The Many Ways in Which We Are Wrong About Jane Austen
Lies, Damn Lies, and Literary Scholarship
We’re going to be seeing a lot more of Jane Austen. 2017 is the bicentenary of her tragically early death at the age of 41. And by way of celebration, the Bank of England is introducing a new £10 note with her face on it.
Actually, it’s not her face. It’s an idealized picture commissioned for a family memoir published 50 years after she died. She looks richer, prettier, and far less grumpy than she does in the amateurish, unfinished sketch it’s based on. And there are some other problems with the design for the note.
In the background there’s going to be a picture of a big house—Godmersham, where Jane didn’t live. Also featured will be an illustration of Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet reading some letters and a quotation from the same novel: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”—a line spoken by a character who shortly afterward yawns and throws her book aside.
The biggest problem, though, it seems to me, is that for most people that’s Jane Austen. That’s what they recognize—pretty young women, big houses, Pride and Prejudice—demure dramas in drawing rooms. Seeing it on a banknote half a dozen times a week is only going to embed it further. Jane was born five years after the poet William Wordsworth, the year before the American Revolution began. When the French Revolution started, she was thirteen. For almost all of her life, Britain was at war. Two of her brothers were in the navy; one joined the militia. For several years she lived in Southampton, a major naval base. It was a time of clashing armies and warring ideas, a time of censorship and state surveillance. Enclosures were remaking the landscape; European empire building was changing the world; science and technology were opening up a whole universe of new possibilities.
We’re perfectly willing to accept that writers like Wordsworth were fully engaged with everything that was happening and to find the references in their work, even when they’re veiled or allusive. But we haven’t been willing to do it with Jane’s work. We know Jane; we know that however delicate her touch she’s essentially writing variations of the same plot, a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in any romantic comedy of the last two centuries.
We know wrong.
The indisputable facts of Jane Austen’s life are few and simple. She was born in the small Hampshire village of Steventon on December 16, 1775, the seventh of a clergyman’s eight children. Apart from five years spent in Bath between 1801 and 1806 and three years in Southampton, a few months at school, and occasional visits and holidays, she spent all her life in rural Hampshire. She never married. She died in Winchester on July 18, 1817, aged 41, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. In the four years between the end of 1811 and the end of 1815, she published four novels—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Another two novels—Northanger Abbey and Persuasion— were published right at the end of 1817, the year she died.
Two hundred years on, her work is astonishingly popular. It’s difficult to think of any other novelist who could be compared with her. Yet Jane herself remains a shadowy, curiously colorless figure, one who seems to have spent the majority of her 41 years being dragged along in the wake of other people’s lives.
But what lives the people around Jane had: her father, orphaned in early childhood, who worked his way out of poverty; her mother, who could claim kinship with a duke but found herself making ends meet in a country vicarage; her Aunt Philadelphia, who, with no prospects in England, traveled to India to find herself a husband; Philadelphia’s daughter, Eliza, who lost her French spouse to the guillotine. The eldest of Jane’s brothers, James, was raised in the expectation of succeeding to the property owned by his maternal uncle; her second brother, George, seems to have suffered from some form of disability and lived apart from the rest of the family; her third brother, Edward, was adopted into a life of luxury; Henry, the fourth of the Austen brothers, bounced from career to career—first a soldier in the militia, like that scoundrel George Wickham, then a banker, and then, finally, after his bank went bust, a clergyman. The two youngest brothers, Frank and Charles, born either side of Jane, went into the navy and led lives full of excitement and danger. Even Jane’s only sister, Cassandra, had an engagement to her name, a story of her own.
“For readers today opening one of Jane’s novels, there’s an enormous amount standing between them and the text.”
We know what most of these people looked like; we know about their careers, their marriages, their children. We know that one of Jane’s aunts was accused of stealing lace from a shop in Bath and that one of her cousins died in a carriage accident. We know that her sister’s fiancé died of yellow fever and that her great-great-uncle was the Duke of Chandos. All of Jane’s modern biographers repeat these facts, just as they reproduce the portraits of her brothers and her aunts and her cousin and the men who might (or, more probably, might not) have wanted to marry her, and the confused, contradictory opinions of people who barely knew her, in the belief that somehow, by combining together every scrap, something will take shape—an outline, a silhouette, a Jane-shaped space. But in spite of all their efforts, Jane remains only a slight figure vanishing into the background, her face turned away—as it is in the only finished portrait we have of her.
