JANE AUSTEN LITERACY FOUNDATION CO-FOUNDER, AMANDA JANE MORTENSEN, DISCUSSES JANE AUSTEN AND LITERACY
I’ll never forget the moment my friend Caroline dropped the bombshell. ‘I am the 5th great-niece of Jane Austen’, she said casually, as the Melbourne café owner brought us our coffee.
I shook my head, unable to believe it – Caroline had never even mentioned Jane Austen before. The only word I could muster was ‘What??!!?’. 'I am the 5th great-niece of Jane Austen,’ Caroline repeated, ‘and I am the last Austen descendant to grow up in Chawton, where Jane wrote most of her books.’
The ‘cult of Jane’ had been in full swing for two decades when Caroline told me of her childhood and family ties. I was gobsmacked. I was immediately thrown into an almost ‘split-screen’ moment. On the one hand, there was my friend Caroline, whom I’d met professionally. We were the same age, both in marketing, shared a zest for life, music and singing, and had become kindred spirits. On the other hand, there was a real-life relation of Jane Austen, the Jane Austen, sitting right there in front of me stirring her coffee! It was a surreal experience.
‘I want to start a charity in Jane’s honour and do something about literacy’, Caroline continued, after she had told me about her childhood at Chawton Great House, as Jane called it. It was a lot to take in and the shock of Caroline’s revelation reverberated in my mind, but I heard myself say ‘How can I help?’ without any hesitation. Despite my disorientation, I simply had to support her plan to work with the Jane Austen community to support literacy.
I was lucky enough to have been born into a family that values education, just like Jane Austen. As a rural farming family, a university education was not the norm. However I had an aunt and uncle both with tertiary qualifications. My grandmother had been sent to boarding school from the farm, and reading was considered a desirable activity. I remember lots of books in the house. Even when I was small, I would look at the covers, even before I could read the words. We had an old set of World Book Encyclopaedias. They were fascinating to leaf through, despite much of the information being out of date by the time I went to school.
I was an avid reader as a child. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. In primary school we had a book shelf with ‘readers’ – books arranged from prep to grade 6. We were required to borrow each book in turn, and take it home, to advance our reading. I remember, at the beginning, sitting on Dad’s knee to read them, but pretty quickly I was polishing them off myself. By grade 4, I had finished all of the books on the ‘reader’ shelf and wondering what to read next. My Dad gave me a copy of The Hobbit, but my 10 year old mind couldn’t hang on to the action and I quickly got bored. I tried reading Pride & Prejudice, but that was a struggle too. I couldn’t grasp the unfamiliar language and keep track of the multiple characters, who were sketched in a way I couldn't understand. I’m so glad that Simon Langton’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’ for the BBC changed all that in 1995. Like everyone else, I fell in love with Lizzie and Darcy, went on to read all Jane’s novels and have loved Austen’s work ever since.
It feels like I have been reading as long as I have been breathing. I used to walk to school with my nose in a book, in much the same way people walk along with their phones these days. I developed a knack for being able to spot cracks in the pavement in my peripheral vision at the side of the page. I could read and watch for the edge of the road coming up at the same time, then a finger would go in the pages, and I would look both ways before crossing the road (sensible girl that I was). Often I would be reading in class, my current novel sitting inside my textbook, paying just enough attention in class to not get in trouble.
As an academic child, I was encouraged to study sciences, to ‘keep my options open’ for university. Engineering was considered a vocational degree, and given Australia’s major recession was imminent, educating myself with a view to getting a job seemed a good idea. I graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering from Melbourne University, and went on to have a long career in the food industry. I owe everything I have and everything I’ve done to my education. Reading and writing has led to a degree in a male-dominated profession, which has led to a satisfying, stimulating and successful career. I was also able to navigate a change of career into food marketing, due to my ability to learn – because I can read and write, I can learn.
I cannot imagine what it must be like to live without literacy. The closest experience I have had is in countries where I don’t speak the language. My first trip to Thailand was a shock. Street signs, shop fronts, packaging, television, magazines and papers, grocery stores, maps – all were beautifully rendered in the curling calligraphy characteristic of that region’s languages, but incomprehensible to me. I was helpless. I felt like my eyes and ears didn’t work. I desperately wanted to read about and embrace a land of beauty and strangeness, but I was illiterate in their language. I couldn't navigate otherwise simple day to day tasks. I was dependent on people around me for translation and help. How awful must it be to live with this as a day to day reality?
To me, literacy is as important as breathing. I simply must be able to read and write in order to function in this world, so I had no hesitation in helping Caroline start the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. As I write, my husband is overseas. There is no phone, but we are able to communicate because we can email each other. When the printer breaks down as I try to print off this article, I can Google solutions. Having never built a house before in my life, I was able to research online, read brochures instore, and interpret building diagrams – all because I can read and write. Later, when I was faced with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis, I was able to understand information on my diagnosis and treatment. I was able to research options for myself that I wouldn’t have known about if I couldn’t read. I was able to find solace, companionship and information in online groups dedicated to breast cancer. I was able to share my struggles and experiences in social media, so I didn’t feel so alone.
And now I can share my story with you, dear reader, because I can read and write.
It is no coincidence that Jane Austen was born into a literate family that valued education, even for girls, as I was. Jane herself grew up around a boy’s school run by her father. An extensive library in the house was readily available to her, and her family encouraged her education, reading and writing. Jane was sent to school, and provided with materials to practice her craft – pens, paper and books. Her family supported her education, as mine did, and she went into a career that few women of the time had, just as I did.
My birthday is on the 8th September and it is no coincidence that this is also International Literacy Day. I was meant to be the co-founder of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. I am delighted that from the seeds Caroline and I planted three years ago, it has become a global organisation, with fundraising and volunteers from around the world. We are delivering literacy resources to communities in need, and I am proud and pleased to be an Ambassador for the foundation. I will always want to share with others the gift of literacy, that I find so fundamental to my existence, and I hope you will too. The foundation is a volunteer organisation, which enables us to use 100% of donations received to provide reading and writing resources for communities in literacy crisis. Please support literacy and make a donation.