Tory or radical, prude or saucepot—there have been many Jane Austens down the ages. But her genius lies in dramatising the thrilling risks of living at breakneck speedby Freya Johnston / March 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Jane Austen wrote fast and died young. Her life on paper may have spanned three decades, but all six of her celebrated novels made their public appearance between 1811 and 1817. The phrase “tell-tale compression,” self-consciously applied by the narrator towards the end of Northanger Abbey (1817), captures something of Austen’s authorial career, too. Indeed, in her case it is appropriate that the word “career” can mean a short gallop at full speed, as well as the potentially slower progress of an individual’s working life. Novelists are more usually seen as long-distance runners than as sprinters, and Austen’s mature fiction has been cherished for the gradual emergence into consciousness of its heroines’ thoughts and feelings. Yet speedy progress—described in Emma (1815) as the “felicities of rapid motion”—remained central to this writer’s craft from start to finish.
Two hundred years ago, on St Swithun’s Day in 1817, Austen, near death, dictated an odd poem about horse racing to her sister Cassandra. From her sick bed in Winchester, she imagined how the festivities outside her window had come into being. The poem opens like this:
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming. —
The Hampshire locals, hell-bent on having fun, ignore their religious allegiances. But, in placing their bets on pleasure rather than on duty, they have backed the wrong horse. The reward for such fixity and determination is an eternally blighted party: St Swithun curses the races, in perpetuity, with rain.
Austen died three days later, on 18th July 1817. Imagining, in her last known literary composition, the origins of a horse race and the fatal allure of the “charming,” she was also excavating the origins of her writing life. That her Winchester poem concerns how the dead are mostly (even in the saintliest of cases) forgotten has perhaps also to do with her sense of a future abruptly foreclosed, and of authorial work left undone. Not only undone, but largely overlooked: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion appeared together in four volumes, posthumously, at the very end of 1817, in a print run of 1,750 copies; three years later, 282 remained unsold.