Re-reading Jane: A Poem by Anne Stevenson

The memorial to Jane Austen in Winchester Cathedral reads:
In Memory of Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Rev George Austen, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her, and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptance in the sight of her Redeemer.
Jane-Austen-tomb Re-reading Jane To women in contemporary voice and dislocation she is closely invisible, almost an annoyance. Why do we turn to her sampler squares for solace? Nothing she saw was free of snobbery or class. Yet the needlework of these needle eyes... We are pricked to tears by the justice of her violence: Emma on Box Hill, rude to poor Miss Bates, by Mr Knightley's were she your equal in situation -- but consider how far this is from being the case shamed into compassion, and in shame, a grace. Or wicked Wickham and selfish pretty Willoughby, their vice, pure avarice which, displacing love, defiled the honour marriages should be made of. She punished them with foolish wives. Novels of manners? Hymeneal theology! Six little circles of hell with attendant humours. For what do we live but to make sport of our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn? The philosophy paused at the door of Mr. Bennet's century; The Garden of Eden's still there in the grounds of Pemberley. The amazing epitaph's "benevolence of heart" precedes "the extraordinary endowments of her mind" and would have pleased her, who was not unkind. Dear votary of order, sense, clear art, and irresistible fun, please pitch our lives outside self-pity we have wrapped them in, and show us how absurd we'd look to you. You knew the mischief poetry could do. Yet when Anne Elliot spoke of its misfortune to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely, she spoke for you.  
Poem Copyright Anne Stevenson, Poems 1955-2005 (Bloodaxe Books, 2005), used here with permission.
Anne Stevenson is the author of over a dozen volumes of poetry as well as several volumes of literary criticism. Stevenson was writer-in-residence at the University of Dundee, 1973-75, a fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, 1975-77, and writer-in-residence at Bulmershe College, Reading, Berkshire, 1977-78, and the University of Edinburgh, 1987-89. She was also a Northern Arts Literary Fellow at Newcastle and Durham, 1981-82 and 1984-85. A native to the United States, she has lived in England since the late 1960's Ms. Stevenson is the recipient of The Northern Rock Foundation Writers Award in 2002, the Lanan Life Achievement Award in 2007 and the Neglected Master's Award by the Poetry Foundation of America in 2007. Enjoyed this article? Browse our book shop at

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