How Jane Austen Almost Walked Away From Writing
Anna Beer Ponders the Possible Loss of a Literary Icon
If you’re a literary genius, you’ve got it easy—right? Wrong. Even Jane Austen, indisputably one of the greatest novelists in the English language, spent years struggling to be published and became so dispirited that there were moments when she almost walked away.
The story begins with an almost-twenty Jane, at home in Hampshire. It’s the winter of 1795, and Austen’s first full-length novel is safely drafted. Enter Tom Lefroy, visiting a neighboring rectory, and delighting Jane, celebrating her birthday on 16 December. Despite evidence that the two young people are strongly attracted to each other, despite a letter suggesting that Jane has great hopes of Tom, there is no engagement, let alone marriage. Money is the problem. It usually is, in Austen’s world.
For some, including one of her best biographers Claire Tomalin, this was a crucial turning point in Austen’s life: “it was not Tom Lefroy, or anyone like him, who became her adventure, but the manuscript upstairs. Not marriage, but art.” But, for Tomalin, this is not without regret. Austen would have exchanged her future as a novelist for being married to Tom Lefroy “living in an unknown Ireland, with a large family of children to bring up.”
Regret (whether turning to bitterness or creativity or both) is one enduring way of seeing Jane Austen’s life, as she sublimates her natural desire for a husband and family and puts her energies into her writing. Some takes on this would be laughable if the ideas underpinning them were not so enduring. Apparently, the ironic ending to Northanger Abbey was written by a woman “on the brink of destruction, in her early twenties, as a result of loneliness, of sexual longing.” The novel shows her “asking the old question: Where is the man for me?”—John Halperin writing in 1984. Others flip the coin, viewing Austen as having a narrow escape from the literary and legal oblivion of marriage.
Add to the mix the one proposal of marriage we know Austen received, from Harris Bigg-Wither in early December 1802. Jane accepted, slept on it, then withdrew her acceptance. More often than not, commentators express some limited sadness that Jane chose to remain single and miss out on the joys of married life, alleviated by relief that by refusing Bigg-Wither, the world gained her novels. Given the actual timing of the proposal/refusal, the episode does not seem to have so much significance: it would be a further eight years before one of Austen’s novels would reach the world.
Somewhere between these two is the possibility that if Austen had married, or if her financial situation had improved in some way, her writing might have remained for ever within a semi-private setting, as appropriate to a lady with private income, whether married or no; another Montagu, if less exalted socially. Even that compromise scenario is tested by a letter written by Jane’s clergyman father, George, on 1 November 1797, offering the publishers Cadell & Davies “a manuscript novel, comprised in three vols about the size of Miss Burney’s Evelina.” Mr. Austen asks about the “expense of publishing it at the author’s risk” but also floats the idea that Cadell & Davies might advance something “for the property of it, if, on a perusal, it is approved of?”
Mr. Austen was probably offering the first version of Pride and Prejudice, originally entitled First Impressions, which Jane had written over the course of the previous year. The publishers “declined by Return of Post,” failing to answer Mr. Austen’s query about the cost of what we might call self-publication, ignoring his hints about an advance, and refusing even to read the manuscript. More fool them.
The novel’s existence at the end of 1797 and George Austen’s attempt to sell it argues that the Tom Lefroy episode did not stop Jane Austen from writing. Nor did it stop her family supporting her ambitions to be a print author. Quite the opposite it seems.
But did the rejection of her Burney-esque novel in 1797 do so? Again, it seems not. Austen continued to carry her writing desk with her wherever life took her. While traveling through Dartford in 1798 she almost lost it, and her savings of seven pounds, when it was accidentally placed in a horse-drawn chaise heading for Dover. When, three years on, George Austen decided to leave the Hampshire village of Steventon and move to Bath, Austen’s life became one of constant moving, with many seeing her as unsettled by the experience.
