Sense and Sensibility at 200

Two hundred years after penning Sense and Sensibility, what would Jane Austen have made of the new online social networking? Martin Hickes reports.

Few writers in English literature had the astounding insight in assaying the social manners and vagaries of early Regency England as the remarkable Jane Austen.

Readers of Sense and Sensibility, which is marking its 200th anniversary of publication this year, have long argued her novels have never been bettered in terms of her close observation of the protocols of the late 18th C/early 19thC social network.

Austen’s grand country balls of the imagination, her formal promenades, picnics and carriage rides in Box Hill or Bath, and her grand mansions of desire of Augustan design, all epitomised  - and satirised - the formal order, social climbing and marital to-dos of the late Georgian period.

But almost 200 years on, in a world nearly unrecognisable from that of Austen, whatever happened to her-   and England’s - grand social network? Or has it ever really gone away?

Sense and Sensibility was published 1811 and has wide appeal across Yorkshire and the world.

Just as the Industrial Revolution was transforming Austen’s world irrevocably, as well as its social sphere of influence, how far has the online revolution of today changed our modern social scene?

In today’s world of Twitter, Facebook and other online instant social wallpapering, are Mr Darcy or Elizabeth Bennet just as likely to be found just a mouse-click away?

And is it is now, perhaps uncomfortably, a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good laptop, must be in want of Wi-Fi?

Some modern-day online commentators and Austen enthusiasts today, are even reflecting that the balls, dances and ‘polished’ manners of the time may not just have been an organic product of England’s class system, but were perhaps a necessary reaction to the real threat of revolutionary fervour and social instability at the time.

Prof Francis O’Gorman, from the University of Leeds’ School of English, reflects on what Austen would have made of modern social online networking, and its possible lineage to gentler days.

He says:  “It’s an amusing idea.  I’d like to think that Jane Austen, with her sharp sense of the nuances of communication, not least in letters, and her shrewd sense of comedy often encapsulated in a single line, would have taken sprightly advantage of status updates, for one.  ‘Emma Woodhouse: badly done’.  ‘Mary Bennet: has delighted us long enough’. 

“But, more seriously, the penetrating sense of the decorum of social networks in the Regency might have given her a real understanding of the new networks created through words—often witty words—on social networking sites.

“Of course, had Austen been alive now, she simply wouldn’t be Jane Austen, as she’d have been formed by radically different circumstances. 

“But it is pleasurable to play the ‘what if’ game and, for my money, I think she’d have recognized the purposes and possibilities of online communities, and given a penetrating analysis of the follies and desires men and women express there.”

Austen published all of her novels in the Regency period, during which King George III was declared permanently insane and his son was appointed as Prince Regent.

Throughout most of Austen's adult life, Britain was at war with revolutionary France. Fearing the spread of revolution and violence to Britain, the government tried to repress political radicals by suspending habeas corpus and passing the Seditious Meetings Act and the Treasonable Practices Act, known as the "Gagging Acts".

Many reformers still held out hope for change in Britain during the 1790s, but by the 1800s and 1810s, the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars had exhausted the country and a deep conservative reaction had set in, some think fuelling a ‘closing of ranks’ among the upper classes in a time of tremendous social upheaval and uncertainty.

Some are now reflecting that, just as the balls and social events of Austen’s days may well have been a ‘check and balance’ or an elevated ‘sounding out’ club against the hoi polloi, whether the online world, via such networks, is still dipping a toe in the social ocean.

David Selwyn, chairman of the Jane Austen Society, in the UK, says:

“I think a major difference between balls and assemblies in JA’s day and the equivalent now is that, whereas today it is people of a similar age-group who go to clubs and discos, in the Regency whole families went to the public subscription assemblies that were held in most towns.

“While it was generally the younger people who danced, their mothers watched, and their fathers went straight into the card room to play whist.

“It was unthinkable in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for a young woman to write to a young man, other than a member of her family, unless she was engaged to him (this is the very serious error that Marianne makes in S&S, when she corresponds with Willoughby).

“So Jane Austen would certainly not have understood how people could publish intimate details of themselves on Facebook etc. But of course if JA were alive today, she would be of today, and would no doubt create characters who make use of the internet, just as in her earliest writings she used the epistolary (letter) form (‘Lady Susan’, for example).

“The dances and assemblies of the day were the only way in which young people of the opposite sex could have any contact with each other, apart from the rather formal visits in which girls at least were generally accompanied by a mother or sister.

“All her life Jane Austen could never travel alone – it just wasn’t done: if she wanted to go from Hampshire to visit her brother Edward’s family in Kent, elaborate plans had to be made for her to be taken there.

“I am sure that the many Branches and Groups of the Jane Austen Society that exist all around the country will be having special discussions and study days on S&S. The Society’s annual conference in September will be based on the novel and will take place in Devon, where most of the novel is set.”

Prof Laurie Kaplan, academic director at the George Washington University in England, a resident of Pool in Wharfedale, and a former online and print editor for the Jane Austen Society of the US, says:

“For Austen’s characters, and for Austen herself, conversation and letter-writing were arts that needed practice and an exercise of fine judgment. In her novels, Austen implicitly criticizes the characters who “rattle” or blather away about themselves and about the most minor activities of daily life. Blathering, in fact, is the Austenian equivalent of Twittering. The blatherers provide great amusement for readers, for they are the community bores. And Austen includes at least one in each novel: Miss Bates in Emma, for example, Mary Musgrove in Persuasion, and Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. They reveal too much, too often.

“If Austen were writing today, she would be au courant with the latest technology—naturally she would use a computer and an iPlayer. And since Austen created characters for all time, not just for the early nineteenth century, I can see Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot surfing the internet, visiting Google Earth to check out land and sea, and e-mailing friends and family, but they would neither Twitter nor join Facebook. Characters who lack discretion—Lydia Bennet and Isabella Thorpe and Lucy Steele, for example—would Twitter their days away, and they would never log off chat rooms and internet dating sites. Sir Walter Elliot and Mr Wickham and Mr John Thorpe would all adore their own faces on Facebook. Perhaps Emma would try a Twitter or two, but then she would get over it.

“In Lost in Austen, a time-travel series recently shown on television, Elizabeth Bennet uses Google, has a cell phone and a charge card, and orders a taxi on-line.  She adapts quickly to all the mod cons. This refreshingly topsy-turvy homage to Pride and Prejudice, and to all things Austen, was filmed locally at Harewood House, which stood in for Pemberley, of course.

“Austen uses letters in her novels to structure her plot and to allow characters to reveal themselves as gentle, amusing, and kind, or as crass, dictatorial, and sloppy. To write a good—and, yes, elegant and witty—letter was to promote the values of a congenial society. I wonder how many Twitters would stand up to the kind of critical eye Austen turned on her society?”


Note to editors:

◦From 1811 until 1815, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815), JA achieved success as a published writer.

◦She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey (originally written in 1798-1799 and revised later) and Persuasion, both published after her death in 1817, and began a third (eventually titled Sanditon), but died before it could be completed.