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BECOMING JANE

Q & A With Joan Ray
Joan Ray (Ph.D. Brown) is a Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, a former President of the Jane Austen Society of America (2000-06) and author of several scholarly papers on Jane Austen as well as the popular volume Jane Austen for Dummies.

Q: What is it about Jane Austen that has kept her so fresh and exciting even today?

A: Jane Austen has enduring popularity because she can be enjoyed at so many different levels by people from all walks of life,. Jane Austen is funny; Jane Austen is witty; Jane Austen understands the human heart. Jane Austen writes about love. Jane Austen also has some social criticism in her books, but in a very subtle way. Jane Austen is just this wonderful writer who lives on, like Shakespeare, because she understood human nature, which never changes. So even though she's writing about England in the late 18th and early 19th Century, there are choices that her characters have to make that are very similar to the choices that a young man and young woman have to make in the 21st century. That's why her work is still so alive for us.

Q: Was Jane Austen writing about the same kind of life that she herself lived?

A: Yes. Jane Austen's work reflects her own social period, and the social class of which she was a member. She was a member of a class known as the gentry, the land-owning, property-owning class, as are most of her characters in her six novels. The events in her novels such as going to balls and card games, taking walks and going to dinner parties are all events that she knew and experienced. So she's writing about life as she knows it. Jane Austen was not a spinster living at home like Emily Dickinson, sending jars of jam on string out the window. Jane had excellent social skills. She went to dances and to the theater. She lived the kind of life that Elizabeth Bennet lived.

Q: Do you we know very much about Jane's life as a young woman?

A: We have about 160 letters of Jane Austen's that have been edited by Deidre Le Faye for Oxford University Press. In these, Jane Austen writes mostly to her sister Cassandra about the everyday things she's going through, about the trivia of her life. Now, Deidre Le Faye, who is the world's leading authority on Jane Austen's letters, believes that with the frequency Jane Austen wrote, there were probably about 4,000 letters. But Cassandra, shortly before her death burned thousands of the letters. So, in a sense, Jane Austen is a mystery which makes her even more exciting, because here's this woman who has written these timeless novels, and yet we only have bits and pieces to put together about her life. We speculate about her life and who she was through what she wrote in the same way people speculate about Shakespeare by what he wrote.

Q: A common theme in Austen's novel is that of financial security versus love. What was her own personal situation?

A: Jane's own situation in terms of money and marriage was a sad one. The Austens were part of the gentry class, but basically on the very lower end of it. Like Miss Bates in Emma, Jane herself probably didn't have a dowry. Having, at the age of 20, no dowry of any significance very much limited her chances to marry well. Jane Austen and the fellow citizens of her time just accepted this as a fact of life. A young woman needed money in the gentry class if she was to marry someone who could keep her in the manner to which she was accustomed.

Q: What do we know about Tom LeFroy?

Tom Lefroy was a student of the law in London -- and school was out, and he had come to visit his Aunt and Uncle, Reverend George and Madam Lefroy. Madame Lefroy had gotten to know young Jane Austen around the age of 12 or 13, and she knew this girl was something special. So naturally, Jane would be invited to a dance where Tom Lefroy was.

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