December 16th is the 240th birthday of one of the most well-known and admired authors in history, Jane Austen. We often associate her with the Regency period, but in fact she was born just months after the American Revolution began. While she was raised in genteel society in England, a daughter of a successful parson, her contemporaries in America were dressed in homespun, their father's fighting the patriot cause. So with a little twist, I'd like to interview Jane and ask her perspective on living on the other side of the great pond during the years of revolution in the British American colonies. Jane was born into a changing world, perhaps foreshadowing the influence she would have during her life. After all, I believe many of our quills were shaped by hers.
Mistress Gade: It is a pleasure having you with us today, Miss Austen. Shall we partake of tea? 'Tis one thing we have in common. I am from Boston where “the ladies here visit, drink tea and indulge every little piece of gentility to the height of the mode and neglect the affairs of their families with as good grace as the finest ladies in London.” (Tea Drinking in 18th Century America, its Etiquette and Equipage by Rodris Roth.)
Miss Austen: But indeed, I would rather have nothing but tea. (Mansfield Park) Have you any to offer, I should be most grateful. (She says, winking.)
Mistress Gade: Touché! Yes, I know, embargoes, embargoes! Tea parties and all of that! But we are quite over that now, are you?
Miss Austen:Oh, yes. Yet it is quite unfathomable how Americans could have foregone the luxury of our good tea from the British East India Tea Company. Simply a waste.
Mistress Gade: You are referring to the Boston Tea Party, I take it?
Miss Austen: Ironically, that event occurred on December 16th, my very birth date, two years prior. But what I don't know is why did the "Sons of Liberty," as you call them, who participated in the Boston Tea Party disguise themselves as Indians?
Mistress Gade: The punishment, if caught, would be severe so a disguise of some sort was in order. The act of wearing “Indian dress” was to express to the world that the colonists identified themselves as “Americans” and no longer British subjects. As it turned out, only one man was arrested after dumping the tea into Boston Harbor.
Miss Austen: The harbor must have smelled like a giant urn of tea. Seaweed tea? I did hear that the colonists cultivated alternative infusions.
Mistress Gade: We called them Liberty Teas. We made Labradore tea from the Red Root Bush, Yeepan tea from the Carolinas coast, Indian Lemonade tea from Red Sumac berries, and a favorite, Red Raspberry Leaf tea which some said were “as good as any other tea, and much more wholesome in the end.”
Mistress Gade: I have read as such, though I never knew it to be true. How long did it take for those in England to hear news from the colonies?
Miss Austen: The news of the Boston Tea Party reached London the following month, in January. Regular passenger service from the Provincials (the colonies) across the Atlantic took from five to six weeks. So when the war began in April of my birth year, 1775, news reached England at the end of May. And when American declared their independence the following year, likewise, about a month. But then news would further trickle on by means of newsprint and letters.
|Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City, |
by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel. The New York Historical Society
Miss Austen: Surprisingly, about half the population were in support of America's freedom. In fact, a famous British potter, Josiah Wedgwood, produced creamware demonstrating his support for free trade in America.
Mistress Gade: And you?
Miss Austen: I was just a girl at the time. We spoke of much more pleasant things in the parsonage where I lived when I was young. Yet, the war did challenge my family’s Tory views of class, a state Church and limited democracy.
Mistress Gade: How has war influenced you?
Miss Austen: War has been the backdrop throughout my life in England. "The American War of Independence" (as we call it), the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the "American War" in 1812. Two of my brothers entered the Royal Navy at young ages and proceeded to become admirals. Another was also in the military for a short period of time. Their service mainly involved the French. I did offer some allusions to the military within my novels, but never dwelt on war outside of England, such as true to my society. Truly military celebrations may have influenced our fashions, but our conversations seldom.
Mistress Gade: We often associate you with the Regency period of England, is this a correct association?
Miss Austen: It is. Although, it is also true to associate my life with the Georgian period which encompasses the reign of his father, King George III from 1760 until his death 1820. However, in 1811 a regency was established when King George was declared insane and his eldest son, George IV, assumed his father's duties. It was during his regency that I was published. In fact, I was charged to dedicate my novel, Emma, to the Prince Regent. One cannot always be as selective as one wishes in such matters. So, that is where the term regency comes from. But it is not as simple as all that in your country, is it?
Mistress Gade: Not at all, especially as our historical eras are not associated with rulers. Our colonial period is from 1492-1763 followed by the Revolutionary period of 1764-1789. Then comes the era of the New Republic during 1790-1828, and so. It appears that, for the most past, our colonial years through becoming an independent nation coincide with your Georgian era.
Mistress Gade: Would you tell us about your writing and publication.
Miss Austen: I was merely eleven years of age when I wrote my first short stories and poems. At seventeen I wrote my first novel, Lady Susan. I continued to write Elinor and Marianne (later known as Sense and Sensibility), Northanger Abbey, First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice) and revise my work all before the century turned. Yet, I was not published until 1811.
Mistress Gade: When did your novels become available in the United States of America?
Miss Austen: Trade embargoes ensued once again during the American War of 1812, as you know, so my novels did not reach your shores until about 1815 or so. I learnt that some American printers reproduced my books without even seeking my express permission.
Mistress Gade: I regret to hear that. Perhaps it shall aid in popularizing your writings in time to come. I do thank you for this enlightening coversation, Miss Austen. It has been a pleasure getting to know you.
Miss Austen:You are most welcome, Mistress Gade. Perhaps we shall have tea again on another ocassion.
Mistress Gade: That would be most delightful.
Miss Austen: Indeed.