Thanet Writers Spotlight Jane Austen

Matthew Munson highlights the life, works and legacy of author and poet Jane Austen, and spotlights her connection to Thanet.

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Jane Austen was just 41 when she died in 1817, having written six books; she had a loyal readership and certainly no indication of giving up until she fell ill and sadly died in her prime.

She was a genuinely passionate writer in and of her time, when women weren’t anywhere near equal in society and often forced into using pseudonyms in order to get their work published by any respectable publishing house. Bizarrely—although considered entirely reasonable for the stands of the day—women lacked the legal authority to sign contracts; a female author would need to have a male author represent her in order to sign the contract. Funny how the zeitgeist can change so absolutely and utterly, from something that was once considered absolutely normal to now being patently absurd.

All bar Pride and Prejudice were published on commission, meaning that the publisher would advance the costs of publication, reclaim the costs as books were sold, and then charge a 10% commission, paying the rest to the author. The author would then be responsible for any costs the book didn’t cover. When the publisher Thomas Egerton agreed to publish Jane’s first title, Sense and Sensibility, it would have inevitably felt like a risk to both parties as Jane was unknown at the time.

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But reviews were favourable, and the first edition sold out fairly quickly; reprints were then produced in batches of 750, at a time when the upper limit had never previously been more than 500. Jane Austin was clearly going places.

She was also going to Thanet; her brother, an admiral with the Royal Navy, was stationed at the port in Ramsgate—and at the time it was considered considerably more “reputable” than nearby Margate—and yet she was rumoured to disdain the town. At the time she was alive, seaside resorts were considered by some to be “socially dangerous” places, where immoral types performed rather immoral acts. How true that is, however, is another matter; we can only be guided by fragments that are left of diaries, letters, and so on.

Jane loved her brother very much, and he married a Ramsgatonian, so visits would have been as frequent as possible. It’s speculated that her reported dislike of the town came from her jealousy of a local lady ‘taking’ her brother away from the family. We don’t know if that was true—she made similar remarks about other seaside towns, so it’s not entirely certain—but she did visit the area regularly to see her brother and sister-in-law, and she made reference to Ramsgate in both her novels Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park.

In Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, 15-year-old Georgiana Darcy is taken to the town by her companion Mrs Younge and persuaded to elope with Mr Wickham, who has his eye on the teenager’s fortune. But Mr Darcy, her older brother, unexpectedly joins them, and Mr Wickham makes a swift exit.

And in 1814’s Mansfield Park, Tom Bertram travels to Ramsgate to visit his friends the Sneyds, who are staying in Albion Place. He finds them on the pier with Mrs Sneyd “surrounded by men.”

Ann Channon, from Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, where Jane spent the last eight years of her life, said she was not sure that the writer disliked Ramsgate. “Although I can see why that may appear to be so in her writings,” she added. Channon said Ramsgate was a popular resort and would have been a gathering place for people with some wealth to visit; a place to see and be seen.

There was a growing belief that, with the decline of the once popular spas, the seaside was good for health problems. According to Ann Channon, “This is why Jane Austen was leading the way with her ideas in her last unfinished novel ‘Sanditon’ by setting it at the seaside.” She said it was thought that the Ramsgate area may have been the setting for the novel.

Jane also wrote poetry about the area, including ‘See They Come, Post Haste From Thanet,’ which was written to celebrate her uncle’s wedding.

Jane wasn’t a full-time resident of the area, but we know that she came here often enough to see her treasured brother, and that those visits made her happy. Maybe she found some happiness for the area as well—let’s hope so.

Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.

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