One needs to be either very brash, or a tremendous admirer of Jane Austen, to write about her. She has been so much written about by scholars and biographers that there seems to be nothing left to say. Every word she wrote has been picked up and scrutinised, its meaning probed, every action of hers, or even a lack of action, thoughtfully considered. For a woman whose life was, as has been universally agreed, uneventful, it is amazing how many books have been written about her.
Despite this, some of Austen’s personal life still remains unknown, one of the reasons for which is that her sister Cassandra assiduously destroyed many of her letters after her death and deleted words and sentences in some others.
Austen’s work has, of course, been thoroughly dissected, but there is a faint shadow of a cloud on one novel, which seems entirely different from the rest. A recent news item brought back the puzzle that surrounds this work. The news item said that the manuscript of a Jane Austen novel had been found, this being the only entire manuscript written in the writer’s own hand now existing. The novel, or rather novella, is Lady Susan, which is fairly unknown, unlike her other six novels: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. But Lady Susan?
I came upon the novel only serendipitously when I bought a copy of Persuasion, a novel I had not yet read then. It was a two-novels-in-one-volume kind of book. However, my delight at getting an unread Jane Austen, as also my intense pleasure in Persuasion, prevented me from giving Lady Susan (which was the other novel), much attention. Surprisingly, Austen herself has not referred to Lady Susan anywhere, whereas her other novels and some of the characters in them were much spoken of in the family and referred to in letters.
Equally curious is the fact that Austen never attempted to get this novel published, though she was always eager for publication of her novels.
In fact, her father, the Reverend George Austen, much taken by her early novel First Impressions, sent the novel to a publisher, without her knowledge, it seems, even offering to pay for its publication. The novel however came back with an “unusual rapidity” as her biographer Claire Tomalin says, adding, “As publishing blunders go, it was one of the worst”. Indeed, because First Impressions, after much revision, came out as Pride and Prejudice.
When I read Emma, the last of Austen’s novels for me (and what a magnificent climax it was!) I went on to her juvenilia, and then to her letters; by this time I was an ardent Jane-ite. And it was then that I realised how different Lady Susan was from the rest of her novels. For one thing, it didn’t seem to fit into the rest of her writing, neither among the Juvenilia, nor among the major novels.
She had written two novels when she was just about fourteen, Lesley Castle and Love and Freindship (sic). These were mischievous, tongue-in-cheek parodies of the novels of the time. Burlesque created out of the conventional ingredients of the novel: beautiful persecuted heroines, exaggerated emotions, melodramatic events and the theme of lost and found heirs. As for the style, here is a sample:
“Sophie shrieked and fainted on the ground. I screamed and instantly went mad. We remained thus, mutually deprived of our senses some minutes and on regaining them were deprived of them again.”
Not bad for a fourteen-year-old. She was already using the weapon of humour, of the comic, to demolish whatever she did not approve of. Lady Susan, on the other hand, has a complex plausible plot, well-drawn characters, it is short, crisp and moves briskly through letters. It is so confident a novel that it is hard to believe that this was written when Jane Austen was just about nineteen. And written by a girl who lived in a small closed circle of family and friends, one who had no experience of the kind of society she wrote about in Lady Susan.
Why then did she not get it published?
The answer lies in Lady Susan herself. She is an immoral women, “Jane Austen’s only femme fatale” as the introduction in my copy of the book says. Recently widowed when the book begins, she manages to make a married man fall in love with her, wrecks his marriage, dislikes her own daughter and wants to get her married to a nasty, vacuous man who terrifies the girl, and so on and on. All this comes out in the letters between Lady Susan and her friend and ally in all her plots, Mrs Johnson.
Another set of letters is between Lady Susan’s sister-in-law and her mother, both women deeply disturbed because Lady Susan has got her claws into their brother/son. What is most unusual about this heroine (one hesitates to call Lady Susan a heroine, a wicked woman can’t be a heroine; but there is no other character as important) is that even at the end she shows no signs of remorse or repentance for what she has done. Equally damning is the fact that when we leave her, she is undaunted, making fresh plans.
This is very unlike the Jane Austen we know. In all her novels, the wicked do get their punishment. Maria Rushworth and Aunt Norris in Mansfield Park are sent away from home in the end and live together, “their tempers their mutual punishment”. A few words that chillingly say much. Walter Elliot in Persuasion, Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, get their just desserts according to the extent of their wrongdoing. And even Jane Austen’s heroines are rewarded with future happiness only when they realise their mistakes. Lady Susan, however, gets away without even a rap on her knuckles.
