11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 34

Follies, nonsense, whims, inconsistencies and the tinkle of Jane's laughter

0 ne of my favourite and most used possessions is a plainshaped mug with a handsome picture of Jane Austen on it. It is accompanied by a quotation from one of her letters: 'Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.' The sentiment is characteristic, its expression equally so, and my heart warms to her whenever I drink out of it, which is daily for my elevenses. Not that Jane would have approved of drinking coffee mid-morning, and the term itself would have drawn a frown on that marmoreal brow. It is post-Jane, plebeian in origin, going back to the 1880s: workmen 'rested' for their 'elevenses and fourses'. Jane was averse even to the word luncheon, just then coming in as a meal eaten by ladies in the middle of the day. Dr Johnson includes it in his Dictionary, (1755), but it then meant a snack, 'as much food as one's hand can hold', to be eaten any time between meals. Jane preferred the older expression 'noonshine' for a midday nibble, or its corruption into `nuncheon': in Sense and Sensibility she has Willoughby consume a hasty nuncheon of cold beef and porter at the Marlborough Inn on his way from London to Cleveland. However, in Pride and Prejudice she does allow an episode in which the frivolous Lydia and her sidekick Kitty meet Elizabeth and Jane on their way back from London in the family carriage 'at the George Inn' where the four consume 'a sallad and cucumber' and 'such cold meat as an inn larder normally affords'. This is summed up as 'the nicest cold luncheon in the world'.

The point I am making, however, is that I, as an enthusiastic Janeite, have no objection to an entrepreneur (in this case the National Portrait Gallery) making an honest penny out of Jane Austen. There is currently a fuss, and snorts of indignation from female Eng. Lit. Crit. dons, because a café in Bath intends to serve Jane Austen menus. My guess is that Jane would have been much less afraid of the attentions of café proprietors than of humourless women academics only too anxious to draw her into the web of political correctness, feminism and crypto-lesbianism, and to discover in her works opinions she never held. Not that Jane particularly liked Bath. Anne in Persuasion, the heroine (I think) who most resembles her, disliked its noise and bustle,

and its 'glare' during 'the heats of September'. She preferred, as Jane herself did, village life spent among 'two or three families' and their friends of the neighbourhood, who could 'get up' a private dance of 'ten or twelve couples' from time to time, rather than the cold formality of the Bath Assembly Rooms, an institution clearly dismissed as unfriendly in Northanger Abbey.

However, Jane had nothing against places that served food, and inns, taverns and hotels figure much more frequently in her narratives than one would expect, and are always described with approval. Jane was a hungry girl — Maggie Lane's admirable volume Jane Austen and Food provides plenty of evidence — and while she would never have dreamed of displaying greed, like Mrs Jennings at Delaforcl ('Lord, how Charlotte and I did stuff the only time we were there), she had marked tastes in what was good. She told Cassandra that she loved being in charge of the housekeeping at home, because then she could make sure that all her favourite dishes were provided. There is a lot of lipsmacking in Emma, the novel which evidently gave her the most pleasure to write.

Nor was Jane above commerce. Once she had taken the plunge into literature, she took a close interest in the possible profits her work might bring her. Not for nothing was Henry, her favourite brother, a banker, and he acted in effect as her agent. (It was a blow to Jane when his bank went bust.) I don't think those of us living today, when clever women earn over a million a year in business, can have any conception of what a difference a few guineas in her purse made to a woman like Jane, born a lady but with no assured income whatever and obliged to dress herself respectably, and if possible smartly, on exiguous means. Her letters to Cassandra are full of references to money, usually tiny sums saved or expended on fabrics to be made into dresses. For Jane to buy a bonnet or pair of gloves was an event to be carefully considered beforehand. The money she earned from her novels was doubly precious to her — she loved the idea of relative independence but still more she relished the fun of spending it. It is worth noting that Jane's financial predicament in the two opening decades of the 19th century was still the lot of clever young ladies at the end of it: witness the case of Edith Somerville and 'Martin' Ross, writers of

those matchless tales of Anglo-Irish life just before the Troubles switched off the charming lights of the Ascendancy for ever. The letters they exchanged, which make as fascinating reading as their stories, and often describe the actual incidents and characters on which they were based, are crowded with their ingenious contrivances to make a bit of money for clothes, jaunts and 'jollies'. Unlike Jane, however, they could indulge in journalism as well as story-writing, and splendid use they made of the opportunity, sucking up to editors and playing the market with growing skill, all the more relished because they knew it was not quite ladylike. Jane, who had such a ready, alert mind, such quick responses and delight in noting the 'follies and nonsense' of her day, would have made a superb journalist rather in the style of Nancy Mitford, whose witty columns from Paris were such a delight to read in the Fifties and Sixties.

So we can be sure that Jane would have approved of the Bath scheme, provided she got a fair royalty. Indeed it would have been the source of much laughter for her and her family. What all the solemn commentators on her forget is that Jane liked laughing, and causing others to laugh, more than anything else in the world — food, clothes, I am tempted to say even men. It was her gift, her genius, her pleasure, her profession, her credo. I think she saw life as a vale of tears, especially for women, and wanted to change them from tears of sorrow into tears of simple, innocent mirth. She was a high comedian and her passion for jokes ought to be the starting-point of any work about her. I hope the proposed Cambridge edition of the works of Jane Austen, a major scholarly undertaking, bears this in mind. Jane, I suspect, would have been saddened by the demise, last week, of one of her enemies, and the source of much harmless glee, Professor Edward Said. This preposterous fantasist and misreacler of texts had argued that Mansfield Park was not about little Fanny and her eventually triumphant love for Edmund, as Jane and the rest of us had always supposed, but was actually about slavery in the West Indies, British colonialism and the `orientalism' which Said profitably invented. There was nothing that made Jane laugh more than the antics of a clever fool, and her spirit will miss this egregious one.