Writers on Jane Austen: ‘Who can think about men and keep a straight face?’
Today marks 200 years since the death of Jane Austen. Here seven writers discuss her extraordinary impact
People shelter under umbrellas as they look at a Jane Austen-inspired bench outside Winchester Cathedral in Hampshiresssss which is part of the ‘Sitting with Jane’ art trail to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her death. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Nuala O’Connor:‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’
In the Jane Austen Centre, in Bath, you try on a bonnet that smells of other people’s scalps. Your husband helps you pull a dress over your T-shirt – it’s floral, empire line. You look less like Elizabeth Bennett, more like the sad, busty neighbour-of-no-means who never gets invited to the ball. You are Miss Bates from Emma. Still, you mince beside the Mr Darcy mannequin, kiss his plaster cheek, and get your husband to take a photo. You nibble a Bath Oliver biscuit and study the fine eyes of the otherwise plain waxwork of Jane. In the museum shop you buy an “I heart Elizabeth” badge.
You conjure Jane – alone, gifted, empty-of-purse – walking the streets of the city, her head a bubbling narrative, a never-ending loop of word, sentence, paragraph, situation. And you ponder the spinsterhood of several accomplished writers: Dickinson, two of the Brontës, Austen. Was it essential for their writing that they remain single?
You start to call your husband Mr Bigg-Wither, a nod to Jane’s fiancé-of-one-evening.
“Bigg-Wither? What sort of name is that?”
Not for your husband the well-turned retort of a Frank Churchill or a George Wickham. But no matter. “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance,” Jane Austen wrote and, reader, this writer’s luck was in.
Nuala O’Connor’s short story collection ‘Joyride to Jupiter’ was published last month by New Island Books
Eilís Ní Dhuibhne: Is ‘Pride and Prejudice’ really all that good?
Sometimes a writer’s first book is their best. This is not a thing we like to acknowledge. But even when the early work is raw, less polished, even less deep than the later stuff, it can have an energy and originality that is lacking in the later work.
Sometimes the popularity of novelists like Jane Austen has depressed me – not because I’m envious (writers are often envious of more successful writers, but seldom of the dead ones). Inevitably, if there are Jane Austen fancy dress parties, movies and endless TV series, Jane Austen plays for Christmas, mystery novels and chick-lit parodies of Jane Austen, her literary credit diminishes.
You can have too much success, carrying you over the threshold from greatness to cheapness. Pride and Prejudice, one realises, is a good novel. But you begin to wonder if it’s really all that good? Everyone knows it inside out. Men who generally ignore all women writers claim that it’s their favourite book. Why?
Northanger Abbey is different from the other novels. Parodying the Gothic fiction that was very popular in the early 19th century – novels by Mrs Radcliffe, Mrs Humphrey Ward, about romantic heroines in Italian or Austrian palaces, full of ghouls and ghosts – it’s got a stylised, post-modern feel to it. You are constantly made aware that you’re in a novel; the author steps into the text on regular intervals and comments on what has been going on, or on where the novel should go next.
This is a livelier, more daring, more experimental novel than any of the others. Never again did Jane Austen allow herself to parody other genres, to be as stylised and post-modern in her technique, or even to paint such exaggerated portraits of characters. True, Mrs Bennet is over the top, and so is Emma’s father, Sir Walter, and of course Miss what’s-her-name, to whom Emma is so rude. But in none of the other novels is almost everyone so exaggerated.
It’s as if a restraint took over. Was it due to the demands of the market? Readers preferred novels in which they could lose themselves, without having to be reminded that they were reading. Or did her earlier, highly honed sense of irony and humour seem childish to the maturing writer? Emma and Mansfield Park are lively, but much more serious, sometimes even portentous, than the light, sparkling, brilliant Northanger Abbey,written when the author was 18.
Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest collection of short stories is ‘The Shelter of Neighbours’
Sally Rooney: ‘Who can think about men and keep a straight face?’
Certain histories of the novel would have us believe that the form is essentially a masculine one, featuring an occasional female interloper, often disguised under a male pen-name. I find this version of history puzzling. To my mind, Jane Austen invented the English novel, and its true history begins with her.
Austen is (I think) the earliest novelist in the English language still widely read today, and her style, narrative techniques and thematic concerns still strike the contemporary reader as fundamentally novel-ish. Interestingly for me, those concerns are insistently feminine: she wrote almost exclusively about the romantic lives of young women. This subject matter, much derided, is nonetheless the basic stuff of novel-writing. React against it, by all means; but it’s still the soil from which the English novel grew.
Austen observed in fine detail the manners of a particular class at a particular time – still in many ways the primary task of the novelist. Observing the torturously complex social code necessary to maintain patriarchal rule, she mostly found it extremely funny – which it still is. Who can think about men and keep a straight face? Not me, and not Jane Austen.
It’s worth remembering too that the Rev George Austen, Jane’s father, was at one point the trustee of a slave plantation in Antigua. As Edward Said observed in Culture and Imperialism, Austen’s Mansfield Park relies for the smooth movement of its plot on the exploitation of Caribbean labour by the family patriarch Sir Thomas.
It’s impossible to imagine her novels without situating them in the nexus of the British empire; their intricate exchanges of power and wealth would simply fall away. With Austen begins a particular tradition of the English-language novel from which many of us are still trying to awake.
