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Life and times
Jane Austen is one of the great writers of English literature because no reader and no period exhausts her books. Something always escapes from a reading while every reading enriches. Like the town of Lyme in Persuasion, the novels ‘must be visited, and visited again’. In this respect the comparison with William Shakespeare, often made in the mid- to late nineteenth century, is apt. She shares with him, too, a rare crossover appeal, achieving both academic and popular status: the object of scholarly analysis and cult enthusiasm. Inevitably there is uneasiness across the boundary: the academy worries about studying work with such mass appeal, such easy intimacy with film and television, while the public has become irritated by the exploiting, deconstructing, abstracting, genderising, politicising, and sexualising of their heroine. Despite differing readerly anxieties, however, nobody can doubt that Jane Austen serves something of the Bible’s former function: helping to make a shared community of reference for the literate English-speaker, her work insinuates itself into the way we think and talk – or wish to talk. This is a more visual than literary age, but for many of us Jane Austen’s novels still function as the works of Radcliffe, Burney, Cowper, andScott did for her heroines, saturating our minds and attitudes.
Not a life of event
Her biography depends on written evidence outside her novels, for she is one of the least overtly autobiographical of authors: there is no female writer or witty older spinster in her works and no heroine who rejects marriage as she did or who lies on her sickbed mocking hypochondria. Almost all the information on Jane Austen comes from her family, mostly from letters written to her sister Cassandra, who selected some as family souvenirs and rejected others, long before they reached the public; they begin in 1796 after the earliest works had been drafted. The letters are augmented by pious memoirs from her brother and nephew, the ‘Biographical Notice’ (1817) by Henry Austen and A Memoir of Jane Austen (1870) by James Edward Austen-Leigh, both of which stress the familial, constricted nature of her life and lack of romantic passion. Outside these sources, little is known of Austen compared to her celebrated contemporaries, Lord Byron or Percy Bysshe Shelley for example, whose daily, sometimes hourly, activities and thoughts are documented. As a result, much remains hidden, perhaps her most intimate aspects, and yet, as John Wiltshire has remarked, we have for Jane Austen ‘a fantasy of access . . . a dream of possession’.1 Each generation makes a consistent image of the author, a new commodity in keeping with its own desires: the kindly spinster of the nineteenth century, the baulked romantic heroine of the twentieth, and the ambitious professional author of the present.
Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 into a web of family connections, which included on one side the rich and influential Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey and the Knights of Godmersham and on the other clerics and an apprentice milliner. Her father, George Austen, was a country rector of latitudinarian or liberal views in the village of Steventon in the southern English county of Hampshire, and her mother Cassandra (née Leigh), daughter of a former Fellow of Oxford’s All Souls College, had aristocratic links. George Austen had obtained a parish through the interest of Thomas Knight, the rich husband of his second cousin. Later he acquired a second living at neighbouring Deane through his uncle Francis. Thomas Knight owned not only the Steventon living but also the manor of Steventon, with all its dependent houses and holdings. To the Austens he rented a nearby farm, with which George added about a third to his clerical income; together with his reliance on tithes, this must have given the family a keen interest in agriculture and agricultural improvements.2 To augment his income still further, George took in well-to-do boys to prepare for university; by 1779 there were four pupils living at the rectory. While common for Anglican clergymen, such activity still suggests the rather insecure family status of George Austen, just on the edge of the gentry. It contributed to his daughter’s lifelong concern for money and the nuances of class. Although less important than native intelligence and good sense, birth and breeding mattered: being a gentleman or a gentleman’s daughter with the manners and mannerly attitudes implied.
George and Cassandra Austen were cultivated people. In his son Henry’s words, George, with his library of over 500 books, was ‘a profound scholar’ with ‘most exquisite taste’, and Cassandra composed skilful comic verse on local people and events, a common pastime within her community. The pair had eight children. Beyond a handicapped boy who was sent from home to live in a neighbouring community (and is unmentioned in the ‘Biographical Notice’ and Memoir), the Austen sons did reasonably well: James followed his father into the Steventon living; Edward was adopted by the rich Knight relatives, later changed his name to Knight, and inherited Godmersham Park, Chawton Manor, and Steventon, delivering an income somewhere between £10,000 and £15,000 a year; Francis and Charles entered the Royal Naval Academy as young boys, just under twelve years of age, and rose up the ranks during the long Revo lutionary and Napoleonic Wars, ending as admirals through their impressive longevity (ninety-one and seventy-three respectively); after a time in the militia Henry became a banker and agent for the army until bankrupted in March 1816 by the post-war economic slump; then he entered the Church. By contrast, the two girls, Jane and her sister Cassandra, the elder by three years, had no professional opportunities and few chances of forming an income. While her father lived, Jane had only £20 a year to spend on herself and give to charity.