Yet still she wrote. More than that, in 1803, she successfully sold a novel, Susan, to a publisher, receiving the copyright payment—ten whole pounds—her father had been angling for in 1797. (As with the earlier unsuccessful attempt to sell First Impressions, the business was conducted by Jane’s male relatives or their representatives.) It was a hollow triumph because Crosby, the publisher, took no steps to publish Susan. No matter: Austen began a new novel at the start of 1804. She had just turned twenty-eight in December.
By her next birthday, she had abandoned the work. Jane Austen hung on to the opening chapters to her death but never wrote them out as a fair copy. This was the moment the music could have died. What do the chapters (published long after Austen’s death as The Watsons) tell us, and why did she put them aside?
If you read them, you might be surprised by their bleakness. The world in which Emma Watson, Austen’s watchful, dependent heroine, moves is not terrible, no one is hungry, suicidal or homeless. But it is packed full of bitchy, disappointed and snobbish women living utterly boring lives.
The sheer bitterness of the opening chapters makes it very hard to see how Austen could have engineered the necessary “romantic” ending of couples united in wedded bliss. Men are presented as so utterly useless, the institution of marriage so utterly bankrupt, that to present either as the goal or reward for a young woman would seem absurd. Austen doesn’t even bother to offer more than the haziest glimpse of a male love interest. Instead, all her writerly energies are invested in showing the constriction of Emma Watson’s life and (looking on the bright side) the consolation of the companionship of a sister, Elizabeth.
It is almost too easy to map these fictional sisters onto Jane and Cassandra Austen. In a letter written some years later, Austen evokes the claustrophobia of everyday life, the banal social encounters, the dutiful visits, the departure of servants, the arrival of illness. It is escaped in two ways, both mentioned only in passing and with irony. One is the success of “S & S:” Sense and Sensibility has reached Ireland. The other is Cassandra: she and Jane are rather gloriously “the formidables.”
In 1804, Austen allows her impoverished heroine a superb (formidable?) one-liner, adding it in one of her “patches” or edits. Emma Watson is speaking to the arrogant, detached and wealthy Lord Osborne who has no idea what it is to have little money: “Female Economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.” Lord Osborne’s response is as significant as Emma Watson’s statement. Emma’s “manner had been neither Sententious nor sarcastic, but there was a something in its mild seriousness, as well as in the words themselves which made his Lordship think.”
Is this exchange just one of the many moments when Austen uses her modest and submissive heroines to challenge patriarchal values? I am not so sure. For all the satire of the marriage market, for all the suggestions—more than suggestions—that women (of a certain class) are trapped by the legal, economic and social structures of their time, Austen nevertheless offers no critique of those structures. Her solution, at least in 1804, is for good women to educate men. Emma Watson’s “mild seriousness” shorn of sententiousness and sarcasm does make Lord Osborne think.
This may be strategic. Perhaps, to reach male readers, Austen has to dial down her judgements on society. Or perhaps driven or conditioned by her political conservatism and her Anglican faith, she is suggesting Emma’s kind of approach as the appropriate use of feminine power. The questions remain: can Emma Watson as a character, can she, Jane Austen, as a novelist, morally educate their men? Austen’s sense that the answer might be “no” may lie behind her decision to leave Emma Watson’s story unfinished.
I believe but of course cannot prove that Austen knows that what she has written is plain and simple too bleak, her delineation of female dependency too stark. This is a Cinderella story without the prospect of a ball, let alone a prince. Austen knows or believes at this stage in her life that to get published, she needed that romantic plot. The Watsons may well be not the tragic victim of patriarchal oppression but rather Austen’s dirty little secret, the kind of dispiriting satire that she may have wanted to write, but which was incompatible with a more powerful desire: to be a print author.
Her next step, when she made a fair copy of one of her most substantial teenage works, the epistolary novella Lady Susan, was possibly a fresh attempt at publication, although just as likely to have been motivated by a desire to entertain her family circle. But then, just as her father’s unexpected death in January 1805 left Jane, her sister and her mother completely dependent on the goodwill of their male relatives and more in need than ever of both money and entertainment, Austen was unable to press on. She finally gave up on novel writing.