The more determined our pursuit, the more elusive Jane becomes. Where should we look for her? Will we find her in modern-day Bath, in the rain-drenched gold stone buildings that are now flats or dental surgeries, in the park that occupies the place where the Lower Assembly Rooms once stood, or at the Upper Rooms, which were rebuilt almost entirely after fire damage in World War II? Will we find her in Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton? She did live there, for eight years, and her sister, Cassandra, for nearly 40. In the middle of the 19th century it was divided into separate dwellings; a century later it was turned back into one. Dozens of people have lived there. And if any trace of Jane remains, then the thousands of tourists who trudge through the rooms each year will have driven it away. Visitors are shown a piano “like” Jane’s; a modern reproduction of a bed “like” the one Jane had when she was 20; a table at which Jane “might have” written; the caps that Jane’s nieces and nephews wore as babies. The museum’s proudest boast is Jane’s jewelry—a topaz cross, a bead bracelet, a ring set with a blue stone. These are displayed in a narrow room off the largest bedroom, sitting dumbly in their glass cases, carefully lit but offering no sense of the woman who once wore them.
The rectory at Steventon—the house Jane lived in until she was 25—is long gone. The church it served survives. It’s left open, with a plaque on the wall and flowers, continually replaced, to reassure the pilgrims who make it this far that they really have come to the right place. It’s almost possible, closing the church door, brushing past the ancient yew tree, to catch a glimpse of a little girl running ahead of you, but like all ghosts this is only a trick of the mind.
We have to look for Jane elsewhere.
In the spring of 1809 the 33-year-old Jane Austen was living not in the countryside, nor in Bath, but in Southampton, in a house rented by her sea captain brother Francis, usually known as Frank. Southampton is less than 20 miles along the south coast from Portsmouth, where the heroine’s birth family lives in Mansfield Park. A guidebook of the period describes Southampton as “handsomely built” and “pleasantly situated,” with views “to the water, the New Forest, and the Isle of Wight.” It mentions with approval that the streets are “well paved and flagged”—a reminder that this was by no means a given for all town centers at this point. What the guidebook glosses over is the fact that Southampton was also a naval dockyard. It was heavily fortified, and during the time that Jane was living there, toward the end of the long war between Britain and France that dominated her adult life, it was a major port of embarkation for soldiers going to fight Napoleon’s armies in Spain and Portugal.
If we associate Jane with an urban space, it’s likely to be genteel Bath, not a dock town filled with public drunkenness, street prostitution, and violence. In addition to press-ganging—the state-sanctioned abduction scheme by which the Royal Navy ensured it had enough men to sail its ships—both the army and the navy welcomed into their ranks men who would otherwise have been in prison. Fighting men were, by and large, rough men, and Southampton can’t have been an altogether pleasant place for a household of women who were usually without a gentleman to protect them. Jane seems to have enjoyed some aspects of her time in Southampton well enough, however. She talks in her letters about walking on the ramparts and rowing on the river Itchen with her nephews. But—as far as we know—it seems to have been the prospect of leaving Southampton and moving back to the country that reignited Jane’s interest in getting her work published.
For some few years before she moved to Southampton at the end of 1806, Jane’s life had been unsettled. You’ll usually read that Jane lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806, but in fact she was almost continually on the move, and the city was more a base than a home. Together with her sister, Cassandra, their mother, and (until his sudden death at the beginning of 1805) their father, she lodged in various parts of Bath—in Sydney Place, Green Park Buildings, Gay Street, and Trim Street—making lengthy visits to family and for months at a time removing to seaside resorts, among them Dawlish, Sidmouth, Ramsgate (where Wickham trifles with Georgiana Darcy in Pride and Prejudice), and Lyme Regis (the setting for some of the pivotal scenes in Persuasion). You may also come across the claim that Jane didn’t take much interest in her writing while she lived in Bath, but that’s not the case. It was during this period, in the spring of 1803, that she first had a novel accepted for publication.
That novel was Susan, almost certainly a version of the book we know as Northanger Abbey. We know, too, that Jane had written at least one other full-length novel before she moved to Bath—a book she called First Impressions. This might have been an earlier version of Pride and Prejudice, and it may or may not be the same book her father offered, unsuccessfully, to the publisher Cadell in 1797. We have a fragment—the beginning of a novel—about a clergyman’s numerous family, which is usually known as The Watsons, written on some 1803-watermarked paper. A neat copy of Lady Susan, a short novella in letters, is written out on paper that bears an 1805 watermark, although it seems probable from the immature style that it was composed earlier. Between 1803 and the spring of 1809, however, we can be certain about virtually nothing connected with Jane’s writing, other than that she wrote one poem in December 1808, on her 33rd birthday—a memorial poem to a friend who’d died in a riding accident exactly four years earlier. Maybe she stopped writing prose altogether. Maybe she was working on preexisting drafts or on pieces that were later incorporated into the other novels. Maybe she was writing something she later destroyed. We simply don’t know.
We do have a list of composition dates for Jane’s novels, but it was written by Cassandra, not Jane, and we have no idea when it was drawn up. Writers on Jane have tended to treat this document as if it were completely reliable; they really shouldn’t.
