Jane Austen: Public and private space

Professor Kathryn Sutherland considers the depiction of public and private spaces in Jane Austen’s novels. Filmed at Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton.

Very little social behaviour happens in private in this world – there are always lookers-on. Jane Austen's novels show both that women particularly, have very little freedom, but also everybody has very little freedom, because we're all being watched by somebody. Most of our activities are happening in a kind of halfway public private space and they're always subject to gossip, to conversation – to a kind of watchfulness and to judgement, of course – and these are the things that she herself is particularly interested in exploring in the novels.

We're so used to thinking of Jane Austen as a modern novelist in her concerns for love, but it's worth remembering that, especially women in Jane Austen's day, had extremely restricted freedoms and young women and young men had very limited opportunities for courtship and for meeting under proper circumstances. One reason that Jane Austen uses the dance so often in her novels – a dance or a ball, whether it's just five families who know one another in the country, or whether it's a more formal ball – is because the dance floor itself allowed young men and women a certain amount of room to experiment. Dancing with a partner a certain number of times, was a way of indicating that you were interested. It was a chance to flirt, it was a chance to be more serious – it was though, a limited kind of freedom – we should remember that these are highly stylised dances. Very little opportunity for actual bodily contact, holding hands, linking arms as you moved up and down the row of the dance, but there wasn't any really close physical contact – so, limited opportunities for dance. On the other hand, dancing together was one of the signals you sent both to your partner and to everyone else that you were interested – and, you know, if you danced more than a certain number of dances together, then the chances were that you were moving towards something very serious.

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