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Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the Worldby Claire Harman
"Authors Too Ourselves"
IN 1869, JANE AUSTEN'S FIRST BIOGRAPHER, JAMES EDWARD Austen-Leigh, expressed surprise at how his aunt had managed to write so much in the last five years of her life, living in the close quarters of Chawton Cottage with her mother, sister, friend Martha Lloyd, and a couple of servants. "She had no separate study to retire to," said James Edward, with evident pity, "and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all sorts of casual interruptions." He described how, careful to conceal her occupation from "servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party,"1 she wrote "upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper." A squeaking swing door elsewhere in the cottage gave her warning whenever someone was approaching and time to hide the latest sheet of Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, or "Sanditon."
Quite where this famous story originated is a puzzle, as James Edward goes on to say that neither he nor his sisters (the main sources of all anecdotage about Austen) were ever aware of disturbing their aunt at her writing, and he makes it clear that there was no attempt at concealment "within her own family party." But secrecy about her workbecame a cornerstone of the Austen myth; the image conjured up was of the endlessly patient genius putting the demands of family life, however petty, before her work, writing, when she could, in guarded but modest isolation in a corner of a shared sitting room.
The truth is that Jane Austen never exhibited self-consciousness or shame about her writing and never needed to. Unlike many women writers of her generation--or stories about them--she had no struggle for permission to write, no lack of access to books, paper, and ink; no frowning paterfamilias to face down or from whom to conceal her scribbling. Her ease and pleasure in writing as an occupation are evident from the very beginning, as is the full encouragement of her family, and if there was little space in her various homes, that was more a simple fact of life and square footage in relatively cramped households than a metaphor for creative limitations.
What James Edward Austen-Leigh's testimony really reveals is not the author's lack of vanity but how much her writing was accepted, and even overlooked, within her family. Austen is now such a towering figure in literature and myth that it is hard to reinsert her in her home environment and not still see a genius; even James Edward was blinded by the awe factor by the time he came to write her biography, fifty years after his aunt's death. A generation younger than her, he was one of the last to find out that Aunt Jane was the anonymous "Author of 'Sense & Sensibility', 'Pride & Prejudice' etc." His surprise at this news, and his subsequent interest in his aunt, mark him out as not of the inner circle. They were not so susceptible to awe.
This is not to say that Austen's closest family members were indifferent to her ambitions and achievements as a writer or callously withholding of praise, but that the home context of genius is, by definition, utterly unlike any other. According to the theorist Leo Braudy, fame can be thought of as having four elements: a person, an accomplishment, their immediate publicity, and what posterity makes of them.2 The "immediate publicity" of Jane Austen's fame is interesting not so much in how and where her books were reviewed or what her contemporaries thought of them, but in how she was treated in her own circle and what sort of climate that provided. And the reason that Jane Austen did not require, or receive, any special treatment withinher family was that she was by no means the only writer among them.
JANE WAS THE SECOND youngest of the Austen children, ten years younger than her eldest brother, James, and two years younger than her only sister, Cassandra. She was born and lived the first twenty-six years of her life at Steventon, on the northeasterly edges of Hampshire. Her father, the Reverend George Austen, was a clever, gentle man; her mother, Cassandra Leigh, a highly articulate woman with aristocratic ancestors, the niece of a famous Oxford scholar and wit. The family was only modestly well-off, and Jane's lively, good-looking, and accomplished brothers had to make their own ways in the world; James and Henry, both Oxford graduates, joined the church and the army, Francis and Charles joined the navy, and lucky Edward was adopted by childless relatives, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Knight of Godmersham, sent on the grand tour, and made heir to their estates in Kent and Hampshire. Only George, the second son, did not share the family's health and success; disabled in some way, he spent his life being cared for elsewhere and hardly appears in the family records at all.
Jane and her beloved elder sister Cassandra grew up surrounded by boys, for the Reverend Austen supplemented his clerical income by taking in pupils, running, in effect, a small school for the sons of the local gentry. Though the girls were later sent away to school briefly in Oxford, Reading, and Southampton, they spent most of their childhood in the more challenging intellectual atmosphere of their own home. At the rectory, there was a well-stocked library that included works of history, poetry, topography, the great essayists of the century, and plenty of fiction, for the Austens were "great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so"3 and subscribed to the local circulating library, which held copies of all the recent best sellers. Jane was a fan of Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe, Elizabeth Inchbald, and a host of less memorable eighteenth-century romancers, lapping up their stories and lampooning their more absurd conventions with equal glee. "From an early age," the critic Isobel Grundy has noted, "she read like a potential author. She lookedfor what she could use--not by quietly absorbing and reflecting it, but by actively engaging, rewriting, often mocking it."4
Like the eponymous heroine of her early work, "Catharine, or The Bower," the teenage Jane was "well-read in Modern History" and left more than a hundred marginal notes in a schoolroom copy of Oliver Goldsmith's 1771 History of England, still in the possession of the Austen family. Her cheeky ripostes, mostly in defense of her favorites, the Stuarts, give a strong impression of her intellectual confidence, as well as of her pleasure in acting as the classroom wit. In the same irreverent spirit, Austen wrote her own pro-Stuart "History of England" in 1791, for recital and circulation among the family. Her section on Henry VIII begins like this: "It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King's reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, and myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign."5
When "The History of England" was eventually published, in 1922, Virginia Woolf characterized the girlish author as "laughing, in her corner, at the world," but the writer of such a brilliant comic party piece was hardly the shrinking (or smirking) violet Woolf imagines, but a quick-witted, praise-hungry teenager, competing for attention in a close, loving, intellectually competitive household. With people outside her immediate circle, whose approval she didn't seek or value, Austen was likely to fall silent; hence her cousin Philadelphia's description of Jane in 1788 as "whimsical & affected ... not at all pretty & very prim, unlike a girl of twelve."6 The family, especially those she was closest to--Cassandra, Henry, Frank, Charles, and her father--would have known very well how "unlike a girl of twelve" Jane was, how fanciful, and how funny. But she didn't always choose to perform.
