Art Imitates Life, Life Imitates Art, or…

Neither. After reading Tomalin and Shields on the life of Jane Austen, I am inclined to draw that conclusion. The often sanguine outlook of Austen’s works is deceptive.  The seemingly jovial ending may lead some to assume they are reading the simplistic stories of a woman wrapped in romantic bliss all her life.

Reality is, that Austen could persevere, write and published is already an incredible achievement considering the confining social environment she was in. Instead of embracing the normative female role in comfort, she chose to trod the road less traveled to become a writer despite the gloomy prospect of poor spinsterhood,  enduring rejection even from her own mother. She wrote in secret and struggled in isolation. For a long period she battled depression. Upon her death, her beloved sister Cassandra could not attend her funeral because the presence of females at such events was not sanctioned, apparently for fear of any outbursts of emotion.

It is Austen’s imagination that empowers her to break free of her reality and to rise above her constraints. She has created her art from the palette of  the imaginary, as Tomalin has lucidly observed:

Hampshire is missing from the novels, and none of the Austens’ neighbours, exotic, wicked or merely amusing, makes recognizable appearance.  The world of her imagination was separate and distinct from the world she inhabited.

Austen’s contemporary, the renowned Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe, has attested that it is the imagination and not real-life experience which gives rise to story-telling. A scene in the movie Becoming Jane (2007) has vividly illustrated this point.

In the famous little book, The Educated Imagination, a must-read for any literature student, the late great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye states that :

The world of literature is a world where there is no reality except that of the human imagination.

Austen has great proficiency in the language of imagination. In her novels, she has created a world that never was, but one that makes her readers yearn for. There is no Mr. Darcy in real life, or Elizabeth Bennet for that matter, but we could well use them as the ideal types to measure by, or, to strive for.

What about the satirist in Austen? How can the social critic be extracted from reality?  How can one write social commentaries devoid of real life input? Austen may have toiled in isolation for fear of social repercussion, she did not write in a vacuum.  While her art did not imitate her life, Austen had the chance to sharpen her observation from the very public sitting-room of her home and those of her relatives and friends, an opportunity that was conducive to her novel writing, as Virginia Woolf has pointed out.  Ever since her childhood, the Austen home was the hub of family readings and discussions.  Her brothers grew up to be men well versed in the fields of the military, clergy, and business.

In her ingenious way, by satirizing the things that ought not to be, Austen is bringing out the world that ought to be. In Frye’s words:

The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.

If art imitates life, it would be just a reproduction; if life imitates art, well… ours would be one very wacky world. But life could well be the reason for creating art, channeling our imagination to build a sublime vision of the ideal.

Visual: Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Update: This article has just been published in the Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine. Click here to go there for other interesting reads on Jane Austen and the Regency World.


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

6 thoughts on “Art Imitates Life, Life Imitates Art, or…”

  1. Hello, Arti ~

    If there’s anything better than being free to write, it’s being free to read, and I’ve just enjoyed several entries from your blog. Since you’ve made your confession (female!) I’ll make mine. I never in my life have read a bit of Jane Austen.

    It’s beginning to feel like a true deficiency – so I have a question for you. Where shall I start?
    Which of the books would be the best (read: most accessible) starting point for someone with no experience and no background except what I’ve found in your blogs?

    The days are getting short, hurricane season is over and there will be rain and cold before long.
    A book is in order, so it might as well be Jane Austen, hmmm?

    Very nice posts, all of them. Glad to have finally had the chance to get caught up.


    Hi Linda:

    Let me just make one more confession: I’ve joined this universal group of JA enthusiasts relatively late… It all started about four years ago, when I borrowed from a friend the DVD set of the 1995 BBC production of Pride & Prejudice, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. And that started it all for me. Within these past few years, I’ve read and re-read all of JA’s novels, seen almost all of their recent film adaptations, and read some of JA’s fan fiction and biographical works. It’s not that I’ve been a Janeite for long, like the many JA scholars and JA bloggers whose sites I frequent… they are the experts.

    What you’ve asked me here is a difficult question to answer. Mind you, I’ve been asked this question before, and this is how I feel: Every Austen novel has something to offer, and each heroine depicted is unique and worthy of studying. But my personal favorite is P & P, because I find it humorous, entertaining, its characters and plot multi-layered, and the general ambiance pleasurable. Using your word, I feel, to me at least, it’s the most accessible in terms of its language and relevance.

    So, I’d say, start with P & P, one of the all time favorite books according to polls. It’ll give you a taste of Austen, so you can decide whether you want to explore her world and writing further after that. Something to brighten the days of the winter months ahead.

    Again, thanks for reading… your comment is always something I look forward to.



  2. Enjoyed your new post, likewise, it’s thought provoking.

    I should joined Linda & read ‘Pride & Prejudice’ as well. I watched the BBC production all in one afternoon. Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle brought JA’s characters alive. Reading the book should be a real treat.

    Hong Kong loves you Arti, keep writing. Can’t wait for more.

    Hi Molly Mavis, you’re just too kind. Glad to hear from you again. Enjoy P & P… I hope you’ll come back and share your thoughts when you’re done.



  3. Evening, Arti,

    Pride and Prejudice it shall be. And I’ll see if I can’t find a proper book – not one of those paperback things from Barnes and Noble, but a slightly musty-smelling, leatherbound volume that’s slightly frayed, with ecru pages and tiny, indeciperable notes in the margins.

    A REAL book, worthy of its author!


    A real book lover indeed!



  4. Arti,

    I’m stopping by this morning simply to tell you that, after receiving the Arte y Pico award from Jacqueline Smith of the blog Jack Mandora, and being instructed to send it on to five other bloggers, I’ve chosen you as one of the five. You can find the entire post at my site, but here is what I included about you and Ripple Effects:

    Ripple Effects – Canada Arti was one of the first WordPress bloggers to visit The Task at Hand and leave a comment here. Consequently, I’ve been reading her blog for nearly a year, and never fail to enjoy the mix of literary and film criticism, art theory, photography and general musings on life. She’s managed to do what none of my English teachers could – make Jane Austen seem interesting – and has introduced me to books I never would have encountered on my own. Winter’s coming, with its short days and long, bookworthy nights, and I’m ready to begin reading through the little stack I’ve collected with Arti’s help, even as I continue to enjoy her blog.

    You’ve provided me with wonderful encouragement, and terrific reads, and I appreciate both. I’m looking forward to more enjoyment here at Ripple Effects, and just think – I’ll never hear the name Jane Austen without thinking of you!

    fondly, Linda

    Hi Linda,

    Thank you for this honor! I’m actually drafting up a post in response right now… it’ll be up soon this morning. Again, I must express my gratitude to readers and suppporters like yourself, for without you, Arti will just be babbling to herself. Further, what you write in your blog The Task at Hand has been model writing for me, in style and content. I need to thank you for an inspiring experience every time I visit you. All the best in the days to come!



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