Sally Rooney’s latest novel is ‘Conversations with Friends’
John Boyne: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was refused for our Inter Cert
I remember my English teacher in school refusing to allow us to study Pride and Prejudice for the Inter Cert because it was “a girls’ book”. My only memories of Blackcock’s Feather, the “boys’” novel we read instead, are of a character shaving on the banks of a stream with a piece of broken glass and the use of the word popinjay in the opening pages. I would have preferred to have gone with Austen.
Sense and Sensibility is the novel of hers I’ve returned to time and again, mostly for the practical and considerate Elinor Dashwood, older sister of the flighty Marianne, who might be seen as literary forebears to EM Forster’s Schlegel sisters in Howards End, where Margaret puts up with Helen’s capriciousness to tragic ends. (Coincidentally, both Elinor and Margaret were played by Emma Thompson in film adaptations.)
My favourite scene occurs towards the end of the novel when Elinor receives a visit from her beloved Edward Ferrars, who she mistakenly believes has married the calculating Lucy Steele. “I WILL be calm,” she tells herself. “I WILL be mistress of myself!” Enquiring after Lucy, Edward reveals that she has in fact married his brother Robert, which means, of course, that he’s still on the market.
After several hundred pages of behaving like a level-headed old spinster, despite being only 19 years old, Elinor runs screaming from the room in a maelstrom of tears and emotion, finally giving in to her heart. It’s touching, funny and allows the novel to end in Austen’s preferred way, with a marriage.
John Boyne’s latest novel is ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’
Claudia Carroll: ‘Jane Austen is the mother of all women’s commercial fiction’
There’s an ancient Punch cartoon that I keep framed above my desk and every time I look at it, I smile.
In it, you see a young woman dressed in Regency bonnet and cape, sitting in a publisher’s office with the first draft of Pride and Prejudice plonked on the desk in between them.
“Well, we like the plot, Miss Austen,” the publisher is saying, “but all this effing and blinding will have to go.”
I like to think that Jane Austen, with her wry and wicked sense of humour, would see the funny side. Because yes, I’m a Jane-ite and have the commemorative mug and tea-towel from a walking tour of Bath to prove it.
Jane Austen is the mother of all women’s commercial fiction, and when it comes to romance, there are few plots that can’t be traced back to her original novels.
Just look at the Hollywood industry she’s spawned and you’ll see the proof of that. Bridget Jones’ Diary? It’s basically Pride and Prejudice, but with Chardonnay and credit cards. Just as Clueless is really Persuasion, except under hot LA sunshine, with Calvin Klein dresses and convertibles.
My favourite scene? It’s actually a lesser known one, from P&P, where Mr Bennet is trying to get his head around his family being the talk of the town – yet again.
“For what do we live,” he muses to Lizzy, his adored favourite, “but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
For what indeed?
Claudia Carroll’s latest novel is ‘All She Ever Wished For 2016’
Rose Servitova: ‘Few master the art of characterisation like Austen’
I received a good, hard belt of the ridiculous stick early in life and, henceforth, found myself drawn to fictional characters who, like me, are peculiar in their ways. These include Rumpole, Bertie Wooster, Miss Marple, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly and a few oddities from John B Keane’s works among others. It’s characters – flawed, eccentric, witty or ridiculous – that I love most, and few master the art of characterisation like Jane Austen.
Take Mr Collins (from Pride and Prejudice) for example. On mentioning his name, folks squirm and run as if I’ve magicked him into reality and am forcing him upon their daughters. In my opinion, however, he’s one of fiction’s finest. A person of high self-importance and low intellect is generally a dangerous thing (particularly in politics, as we have daily proof) but fortunately for society, this combination is less threatening in the form of a fictional vicar of moderate means and instead leads to scenes of hilarity. Where’er he goes, you are guaranteed embarrassment, comedy and a stampede for the back door.
I love Austen because she touches on tolerance and forbearance with humour. It is ironic that she, who was restricted to drawing rooms and occasional balls, and I, who have travelled the world, both reach the same conclusion: namely that oddballs are everywhere and that a good sense of humour goes a long way in dealing with them.
Rose Servitova is the author of ‘The Longbourn Letters: The Correspondence between Mr Collins & Mr Bennet’ and is the curator of Jane Austen 200 in Limerick, a series of events celebrating the bicentenary
Marie Gethins: ‘Pushing boundaries can be a virtue in any century’
The languid summer of my 12th year I entered a reading competition at my local library and a librarian suggested I add Pride and Prejudice to my weekly stack. When I arrived home, my mother said, “That’s a good romance.” I devoured it and the rest of Jane Austen’s catalogue quickly followed.
However, what spoke to my socially hesitant, pre-teen mind, and what my mother missed, is Austen’s feminist outlook. Within the confines of 19th-century English aristocracy, her heroines are not the prettiest girls, but are valued for their intelligence. Feisty Elizabeth Bennet, perceptive Fanny Price, and the evolved Emma Woodhouse observe and challenge societal norms. In an age when female fragility was a virtue, confining women to enclosed domestic spaces, Elizabeth Bennet is a “great walker”, and Mary Crawford is admired for her vitality. Mr Woodhouse cautions Emma and Harriet to “never go beyond the shrubbery”, advice they flout to great effect.
Austen’s genius for comedic dialogue and (yes, mom) romantic plotting continues to dazzle, but I will always thank her for encouraging values beyond delicate beauty. Pushing boundaries can be a virtue in any century.
Marie Gethins’ work has been published in a variety of journals and anthologies