In the years between 1788 and 1792, that is, between the ages of twelve and sixteen, Jane copied out her skits, plays, and stories into three notebooks titled humorously "Volume the First," "Volume the Second," and "Volume the Third," named as if they were installments of a conventional three-part novel. There was a habit among the Austens of using high-quality quarto notebooks (and one's best handwriting) tomake, in effect, manuscript books to be passed around and enjoyed in the family; editions of one, but still editions. Much later, in 1812, Jane made a reference in a letter to a comic quatrain she had written and sent to her brother James for his comments, being added to "the Steventon Edition."7 As with so many of Austen's familiar references, it's not clear exactly what she meant by this, but the phrase and its context suggest an album in which the family verses were collected. James Austen's own poems and verse prologues have survived largely because his three children made copies of them in similar quarto volumes.8
Almost every item in Jane Austen's juvenilia has an elaborate, mock-serious dedication to one or another member of the family circle: her brothers, both parents, her cousins Eliza de Feuillide and Jane Cooper, and friends Martha and Mary Lloyd. Cassandra, who had provided Jane with thirteen charming watercolor vignettes as illustrations to "The History of England," received this dedication to "Catharine, or The Bower," Jane's unfinished but ambitious early novel:
Encouraged by your warm patronage of The beautiful Cassandra, and The History of England, which through your generous support, have obtained a place in every library in the Kingdom, and run through threescore Editions, I take the liberty of begging the same Exertions in favour of the following Novel, which I humbly flatter myself, possesses Merit beyond any already published, or any that will ever in future appear, except as may proceed from the pen of Your Most Grateful Humble Servt.
Behind the humor is a familiarity with book production and distribution as well as patronage, and a tacit acknowledgment of her own ambitions, which "Catharine, or The Bower" (the only substantial non-burlesque story by Jane to have survived from these early years) was clearly meant to advance.
Jane's writing was encouraged in particular by her father, with whom she was something of a favorite (Mrs. Austen favored her firstborn, James). The portable writing desk that Jane bequeathed to herniece Caroline, which is now on display in the British Library, is thought to have been a gift from him.10 He certainly gave her the white vellum notebook that became "Volume the Second" (she inscribed it "Ex Dono Mei Patris"), and probably also provided "Volume the Third," as he wrote a mock commendation inside the front cover: "Effusions of Fancy / by a very Young Lady / Consisting of Tales / in a Style entirely new," sportingly joining in the spirit of her enterprise. In Austen's surviving letters, the earliest of which dates from 1796, it is her father who is depicted as most close to her own interest in books, literary periodicals, and the circulating library, and with whom she shares and discusses the latest novels.
James Austen later characterized the family bookishness in this way:
We love, & much enjoy with ivory knife To sever the yet damps & clinging leaves Of some new volume; & can pleased discuss With critical acumens & due skill, An Author's merit: Authors too ourselves Not seldom, & recite without much fear To hearers kindly partial, verse or prose, Song, parody or tale, whose themes of high But local import, well record the fate Of cat or pony: or, from satire free Raise against other's follies or our own Perchance, the fair & inoffensive laugh. 11
Writing and reading--and sharing both with like minds in the family--was not a mere pastime for the Austens but an essential part of their lives. They were a very verbal tribe, and Jane's contributions to the family's entertainment, however original, would have appeared to them to corroborate a shared trait, not necessarily to display an individual one. The family was full of people who prided themselves on their own writing talent and wit, "Authors too ourselves," not least Jane's mother, a keen, sometimes unstoppable versifier.12 More pertinently, for the development of Jane Austen's sense of herself as awriter, the family had plenty of committed, quasi-professional authors in their circle, too. Two of her brothers, two first cousins, an aunt, two second cousins, and a neighbor were all published authors,13 and others in her circle strove to be.
James Edward Austen-Leigh later emphasized his aunt's "entire seclusion" from the literary world, "neither by correspondence, nor by personal intercourse was she known to any contemporary authors,"14 giving a very misleading impression of her isolation and ignorance. Though it is true that Austen declined the few opportunities that she got in adult life to meet celebrity authors, she grew up in an atmosphere of informed interest in all aspects of print culture and had before her a surprising number of writers and would-be writers to learn from.