In much the same period, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft was complaining about the restricted lives of women. The only real ‘work’ that society seemed to sanction was the gaining of a husband and, when genteel, reasonably educated girls remained single, they were regarded as a drain on their families, used primarily to help nurture and nurse their married relatives. Austen accepted the inescapable fact of female dependency on men, and the anger of Wollstonecraft is not openly expressed in the novels, except perhaps by the melodramatic Jane Fairfax in Emma, who implicitly compares her lot as potential governess to that of a slave or prostitute, but the predicament haunts all the heroines. At the same time, the duty of care and social usefulness that devolved on so many daughters and sisters is not downplayed or diminished by its unprofessional standing.
At Easter 1783 the Austen girls were sent to Oxford to be tutored by Mrs Ann Cawley, who then took them to Southampton, a stay interrupted in the autumn by an outbreak of typhus from which Jane nearly died. There followed a couple of years of more formal instruction at Abbey House School in Reading, ruled by the eccentric Mrs La Tournelle, known for her cork leg and thespian obsessions. But it seems that the fees taxed the Austen parents and by the end of 1786 the sisters had returned to Steventon, where they were casually instructed within the family by an educated father, mother, and brothers – and more so by themselves. Jane seemed unperturbed by the informality: although she appreciated a well-stocked mind, especially for its conversational results, she had little respect for formal education, even for boys. In her novels fools could not become wise through education in facts; information without aptitude benefited no one, neither heroine nor author. When considering the lightness of Pride and Prejudice, she laughingly suggested she might have followed more educated writers by padding it out with ‘an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte’ (L, p. 203). Reading promiscuously, especially in fiction, she felt no need for ‘enormous great stupid thick Quarto Volumes’ (L, p. 206). Her own slim novels would not be history or comments on history, but the later ones would be aware of their place in history.
Financially dependent on their father, as they came to adulthood the two Austen daughters naturally contemplated a future of marriage as the ‘pleasantest preservative from want’ (P&P, 1:22). Neither sister achieved it: Cassandra became engaged to a clergyman who died in Jamaica from yellow fever, leaving her his fortune of £1,000, and, when she was twenty, Jane briefly flirted with a visitor from Ireland, Tom Lefroy, the nephew of her much-loved neighbour Madam Lefroy, who made sure the young man left before his relationship with a penniless girl became serious. Throughout their lives the sisters’ closest relationship would be with each other. A great-niece, who knew only Cassandra, wrote that ‘they were wedded to each other by the resemblance of their circumstances, and in truth there was an exclusiveness in their love such as only exists between husband and wife’.
Considering how much the Austens depended on the patronage and interest of their kin, it is not surprising that the network of family members impinged on Jane’s life. Outside the immediate family group, one relative especially impressed her: Countess Eliza de Feuillide. Fourteen years older than Jane, Eliza was the daughter of George Austen’s sister Philadelphia, who had gone to India to marry Tysoe Saul Hancock in 1753. They had one daughter, Eliza (rumoured to be the result of an affair with Warren Hastings, future Governor of Bengal, a rumour supported by his setting up a £10,000 trust fund for the child).3 Eliza stayed for long periods in the Steventon parsonage, flirting with the Austen sons and much enjoying the theatricals in which they all indulged.4 Through Eliza the French Revolution of 1789 impacted personally on the family. Eliza had married a French captain in the dragoons who styled himself the comte de Feuillide; during the Terror in February 1794 he was guillotined while his wife and son were in England. Three years later Eliza married Jane’s favourite brother Henry and continued flirting, declaring she had ‘an aversion to the word husband and never ma[d]e use of it’.5 The glamorous countess may have influenced Austen’s depiction of pretty, vivacious women, from the predatory Lady Susan and Mary Crawford to the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet.
From the age of eleven, probably earlier, Jane had been writing delicious, sometimes surreal stories and parodies to amuse her family – or, in Virginia Woolf’s opinion ‘everybody’ – since ‘even at that early age . . . Whatever she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to the parsonage, but to the universe’.6 The stories are full of anarchic fantasies of female power, licence, illicit behaviour, and general high spirits. Drunkenness, incest, and serial killings routinely occur in speedy kaleidoscopic permutations, revealing even at this early stage Jane Austen’s youthful awareness of the comic possibilities of language through absurd conjunctions: Lady Williams’s ‘handsome Jointure & the remains of a very handsome face’ or the advice to beware of the ‘unmeaning Luxuries of Bath and of the stinking fish of Southampton’ (‘Jack and Alice’ and ‘Love & Freindship’). Each work is self-consciously literary, mocking the idea of realism by exaggerating details of ordinary life, inflating current stylistic habits of hyperbole, and turning common plot devices into parodies of the adult reading to which, in her novel-addicted family, Jane Austen was exposed. These juvenile productions physically mimic the grown-up book: they are written out carefully in notebooks and provided with dedications to Martha Lloyd, ‘Madame La Comtesse De Feuillide’, and, of course, Cassandra.