One thing we do know for sure is that in April 1809, only a week or two before Jane was due to leave Southampton for a lengthy visit to her brother Edward at Godmersham, she wrote to the publishing firm that had bought Susan. We have a draft of Jane’s letter, written on a sheet of paper that had originally served as an envelope, with the words “Miss Austen” written on the other side. Jane wrote in pencil initially, inking over the words afterward, when she also changed the signature from “J. Austen” to “M.A.D.” We have Crosby’s disobligingly businesslike reply, crammed with quasi-legal terms (“full consideration,” “stamped receipt,” “stipulated,” “bound”), offering to sell her Susan for £10 and threatening that he will “take proceedings” to stop the novel from being published anywhere else.
But what effect this letter had on Jane is unclear. We don’t find another reference to Susan/Northanger Abbey until 1817, and she continued to view the book very negatively. She soon had other projects in hand, however.
Sense and Sensibility was the first of Jane’s novels to make it all the way through the publication process. It appeared in October 1811 and must have been completed some time before the end of 1810, because by April 1811 Jane was busy correcting the proofs. Later in her career, when she had a regular publisher, Jane worked on the assumption that a year would intervene between her finishing a novel and that novel’s appearing. The gap between Jane’s finishing writing Sense and Sensibility and copies’ being put on sale might well have been longer.
“It’s here, in the novels, that we find Jane—what there is of her to find, after all these years, after all her family’s efforts at concealment.”
Before Jane could think about sending a novel off, she would have had to copy it out by hand, which would have taken a number of weeks, perhaps a couple of months. Then she had to send the package off, wait for the publisher to read the novel, respond, and negotiate terms. Jane might already have been working on Sense and Sensibility before she wrote to Crosby to inquire about Susan.
In the summer of 1809, Jane’s writing is full of an unaccustomed exuberance, very similar to the bubbling enthusiasm that appears in her letters of 1813 when she receives Pride and Prejudice from the printers. Frank’s wife, Mary, had given birth to a boy in the second week of July, and a fortnight later Jane sent her brother a rather lovely piece of writing that can only properly be described as a letter-poem: part congratulation, part affectionate remembrance of their childhood, and part description of her happiness in the house at Chawton. She addresses him warmly as “My dearest Frank” and expresses the wish that the baby will resemble his father even in his faults—the “insolence of spirit” and “saucy words & fiery ways” that the grown-up Frank had worked so hard to correct. “Ourselves,” she assures him, “are very well,” and “Cassandra’s pen” will explain in “unaffected prose” how much they like their “Chawton home”:
. . . how much we find
Already in it to our mind,
And how convinced that when complete,
It will all other
That ever have been made or mended,
With rooms concise or rooms distended.
The poem also offers the rarest of insights into the Austen family nursery, in a charming image of Frank as a naughty little boy with “curley Locks” poking his head around a door and assuring someone named “Bet” that “me be not come to bide.” There’s an eagerness and a warmth here that are rare in Jane’s other letters to her family, an easy flow to her words that is very different from the rather stiff and formal mourning poem she had written six months earlier, in remembrance of her friend. It’s tempting to conclude that something had shifted, that she had started to write again.
Too tempting, perhaps. We don’t know what Jane was thinking in the spring and summer of 1809. Having waited for six long years, why write to Crosby then, when she was just about to move? Why the punning initials of the pen name? Why not simply change a few details and publish the novel elsewhere, without alerting him? Why not enlist the help of her brother Henry, who had presumably been involved in selling the manuscript in the first place?
We know so little about Jane’s life, and that little is so difficult to interpret accurately, that we can’t afford to dismiss what’s revealed in her fiction. At least it speaks, and at least it was written by her. As for the rest, there are so many gaps, so many silences, so much that has been left vague, or imprecise, or reported at second or third hand, that the task of filling everything in is very far from being the “short and easy” one that her brother Henry—the first of her many biographers—claimed in his “Biographical Notice of the Author.”
Of course, if Henry is to be believed, Jane barely thought at all.
On Henry’s telling, his sister’s books sprang into life fully formed—painlessly, effortlessly. According to him, Jane’s “composition” was “rapid and correct,” a flow of words that “cost her nothing,” washing through her to appear, as “everything” she wrote appeared, “finished from her pen.” We are to imagine no labor, no dedication, no ambition, no intellect or skill, but simply a “gift,” a “genius,” an “intuitive” power of invention. For modern-day readers, schooled in the image of Jane’s near contemporary the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, hopped up on vast quantities of opium, writing down his famous poem of Xanadu and Kubla Khan while still in an inspired dream, this is an attractive idea. It allows us to imagine Jane’s novels not as pieces of deliberate, considered art but instead as whatever we like—a wrestling with her own repressed desires, a rewriting of her own unhappy love affairs, even an accidental tapping into a wellspring of culture and language. Jane’s novels have been read in all these ways, and others besides.