The first published writer Jane Austen had the chance to observe at close quarters was a poet called Samuel Egerton Brydges, the younger brother of Jane's friend and mentor, Anne Lefroy. Mrs. Lefroy, who was married to the rector of the nearby village of Ashe, was a highly cultivated and intelligent woman, herself a poet who had been published in The Poetical Register.15 According to her brother's later tribute, she had "a warm and rapid poetical genius; she read voraciously; her apprehension was like lightning, and her memory was miraculous." 16 Brydges was only twenty-three when he came with his new bride, Elizabeth, and younger sister, Charlotte, to live in the vicinity of Mrs. Lefroy and her husband in 1786, but he was already suffering from thwarted poetical ambition due to the disappointing reception of his first book, Sonnets and Other Poems; with a Verification of The Six Bards of Ossian, which includes the quatrain,
Yet, o beloved Muse, if in me glow Ambition for false fame, the thirst abate! Teach me, fair fields and flocks, mankind to know, And ope my eyes to all, that's truly great.17
If this was his agenda on arrival in Deane, the poet didn't keep to it but sank into a melancholy quite as powerful as any he'd been able to imagine. Looking back on the years 1785--91, he thought them"amongst the most wearisome and low-spirited of my life ... in which my pride was most mortified and my self-complacence most disturbed."18
Brydges found fame in the 1790s as a novelist, but he never got over his early failure as a poet; his 1834 autobiography is full of complaints about the unjust neglect of his genius and how it had exacerbated his "morbid sensitiveness."19 He must have harped on the theme a great deal during his time at Deane, when he wasn't enacting it in gloomy reverie.
Jane was only ten when the melancholic poet became their neighbor. She was virtually beneath his notice--until, many years later, her fame prompted him to recall that she had been "very intimate" with his brilliant older sister, "and much encouraged by her ... . When I knew Jane Austen I never suspected that she was an authoress," he wrote in 1834. "The last time I think that I saw her was at Ramsgate in 1803: perhaps she was then about twenty-seven years old. Even then I did not know that she was addicted to literary composition."20 The phrase is an excellent one for Jane, who was indeed gripped by a sort of mania for writing in her early teens and who later told her niece Caroline she wished she had "read more, and written less" in those years, when she had been "much taken up with" her own compositions. 21
The fellow addict whom Brydges did recognize at Deane was James Austen, undoubtedly the most ambitious, talented, and promising writer in the young Jane Austen's immediate circle. His seniority, his sex, and his choice of the art of poetry over prose meant that even after his sister had become a highly praised novelist, he was in all important respects still regarded as the writer of the family. A distant figure to the younger children, Cassandra and Jane (who were only five and three when he went up to St. John's College, Oxford, at the age of fourteen), James was also precociously talented; his earliest surviving poem, addressed to his boyhood friend Fulwar Craven Fowle, imagines them in later life, Fowle a successful statesman and James a secluded poet, whose fate is "to woo in lowly strain/The nymphs of fountain, wood or plain/To bless my peaceful lays." Imminentretreat from "tumultuous strife" was a theme the world-weary sixteen-year-old kept returning to:
Nor er'e shall I with envy view their fate Whilst solid bliss that ne'er can cloy Thro' life's retired vale my steps await.22
His plan was to take his degree and Holy Orders and lead a life given over mainly to poetry and his other great enthusiasm, the hunt. "Place me in farthest Scythia's trackless waste" could be taken to mean a nice Hampshire living where he could keep a pack of harriers and court his muse, for James was not an urban creature like his younger brother Henry and valued solitude and rural quiet rather more than is natural in a youth, even a poetical youth. Gray and Cowper, the most popular poets of the age gone by, were his models in language and form, but his melancholic sensibility was more in tune with the coming romantics.
All through Jane's childhood, the visits home of this sophisticated, ambitious, and scholarly brother must have impressed her deeply. He was the moving force behind the home theatricals that were put on at Steventon, in the parlor and in the barn across the road, for seven consecutive years in the 1780s. As with the amateur theatricals that Jane later described so vividly in Mansfield Park, these productions must have galvanized the whole household, with all the demands of scenery and costume making, learning lines, and rehearsing. Jane was too young to take part until the later productions but would have been a keen observer of all the preparations for Matilda and The Rivals in 1782 and 1784, with James in charge of an excited group of young people drawn from the family, the Reverend Austen's pupils, neighbors, and friends. The productions were also showcases for James's own writing talents, as he composed prologues and epilogues for most of the plays they performed. Some were lengthy and elaborate, such as the prologue to Fielding's Tragedy of Tom Thumb, in which James surveyed a number of favorite sports and pastimes, wittily pointing out how arduous leisure can be, and ending with an evocation of his own preferred occupation, being a writer:
To please no numerous crowd he e'er pretends--He writes & lives but for his private friends. Their vacant hours to amuse, his favourite toil, And his best thanks are their approving smile--23
When they put on The Wonder, the Austens' glamorous and flirtatious cousin, Comtesse Eliza de Feuillide, was visiting Steventon and took the part of Violante. James, who was under his cousin's spell for many years (as was Henry, whom she later married), must have enjoyed putting these words into her mouth:
Such was poor woman's lot--whilst tyrant men At once possessors of the sword & pen All female claim, with stern pedantic pride To prudence, truth & secrecy denied, Covered their tyranny with specious words, That called themselves creation's mighty Lords--But thank our happier stars, those days are o'er, And woman holds a second place no more. Now forced to quit their long held usurpation, These men all wise, these Lords of the Creation! To our superior rule themselves submit, Slaves to our charms, & vassals to our wit.24
Of course, such sentiments, coming from a young man who thinks of himself as "possessor of the pen," are as much an expression of his own anxieties as a welcome to the changing status of women. Jane, aged twelve, had fully absorbed the ambiguous messages of the day about women's rights in general and female "scribblers" in particular, and in her juvenilia (contemporary with these pieces by James) was already showing her complete awareness that the cardinal sin for a woman writer was a lack of humor about her own position. Even if one was not prepared to be self-deprecating, the subject had to be treated lightly.