This was a serious matter, because Austen was the daughter of a clergyman of the Church of England. She could not be seen to countenance wrong-doers like Lady Susan. It was an era when women were supposed to be pious and good, the champions of morals. Besides, the novel had to provide good examples to readers, which Lady Susan most emphatically did not.
For Austen to portray a character like Lady Susan was risky, to say the least. In fact, her brother Henry, in his biographical note included in Northanger Abbey (published after her death), wrote of his sister as being “thoroughly religious and devout”. Her nephew James-Edward Austen-Leigh said about the same thing in his memoir of Jane Austen. But then there’s the Juvenilia, which shows the mischievous side of her.
She made it clear that she found the conventional novel ridiculous.
A clue to her ideas about novels and their heroines can be found in a letter to her niece Fanny in which she says, “pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked”. And therefore, perhaps, Lady Susan, who was, unforgivably for the times, a sexual predator.
Austen was even more open about her ideas in a three-page document which she titled Plan of a Novel, According to Hints from Various Quarters. This came out of the suggestions made by James Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent, to Jane Austen, advising her to write about a clergyman – like him, of course. The Plan of a Novel describes what a heroine should be like: beautiful, with a faultless character, perfectly good, with much tenderness and sentiment and not the least wit (!) very highly accomplished and so on and on.
It was revulsion against this picture of perfection that drove her, perhaps, into writing Lady Susan. Nor did she in her major novels create a faultless heroine. In the first few pages of Northanger Abbey, she makes it clear that Catherine is no heroine, but only an ordinary girl. After this novel, in which Austen criticised the Gothic novel in her authorial voice, she gave up criticising and wrote what she wanted to, producing in the process some of the best novels in the English language.
There is only one authenticated extant portrait of Jane Austen, in which she looks very much like the prim and proper spinster she was supposed to be. The stern look and the thin line of the lips deny the witty fun-loving person that she was. This woman was pushed into the shadows by the biographical notice written by her brother Henry and the memoir written by her nephew. Henry, apart from speaking of her as religious and devout, also said that “neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motive”. Many of Austen’s statements give the lie to this.
“Every copy of Sense and Sensibility has been sold,” she writes. One can see the jubilation of the writer in this. “I have now written myself into £250 which only makes me long for more.”
And when the publisher of Pride and Prejudice offered her £125, while she wanted £150, she wrote, “both of us could not be pleased”, and she therefore agreed to take what was offered. Even more candid are her words in a letter that “people are more ready to borrow and praise than to buy... though I like praise as much as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” A statement which all writers will heartily agree with.
Fame she genuinely shunned, but money not only meant a great deal to her, for she had been dependent on her brothers since her father’s death, but it also represented the value of her work. She knew the value of her work, but like authors everywhere and at all times, she could not successfully argue with publishers. There is the story of how she “sold” a novel to a publisher for £10.
When it was not published for years, she wrote to him asking for her manuscript back. He said they would give it back if she returned the ten pounds. Not having that much money, she left it at that. (It’s ironic that Jane Austen’s face now features on a ten-pound note.) Ultimately, Henry bought back the manuscript after her death and had it published under the title of Northanger Abbey.
The story or myth of the creaking door, which it is said made Jane Austen put away her papers and hide them, fearing an interruption, originated with her nephew James-Edward. This, along with Henry’s statement that money meant little to her, makes her seem an amateur, a woman who didn’t take writing very seriously.
Actually, she was a thorough professional. The woman who revised her work, copied and recopied, who wrote to publishers and waited eagerly for the book to come to her hands, who noted the opinions of family and close friends – she was no amateur. She was a hard-working writer who carefully crafted her novels. And they meant a great deal to her.
She called Sense and Sensibility her “suckling child” and Pride and Prejudice her “darling child”. What is not much taken note of is that she was a rebel. She wrote about ordinary men and women and their lives, their moral scruples more the stuff of her novels than their adventures. When she wrote Lady Susan, she knew she was rowing against the tide, she knew she had created a character who went against everything that women were supposed to be.
Her own heroines after Lady Susan were very different. She spoke of Emma as a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like”. Understandably, because Emma is not an ideal heroine. She thinks a lot of herself, she is blind to everything except her own objectives, she is interfering, she wants to be in control. Not surprising that Jane Austen was nervous before Emma came out.