The problem with any of these imaginings is that what Henry said was wrong. We don’t have very many of Jane’s manuscripts, but enough exist to tell us that she worked at her writing. The draft fragment we know as The Watsons is dotted with crossings out, additions, and alterations. We even have an earlier attempt at an ending to Persuasion that Jane was dissatisfied with and rewrote. You can see her, choosing one word over another, checking that the sentence balances, that she’s picked the right phrase and put it in the right place.
Henry’s “Biographical Notice of the Author” appeared in the first, joint edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which was hurried through the printing presses a scant five months after Jane died. The notice is short but crammed with what might politely be called inconsistencies. Having assured his readers that Jane’s novels appeared almost without effort, Henry includes in a postscript a misquotation of Jane’s own famous description of her work as akin to miniature painting—“a little bit of ivory, two inches wide, on which I work with a brush so fine as to produce little effect after much labour.” In the notice, Henry says that Jane never thought of having a book published before Sense and Sensibility, even though he was well aware that Susan/Northanger Abbey had been accepted for publication in 1803. He claims that Jane never “trust[ed] herself to comment with unkindness,” when it’s obvious to even the most uncritical of readers that Persuasion contains one exceptionally vicious passage, in which the feelings of a bereaved mother are mocked as “large fat sighings” simply because the character happens to be “of a comfortable substantial size.”
A charitable assessment of Henry’s comments, noting that he must have begun his biography very soon after Jane died, might call these errors or misreadings and attribute them to grief. It might be right to do so, if it weren’t for the fact that Henry sets out to create an entirely false image of his sister. He does all he can to convince his readers that Jane wasn’t a proper author and never considered herself one. She had, he says, very little opinion of her work and no thought of obtaining an audience. He tells his readers that having at last yielded to the persuasions of her family and sent Sense and Sensibility to a publisher, she was “astonished” at its success. This Jane could never have been persuaded to put her name to her novels; indeed, Henry insinuates, they should not be considered solely her work, because she was “thankful for praise, open to remark, and submissive to criticism” from her family.
Henry, in short, was lying, and his lies were deliberate ones. In part his aim was to protect himself and his siblings from the damaging idea that their sister might have wanted—or even needed—to write for money. He insists that “neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.” In his world, gentlewomen didn’t work and would never have dreamed of looking for public acclaim. We should bear in mind, too, the context of Henry’s remarks—a “biographical notice” intended to help the sale of two novels, neither of which Jane herself had seen fit to have published.
But then again, his motives might have been fundamentally sound enough. He would have known how very unsympathetically female authors were treated. As a writer called Mary Hays explained in 1801, “The penalties and discouragements attending the profession of an author fall upon women with a double weight.” They are, she continued, tried in the court of public opinion, “not merely as writers, but as women, their characters, their conduct” searched into, while “malignant ingenuity” is “active and unwearied” in finding out “their errors and exposing their foibles.”
The reputation of the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft had been dragged through the mud after her death in 1797. Rumors circulated that Ann Radcliffe, the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho—Catherine Morland’s favorite novel in Northanger Abbey—had gone insane. Charlotte Smith, whose writing Jane read and enjoyed, anticipated that some people would find the “political remarks” in her 1792 novel, Desmond, “displeasing.” And she was right: her forthright defense of the principles of the French Revolution saw the novel rejected by her usual publishers and, we are told, “lost her some friends.” Even Maria Edgeworth, the most successful novelist of the period, was forced to rewrite her 1801 novel Belinda in order to remove a marriage that critics thought “disgusting” and morally dangerous because one character was white and the other black.
We have to remember, too, that the Austen family lived in a country in which any criticism of the status quo was seen as disloyal and dangerous. Britain and France were at war from 1793 to 1815, with only two brief pauses—in 1802-3 and from the summer of 1814 to February 1815, when Napoleon was temporarily confined on the island of Elba, in the Mediterranean. From 1812 to 1815, Britain was also at war with America, the colony that had rebelled in 1776, the year after Jane Austen was born. Revolutionary ideas had traveled from America to France, but the infection had its roots in England, in particular in the writing of Thomas Paine, who’d left his native Norfolk to spread his radical ideas across the globe.
In 1792, Paine was convicted in his absence of seditious libel—essentially, of writing down ideas dangerous to the state—but he continued to write, if anything more dangerously than before, questioning the very notion of private property, of organized religion even.