Six years after earning his BA, James Austen returned to Oxford with an ambitious plan to start up his own literary periodical. Henryhad gone up to St. John's in 1788, ten years after James's own promising start there, and the younger brother's high spirits and literary talent may have been behind the scheme to venture into print. In the years following his graduation, James had been traveling on the Continent, had taken Holy Orders, and had received his MA and first curacy. But as it approached, the retirement he had imagined for himself must have begun to look a little less attractive, for this was exactly the moment when he decided to take the only big risk of his life and "go public" as a man of letters.
James's son, James Edward, said later that his father "used to speak very slightingly" of the Loiterer,25 but this says more about James's disappointments in later life than the lively publication he produced every Saturday, without a hitch, from January 1789 to March 1790. For all the Loiterer's provincial origins, the Austen brothers clearly did not intend to limit its potential audience to that of Oxford university or town. The title, a witty rejoinder to the Idler, the Rambler, the Tatler, and the Spectator, ought, they reckoned, to appeal to "four-fifths of the English nation."26 Within five issues, they had found distributors in Birmingham and London (the publisher Thomas Egerton) and a month later had spread out to Bath and Reading. At threepence a copy, the price was low. The issues were short, often consisting of a single essay or article, but the necessity of writing and printing them with such frequency, and the business of dealing with printers and distributors, must have taken up most of James's time and energy that year, when, one presumes, he was more often in Oxford than Hampshire.
Back at Steventon, the thirteen-year-old Jane Austen would have been among the magazine's keenest readers, having been privy to excited planning among James, Henry, and their cousin Edward Cooper (also an Oxford undergraduate at the time) when everyone was together at Steventon for Christmas 1789. The first issue of the Loiterer was published just a month later by this "small Society of Friends, who have long been accustomed to devote our winter evenings to something like learned pursuits."27 The optimism with which it was launched suggests that the project had the full backing of the Austen parents (it is hard to see how it could have happened without some financialsupport as well), and the editorial stance of the Loiterer was completely in tune with the Austen family manner of gentle mockery and disingenuous self-deprecation. The editors justified their enterprise by claiming that "to keep our talent any longer wrapt in the napkin would be equal injustice to our writings, the world, and ourselves,"28 and the content, which started off mostly in the vein of short, slightly pompous musings on life and literature, evolved gradually into displays of individual taste, with James, the most frequent contributor, showing an increasing interest in writing fiction. His tale of "Cecilia" takes up two issues of the magazine--a risky editorial decision--and deals with just the themes that were to become central in Jane's novels, the moral choices that young women face in courtship and matrimony. "Though an union of love may have some misery," the author concludes, "a marriage of interest can give no happiness."29
The temptation for the young Jane Austen to join in this exciting publishing venture in her own family must have been overpowering, and one contribution in particular, a letter published in number nine of the Loiterer, has attracted the attention of critics as possibly having been written by her, constituting her first appearance in print. The letter, signed "Sophia Sentiment," is a comically overstated (but sincere-sounding) complaint that the Loiterer is not only too reliant on Oxford in-jokes but ignores female tastes and female readers (it predates James's "Cecilia" story by several months): "You have never yet dedicated one number to the amusement of our sex, and have taken no more notice of us, than if you thought, like the Turks, we had no souls." The writer has many suggestions of the kind of thing that would do instead: "Let us see some nice affecting stories, relating the misfortunes of two lovers, who died suddenly, just as they were going to church. Let the lover be killed in a duel, or lost at sea, or you may make him shoot himself, just as you please; and as for his mistress, she will of course go mad ... only remember, whatever you do, that your hero and heroine must possess a good deal of feeling, and have very pretty names."30 Though this could, at a pinch, have been written by Henry, the absurd tone and bravado are exactly those of Jane's own pastiches of sentimental literature, "Love and Freindship," "Lesley Castle," and "The Three Sisters," which she was writing atthe same time, and which everyone at home knew about. Writing to the Loiterer would have been just the sort of pert joke Jane specialized in.31
The fact that James worked so hard on the Loiterer for over a year and then gave up so abruptly suggests that he was cutting his losses. He was also, possibly, sorely disappointed. There is a plangent tone to his farewell essay, in which he thanks the friends who had contributed to the magazine and cites several of "many sufficient causes" for the periodical closing, "the short list of my subscribers, and the long bill of my publisher" being perhaps the most pressing.32 But he also admits to a certain degree of editorial miscalculation, having changed tack from his initial objective of making his main matter "the circles of Oxford ... some portraits and some scenes," to a broadening out of subjects in the hope of appealing to a wider audience (in exactly the way suggested by Sophia Sentiment's letter). The Loiterer actually achieved as much as, if not more than, the editor in chief could have expected, but perhaps his expectations had not been reasonable. George Holbert Tucker, one of the few biographers to pay much attention to James Austen, has described his personality as "an unequal blending of sociability and brooding melancholy, the latter predominating as he grew older."33 James retired to his country living and in 1792 married a well-to-do young woman, Anne Mathew. He published nothing after the Loiterer--perhaps he disdained to, preferring to remain an unrecognized genius--but he certainly continued to write. As he had said in the first issue of his magazine, "of all chymical mixtures, ink is the most dangerous, and he who has once dipped his fingers in it--."34
The skits and stories of Jane's earliest surviving manuscript, "Volume the First" (all completed well before her fifteenth birthday), show that she was every bit as ambitious as her brother had been at the same age but would never open herself up to the charge of self-importance by appearing to take herself too seriously. She sought to amuse and amaze her family circle with knockabout comedies full of abductions, abandonments, exotic accidents, adultery, and death (all the sort of spicy drama that is absent or carefully backgrounded in her adult fiction). From the dedication of her absurd sketch "The Visit," whichmentions two earlier works that have not survived, it is clear that she had written short comedies as early as 1788 or 1789. The title of one of these lost plays, "The School for Jealousy," immediately recalls that of Sheridan's School for Scandal (and perhaps lampooned Henry and James's joint infatuation with their cousin Eliza?); the other, "The Travelled Man," might well have taken James's Continental tour of 1786-87 as its subject.35 "The Visit" itself is dedicated to James and is fondly and jokingly recommended "to your Protection and Patronage." Although she was ten years his junior, Jane was already aligning herself with "the writer of the family" and seeking to be the cadet comic counterpart of this much-admired older brother.
