The Elizabethan Era: The Golden Age
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) grew up during a remarkable era in Western history that beheld reigning women monarchs and regents for five decades, which seemed to have piqued Jane Austen’s interest in her juvenilia ('The History of England', Volume the Second). This dynamic milieu included Mary I of England, Elizabeth I of England, their cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, plus her mother, Mary of Guise. All were preceded by Isabella I of Castile, whose support of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage resulted in the discovery of the New World. The first English colony was founded by Sir Walter Raleigh and named Virginia, after Elizabeth I, who was also called the Virgin Queen, Good Queen Bess, and Gloriana.  Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was a major theatre patron, and Shakespeare’s plays put British history and culture on the map, while popularizing the English language.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was distantly related to King Edward III of England, who was related to King Henry II of England, second spouse of Eleanor of Aquitaine. King Edward III’s descendants fought over the throne for more than 30 years in the Wars of the Roses, which ended with the crowning of Henry Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather.  Chawton House was built during the Elizabethan Era, circa. 1580 by John Knight, where Austen lived with her family and anonymously wrote, refined and published her six major novels until her death in 1817.  Austen's satirical interpretation from her youth of 'The History of England' begins with Henry IV and ends with Charles I of England.

Victoriana & William Shakespeare
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was England’s longest reigning monarch (now surpassed by Elizabeth II) whose era ushered in many new-fangled inventions, but also saw the banding together of women over time who created momentum for the women’s movement ignited by the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontë Sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, Louisa May Alcott, and Emily Dickenson are among important women writers of the Victorian Era who charted new waters for the future of women–both in the contents of their novels, prose and poetry, and also as stakeholders in the literary arts as an appropriate women’s profession. In 1832, Anna Murphy Jameson wrote Shakespeare’s Heroines: Characteristics of Women–Moral, Poetical, and Historical, interweaving criticism with women’s rights issues and her unique interpretation of the bard’s most beloved and controversial female characters that remains unparalleled in its inventive analysis. Jameson’s important friendships with Barrett Browning and Gaskell created camaraderie around each other’s writings. Gaskell had a similar rapport with Charlotte Brontë, whose correspondence reveal critique of her work; she was also an acquaintance of Alcott’s.

Jameson’s praise and empathy for more than twenty female characters like Beatrice, Portia, Rosalind, Viola, Hermione, and Juliet–are thematically introduced as “‘Characters of Intellect,’ ‘Characters of Passion and Imagination,’ ‘Characters of the Affections,’ and ‘Historical Characters’”. Her authentic approach and keen understanding of the bard’s times and the past he drew inspiration from, combined with being a woman of her own time sheds light on the evolution of precursory feminist thinking that harkens back to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court–whom Jameson included in her analysis of Shakespeare’s ‘Historical Characters’.

In 1861, Queen Victoria’s devastating loss of Prince Albert depleted her interest in public affairs, in particular, the American Civil War, which began in the same year, just after Abraham Lincoln’s U.S. presidential inauguration.  Like past U.S. presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln was a serious Shakespeare fan.  The bard’s cautionary, historic plays informed and influenced his worldview, which helped shape American values and ideals. Shortly after Lincoln’s untimely death in 1865, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which was set during the Civil War, was published in two volumes in 1868-69. Alcott was perhaps the most successful woman author of her time, whose earnings exceeded Henry James and Herman Melville combined, who were quite popular then.  Alcott sold 1,800,000 copies of her works in which none of her issued titles were printed in editions under 10,000 copies.  Her father, A. Bronson Alcott displayed a bust of Shakespeare in his Temple School classroom to inspire his students. He also designed a unique windowsill writing desk for her that Little Women was penned on in their family residence he fondly named Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts.  

Victoriana & Jane Austen
Jane Austen lived through a fascinating period in Western history that continues to shape the contemporary society we live in today.  Just imagine, the birth of the United States of America, with the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence from Great Britain (1776), combined with the onset of the French Revolution (1789), which entangled England with France once more–but this time in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)–all happened within Austen's lifetime.  These dramatic events would ultimately impact and inform Queen Victoria's expansive reign.  Austen's novels were indeed revolutionary and broke with tradition.  Her literary fandom evolved with the times and steadily grew during the Victorian Era, after her nephew, J.E. Austen-Leigh published A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869). Queen Victoria wrote in her journal how she enjoyed reading Northanger Abbey to Prince Albert. Lady Jane Churchill also read Austen's novels to the Queen, among other's works. Lord Alfred Tennyson was an Austen fan who wrote chivalric poems inspired by King Arthur. Sir Walter Scott, Sir Francis Darwin, Winston Churchill, G.K. Chesterton, and Henry James were also well versed in Austen’s novels with their praise. Edith Wharton, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, C.S. Lewis, and E.M. Forster were fans from the Modern Era, in which her novels continued to be of literary influence–into the present day.  JF

*References available upon request.