And when she collected opinions of family and friends, it turned out that most preferred Pride and Prejudice to Emma, some even thought Mansfield Park better. Jane Austen has now been vindicated in her own estimation of Emma, for it is today considered one of the finest novels in English. After Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey, novels came out of her in quick succession; it was as if she had shed a burden.
If she avoided possible trouble by not having Lady Susan published, her letters, published in 1932 created quite a literary fracas.
These letters, it was said, were not the letters a great writer would write. EM Forster spoke of “ill breeding”, and another critic spoke of the letters as “a desert of trivialities punctuated by occasional oases of clever malice”. What the critics of her letters did not take into account was that the letters were not written for future publication.
Jane Austen never thought of herself as a great writer. She enjoyed positive responses to her novel; that was about all. (The vanity of imagining oneself a great writer seems to be reserved for male writers.) Her letters were mainly written to family and close friends, most of them to her sister Cassandra with whom she shared everything. In a letter to Cassandra, she writes that the “true art of letter writing is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth. I have been talking to you as fast as I could the whole of this letter.”
As such, the letters contained family news, neighbourhood gossip, remarks about shopping, clothes, fashions, food and so on. One comment of hers, much taken note of, speaks of a woman who delivered a dead child before her time, and then adds “I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband”. Nasty, certainly, but Jane could speak to Cassandra as she could to no one else. And the Austen who created flawed heroines can surely be forgiven for having some flaws herself.
As for not being the kind of letters a great writer would write, these were not letters to literary persons. There was no bonding at the time between women writers. Unlike men they did not, or could not, go to universities, could not meet in ale houses or coffee shops, could not form coteries. For women writers it was a life of literary loneliness. Confined mainly to their homes, they had no contacts with their literary peers, or with anyone but family and close friends.
Yet there are her letters to her nephew and niece, aspiring writers both of them, which are quite different in tone and matter; she encouraged the budding writers, gently gave them advice when asked for it and also let us into some of her ideas about novel-writing. These letters contain gems like the famous remark about her own writing being “the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush”. And the advice to her niece Anna that, “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on” is still much quoted.
After her death, as often happens, sales of her books sagged. But forty years or more after her death, a critic, George Henry Lewes, a philosopher and literary and theatre critic, (later George Eliot’s partner) wrote an article on her in Blackwood’s Magazine celebrating her genius. He called her the “greatest artist who has ever written” and “a master of dramatic presentation”, second in this only to Shakespeare.
He persuaded both Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot to read all her novels. Neither of these writers were great admirers of Jane Austen, Charlotte being the bigger critic. “Miss Austen without poetry may be sensible...but she cannot be great”, she wrote. The next century would challenge this valuation of Charlotte Bronte’s, for FR Leavis, another important critic, included Jane Austen among the great writers of the English novel.
Today she is having a revival, her novels being turned into TV serials and movies. She is famous and popular like she never was in her lifetime. Sense and Sensibility has been made into films, both in Malayalam and Hindi, and Pride and Prejudice became a hideous Hindi movie. The English TV and film versions of her novels are too many to be counted.
Sadly, her popularity rests on a misconception of her writing.
She is looked upon as a writer of romances, stories of love which end with “and they lived happily ever after”. She has also been called sentimental by a Famous Author. Astonishing thing to say about a writer whose novels went straight to the heart of the matter by speaking of money.
Pride and Prejudice describes Bingley almost at the beginning of the novel as “a young man of large fortune”, Mansfield Park tells us in the first few sentences that Maria Ward had only seven thousand pounds, yet made a good marriage, and Emma starts off with the famous statement describing her as “handsome, clever and rich”. Sentimental? Not by any means. She wrote about the importance of money in marriage. She put love higher, undoubtedly, but in Mansfield Park, in Fanny’s mother, she gives us a dismal picture of a marriage which began with love and no money.
Scholars and critics would never put Jane Austen up there with Virginia Woolf and James Joyce as a game changer. Nevertheless, she changed the trend of the English novel through her own. Not only did she challenge the popular novels of her time, she showed the possibilities of a new kind of novel.
It was said that without Jane Austen there would have been no George Eliot. In fact, because Jane Austen wrote the novels she did, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell could write the kind of novels they did. And while other writers of her times are mainly studied in colleges and universities, Jane Austen continues to be read for pleasure. There can be no greater accolade for a writer.
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