One wonders what James made of his little sister's skits, which she must have hoped would be taken up in some way by the older siblings at their theatricals. "The Visit," which ends with three proposals and engagements effected in four lines, involves an absurd scene where eight guests are provided with only six chairs and two of the ladies have to have men sitting on their laps: "I beg you will make no apologies," Sophy says. "Your Brother is very light."36 But could any of the amateur actors at Steventon have done justice to the brilliance of "The Mystery," in which all the characteristics of drama are deliberately absent? In one scene, a lone character, Corydon, enters and says, "But Hush! I am interrupted"; in another, the action is already over, and the characters, having nothing to tell one another, decide to leave. The second scene is entirely made up of this brief dialogue between a father and son:
Enter Old Humbug and his Son, talking.
OLD HUM:) It is for that reason I wish you to follow my advice. Are you convinced of its propriety?
YOUNG HUM:) I am Sir, and will certainly act in the manner you have pointed out to me.
OLD HUM:) Then let us return to the House. (Exeunt)37
At thirteen or fourteen, Jane Austen was like a jolly Samuel Beckett! The juvenilia are full of sophisticated absurdity like this, as in "Jack and Alice": "A lovely young Woman lying apparently in great painbeneath a Citron tree was an object too interesting not to attract their notice"; or this deadpan description from "Lesley Castle": "She is remarkably good-tempered when she has her own way, and very lively when she is not out of humour."38 The young author lights on one style after another with remarkable virtuosity, impatient of longer, extended writing. Perhaps that was a sign of her eagerness to get things out before an audience and enjoy their response. Their response had almost always been very carefully anticipated and engineered.
SEVERAL OF JANE's RELATIONS On the distaff side also had thoroughly inky fingers. James Henry Leigh, the heir to Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, had published his book of verse, The New Rosciad, in 1785, and Cassandra, Lady Hawke's novel Julia de Gramont appeared in 1788. Among the unpublished writers was Mrs. Austen's first cousin, Mary Leigh, elder of the two daughters of Dr. Theophilus Leigh of Balliol (who was still master when the Austen brothers went up to the university). Mary Leigh was a scholarly, childless woman who was the family historian and made "copious extracts and abridgements" of historical and theological works, according to a biographical note written by her husband, the Reverend Thomas Leigh. Rev. Leigh also, fleetingly, mentions that his wife "spent more time than agreed with her health" writing "some Novels highly moral and entertaining." 39 Nothing about these novels--not even a title--has survived, but it is highly likely that they were known and read by the Austen family, in whom Mary Leigh took a great interest.
Mary's younger sister, Cassandra Cooke, was to play an important role in Jane Austen's early contact with the literary world, not so much because of her own writing (though the progress of Mrs. Cooke's novel Battleridge through the press in 1798--99 and its indifferent reception must have fascinated Jane), but due to an accident of location. In 1793, Fanny Burney, the literary celebrity whom Jane Austen considered "the very best of English novelists,"40 came to live in a house almost opposite the Cookes in Great Bookham, Surrey. Madame d'Arblay (as Burney was known after her marriage) liked her new neighbors at once. Rev. Cooke officiated at the baptism of her only child,Alexander, in December 1794, and she and his wife were soon sharing newspapers and periodicals (including the Critical Review) and speculating primly together over the morals of their neighbors.41
Cassandra Cooke became particularly animated and active around the publication of Burney's long-awaited third novel, Camilla, in 1795-96. Burney was one of the bestselling authors of the day, but it was publishers, not she, who had made money from the books: Evelina had been sold outright for a mere £30 and Cecilia for £250. Mrs. Cooke must have been discussing the novelist's losses with her contacts in Oxford, one of whom passed on the warning to Madame d'Arblay "not to be again, as he hears I have been, the dupe of Booksellers."42 Further in her capacity as agent/adviser, Mrs. Cooke passed on to the novelist the information that "a Relation of hers" involved in the publishing business with Robson of Bond Street had heard that Payne and Cadell, the publishers of Cecilia, "cleared 1500 pounds the first Year!"43 The new novel, Mrs. Cooke believed, should be published by subscription, giving the author a large, guaranteed profit. Burney followed her advice, and it paid off handsomely: She raised about £1,000 from the subscription to Camilla and went on to sell the copyright for another £1,000 soon after publication--a record sum at the time.
Burney's thirty-five-page list of subscribers to Camilla included a dazzling array of the nation's great and good (she had been at court for five years, and was extremely well connected) and a number of people from the Leigh and Austen circles, including "Miss J. Austen, Steventon." It must have been thrilling to the nineteen-year-old to have a stake, however small, in her favorite author's new work and to see her name printed in the first volume (the only time she would have ever seen her name in print; her own novels were all published anonymously). The book itself influenced her deeply and is, along with Samuel Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, the most frequently mentioned in her letters. It was singled out in Austen's famous defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey as a work in which "the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."
