BIOGRAPHY:'I WRITE ONLY for Fame", asserted Jane Austen, when her novels were still only after-dinner entertainments for her family and years before they were published. And she wasn't being ironic, writes ANNE HAVERTY
From the beginning she intended to be a player in the public sphere. It took the best part of two centuries to find that fame, and much of it is down to the comeliness of Colin Firth in a wet white shirt, but famous she is. So famous, so familiar, so endearing to us all in fact, that she has become simply “Jane”. There is no other Jane for us besides Austen.
This retiring little spinster, who wrote slim and genteel novels about the marriage market – “posh girls in bonnets trying to get posh chaps to marry them” as a recent blogger put it – of two hundred years ago: how did she do it? Claire Harman has a thorough and engaging, even suitably entertaining, go at answering this question.
The first thing she insists on is that Jane wasn’t retiring. She was highly ambitious and rated her talents favourably against the most successful novelists of the day. Not only that, she rejected their influence and confidently struck out on her own, writing subtle but searingly truthful explorations of the kind of people she knew, who happened to be the country gentry. Melodramatic gothicky romances were the fashion and her novels, enjoyed though they were by family and select friends, ended up one after another on the shelves of her room at Chawton. The conventions required however that she appear to be retiring and her father, and later her brother, took it upon themselves to manage her publishing career, but with little success.
When she was eventually published she knew a little fame, though never the kind to rival contemporary names like Fanny Burney and Walter Scott. Her name might come up at fashionable dinner-parties and the Prince Regent – though she despised him – was a fan. Scott himself saw her as his superior. “The Big Bow Wow strain I can do”, he wrote, “but the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting . . . is denied to me.” However, she was never exactly lionised and the modest fame made little difference to her life, no more than the very modest amount of money it brought her. And she did want to make money. Her first two novels had been published as “By A Lady”. Deciding to come out as Jane Austen with her third, she wrote “I shall rather try to make all the money than all the mystery I can of it”.
The wish for fame and money – how modern she was. This is perhaps the most fundamental secret of Jane’s success. She may be the arch-representative of the Regency period but paradoxically every period since has been able to appropriate her as one of their own.
Every generation, indeed as Harman shows, every culture, has been happy to interpret her in its own image.
There was the not unusual eclipse after her early death when her books were out of print, her papers destroyed or scattered among her connections and her name appeared to have vanished into obscurity, except for the odd admirer. In a reluctant bid to arrest this, a nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh, wrote a biography. A Victorian, he made her fit the Victorian model of womanhood; refined, virtuous and little, books flowing from her delicate pen in spare moments when she was not busy with her womanly duties. It proved an excellent career move – the Victorians fell for this Jane.
But she was more rugged than that. She had the same intellectual interests as the Oxford-educated male members of her family. She was tall, not little. From an original unprettified portrait and her brother Henry’s euphemistic comment that “her features were separately good” we know she was probably not pretty. Her sharp eye and astringent wit made people afraid. She was not even particularly refined. There was a Victorian niece (a favourite of Jane’s) who was ashamed of what she saw as the lack of refinement in her Chawton relations – one giveaway being that they grew their own potatoes! Nor did the books flow with the graceful ease the Victorians liked to imagine. She laboured over many drafts and invented an ingenious method of cut and paste. And could she have had a steely eye on posterity when, after agreeing to marry a man called Harris Bigg-Wither, heir to a splendid estate – an imperfect version of Mr Darcy? – she recanted a few hours later. Jane Bigg-Wither just wouldn’t have the same ring.
Austen’s readership and reputation have waxed and waned at different times since but she always had admirers, many of them surprising. From the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, in 1821 – who wrote that she was the first woman to depict women as “we know they are” – to Macaulay to Kipling to Auden. To Auden she was a Marxist, who could “Describe the amorous effects of brass/Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety/The economic basis of society”.
While to Lord David Cecil she was a Tory, the guardian angel of England’s lovelier heritage, from its thatched villages to its Sheraton chairs. And she has been rich pickings for critics of every genus.
Today's Jane, our Jane, was born in the 1990s with the BBC's production of Pride and Prejudice. Everybody loved the plot, the characters – especially Mr Darcy – and by extension, their creator, Jane. Few knew or cared that the Mr Darcy-in-a-wet-shirt scene was written in by the adaptor, Andrew Davies. Pride and Prejudice, the novel, was now only the book of the film. What the film did do was reveal the universality of Austen and the continuing relevance of her stories.
“Boy meets girl, girl gets boy to marry her . . .”. Indians, Africans, people anywhere where families are ambitious for their futures, relate to her. The irony may be emasculated, the subtleties lost, the realities of Regency England diluted or souped-up, but the appeal is perennial. Jane has segued into chick-lit, thrives in cyberspace, is the darling of new generations. We must suspect that the young woman who wanted fame and money would find it all most agreeable.
And yet a sad image lingers from Harman’s book. When a surviving lock of her hair was analysed recently, the report said that her hair had not been brushed or combed much in her last months. It implies yet another Jane – dispirited, perhaps in pain or even neglected, as death closed in and the death of her books too looked imminent.
Anne Haverty’s most recent publication is a novel,
The Free and Easy