Saddled with a monarch who was periodically insane, and an heir to the throne who was not only dissolute and expensive to run but had also illegally married a Catholic widow, the British state was under enormous strain even before the war with France began. The war, for many years, went badly for Britain. French armies marched through Europe; French ships menaced Britain’s trade; the fear of invasion was constant. People who criticized the behavior of the royal family, or complained about corrupt parliamentary elections, who turned away from the Church of England or asked whether those in power should really keep it, were perceived as betraying their country in its hour of need. To question one aspect of the way society worked was to attempt to undermine the whole. Throughout Jane’s late teens and twenties the government built coastal batteries and forts to defend Britain against invasion from France, and it brought in a number of measures designed to protect the country against the spread of danger from within. In the process, Britain began to look more and more like a totalitarian state, with the unpleasant habits that totalitarian states acquire. Habeas corpus—the centuries-old requirement that any detention be publicly justified—was suspended. Treason was redefined. It was no longer limited to actively conspiring to overthrow and to kill; it included thinking, writing, printing, reading. Prosecutions were directed not just against avowedly political figures, such as Paine, the radical politician Horne Tooke, and the theologian Gilbert Wakefield, but against their publishers. A schoolmaster was convicted for distributing leaflets. A man was prosecuted for putting up posters. The proprietors of the newspaper The Morning Chronicle were brought into court. Booksellers were threatened. Words were dangerous; reciting a piece of doggerel saw one Hampshire carpenter imprisoned for three years. There can hardly have been a thinking person in Britain who didn’t understand what was intended—to terrify writers and publishers into policing themselves. In a letter of 1795 the well-connected Whig politician Charles James Fox pondered “how any prudent tradesman can venture to publish anything that can in any way be disagreeable to the ministers.” William
Wordsworth’s brother Richard urged him to “be cautious in writing or expressing your political opinions,” warning him that “the ministers have great powers.” It was expected that letters would be opened and read by the authorities; it was accepted that publishers would shy away from anything that challenged or questioned societal norms too openly. Conservative writers flourished. The response from writers of a less reactionary frame of mind was to turn to nature and emotion—as the Romantic poets did—or to the relative safety of the past or foreign settings. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, published in 1814, is often described as the first historical novel, but in fact dozens were published in the 1790s and the first decade of the 19th century. Almost every gothic novel is set in the past, usually in the 15th or 16th century. Writers were wary of writing about the present, and they were right to be. This is the atmosphere that Henry—and Jane—had lived through; this is the context in which Jane Austen wrote.
Of course, Henry’s insistence that Jane not be considered an author, that she hardly intended to publish her work, that she bowed to the superior knowledge of her family—of her brothers, pillars of the establishment, clergymen, naval officers, a landowner—might make us think that he was protesting quite a lot too much. Why, after all, would he be so eager to assure Jane’s readers that she was “thoroughly religious and devout” and that “her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church,” unless he knew that her novels could easily be read as being critical of the Church of England?
Think of Jane’s landowners, of her soldiers, her clergymen, her aristocrats. In Sense and Sensibility, John Dashwood feels that generosity to his fatherless, impoverished sisters would demean him; in Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford elopes with a married woman, the cousin of the very woman he has proposed marriage to. In Pride and Prejudice, the militia officers quartered in the heroine’s hometown spend their time socializing, flirting, and—on one occasion—cross-dressing, rather than defending the realm. The Reverend Mr. Collins is laughable. None of Jane’s clergymen characters have vocations, or even seem to care very much about the well-being—spiritual or physical—of their parishioners. Does Mr. Darcy’s arrogant, interfering aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh look like a character designed to justify the aristocracy? Or Persuasion’s vain Sir Walter Elliot, who spends his time keeping up appearances with money that he doesn’t have?
Think, too, about the fact that Jane was the only novelist of this period to write novels that were set more or less in the present day and more or less in the real world—or, at any rate, a world recognizable to her readers as the one in which they actually lived. Jane doesn’t offer us wicked villains and perfect heroines. She doesn’t give us storms or miraculously reappearing heirs. She invents villages and towns (Meryton in Pride and Prejudice, Highbury in Emma) but locates them within the known landscape: Highbury is in Surrey, exactly 16 miles from London. Often she has her characters walk along real streets in real places. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland and her fickle friend Isabella Thorpe saunter together through the streets of Bath. You can follow in their footsteps even now. It’s still possible to stand on the harbor wall at Lyme and see where Louisa Musgrove falls in Persuasion, misjudging her flirtatious jump into Captain Wentworth’s arms.
Critics of Jane’s own generation praised her for her unparalleled ability to accurately reproduce what she saw around her. “Her merit consists altogether in her remarkable talent for observation,” pronounced Richard Whateley, later archbishop of Dublin, in 1821, in a lengthy review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. For Whateley, what made Jane great was her “accurate and unexaggerated delineation of events and characters.” He was the first to suggest that she was as great as Shakespeare, repeatedly comparing the two. Robert Southey, friend to William Wordsworth, brother-in-law to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and onetime revolutionary, was by this point snug in the bosom of the establishment as poet laureate, the official poet to royalty. In future years he would strongly discourage Charlotte Brontë from writing, but he admired Jane’s novels and thought them “more true to nature . . . than any other of this age.” The American writer Henry Longfellow admitted that Jane’s writings were “a capital picture of real life” but complained that “she explains and fills out too much.” In 1830 an unsigned essay in The Edinburgh Review called Jane “too natural.” There was clearly an agreement that Jane’s novels were realistic, and it was this that made them unique.