By this date, Austen had probably already written the first versionof "Elinor and Marianne" (which became Sense and Sensibility), and possibly the undated epistolary novel "Lady Susan"; later in the same year she began writing "First Impressions." Her own story (whose final title, Pride and Prejudice, may derive from the repetition of those words in the final paragraph of Burney's Cecilia) has so many resonances with Camilla as to constitute a form of elaborate homage; Darcy being haughty at the Meryton ball, the Bennet sisters being held back at Netherfield by the rain, Mary Bennet's piano playing, Mr. Bennet's regret over his wife's silliness: All have equivalents in characters and situations in Burney's novel. Even Austen's famous first sentence has an echo in one of Burney's: "[It is] received wisdom among matchmakers, that a young lady without fortune has a less and less chance of getting off upon every public appearance."44
Austen was an ardent, but not doting, fan. Her enjoyment of Camilla didn't prevent her from penciling in a droll joke at the end of her copy (now in the Bodleian Library), acknowledging how artificially Burney had prolonged the novel's central crisis: "Since this work went to the press a circumstance of some assistance to the happiness of Camilla has taken place, namely that Dr Marchmont has at last died." Similarly, Austen was far from starstruck by Burney's recent accessibility in Bookham and friendship with her aunt Cooke. There are no recorded instances of their meeting, but given the Austens' regular visits to Bookham and the frequent commerce between Madame d'Arblay and the rector's wife (not least at church services) it is highly likely that Austen had sightings of the novelist and may well have been introduced to her. Madame d'Arblay, her gentle émigré husband, and their adored toddler son were, for the three years they lived opposite the Cookes, the most exciting residents Bookham had ever known. But to a thoughtful observer such as Jane Austen, it would have been clear that contact with the celebrities was much more likely to disillusion than gratify.
Mrs. Cooke's own novel, privately printed in 1799, Battleridge: An Historical Tale, Founded on Facts, "by a Lady of Quality," is not mentioned either in her surviving letters to Fanny Burney, nor in Burney's voluminous journals and letters, so it seems likely that she kept her authorship a secret from her famous acquaintance. The Austens,however, were fully aware of the book's progress; Jane remarked in a letter of October 1798 that Mrs. Cooke was disappointed by a series of delays with the printer, Cawthorn, and "never means to employ him again." The Steventon family almost certainly enjoyed the novel in the way they enjoyed all such nonsense--noblemen going feral, ladies having fits, evil-minded men indulging their lusts--and Mrs. Cooke's pedantry would have afforded the author of "The History of England" some wry smiles (Mrs. Cooke disdains to describe the Restoration because "the majesty of history would be disgraced by the flow of fiction"). But the one review that Battleridge received, in the very periodical Mrs. Cooke was sharing with the d'Arblays, was devastatingly bad: "The work is not very amusing; and in point of composition, it is despicable," wrote the Critical Review.45
By the end of the 1790s, the examples of Mrs. Cooke and Egerton Brydges interested Jane Austen for professional as well as literary reasons. Brydges had become surprisingly successful after leaving Deane, founding a periodical called the Topographer with an old friend from Cambridge and then taking to fiction writing. Of all his publications, the Topographer probably appealed most to young Jane Austen, who loved William Gilpin's books on the picturesque and would very likely have read and discussed the magazine and its interesting illustrations with Anne Lefroy. One commentator has gone as far as to suggest that Austen's description of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice owes something to Brydges's series of articles about a journey through the Midlands that included Chatsworth in Derbyshire and "the most perfect house in England," Kedleston.46
Brydges indulged some absurd pretensions about his novels, claiming that they were pure gifts of inspiration; all he did was write down "as carelessly as they rose, some of the thoughts that were playing about my fancy."47 He said that he composed his first novel in a trancelike state of "fervid rapidity,"48 sending the sheets to the printer as fast as they were finished. Unlike Mrs. Cooke, Brydges didn't publish at his own cost but sold the copyright to a firm in Dublin, glad to avoid liability for the expenses. But when the novel subsequently did quite well, he probably came to regret the loss of the rights.
The author of Mary de Clifford showed frequent lapses of ingenuity.At the end of a duel scene, where the hero half-utters the name of the heroine before his mighty soul departs for a better place, Brydges concludes, "I cannot attempt to describe the remainder of this affecting scene. To those who feel as I do, the recital would be too terrible to give pleasure."49 This begged to be lampooned, and no doubt the Austens read passages aloud to one another with relish. As Mr. Bennet says in Pride and Prejudice, "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"50 By the time Brydges's next novel, Arthur Fitz-Albini, was published in 1798, Jane was twenty-two and the author of several unpublished novels herself. George Austen ordered a copy of the new book, against Jane's "private wishes," as she wrote to Cassandra, "for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton's works of which his family are ashamed."51 By "family," she almost certainly meant Mrs. Lefroy, who might well have been distressed at her brother's thinly veiled picture of life at Deane, Ashe, and Steventon. Years later, Brydges professed himself puzzled that the book "gave great offence to some of my country neighbours, who supposed their characters alluded to,"52 but as he describes all the country folk as uncongenial boobies, provoking in the hero "disgust ... driving him to the society of his books, his own thoughts, and a few sensible friends," their reaction was not surprising. And, as Jane wrote to her sister: "My father is disappointed--I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton's. There is very little story, and what there is is told in a strange, unconnected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated."53
Here we get a unique glimpse of Austen, in her midtwenties, scrutinizing the work of someone known to her. Her tone of impatience is surely not just due to the shortcomings of Egerton's novel but to the fact that productions of its kind were preferred over her own. Jane had moved on, in her late teens, from burlesques and stories for family consumption to a different sort of writing altogether, the full-length novel. "Catharine, or The Bower" was the beginning of one (that she kept, and tinkered with, all her life); another was "Elinor and Marianne," the early version of Sense and Sensibility, which she is thoughtto have written, or conceived, as an epistolary novel. Cassandra, the only source of information about the dates of Jane's compositions, was a bit vague about "Elinor and Marianne," saying that as far as she could remember "it had something of the same story & characters" as the published book.54 Jane's revisions, then, must have amounted to an almost complete rewrite or series of transformations, lasting years.