At fourteen Jane Austen wrote the longest of these juvenile productions, ‘Love & Freindship’, a brilliant burlesque of popular sentimental novels. It took two girls through a series of absurd adventures in which, as in sentimental fiction, love and hate are sudden and absolute, female friendship immediate and excessive, familial relationships made and unmade, and emotional extremes paralleled only by the extreme nature of the happenings. While sentimental to the core, crying, fainting, palpitating, falling ill and dying, the central characters are entirely amoral, believing that sensation must triumph over commonsense morality and justify any act of theft or betrayal.
‘Love & Freindship’ was followed two years later by a work that foreshadowed the mature novels, ‘Catharine or The Bower’, a rehearsal for ‘Susan’, which would in time become Northanger Abbey. In this story Austen created a principled, unsophisticated heroine of ordinary achievements, devoted to a fantasy life within a garden ‘bower’ and constrained by a maiden aunt to whom ‘all gallantry was odious’ and for whom any slight impropriety foretold the destruction of the kingdom. The manuscript ends before a concluding marriage – if that indeed was to be its end. ‘Catharine’ was succeeded by ‘Lady Susan’, probably written in 1794 but copied out later in about 1805, a more polished but less prefiguring work.7 An epistolary jeu d’esprit, it was rooted in the eighteenth-century novel in letters, which suited the subject matter of a heroine manoeuvring within a world in which men control property and women make property of men. The female rake Lady Susan, a handsome, selfish widow with ‘attractive Powers’, enjoys her own energetic duplicity and knows that ‘Consideration and Esteem as surely follow command of Language, as Admiration waits on Beauty.’ Her schemes fail, but, like the jolly heroines of the burlesque juvenile pieces, she is left unabashed and unreformed, still very much ‘herself’.
Throughout her life Jane Austen avoided ostentatious habits and what she called ‘novel slang’, adhering instead to plain writing and to commonsensical consequences in plots that are none the less tightly constructed. The new ‘style of fiction’ with which she was credited by Walter Scott in his review of her mature novel Emma is implied by the high-spirited burlesques and parodies of these Steventon days.8
From about 1795 Jane Austen was sketching out three full-length novels, clearly intended for more than family amusement. One of these, ‘First Impressions’, an early version of Pride and Prejudice, was in 1797 offered by her father to the publisher Thomas Cadell, who declined to see the manuscript. Before this setback she had started on a final version of another novel, which would become Sense and Sensibility. With their pictures of clever, sensitive sisters with not quite enough money and so a pressing but unacknowledged need to marry, both books seem to justify W. H. Auden’s comic remarks:
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.9
They also convey need for affection and respect in marriage and the subtle mutual love of siblings, all interacting with this ‘economic basis’.
In 1801, in part to benefit his wife’s health, George Austen appointed his son James as curate of Steventon, sold his farming lease, and proposed moving to Bath, where many water and electricity health treatments were on offer. There he, his wife, and two unmarried daughters could live comfortably in lodgings on the tithe income, which had appreciated during the last war-torn decade. Unconsulted about the decision, Jane is said to have fainted at the news, being, it is thought, appalled at the notion of separation from her childhood home, as well as the prospect of living in a crowded city.10 Her letters of the time suggest a more ambivalent reaction. In January 1801, she wrote
I get more & more reconciled to the idea of our removal. We have lived
long enough in this Neighbourhood, the Basingstoke Balls are certainly
on the decline, there is something interesting in the bustle of going away, &
the prospect of spending future summers by the Sea or in Wales is
very delightful . . . It must not be generally known however that I am not
sacrificing a great deal in quitting the Country – or I can expect to
inspire no tenderness, no interest, in those we leave behind. (L, p. 68)
Her initial impression of the city that would be her home for the next five years is not recorded but in May 1801 she wrote to Cassandra that ‘the first veiw of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly thro’ Rain. – The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown, was all vapour, shadow, smoke & confusion’ (L, p. 82). She had enjoyed the prospect of hunting for lodgings, although she soon tired of walking round unsuitable or ‘putrifying’ houses. Finally they rented in Sydney Place, moving three years later to Green Park Buildings East.
So little is known of the Bath period of Austen’s life that speculation flourishes: she is portrayed sometimes as profoundly unhappy, at others as busy and involved, as falling in love or giving up all hope of love outside the family. Two startling facts stand out. When nearly twenty-seven, on a visit back to Hampshire, she accepted the proposal of a wealthy young man, Harris Bigg-Wither, whom a few hours later she rejected. Five years her junior, he was the heir of a considerable property in her Steventon neighbourhood and the brother of her good friends. Another interesting event occurred in spring 1803 when her skit on gothic writing, Northanger Abbey, then entitled ‘Susan’ and drafted probably in 1798–9, was sold for £10 to Benjamin Crosby & Co. The date suggests that Austen used the early part of her time in Bath to revise the third of the novels she had drafted in Steventon before the move. The book was not printed, however. Considering the level of much fiction published at the time it was a strange omission, caused, it has been surmised, by the astringency of the contents, although the practice of buying and delaying printing was not uncommon. Crosby had a financial interest in the popular gothic novelist Mrs Radcliffe and may not, on further thought, have wished to have her mocked in one of his productions.
