope:

More particularly do we pray for the safety and welfare of our own family and friends wheresoever dispersed, beseeching thee to avert from them all material and lasting evil of body or mind: and may we by the assistance of thy Holy Spirit so conduct ourselves on earth as to secure an eternity of happiness with each other in Thy Heavenly Kingdom.

The church at Steventon, where Jane's father was the reverend and where Jane went to church with her family until she was 25, when the family moved to Bath.

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