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.
William Shakespeare created dynamic roles for women during the prolific Elizabethan Age, later portrayed by women on the stage. Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland, circa 1592, by Anonymous; William Shakespeare, circa 1600–1610, associated with John Taylor, from Wikimedia Commons.
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. For some literary scholars, Austen’s engagement with history as a woman writer and her inclusion of women equal to men marks the early beginnings of ‘herstory,’ in which history is told from a woman’s perspective, and includes contributions made by women alongside men.
The Quills! Regency Editionexplores the heroines of Jane Austen’s six trailblazing novels, while the Quills! Classic Edition celebrates her works among other women writers. Jane Austen, 1873 by Unknown; Jane Austen, 1804, by Cassandra Austen, from Wikimedia Commons.
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.
The Quills! Haworthand Victorian Editions explore the relationship between Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontë Sisters, while the Quills! Classic Editioncelebrates their works among other women writers. Elizabeth Gaskell, 1832 by William John Thomson; The Brontë Sisters, (Anne, Emily & Charlotte), circa 1834, Patrick Branwell Brontë, from Wikimedia Commons
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), plus the War of 1812, fought between Britain, the U.S. and her allies (1812-15)–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.
The Quills! Regency Edition was played as a live demonstration with 4 players from the audience during my Quills! Breakout Session at the JASNA AGM 2017. In between rounds of play, lively conversations were had between the players about Austen’s novels, her characters and her life. Some of the players dramatically improvised their best Regency accents.
The Brothers Grimm At the same time Austen's novels were published, the Brothers Grimm published their first collection of fairy tales–in 1812 in Germany. With many revisions and additions, they were later published as we know them today, during Queen Victoria’s reign in 1857. The Brothers Grimm’s early works were first translated into English and published in 1824. Austen was probably familiar with Charles Perrault’s fairy tales that were first published in France in 1697 that share overlap with some of the Brothers Grimm including Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Popular paper dolls based on Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper were published in Regency England in 1814 by S&J Fuller. Hans Christian Andersen of Denmark was a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm who wrote his own popular fairy tales first published in 1835, that have since been translated into more than 125 languages. JF
*References available upon request.
*2018 is a very special year for women writers. It is the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey; the bicentennial of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein; the bicentennial birthday of Emily Brontë, and the sesquicentennial of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women–all featured in the Quills! cooperative Herstory game series.