About 1804 Austen began work on a new, harsher book, with more realistic touches than she had so far allowed herself. She wrote forty pages of The Watsons, graphically portraying the small humiliations involved in social sinking within a claustrophobic society. The story concerned four unmarried daughters of an ailing father with a small income: two are desperate husband-seekers, a third would be happy to remain single if she had an income, and a fourth, the more genteel Emma, returning from years spent with an affluent aunt, claims she would rather be a teacher than marry for money: later Emma was to have become dependent for ‘a home on her narrow-minded sister-in-law and brother’ (FR, p. 241). But, before Austen reached this point, she stopped writing. She did not return to the work, although it remained in her writing desk at her death, heavily corrected and not written out as a finished fair copy.
There are several possible reasons for her quitting. Since it occurred at about the time when she must have realised that ‘Susan’, like ‘First Impressions’ before it, was not going to be published, she might have felt demoralised. But, considering her later clear belief in the value of her writings, this is perhaps insufficient cause. Her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, who gave the novel its title, claimed she stopped because the subject matter was ‘unfavourable to the refinement of a lady’, being set in too lowly a rank of life where ‘poverty and obscurity’ may easily degenerate into ‘vulgarity’. A further possibility, entwined with this social anxiety, is that Jane Austen abandoned The Watsons when her life turned upside down with her father’s death (the father in the novel was also a cleric). The new financial and social precariousness may have upset the writing of a novel with a heroine in similarly reduced circumstances but younger in age. In her letters of the period there is considerable, if ironic, bitterness about money and status: ‘prepare you[rself] for the sight of a Sister sunk in poverty, that it may not overcome your Spirits’, she wrote to Cassandra (L, p. 108). The plot of The Watsons– a delicately brought-up girl returning to her poorer family and facing the threat of economic hardship – would recur in Mansfield Park.
When George Austen died early in 1805 his Steventon living passed to his son James; the living of Deane was now lost to the Austen family. Consequently the three women, with an annual income of £210 between them, including the interest on Cassandra’s legacy from her dead fiancé, faced a life of dependence on the young male Austens: James, Henry, and Francis each contributed £50 per annum to their upkeep, Edward offered another £100. Without this support, their situation would not have been far from that of the Bates women in Emma, also widow and daughter of a country clergyman – or indeed the Watsons, who note ‘Female Economy will do a great deal . . . but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.’ The Austens gave up lodging in Green Park Buildings, and their friend Martha Lloyd, whose mother died three months after George, joined the household for both company and financial convenience. The arrangement was so successful that it continued for the next twenty years.
Between the death of George Austen in 1805 and Jane’s arrival in Chawton in 1809 there is little evidence of creative activity. In summer 1806 the women travelled to Clifton near Bristol, from where they continued via Stoneleigh and Steventon to their journey’s destination, Southampton, to set up house for a time in Castle Square with Jane’s naval brother Francis and his new wife Mary. Whatever ambivalent feelings Jane had expressed about Bath on first arrival, she was glad not to return to the city: on 1 July 1808, she wrote ‘It will be two years tomorrow since we left Bath for Clifton, with what happy feelings of Escape!’ (L, p. 138). From Castle Square she made visits to Chawton Great House, Steventon, and her brother Henry’s house in London; she also tasted luxury and ease for a few weeks at the mansion of Godmersham in Kent, owned by her brother Edward since 1798 (she visited less often than Cassandra, perhaps because this grand family was not entirely keen on a scribbling female relative). Whatever she was writing – and it is difficult to imagine her not writing – she emerged from these unsettled years a serious novelist with a wider range than she had commanded as a young girl in Steventon and, despite publishing setbacks, with a firm belief in her extraordinary talent.
In 1809, with expenses in Southampton rising, Mrs Austen, Jane, Cassandra, and Martha Lloyd were rescued by Edward, who, following the shock of his wife’s death in October 1808 and the realisation that he was a widower with eleven children, offered his mother and sisters a free place to live in Chawton (now the Jane Austen museum): a cottage on the main road, with a flower and vegetable garden and pasturage for donkeys, situated close to his own extensive and often unoccupied manor. In this Hampshire village, never in want but never free from ‘vulgar economy’, the four women lived from then onwards a full family existence of visiting and being visited by siblings, nieces, and nephews.
Letters are full of trips to the country and London, where Jane went to parties, art galleries, and plays and indulged her fascination with dress and fashion, while grumbling over the exhausting shopping expeditions she made with her sister-in-law Eliza (although intensely interested in clothes, she was not keen on shopping for them). She never lost her enthusiasm for a city she once flippantly described as ‘the Regions of Wit, Elegance, fashion, Elephants & Kangaroons’ (L, p. 80).