The novel that Jane had begun in October 1796, "First Impressions," might also have been epistolary--there are still forty-three letters in the book it became, Pride and Prejudice, and letter writing is integral to the plot. "First Impressions" was finished in ten months and immediately passed around and read aloud to members of the family, who were, not surprisingly, charmed and delighted by it. Jane's father was so completely sure that it could and should be published that he took the bold step of writing to the well-known London publisher Thomas Cadell, the firm that the year before had published Fanny Burney's Camilla:
1 November 1797
I have in my possession a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. About the length of Miss Burney's Evelina. As I am well aware of what consequence it is that a work of this sort should make it's first Appearance under a respectable name I apply to you. Shall be much obliged therefore if you will inform me whether you chuse to be concerned in it; What will be the expence of publishing at the Author's risk; & what you will venture to advance for the Property of it, if on perusal, it is approved of?
Should your answer give me encouragement I will send you the Work.55
This letter came to light only seventy years later, among Cadell's papers, and is the only evidence that there was any attempt before 1803 to solicit publication for one of Jane's works. (It should be noted that the letter doesn't specify which novel or, indeed, which author is involved, but the assumption has always been that the author was Jane and the novel her most recently completed one, "First Impressions.")
George Austen's comparison of the novel's length with Burney's Evelina is clearly meant to suggest other similarities with the charming 1778 best seller, not least that that debut novel made a fortune for its publisher, Thomas Lowndes. But Cadell's answer was far from "giving encouragement": By return post he declined Rev. Austen's offer and so "the Work" never left Steventon.
Lucky Jane, though, to have a parent who was so active on her behalf and whose pride in his daughter's achievement shines through this slightly misaimed business letter. There's no reason to assume this was an isolated experiment or that Jane was seriously put off by the disappointing outcome, for the next year she had started on a remarkably funny satire of the Gothic novel, called "Susan," which was to be her first success.
JANE AUSTEN BECAME A great writer partly because she was a great reader and had a highly developed consumer's understanding of her favorite form. Her novels are full of books and readers: Catharine Perceval and Camilla Stanley in "Catharine, or The Bower" read novels together, as do Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey; Darcy is a bibliophile and "always buying books"; Anne Elliot and Fanny Price, from Persuasion and Mansfield Park, respectively, are passionately engaged readers of Cowper; Marianne Dashwood is devoted to recent poetry as well as to the classics; and Henry Tilney, one of the most discerning characters in any Austen novel, has read all and admires "most of" Ann Radcliffe's work.56
Austen's taste in reading was eclectic and guided purely by the pleasure principle. When Mrs. Martin of the Maidenhead Inn was planning to open a new circulating library in the Steventon area, Jane was one of the people she wrote to as a likely subscriber, mentioning, as an inducement, that "her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c." "She might have spared this pretension to our family," Jane reflected, "but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers." 57 Mrs. Martin should perhaps have attended more closely to the tastes of her clientele, for she went out of business within acouple of years, presumably from not stocking enough novels in her library.
There was a circulating library in Alton, and another in Basingstoke, but provincial establishments of the kind were not very large, with stock ranging on average between three hundred to a thousand books only. Austen increased her access to new publications through her membership in reading societies in Steventon and later in Chawton--the original "Jane Austen Book Clubs." The societies worked by subscription: members chose the books to be purchased, and titles were rotated around the group, with everyone expected to read (or at least house for a fortnight) one another's "picks." The rules were strict: there were penalties for keeping a book beyond the agreed date, and the stock was monitored jealously, "every smudge, burn and candlewax blot carefully recorded and charged for," according to the historian William St. Claire.58 Later in her life, Austen was proud of the book club she helped run in Chawton, and on hearing that the Miss Sibleys of West Meon wanted to establish one "like ours" wrote to her sister, "What can be a stronger proof of that superiority in ours over the Steventon & Manydown Society, which I have always foreseen & felt?--No emulation of the kind was ever inspired by their proceedings."59
Austen knew that her own works were as good as, if not a great deal better than, most of the titles in the circulating library, and everything suggests that she both hoped and expected to see one of her novels in print some day. Quite how she would square her ambitions and talent with the conventional requirements of middle-class female life was not so clear. The situation at Steventon rectory in the late 1790s was very different from a decade earlier. The brothers had all left, there were no more pupil boarders, Rev. Austen was in his late sixties, and he and his wife were thinking about retirement. Three of their sons had married: James for the second time, in 1795, after the sudden death of his first wife (he had one child from each marriage at this date, Anna and James Edward); Henry to his widowed cousin Eliza; and Edward, now a landed gentleman in Kent, to Elizabeth Bridges, with whom he already had five children. Cassandra and Jane, good-looking, clever, and lively young women, were naturally expectedto marry as well. Cassandra had been engaged since 1795 to one of her father's former pupils and a family friend, Tom Fowle, who was waiting for an appointment to a suitably lucrative clerical living, in the gift of a patron with property in Shropshire.