With a shift of generation, though, readers began to struggle a little more. Serious literary critics such as Thomas Macaulay and George Henry Lewes (the first born 25 years after Jane, the second the year she died) repeated and strengthened the comparison to Shakespeare, a comparison that concentrated on Jane’s depiction of character to the exclusion of anything else in her novels and consigned her, not unlike Shakespeare, to the status of genius—inexplicable, mysterious, timeless. Popular opinion echoed, obediently. An early American textbook on literature, published in 1849, claimed that Jane’s novels “may be considered as models of perfection.” An article in an English magazine series on female novelists that appeared in 1852 asserted that Jane was the “perfect mistress of all she touches.”
Few mid-Victorian readers questioned Jane’s greatness, but often they seemed bemused by her writing. They wondered why Jane should have chosen to depict a society “which . . . presents the fewest salient points of interest and singularity to the novelist.” Charlotte Brontë admitted to finding Jane’s novels unengaging, though she thought it was probably “heresy” to criticize. “Miss Austen,” she announced in a letter to a literary correspondent in 1850, is “a rather insensible woman.” She may do “her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well,” but she “ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her.”
But Charlotte had such a very definite idea of what Jane’s writing consists of that finding it confirmed in the one novel, Emma, which she’s discussing in this letter, she didn’t think it necessary to consider anything else that Jane might have written. As the century went on, readers increasingly appeared to pay more attention to what they already “knew” about Jane’s novels—that is, to what was already said about them—than to the texts themselves. Increasingly, too, there was a hunger not for novels but for novelists.
Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, and a biography of her appeared two years later. George Henry Lewes, writing about Jane in 1859, complained that so little was known of Jane’s life in comparison to Charlotte’s. He was, he said, baffled at the spectacle of “a fine artist whose works are widely known and enjoyed, being all but unknown to the English public, and quite unknown abroad.” This isn’t quite true. In 1852 an American fan—the daughter of a former president of Harvard University, no less—had written to Jane’s brother Frank, begging for a letter or even a sample of Jane’s handwriting. What was still true, though, was that nothing more was known of Jane’s life than what Henry had written in 1817.
In the late 1860s, Jane’s nephew James-Edward Austen-Leigh—the son of her eldest brother, James—started to collect material from his sisters and cousins and published the result in 1869 as A Memoir of Jane Austen. In 1871 a second edition appeared. Born in 1798, James-Edward had lived through enough of the war period—and absorbed enough of its caution in literary matters—to remain tight-lipped on the subject of his aunt’s personal beliefs. He explained that she never wrote about subjects she didn’t understand and paid “very little” attention to political questions—or only enough to agree with whatever the rest of the family thought. She lived a life “singularly barren . . . of events.” She was “sweet,” “loving,” her personality “remarkably calm and even.” So entirely devoid of interest is this Jane, in fact, that James-Edward had to pad out his memoir with other material: his own memories of growing up in the rectory at Steventon; some ponderous history lessons on the manners of the late 18th century; a letter sent by an aristocratic great-great-grandmother. The second edition of the Memoir includes, as well, quite a lot of previously unpublished material by Jane. Notable by its absence—for James-Edward certainly had access to it—is Jane’s teenage History of England, a hilarious piece of writing that delights in upsetting religious and political sensitivities. At one point the authoress even declares herself “partial to the roman catholic religion.”
The Memoir does, however, succumb to little spurts of Victorian romance. James-Edward gives the reader an improbable story about his uncle Henry and aunt Eliza escaping through wartime France when the brief peace of 1802-3 abruptly ended. He tells us that his aunt Jane had at one point “declined the addresses of a gentleman who had the recommendations of good character, and connections, and position in life, of everything, in fact, except the subtle power of touching her heart.” He records “one passage of romance”—an acquaintance with a man at “some seaside place” who died soon afterward. Although this tale is so vague as to be scarcely worth the telling—even James-Edward admits that he is “imperfectly acquainted” with the details and “unable to assign name, or date, or place”—he nevertheless assures his readers that “if Jane ever loved, it was this unnamed gentleman.” His source, at several removes, was apparently Cassandra, whom biographers have tended to view as Jane’s confidante and—as James-Edward calls her—a “sufficient authority.” But in Jane’s novels even the closest, the most affectionate of sisters—Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet—have secrets from each other.
In fact none of the romantic stories about Jane stand up to scrutiny. The two most frequently repeated ones concern Jane’s relationship with a young Irishman called Tom Lefroy and her “broken engagement” with a neighbor, Harris Bigg-Wither. The story that Jane was betrothed to Harris for one night and broke off the engagement in the morning has been repeated so often that it’s viewed as a matter of fact. Biographers even offer a date for the proposal—Thursday, December 2, 1802. This information comes from a letter written in 1870 by James-Edward’s sister Caroline. “I can give, I believe,” writes Caroline, then aged 65 and so not even alive in 1802, “the exact date of Mr. Wither’s proposal to my Aunt.” Caroline’s source is “some entries in an old pocket book which make no allusion to anything of the sort—but some peculiar comings & goings coinciding exactly with what my Mother more than once told me of that affair, leave me in no doubt.” Caroline’s mother, Mary, whom Jane disliked, had died in 1843. This is family or even neighborhood gossip, transmitted long after the event; how much can we trust it?
