As a writer of Jewish Regency Romance and Jewish Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF), I can relate with the desire of wanting representation of my culture in a period piece; but my need goes as far as introducing new characters into Austen’s world. For me, it is enough to envision the diversity in the background, such as with the introduction of Rabbi and Mrs. Meyerson in The Meyersons of Meryton—or in the forefront with Miss Abigail Isaacs and Lieutenant Gabay taking the lead roles in Celestial Persuasion. Some would argue that Austen’s worldview was restricted and insular—that she never met a Jew—and that I’m missing the point.
“I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
In a letter dated December 17, 1816, Jane Austen describes her work to her sister, Cassandra, as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Is it possible that even the author doubted her talent? In my view, Austen was very much present and interested in the world. She was well read and acquainted with the work of her contemporaries, however, Jane Austen transcended these novels that so often demanded and preached by creating her own nuanced style. It is precisely her iconic wit and sardonic commentary of society that is quintessential Austen.
“Austen’s contributions have been so widely adopted and adapted by other authors, it can be easy to forget how groundbreaking her work really was.” Elizabeth Wilder, Stanford University
In a thesis presented at Leiden University, it is postulated that “Austen’s notion of realism stems from the detailed portrayals of her characters’ emotions and the social environment of the landed gentry.” This paper goes on to address what we Janeites already knew. Jane Austen was well aware of the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, socio-economic, and socio-political issues. The issues of the day were a given—she didn’t need to beleaguer the point. Austen provided just enough of a backdrop for her audience to lose themselves in the fiction, yet feel completely ensconced in realistic scenarios.
Jane Austen may have lived a relatively quiet life as a parson’s daughter, but she was not without culture. She enjoyed books, plays, and operas written by foreign artists and compatriots alike. In fact, much has been written regarding a certain German author and his influence on Austen’s work. August von Kotzebue was tremendously popular during the Regency era. Over 170 editions of his plays were published, translated, and performed throughout Britain. While living in Bath, Jane attended a performance of one of his plays, Die Versöhnung (The Birthday) on June 19, 1799. It is very possible that she returned to watch another performance of the same play at the Bath Theatre Royal on May 21, 1803.
“The Austen family had been keen exponents of amateur drama, and Jane herself was a discerning theatergoer.” Joan Rees, author of Jane Austen: Woman and Writer
We don’t know what Austen thought of these performances; however, there is evidence that the play influenced her writing—specifically with Emma and Mansfield Park. Readers will recall that while the patriarch, Sir Thomas, is away from home, the Bertrams and Crawfords decide to try their hand at an amateur theatrical. They settle on the lascivious, Lovers’ Vows—an adaptation of Kotzebue’s Das Kind der Liebe.
Austen doesn’t specify the play’s author (or translator in this case) in her book. Just as she has done in other works, Austen trusts her audience is enlightened and up to speed on current trends. However, by using Kotzebue’s play as a plot device—with its open flirtation and seduction—Austen cleverly address the changing social mores (or lack thereof) in British culture. She also proves that she was in touch with the world around her and not “imprisoned in her wretched conventions of English society.”
For my purposes, I prefer to leave Austen’s characters as she would have imagined them in her own mind’s eye and add my cultural influence to the periphery. There were Jews in England in Austen’s day and they lived in various social spheres throughout the land. By not imposing this fact or truism upon beloved, fictional characters, I hope to follow Austen’s example. I’m simply adding another layer of dimension in the Regency world.
Just as Austen looked to Kotzebue for inspiration, I have looked to others to emulate. One such author was not Jane’s contemporary. Kate Emanuel was born to a family of German immigrants. Her grandfather had been a merchant and a goldsmith; however, by the time of Kate’s birth in 1844, the family was well established in Portsmouth and well known within the Jewish community. At the age of seventeen, Kate was a Sunday School teacher and devoted much of her free time to reading and writing.
It has been suggested that Kate delayed getting married—afraid that she wouldn’t be afforded the opportunity to write. Does that remind you of someone? Unlike Jane Austen, however, Kate was fortunate in her choice. She married her second cousin, Philip Magnus in 1870; and happily, her fears were unfounded. Her husband’s position as a teacher and rabbi at West London Synagogue allowed Kate the time, energy, and focus to become successful in her own right. She published The Outlines of Jewish History in 1880 and later Jewish Portraits, a series of essays on Heinrich Heine, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and Moses Mendelssohn, amongst other subjects. In 1886, Philip was elevated to the peerage for his work in reforming national educational policy and the couple’s place among society was secured.
“Lady Magnus speaks in the easy, cultured persona of the educated upper-class Englishwoman, often using irony and sarcasm…” Cynthia Scheinberg, literary scholar
Again, I am reminded of that “other” British authoress. And much like Jane Austen, Kate Magnus did not underestimate her audience. She wrote as she saw, but didn’t impose her understanding of contemporary issues on others.
In 1906, The Jewish Encyclopedia compiled a list of over three hundred British citizens who, from 1700 on, “distinguished themselves in service, the arts and sciences, government, finance, and education.” Among these are fifteen women writers, including Kate Emanuel, Lady Magnus.
In dedication to her works, her son, Laurie, wrote: “Readers of Lady Magnus’s books, who knew the author, will know how steadfastly she practiced many of the virtues which she praised in the heroes of her religion. All her lifelong, she never omitted to spread the white cloth and light the candles in honor of Sabbath. From the beginning, her life and her writing were proudly Jewish.”
Austen and Magnus: two women who continue to influence my writing with their wit and understanding of the world. Who knows? Perhaps-“after a bit of labour”- I will find that my “bit of ivory” will also “produce some effect.” Stay tuned and we shall see!