In Chawton, despite the two publishing rebuffs, she began turning herself into a professional writer, joining the entrepreneurial intellectual classes burgeoning in the early nineteenth century.11 From Southampton she had written to the publisher Crosby under the assumed name of Mrs Ashton Dennis, ‘Authoress’, stating that she assumed from the six-year delay in publishing that he had lost the manuscript of ‘Susan’ and suggesting she dispatch another copy. Crosby’s son replied that she could have the manuscript back ‘for the same as we paid for it’ (L, pp. 174–5). She let the matter drop for the moment and began revising the other two Steventon drafts into Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, the latter title possibly chosen because another fictional First Impressions (by Margaret Holford) had recently appeared in print. She was past the usual time of marriage and had ‘taken to the garb of middle age’ prematurely; if her financial and social position were to improve, it would have to be through what she did best, what alone seemed possible in her circumstances: writing for money.12 Combined with a spinsterhood shared with congenial female companions, it was not an unattractive future.
The cancelled and rewritten chapters of Persuasion (the only surviving manuscript of a novel published in or just after Austen’s lifetime) support her brother’s claim that his sister needed ‘many perusals’ before she was satisfied. She was not a writer achieving perfection at once but one who needed to try, accept or change, score out and rewrite. Her critical and editorial abilities equalled her creative; her judgement matched her inspiration. Kathryn Sutherland has rightly pointed out the simultaneity of Austen’s new Chawton composition and her revision of the old, so that one novel will be gestating while another is being corrected; taken together the six novels seem to ‘enact a process of expansion and repetition, retracing the old ground and discovering it as new ground’.13
At the same time I find it striking that Austen could revise an early-conceived novel and write a later one while keeping intact the individual stylistic integrity of each. The Chawton novels – Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion – continue to be romances ending in marriage, but they raise questions of identity and responsibility, passion and selfhood that have no easy or definite answers, often suggesting in their conclusion other trajectories than those they provide; they leave a troubling sense of what might have been.
Much later her relatives and friends looked back on the Austen of the Chawton years. Although her works now seem less family affairs, more privately authored, Cassandra recalled lively debates over drafts, for with her alone Jane could talk ‘freely of any work that she migh t have in hand’. Austen also discussed strategies with her favourite nieces, knowing they would enter into her ‘pleasures of Vanity’. Her nephew James Edward remembered an altogether more ‘mystic process’ of writing, disturbed by their childhood mischief which, as he stressed, never elicited ‘any signs of impatience or irritability’ in their novelist aunt (FR, p. 241; Memoir, p. 82). Meanwhile, Mary Russell Mitford repeated her mother’s unflattering surprise over the transformation Jane Austen had undergone from the ‘prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly’ to the author of ansfield Park, ‘stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of “single blessedness” that ever existed’.14
Jane Austen entered the literary marketplace at a propitious time.Women novelists had been increasing in number throughout the eighteenth century and they actually formed a majority towards the end. Peter Garside has argued that, by the 1810s, ‘the publication of Jane Austen’s novels was achieved not against the grain but during a period of female ascendancy’; only in the 1820s did male novelists become numerically dominant again – and then dominant in the culture. Austen was reading copiously in contemporary fiction by men and women: as she wrote when replying to an invitation to subscribe to a library boasting ‘Literature’ other than ‘Novels’, ‘our family . . . are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so’ (L, p. 26). Books were expensive and she knew from her own experience – and to her cost as a writer – that readers were ‘more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy’ (L, p. 287). She wanted to be an author who was bought, read, and reread, whose books became both an experience and a challenge to experience, not simply once-consumed items.
A writer could publish in four ways: sell the copyright and avoid further anxiety over production and sales; persuade a publisher to underwrite costs and share profits; get a subscription list to pay for publication, relying on friends, relatives, and patrons; or, less commonly, publish on commission, so paying for the book production, receiving profits minus a commission, and accepting any loss. In 1803 when ‘Susan’ had been offered to a publisher, Austen had tried the first option and had received the modest but usual sum of £10. In 1811 she tried the fourth when she sent Sense and Sensibility to Thomas Egerton, a London publisher, to be published on commission.
For this she may have borrowed from or used as guarantor her banking brother Henry, who wrote that she had saved money to cover costs should the novel not sell sufficiently to pay the expense of printing. Henry negotiated with the publisher and Jane came to London to correct proofs. Soon after her arrival Cassandra asked her about her progress, speculating that the enjoyments of town had put publishing out of her mind. ‘No indeed’, her sister replied, ‘I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother cn forget her sucking child’ (L, p. 182). It was the culmination of fourteen years of trying to publish, and the novel being printed had had a gestation of sixteen.16 When it appeared ‘by a Lady’, Sense and Sensibility received a couple of lukewarm reviews by critics liking its morality but surprised at its lack of sensational events. Ignorant of her aunt’s involvement, James’s daughter Anna declared it ‘rubbish I am sure from the title’ (FR, p. 191).
