Thursday, 26 February 2009

Length and Breadth

The year 1817 brought the deaths of two prominent English women: Jane Austen, in July, and Princess Charlotte, in November. No surer death knell of an age, still rural and feudal, could have sounded, nor could a new era have been so hurriedly, so unexpectedly, ushered in. Jane, after all, was but 42; Charlotte a mere 21. And yet both, in their way, succumbed to the most mundane, most expected, of conditions. Childbirth took Charlotte, after fifty long hours and a small, still born son. Jane, for her part, combined an array of complaints that, separately and in milder doses, she had visited with irony upon a host of her fictional women: faintness and wan looks, lethargy and headache, loss of appetite and recollection. (On Jane they worked without irony, to the death, and their toll on her looks, as her face lost her bloom to black and white blotches, would not do for romance.) Victims of their female condition, at its most pervasive and most ordinary, these two nonetheless brought an age to its close.

For who would rule England now? George III, with all his fifteen legitimate offspring, had now none with an heir to the throne; Charlotte had been one of a kind, and with her died the hope of royal, permissive, continuance. But her agonizing labour almost literally yielded Victoria, for the vacuum created at its close gave rise to such a flurry of jiltings of mistresses and marryings of eligibles and such a rush of pregnancies, among George's until now rather licentious sons, that Victoria's christening table might almost have coldly been furnished with the meats baked for young Charlotte's wake.

And who would write England now? Jane's tiny round table - placed by the window of her cottage, situated at the turn in the road through Chawton, with green open aspect without and crisp painted wood round within - is larger than two inches square, but not much; and the epigrammatical style of her novels more expansive than daubing on ivory, but not much. What could her offspring possibly be?

Yet, as sovereignty grew constrained and its power contracted, the novel swelled out and its impact expanded: no less did Charlotte's lengthy labour straighten England's rule than Austen's tiny worktop swelled out England's fiction.

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