Mrs. Austen wrote to her prospective daughter-in-law Mary, James's second wife, in 1796, "I look forwards to you as a real comfort to me in my old age, when Cassandra is gone into Shropshire, & Jane--the Lord knows where."60 Mrs. Austen's somewhat impatient bemusement over her younger daughter's future prospects suggests Jane's difference from the norm, but being a professional writer was certainly not one of the options being canvased for her; marriage was the expected course for any dependent woman, and Jane's suitors had not yet been very promising. Charming Tom Lefroy, Mrs. Lefroy's nephew, came and flirted and went away again; the young cleric Samuel Blackall hovered around, suggesting he might be about to fall in love; Jane dallied and danced with her brothers' friends and her cousins and worked up crushes to entertain herself and her girlfriends, but none of it seemed serious. Their former neighbor Mrs. Mitford recalled Jane at this period in her life as "the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembered,"61 enforcing the idea that an act was being put on. Jane had always emulated her elder sister, prompting their mother's remark that "if Cassandra's head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have her's cut off too."62 Cassandra was engaged to be married and would soon leave home. Jane probably thought she had better make steps, or at least gestures, in the same direction.
Cassandra's engagement came to a tragic end in the spring of 1797 when her fiance died of yellow fever while serving as chaplain on a voyage to the West Indies. Though Cassandra was still very young, she entered what Carol Shields has described as a "symbolic widowhood" at Fowle's death and seems to have resolved to live in retirement and spinsterhood. Although the possibility of marriage was not over for Jane (and she was to come very near it in 1802), the pull to do as Cassandra did now worked in the opposite direction.
Although many commentators claim that Jane Austen was so traumatized by moving house in 1801 that she was unable to settle towriting for eight years, no one has pointed out that during the far more testing year of 1797, with the household in turmoil over Cassandra's bereavement, Jane completed in a matter of months the first version of one of the most cheerful and cheering books in the English language. Though Cadell hadn't wanted to read "First Impressions," it was enough of a hit among those who did read it to gratify the author deeply. Cassandra requested the manuscript so often that Jane could tease her, "I do not wonder at your wanting to read first impressions again, so seldom as you have gone through it, & that so long ago,"63 and their friend Martha Lloyd was almost as ardent. In the summer of 1799 Jane joked about not relending it to her; "I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power.--She is very cunning, but I see through her design;--she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it."64 It's a confident joke, displaying satisfaction with the quality of her own work and its chances of appearing in public soon. Jane was in Bath at the time and had the manuscript with her; she seems to have been intending to work on it during her stay--and perhaps on other stories too.
But, devastatingly, the next year someone else did publish a novel called First Impressions, a poet and dramatist, Margaret Holford.65 The appearance of this rival didn't simply mean that Jane would need to change the title of her own novel--a relatively easy procedure--but that she was being beaten in a race that she hadn't yet been able to join. The manuscripts were beginning to pile up in the sisters' shared sitting room at Steventon: In 1799 she finished "Susan," her brilliant story satirizing the books and reading habits of the 1790s. But the 1790s were closing, and the novel, for all its amazing originality, ran the risk in topical satire of built-in obsolescence.
At the turn of the century, Austen was twenty-five years old, unmarried, unpublished, and unsure if there was any future in her highly individual style of writing. She had the manuscripts of the early versions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey sitting on a shelf in her room, where, for all she knew, they would resitting on a shelf in her room, where, for all she knew, they would remain till doomsday, taken down every now and then and laughed overby Cassandra or Martha or one of the sisters-in-law, but that would be all.
Frustrating though this must have been for the author, the benefit to posterity could hardly have been greater. If Thomas Cadell had asked to read "First Impressions," he would very likely have published it; it would have been followed to the press by "Elinor and Marianne," and then--goodness knows what, but certainly not the novels for which Austen is now so famous and loved. The longer Austen remained unpublished, the more experimental she became, and the more license she assumed with bold, brilliant moves. These are particularly characteristic of the novel written deepest in her obscurity, as it were, "Susan" (later Northanger Abbey), with its authorial interjection about how we must be near the denouement of the love story, as the number of pages remaining are so few, and the passage where the heroine and her friend take a break from the ardors of the plot in order to read novels:
Yes, novels;--for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding--joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried ... . "And what are you reading, Miss--?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.--"It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work inwhich the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.66
It would take another hundred and seventy years or so before this could be described as "postmodern"; even today, amour propre about the limits of realism keeps characters in soap operas away from their television sets and the residents of Ambridge mysteriously incapable of tuning in to Radio 4. Such touches weren't Austen's only innovations: No one had reproduced dialogue so naturalistically before, no one had reined in so skillfully from caricature to character, no one had been as honest about female motivations or so efficient in telling a story. As W. D. Howells remarked a century later, "The wonder of Jane Austen is that at a time when even the best fiction was overloaded with incident, and its types went staggering about under the attributes heaped upon them, she imagined getting on with only so much incident as would suffice to let her characters express their natures movingly or amusingly."67 Almost single-handedly, Austen moved the novel into the modern era--and did much of it before she got a single word in print.
Copyright © 2009 by Claire Harman
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