Despite this disappointing reception, the novel made money. The risk of commission-publishing had paid off and Jane Austen received £140. However, by the time she saw this, she had already sold the copyright of Pride and Prejudice for £110. She would rather have had £150, she wrote to Cassandra, but the quick transaction with Egerton ‘will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry’ (L, p. 197); on 29 January 1813 she took delivery of her ‘own darling Child’ (L, p. 201). The publication affirmed her professional status by appearing as ‘by the author of Sense & Sensibility’. Pride and Prejudice turned out to be Austen’s most popular novel and the one that would have brought her most profit if published on commission.
She was excited by her limited success: together her two first works had earned £250, which, as she wrote to her brother Francis, ‘only makes me long for more’ (L, p. 217). Given her small income, the money obtained from publishing – all told between £600 and £700 – was clearly important, although the sum comes nowhere near the large amounts earned by Frances Burney – £4,000 for later editions of Camilla and The Wanderer – or Maria Edgeworth’s £2,100 for Patronage and Hannah More’s £2,000 in the first year for Clebs in Search of a Wife.
With Mansfield Park, Austen decided to try publication on commission again. Probably begun as she was sending Sense and Sensibility to the printers, this new work appeared in 1814 and she received the grand sum of £310, the most she would earn for any single novel. When Egerton delayed a second edition of what looked like a popular work – and perhaps because she was ambitious for a more important press – Austen moved to the fashionable John Murray Ⅱ, publisher of the most celebrated writers of the day, Lord Byron and Walter Scott. Refusing his offer of £450 for the copyright of Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and her new novel, Emma (reluctantly dedicated to the ‘hated’ Prince Regent after he let her know through his librarian that he had her novels in both of his residences), she again insisted on commission publishing. Accepting that Murray was ‘a rogue of course’, she yet enjoyed his respectful address and was surprised at the expenses he passed on to her for advertising: he charged her £50 for promoting Emma, including in his own catalogue. When he brought out Emma together with a second edition of Mansfield Park, Austen lost so much on the latter that the former netted her only £39, despite being her largest first edition at 2,000 copies and despite its modest critical success. This was a blow, especially as it came in the same year in which her brother Henry’s bank and army agency, heavily supported by his rich uncle James Leigh-Perrot and to a lesser extent by his brothers, failed, leaving Henry ruined – Jane lost about £25 from her profits (by 1816 her income from government stock was £30 per annum). As a direct result, both Henry and Francis could no longer afford the annual £50 each had contributed to their mother and sisters’ upkeep.
These financial setbacks did not interfere with Austen’s creativity or ambition. She had bought back her unpublished ‘Susan’ from Crosby, changed the heroine’s name to Catherine and written a belligerent ‘Advertisement’ complaining of its neglect. But she found revision troubling: ‘Miss Catherine is put upon the Shelve’, she sighed, ‘and I do not know that she will ever come out’ (L, p. 333). The final title, Northanger Abbey, could have been hers or Henry’s or Cassandra’s, supplied when it was posthumously published. Meanwhile, she had finished, but not perhaps entirely revised, another novel; this too was posthumously named: Persuasion.
By now she was ill with a wasting disease – speculatively Addison’s disease or possibly a lymphoma such as Hodgkin’s disease.17 Her illness was not helped by her uncle Leigh-Perrot’s death, when it was disclosed that, despite his immense fortune, he had left all to his wife, and only after her death would his sister’s children receive legacies: ‘I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s Will brought on a relapse . . . I am the only one of the Legatees who has been so silly, but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves’ (L, p. 338). The blow came in the context of a lawsuit against her brother Edward which was threatening his ownership of the Chawton properties including the cottage; the lawsuit was settled only after her death.
Yet in January 1817 she had begun a new work, Sanditon, jovially mocking hypochondriacs (rather like her mother as she appears in Jane’s letters) and depicting the self-indulgent performance illness could become. Her energetic invalid Diana Parker can hardly crawl from her ‘Bed to the Sofa’ and is ‘bilious’, a fashionable term superseding the earlier ‘nervous’, so effectively used by Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. This made a sufferer mottled and yellowish. Five days after abandoning the novel in its twelfth chapter, Austen wrote that she herself was turning ‘every wrong colour’ and living ‘chiefly on the sofa’ (L, pp. 335, 343). The few chapters of Sanditon, although much corrected, remain unfinalised. Yet, with its series of eccentrics and caricatures, reminiscent of her earlier novels, and its description not just of a deracinated family as in Persuasion but of a deracinated community (or ‘a young & rising Bathing-place’, as its promoter terms Sanditon), this briskly unsubtle book promised both continuity and development.
