Jane’s Fame (2009) is a well-written and fascinating account of the rise of the ‘Divine’ Jane from obscurity to world domination in two centuries. That’s three ‘Janes’ so just in the unlikely event you haven’t caught on, I’m writing about English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817). Where she fits in an Australian literary blog I’m not sure. She was already immensely popular by the end of the nineteenth century but no Australians that I know of cite her as an influence. Boldrewood of course cites Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott, many others cite Byron and Dickens, but maybe at least Ada Cambridge and Tasma owe something to JA’s spare, ironic, ‘domestic’ writing.
Anyway, at some stage I’ll also write about Waverley (Scott), Ruth (Gaskell) and The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne) not because they’re relevant, though they might be, but just because I like them. I also have to write about America’s ‘Noble Frontiersman’ as a precursor to the Lone Hand of the Australian Legend which might involve reviewing ES Ellis, James Fennimore Cooper and even Zane Grey. Interestingly, it seems Cooper’s first novel was a spoof of Persuasion . Apparently, he wasn’t very proud of it!
It is easy to conflate Austen with her most famous creation, Elizabeth Bennet, and her parents with Mr and Mrs Bennet, but in fact they were nothing like (although it is probable that Jane, like Elizabeth, was her father’s favourite). The Austens were a literary family, her mother was an ‘unstoppable versifier’, and “two of her brothers, two first cousins, an aunt, two second cousins and a neighbour were all published authors, and others in her circle strove to be.” In fact, the writer of the family was meant to be Jane’s oldest brother, James, a poet who as it turned out, remained unpublished. Jane’s father was the rector at Steventon, Hampshire until 1801 when he retired in favour of James. The parents moved to Bath, taking with them Jane and her older sister and confidante Cassandra.
Jane began writing at a young age, as we know now from her published juvenilia. Leaving aside Lady Susan which Austen doesn’t seem to have meant to be published, her first novel First Impressions was offered to a publisher by her father, and rejected, in 1796. By 1800 she had early drafts for Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), First Impressions (renamed Pride and Prejudice after the name was taken by another writer) and Susan (later, Northanger Abbey). Susan was in fact sold to a publisher in 1803 but he didn’t go ahead and it took her many years to recover the rights. Eventually there was a period of 20 years with completed novels in all their iterations circulating amongst family and Jane revising. Harman sees this interregnum as vital to Austen’s later success: “The longer Austen remained unpublished, the more experimental she became, and the more licence she assumed with bold brilliant moves.” The spare style, with its naturalistic descriptions of family life, which she adopted, invented really, anticipated Modernism, at the end of the C19th, by almost 100 years.“Almost single-handedly, Austen moved the novel into the modern era – and did much of it before she got a single word in print.”
In 1805* Rev Austen died and after four difficult years Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane moved to Chawton, Hampshire on the estate of Jane’s brother Edward Knight. In 1811 Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. “Austen attempted to bring the book right up to date by adding a reference to the twopenny post – introduced in 1809 – and Marmion, the bestselling poem published anonymously by newcomer Walter Scott in 1808.” The book was well received, the first edition sold 750 copies, and generated some speculation as to who might be the author. In fact, the only time Austen was ever to see her name in print was as a subscriber to Fanny Burney’s Camilla in 1795, and although her authorship was something of an open secret she wasn’t publicly acknowledged as an author until her brother Henry’s tribute after her death. Next to come out was Pride and Prejudice, at the beginning of 1813, for which she sold the copyright for just 110 pounds. The following year brought Mansfield Park and also Walter Scott’s Waverley, also anonymously, although he at least had the pleasure of publicly acknowledging his own authorship in 1827. Emma was commenced in 1814 and published in 1815, by which time Austen had begun Persuasion and also, having finally recovered Susan, had begun revising it as Northanger Abbey. Sanditon, which was to remain unfinished, had also been begun.
Right from the beginning Jane Austen’s novels were perceived as something above the normal course of romantic and adventure novels then current. Harman writes:
Three months after the publication of Emma, an unsigned article by Walter Scott, about 4,000 words long, appeared in the Quarterly, acknowledging publicly that ‘the author of Pride & Prejudice etc etc’ was a force to be reckoned with. Scott’s thoughtful, deeply appreciative overview … recognised her kind of novel as something new in the past fifteen or twenty years, replacing the improbable excitements of sensational literature with ‘the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’.
In 1817, Jane became seriously ill. She left Chawton and took lodgings nearer her doctor but by July she was dead, aged just 41, doubly unfortunately as many of her siblings lived into their 70s. Her papers were distributed between siblings, nephews and nieces, beginning a Jane Austen industry which descendants of the family manage seemingly right up to this day. The very unlike Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, shorter than their three volume predecessors, were published together posthumously as a single, four volume edition later the same year. The included Biographical Notice names Austen for the first time and stresses her rectitude, “No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen”, an invention of her family somewhat at odds with Jane’s pleasure in collecting, and soliciting from her correspondents, notices of her work and other mentions in the press.
For a while it seems as though Austen may have faded out of sight, but in the 1830s publisher Richard Bentley purchased the rights for all 6 Jane Austen novels from the family for the bargain basement price of 250 pounds and began publishing them in his ‘low-cost, compact’ Standard Novels series. At a time when she was receiving little critical notice, although Scott like many others was reading her over and over again, the ongoing availability of the Standard Novels served to keep Austen before the public. Then, in 1869, Jame’s son, James Edward Austen-Leigh published his Memoir of Jane Austen which “remains the main source of biographical information, incorporating family reminiscences, extracts from letters and anecdotes about Austen’s life as a writer.”
For some time Austen’s novels remained a secret appreciated only by more discerning readers but Harman goes on to document the exponential growth of both scholarly writings about Austen and of fan clubs of her readers following James Edward’s memoir . Let me end with these words from Katherine Mansfield:
the truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone –reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of the author.
Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009
I can’t list every post Sue at Whispering Gums has done on Jane Austen, there are too many. No, there could never be ‘too many’ so let’s just say there are lots. The list of all her JA posts is here, and from them I would recommend in particular her close reading of Emma, volumes 1,2 and 3.
Lisa at ANZLL reviews (the unfinished) Sanditon here.
*I initially and incorrectly wrote 1809 – see WG’s comment below