There seems at first to be much more evidence to support the idea that in her early twenties Jane had some involvement with Tom Lefroy, the nephew of the vicar in the neighboring village. He dominates a letter of January 1796—Tom’s birthday, Tom’s good looks, Tom’s coat, dancing with Tom, sitting out with Tom, Tom being teased about her. In another letter, apparently written around a week later, Jane jokes about giving up her other admirers—“Mr Heartley,” “C. Powlett,” and “Warren”—because “I mean to confine myself in future to Mr Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence.” Tom is mentioned a second time toward the end of the letter, in a tone that, again, doesn’t seem entirely serious, though perhaps the humor is defensive: “At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will all be over—My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.” As late as November 1798, Jane seems still to be emotionally invested in Tom: “I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking . . . I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland.” There’s been a popular biopic (2007’s Becoming Jane) based on these letters, and they look very promising—romantic, stirring—until we delve a little deeper.
All three letters are missing. We have no idea where they currently are. Two of them—the first and the last—have never been seen by anyone outside the Austen family. Our only authority for what they say—or indeed, for the fact that they existed at all—is the volume of letters published in 1884 by Lord Brabourne (Edward Austen’s grandson, and so Jane’s great-nephew).
The most recent edition of the complete letters, published in 2011 and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, lists 161 of Jane’s letters, notes, and drafts. When it comes to manuscripts of the letters, however—the actual objects themselves, written in Jane’s own handwriting—it’s a different story. Over 20 are missing altogether. Another 25 either are scraps (some of them tiny) or have been significantly cut about. Of what remains, more than 20 can’t really be dated at all, and nearly 30 others can be dated only from internal evidence, with varying degrees of confidence.
But biographers need the letters; they need all of them. They need Henry’s “Biographical Notice,” even though it’s full of lies, and they need James-Edward’s Memoir, which has so very little to say about Jane. They need Harris Bigg-Wither and Tom Lefroy, and they’re not prepared to let the absence of proof that anything happened between Jane and either of these men stand in their way.
There is a story to be told, though. We don’t need to doubt everything. We can use quite a number of the letters, with caution—certainly the ones written in Jane’s own hand that can be dated confidently. And even if we accept that we’ll never know whether Jane really wrote on a small table in the dining room at Chawton, or whether there was a huge hiatus in her writing life, we do still have the writing itself—in particular, the novels of her maturity, balanced, considered, artful.
We can’t discount the possibility that her novels underwent some degree of external editing. In a letter written in January 1813, Jane, brimming with happiness at the publication of Pride and Prejudice, cheerfully mentions some “typical errors” (that is, typographical errors made in the setting of the book) and talks about having “lop’t and crop’t” it at some point. We have no way of knowing whether this shortening was the result of Jane’s own artistic judgment or was suggested by the publisher.
Even edited, even shortened, the novels as they were printed are what bring us as close to Jane as we’re ever going to get, closer than any memoir or biography could—closer not necessarily to what she might have done or felt but to what she thought. It’s impossible for anyone to write thousands upon thousands of words and reveal nothing of how she thinks or what she believes. And, contrary to popular opinion, Jane did reveal her beliefs, not just about domestic life and relationships, but about the wider political and social issues of the day.
She did so warily and with good reason, as we have seen. But when she was writing, she was anticipating that her readers would understand how to read between the lines, how to mine her books for meaning, just as readers in Communist states learned how to read what writers had to learn how to write. Jane’s novels were produced in a state that was, essentially, totalitarian. She had to write with that in mind. The trick was never to be too explicit, too obvious, never to have a sentence or a paragraph to which someone could point and say, “Look, there—it’s there you criticize the state, it’s there you say that marriage traps women, that the Church is crammed with hypocrites, that you promote breaking society’s rules.” Jane did fail, once, to err on the side of caution. Mansfield Park, alone of all her books, wasn’t reviewed on publication. This, as I will show, is because it was an inescapably political novel, from the title onward—a “fanatical novel” that continually forced its readers to confront the Church of England’s complicity in slavery.
Jane talks in one letter about wanting readers who have “a great deal of ingenuity,” who will read her carefully. In wartime, in a totalitarian regime, and in a culture that took the written word far more seriously than we do, she could have expected to find them. Jane expected to be read slowly—perhaps aloud, in the evenings, or over a period of weeks as each volume was borrowed in turn from the circulating library. She expected that her readers would think about what she wrote, would even discuss it with each other.
