Each generation must interpret Jane Austen anew. My student Carolyn Zerhusen is writing her senior project on Jane and asking how we should regard her. Is she first and foremost a writer of love stories? Or is she above all a stringent social critic? Carolyn has been discovering that to pose the alternatives in this way opens up fascinating insights into the novels.
Carolyn started the project with a bone to pick. Every time she sat down to watch a Jane Austen film, she found that “all the men in the area would leave as if their masculinity depended on it.” Carolyn was disturbed that many regard Austen as “chick lit, girly books only about falling in love.” It hasn’t helped that the 2007 Anne Hathaway film Becoming Jane portrays the author as “a wildly romantic woman whose stories are only the result of disappointed love.”
Determined to defend Austen against such depictions, Carolyn read seven or eight biographies and discovered that this image of Austen originated with Austen’s own family. For instance, Henry, her favorite brother, presented her as “a sort of angel, unassuming, sweetly pious, and very accomplished as a lady, never thinking of profit or fame.” Her nephew, furthermore, feminized the portrait that her sister Cassandra had done of her and doctored her letters. To cite one example, a comment about unpleasant neighbors—“I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow”—got changed to “I was as civil to them as their circumstances would allow.”
Although this image of Jane Austen continues with many people today (witness the movie), a counter image emerged out of 1970s feminism, thanks in large part to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic. Carolyn writes that to them and to feminist Margaret Kirkham, Austen is “a proto-feminist novelist, interested in money, fame and social change. She is subversive, feisty, sarcastic, and rebellious, using her writing…to subversively question and debunk popular conventions of literature and gender.”
Carolyn was at first relieved to find this other image of Austen but notes that, after a while, she came to see it as “incredibly depressing.” These second wave feminists “deemphasized the romantic elements of her novels by saying all the marriages of Austen’s heroines tragically force them to submit to the patriarchy.”
In Carolyn’s eyes, this was going too far and she realized that she had to come up with her own Austen.
Her conclusion is that both depictions of Austen have some validity. True, Austen was a feminist with strong views on how women are victimized by patriarchy. But there is also a side of her that has fun with the romances. She wants us to swoon over Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy.
Carolyn makes her case by looking at Austen’s relationship to the other novelists of her time. The project focuses on Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and the unfinished novel Sanditon as the three that pay the most conscious attention to what a novel should be.
Northanger Abbey, her earliest novel, was supposed to have been published in 1803, but the publisher backed out and it didn’t appear until after Austen’s death. Carolyn regards it as underrated and believes that Austen wrote it, in part, to figure out her relationship to the other novelists of her day.
Women novelists in the early 19th century were in the paradoxical situation of dominating the field while not being taken seriously. Carolyn notes that Austen dances a complicated dance with gothic writer Ann Racliffe and domestic novelist Maria Edgeworth. On the one hand, Austen notes in Northanger Abbey that such novelists afford “more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world.” They are, to put it simply, fun. But in part because of this delight, in part because the novels are written by women, they are not taken seriously.
Austen therefore set out to write novels that could be both fun and serious, a combination of romance and serious social commentary. She succeeded spectacularly, of course, at least in the eyes of history. Even in her own time, she was beginning to command higher prices and Mansfield Park caught the attention of the Prince Regent, who requested that her next novel (Emma) be dedicated to him.
No sooner had Austen gotten readers to appreciate her romance-satires, however, than a new threat arose. Suddenly pure romance, which Austen had been forced to transcend, was no longer regarded as lightweight fluff. That’s because a man was writing it.
The man was Sir Walter Scott, whose poetry was already earning him thousands and who now decided to start writing novels. Austen’s tongue-in-cheek description of his entry into the novel-writing field has an edge to it:
Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.—It is not fair.—He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.—I do not like him & do not mean to like Waverly if I can help it—but I fear I must.
Carolyn describes how Austen counterattacks in Persuasion and Sanditon. There, the very criticisms that were leveled against women writers and readers at the start of Austen’s career, Austen now directs against weak-minded readers of Scott and of Lord Byron. These male authors don’t provide the sustenance of a Jane Austen novel and, as a result, they turn the heads of (in Persuasion) Captain Benwick and Louisa Musgrove and (in Sanditon) Sir Edward Denham. Benwick proves not to have the mental fortitude to mourn his dead fiancé for a decent amount of time; Louisa proves not to be the strong and steadfast woman that Captain Wentworth initially thinks she is; and the pathetic Denham fancies himself a villainous rake based on the books he’s read.
Austen was not pleased that the inferior and less serious Scott made far more money than she did, but she would have been pleased to know how far she would surpass him in reputation. No modest author she, despite Hathaway’s portrayal. She desired wealth and fame and was disappointed that she didn’t get it. Carolyn has no problem with this Jane.
Nor does she have a problem with the Jane who produces what can be perceived as girly chick lit. In Carolyn’s third-wave feminist vision (or is it fourth-wave by now?), there is no contradiction between being a hard-hitting satirist and a woman who loses herself in romance. For Carolyn, that’s what makes Jane Austen great. She allows room for both.