For the next four years, letters were Austen’s only writerly output. Then another turn in the path. One of Austen’s brothers, Edward Knight (adopted as a boy by wealthy, childless relatives and duly taking their name) gave Jane, Cassandra and their mother, together with a family friend, Martha Lloyd, a substantial cottage close to one of his manor houses to live in. The years of wandering were over. Jane Austen, at thirty-four, had a home: Chawton.
The house is now become something of a pilgrimage site, so connected has it become with Austen’s emergence as an author. At Chawton Cottage, she is pictured beyond the quest for a husband, perhaps breathing a sigh of relief at not having to engage in the exhausting and dangerous business of having children. At Chawton, so the story goes, the years of silence ended.
But even before the move, Austen the novelist was stirring. She wrote to the publishers who had bought Susan (using the pseudonym of Mrs. Ashton Dennis, it has been suggested only for the pleasure of being able to use the initials MAD), saying that she wanted the manuscript back: “Six years have since passed, & this work of which I avow myself the Authoress, has never to the best of my knowledge appeared in print.” They wrote back to say: pay us what we paid you. Austen dropped Susan for the moment, and picked up an epistolary novel, Elinor and Marianne, that she had first written some ten years earlier. She revised her prose (no more letters) and revised her approach to publishers.Sadly and predictably, female success led not to applause but to the novel becoming devalued as a literary form.
Back in 1797, George Austen had asked Cadell & Davies how much it would cost him to get his (or rather his daughter’s) manuscript published and received no reply. In 1810, Jane Austen asked the same question of the publishers Thomas Egerton and got an answer: £50. That money, to be paid by the author, would cover the book’s production and distribution. Any profits would come to the author, minus a commission taken by the publisher, but so too would any losses. Sense and Sensibility was on its way.
It has been calculated that the actual risk for Austen was no more than £30. She had an annual dress allowance of £21—eighteen months without new clothes would have done it. A further calculation shows that Austen would have broken even once 419 copies were bought, even allowing for Egerton’s commission. The somewhat heartbreaking conclusion is that, if Austen had known earlier that even at worst her losses were likely to be manageable, she might have published sooner, perhaps when she inherited £50 in 1807. But so it goes.
In 1810, probably with the support of brother Henry, whether he provided the cash or acted as guarantor, Austen made the deal with Egerton. Through the following spring and summer, Sense and Sensibility was always on her mind, as she wrote to Cassandra: “I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child.”
It’s a reassuringly motherly image for a writer’s work, and fits nicely with, what at first sight appears to be Austen’s uncontroversial and properly feminine ambition to be a novelist. The novel offered a new literary space for women. It was forged from genres which were already characterised as feminine, female, womanly: prose romances, letters, letter-books, epistolary narratives, confessional tales written in the first person. One might think this would be a cause for celebration but, sadly and predictably, female success led not to applause but to the novel becoming devalued as a literary form.
Commentators lined up to dismiss it as a feminine genre, what George Eliot (using her male nom de plume) would later call Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. Eliot wrote her attack-essay in the hostile climate of the 1850s, attempting to create a space for “serious” fiction by women, but the easing of women out of the new literary arena, or the corralling of the female novelist into a space marked “trash,” began in Austen’s lifetime. Even the bestselling Fanny Burney, phenomenally successful, almost untouchable in the final quarter of the eighteenth century, was in trouble in the first decades of the nineteenth. The subject matter of her ambitious political novel, The Wanderer, or, Female Difficulties was deemed inappropriate for a woman, Burney herself too old—lacking “vivacity” and “bloom.”
The novel, as the go-to genre for female authors, was therefore both obvious choice and poisoned chalice for twenty-year-old Jane in 1795. Only her determination ensured that on 30 October 1811, Austen’s “child” came cautiously, discreetly (its mother was not named: Sense and Sensibility was “By a Lady”) into the world.
Excerpted from Eve Bites Back: An Alternative History of English Literature by Anna Beer. Copyright © 2022. Available from OneWorld Publications, a division of Simon & Schuster.