Jane Austen ‘wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen became too laborious’.18 She herself made a note of the day she stopped writing Sanditon: 18 March 1817. In May she was taken to Winchester for treatment. Her illness was agony: as her sister reported, ‘She said she could not tell us what she suffer’d.’ She died in Winchester on 18 July. Her last spoken words expressed a desire for ‘Nothing but death’ (Memoir, p. 131). Her last written ones were a poem on the effect of rain on St Swithin’s day or, in her niece Caroline’s phrase, a ‘joke about the dead Saint and the Winchester races’. In this St Swithin, who has jumped on to the palace roof, declares: ‘When once we are buried you think we are dead / But behold me immortal.’19 Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
The vext nations
Jane Austen exists in our consciousness in a liminal historical space between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her period of publishing, 1811–17, coincides with the Regency period, when King George Ⅲ’s madness was considered permanent and his dissolute and unpopular son, later George Ⅳ, had become Prince Regent. This transitional time falls between revolutions: after the French Revolution, which had had such a profound political impact on Britain, and before the Industrial Revolution truly transformed the nation into the first urban industrial power.
Through almost all Jane Austen’s adult life, Britain and France were at war. In the 1790s, when hostilities first began, the country was vulnerable and in danger, easy prey to the superior Revolutionary armies of expansionist France. With military failures abroad, the government feared French sympathisers within the kingdoms and responded by draconian measures: suspending habeas corpus and passing ‘Gagging Acts’ which banned public meetings. Yet many who were appalled at the French Terror of 1793–4 still held to reformist ideals and hoped that Britain could progress constitutionally and socially without following France into violence and dictatorship.
By the second decade of the nineteenth century, such hopes were largely dashed. The government’s insistence on patriotism and control of print through taxes and regulations had made inroads into the Enlightenment reform movements and, with the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars dragging on, had impressed people who, decades earlier, would have seen such partiality as cant. The country had been blamed for losing its morale and will to win, and for failing to show the proper patriotism of moral principle and energetic enterprise. Meanwhile, the weariness of war was movingly expressed by writers such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld in her poem ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’, which opened with the lament: ‘Still the loud death drum, thundering from afar, / O’er the vext nations pours the storm of war.’
Two of Austen’s brothers were in the Royal Navy, fighting the French. Francis joined Nelson in 1798 and helped pursue Napoleon after the Battle of the Nile; later he assisted in blockading the French fleet planning to invade Britain and accompanied convoys to Africa and the West Indies, narrowly missing the action at Trafalgar. Letters and newspapers kept Jane Austen in close contact with his and Charles’s equally energetic wartime activities. She saw something of the fallout in men and money, but in her novels she allowed characters to feel pride in a new and assured maritime power and, even more, to revel in the entrepreneurial aspect of naval service, the possibility of prize money and advancement for the enterprising (officer) class: ‘the glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance’, as Henry Crawford imagines it in Mansfield Park.
In 1814, Britain appeared to have won the war at sea and on land and Napoleon was exiled to Elba. Victory was celebrated throughout the country. Then, to national bewilderment, he escaped to France and recaptured Paris. As the journalist Leigh Hunt remarked, ‘We want nothing now, to finish the romantic history of the present times, but a visit from the Man in the Moon.’
Disillusion soon followed victory, as the old order of kings and hierarchies was re-established in Europe. Returning warriors found themselves with little stake in the new Britain. Through the 1790s and early 1800s, despite the war and wartime blockades, the consumer boom for the well-off that had marked earlier decades continued. The result was a greater polarising of rich and poor: the former epitomised by the extravagant Prince of Wales and the gambling and drinking elite of London and fashionable watering holes; the latter by Luddites, impoverished workers who rebelled against machines designed to replace them and against enforced reduction of wages. When war ended in 1815, the ruling classes had little sense of how to cope with the problems of an increasingly divided and restless society and they responded to mass unemployment and the disastrous harvest of 1816 with stricter legislation. Their actions persuaded many that the ranks of society were no longer integrated but opposing.
From the six novels we may learn much of the political, spiritual, and intellectual attitudes available in Jane Austen’s time. But she herself does not advocate positions so much as an enquiring mind: she sifts, queries, and explores issues rather than resolving them. The moral effect was brilliantly described in 1870 by Margaret Oliphant, who saw in Austen ‘the soft and silent disbelief of a spectator who has to look at a great many things without showing any outward discomposure, and who has learned to give up any moral classification of social sins, and to place them instead on the level of absurdities’.21 So, although she would have witnessed the beginnings of the capitalist agricultural and industrial transformation of Britain in rural Hampshire as well as the cities of London, Southampton, and Bath, she does not discuss society and politics at length and in abstract.22
Her earliest family biographers assumed she shared the Toryism of her clan, but her niece could not remember any political utterance her aunt made. The war with its effects features in the margins of the early novels, the neighbourhood spies of Northanger Abbey or the seductive militia of Pride and Prejudice, and it forms a more direct background to the final ones, emerging fully in Persuasion, coloured by the notion of conflict. Even here, however, there is no actual representation of war or its causes. The novels do not display a single political vision, and Austen cannot truly be labelled liberal, conservative, or moderate. Perhaps it would be fairer to call her multiply-minded, sometimes one, now the other, by turns or all together, or perhaps one might declare equivocality her predominant political mode. In her novels the kernel of life is outside politics, in love, affectionate duty, and sometimes sexual passion, threatened by selfishness and aggression, and she does not need to describe a national war or social upheaval directly to give a sense of the darkness on the edge of human existence. Yet the social and political resonance of national events just outside the frame helps prevent the complete closure of individual romance – the ‘Tenderest & completest Eclaircissement’ as her spoof ‘Plan of a Novel’ expresses it – and contributes to the wry melancholy of her happy endings.