She never expected to be read the way we read her, gulped down as escapist historical fiction, fodder for romantic fantasies. Yes, she wanted to be enjoyed; she wanted people to feel as strongly about her characters as she did herself. But for Jane a story about love and marriage wasn’t ever a light and frothy confection. Generally speaking, we view sex as an enjoyable recreational activity; we have access to reliable contraception; we have very low rates of maternal and infant mortality. None of these things were true for the society in which Jane lived. The four of her brothers who became fathers produced, between them, 33 children. Three of those brothers lost a wife to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Another of Jane’s sisters-in-law collapsed and died suddenly at the age of 36; it sounds very much as if the cause might have been the rupturing of an ectopic pregnancy, which was, then, impossible to treat. Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband—her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law. Avowedly feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and the novelist Charlotte Smith were beginning to explore these injustices during Jane’s lifetime. Understand what a serious subject marriage was then, how important it was, and all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.
No more than a handful of the marriages Jane depicts in her novels are happy ones. And with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice, even the relationships between Jane’s central characters are less than ideal—certainly not love’s young dream. Marriage mattered because it was the defining action of a woman’s life; to accept or refuse a proposal was almost the only decision that a woman could make for herself, the only sort of control she could exert in a world that must very often have seemed as if it were spiraling into turmoil. Jane’s novels aren’t romantic. But it’s become increasingly difficult for readers to see this.
For readers today opening one of Jane’s novels, there’s an enormous amount standing between them and the text. There’s the passage of two hundred years, for a start, and then there’s everything else—biographies and biopics, the lies and half-truths of the family memoirs, the adaptations and sequels, rewritings and reimaginings.
When it comes to Jane, so many images have been danced before us, so rich, so vivid, so prettily presented. They’ve been seared onto our retinas in the sweaty darkness of a cinema, and the aftereffect remains, a shadow on top of everything we look at subsequently.
It’s hard; it requires an effort for most readers to blink those images away, to be able to see Edward Ferrars cutting up a scissor case (a scene that arguably carries a strong suggestion of sexual violence) rather than the 1990s heartthrob Hugh Grant nervously rearranging the china ornaments on the mantelpiece. By the time you’ve seen Colin-Firth-as-Mr.-Darcy poised to dive into a lake 50 times, it’s made a synaptic pathway in your brain. Indeed, I’d question whether we can get away from that, certainly how we do.
And this ought to concern us, because a lot of the images—like the images on the banknote—are simplistic, and some of them are plain wrong. Pemberley isn’t on the scale of the great ducal mansion at Chatsworth; Captain Wentworth doesn’t buy Kellynch Hall for Anne as a wedding present at the end of Persuasion; the environs of Highbury, the setting for Emma, aren’t a golden pastoral idyll. We have, really, very little reason to believe that Jane was in love with Tom Lefroy. But each image colors our understanding in some way or another, from Henry Austen’s careful portrait of his sister as an accidental author to Curtis Sittenfeld’s updated Pride and Prejudice, set in suburban Cincinnati.
The effect of all of them together is to make us read novels that aren’t actually there.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the then secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously suggested that there were three classes of knowledge. There were known knowns—things you know you know. There were known unknowns—things you know you don’t know. And there were unknown unknowns—things you don’t know you don’t know. I would suggest that when dealing with someone like Jane Austen, we could add another, and more dangerous, class of knowledge; what might be termed the unknown knowns—things we don’t actually know but think we do.
If we want to be the best readers of Jane’s novels that we can be, the readers that she hoped for, then we have to take her seriously. We can’t make the mistake that the publisher Crosby made and let our eyes slide over what doesn’t seem to be important. We can’t shrug off apparent contradictions or look only for confirmation of what we think we already know. We have to read, and we have to read carefully, because Jane had to write carefully, because she was a woman and because she was living through a time when ideas both scared and excited people.
And once we read like this, we start to see her novels in an entirely new light. Not an undifferentiated procession of witty, ironical stories about romance and drawing rooms, but books in which an authoress reflects back to her readers their world as it really is—complicated, messy, filled with error and injustice. This is a world in which parents and guardians can be stupid and selfish; in which the Church ignores the needs of the faithful; in which landowners and magistrates—the people with local power—are eager to enrich themselves even when that means driving the poorest into criminality. Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote. But by and large, they’re so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places—reading them in the right way—they simply won’t understand.
Jane wasn’t a genius—inspired, unthinking; she was an artist. She compared herself to a miniature painter; in her work every stroke of the brush, every word, every character name and every line of poetry quoted, every location, matters.
It’s here, in the novels, that we find Jane—what there is of her to find, after all these years, after all her family’s efforts at concealment. It’s here we find a clever woman, clear-sighted, a woman “of information,” who knew what was going on in the world and what she thought about it. An authoress who knew that the novel, until then widely seen as mindless “trash,” could be a great art form and who did a lot—perhaps more than any other writer—to make it into one.
From Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly, courtesy Knopf. Copyright Helena Kelly, 2017.