Many Janeites have had the experience of finding new insights and humor to treasure every time they reread one of her novels. It seems as if there are delightful sentences that hide in the text, revealing themselves only to the return visitor. When you come across them, you wonder, How could I possibly have missed that the last time around?
But lately I’ve been thinking about other things that we, as modern readers, miss that the readers in Jane Austen’s day would have picked up on. Most of us simply let the descriptions of Mr. Knightley’s activities as a landlord and farmer flow over us when reading Emma, so the revelation that he’s the romantic lead comes as a surprise relatively late in the book. But perhaps nineteenth-century readers familiar with the duties of a landlord would have picked up far sooner on the idea that he is the hero.
And then there’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice, with her Norman-sounding name and her fancy house. How many modern readers observe that her husband is only a baronet, not a lord, so she has herself married beneath her, despite being so outraged at the idea of her nephew doing so? And the fancy house? It was built in her lifetime, so she forked out for all that grandeur, she didn’t inherit it.
All of this brings me to a wonderful book I’d like to recommend to all those Janeites out there: Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s Country Life (Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2014). In vivid layman’s language (and with excellent illustrations) she describes the world Jane Austen inhabited, its agriculture and mores, and reveals telling details from the novels that today’s more urban reader would not understand or would overlook. She links the information both to JA’s life and to her novels, illuminating both in fascinating and surprising ways. A must-read!—27 August 2014