The Church of England is a felt presence in Jane Austen’s life. She was the Anglican daughter of an Anglican clergyman, presumed to hold traditional views on the role of the Church in society. These would encompass both piety and social realism: a man’s entering the Church could result from vocation or simply family tradition and interest. Austen accepted the divine mission and implication of the Church but also its worldly function as a national institution. In this combining of religion with the politically useful she was not far from the Scottish divine and rhetorician Hugh Blair, whose book of Sermons, mentioned with some irony in ‘Catharine’ and with less by Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, was one of the age’s most read and appreciated works.
Austen’s distaste for the new movement of Evangelicalism (an enthusiastic tendency which emphasised conversion and an entirely different life in Christ, while seeking to interrupt the lax social harmony of the established Church) is boldly expressed in 1809 to Cassandra, ‘I do not like the Evangelicals’ (L, p. 170). By 1814, the year of Mansfield Park’s publication, however, she had qualified her distaste: ‘I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals’; she was ‘at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason & Feeling, must be happiest & safest’ (L>, p. 280). In the most ominous years of the Napoleonic War she had come to value Evangelicalism’s seriousness, its implied critique of the triviality of many Anglican members and ministers. Yet her final two novels do not continue the critique, and the (equivocal) social ideal apparently vested in serious clergymen in Mansfield Park settles on working gentleman farmers in Emma and entrepreneurial sailors in Persuasion. Austen seems to have professed in her novels the kind of morality that grew from the accepted doctrines of the Church of England – that human nature is always fallible, and that pain and difficulties help to create a soul – but her books are not primarily religious ones like those of Hannah More and Jane West: they may show affliction but do not preach the need for it.
Similarly, she is not primarily a philosophical writer. The attitudes and vocabulary of the British Enlightenment thinkers, from Locke to her contemporary Adam Smith, were in the atmosphere breathed by intelligent bookish people like the Austens. Jane Austen does not so much engage intellectually with the works of the philosophers, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, and David Hume, as use them within her novels in parodic or allusive ways to reveal her characters.23 In tone she seems closest to Hume, whose historical writings she admired. Hume argued against moral absolutes and for the importance of context and difference in any judgement; like other Enlightenment thinkers he stressed the value of ordinary existence. Austen, too, was pragmatic about human nature, seeing it less fixed than subject to circumstances. She may have felt ‘Composition . . . Impossible’ with ‘a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb’ (L, p. 321); yet she was a writer who had a sharp eye for the everyday matter of existence. In this study I will connect Hume’s pragmatic philosophical and psychological writings with Austen’s works when appropriate.
Jane Austen’s novels are experimental. Each presents a different sort of heroine, a different take on society and the relationship of behaviour and personality to environment, a different sort of investigation, almost a different moral message, if one can here use so unnuanced a word. One book will describe a situation and treat it in a particular way, the next will give quite a different outcome. The flattery that destroys Maria of Mansfield Park will not much harm the heroine of Emma, while Maria’s harsh fate is not shared by Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, although her indecent act is similar. Appearing simple and superficially repetitive, the plots are in fact innovative in their tightness, their insistence that every incident and character serve the onward thrust. Equally experimental are the openings: the slow circumstantial family settings of Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, a parodic take on this convention in Northanger Abbey, a fast-paced plunge into marital bickering in Pride and Prejudice, and a sudden glimpse of the heroine’s consciousness in Emma.
When Emma declares that Harriet must be a gentleman’s daughter, the Austen reader is reminded of Elizabeth’s proud boast in Pride and Prejudice, truncated when Lady Catherine alludes to her mother, while Emma’s defensive remark that ‘A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her’ (E, 1:8) echoes the heroine’s intense response to Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park as he presses her into an unwanted marriage. The two statements are differently inflected and yet both come from young women who are in some way mentally isolated. The echoes and dialogue across novels increase the comedy and complexity, while suggesting other possibilities of feeling and action. They add to an impression of fluidity, implying that there is no single secure moral or socio-political vision that cannot be investigated, a little ironised, or a little mocked.