Authors: John Mullan
Tags: #General, #Literary Criticism, #History, #Europe, #Great Britain, #European, #English; Irish; Scottish; Welsh, #Women Authors
In memory of Tony Tanner
Quotations from Jane Austen’s fiction are taken from the Oxford University Press edition of
The Novels of Jane Austen
, edited by R. W. Chapman, 3rd edition (1965–6). References are given within the text, by volume and chapter number. References to
are given by chapter number. The aim has been to enable readers easily to locate passages, irrespective of the editions they might be using.
Quotations from Jane Austen’s letters are taken from the Oxford University Press edition, edited by Deirdre Le Faye. As pagination differs between the third (1995) and fourth (2011) editions, references are given within the text by letter number.
Did Jane Austen know how good she was? It is a question often asked by her aficionados, struck on each new reading by the intricate brilliance of her fiction and perhaps aware that many of her first readers just did not see it. Contemporary reviewers might have been generally complimentary, but their very compliments show their failure to grasp what they were reading. ‘Whoever is fond of an amusing, inoffensive and well principled novel, will be pleased with the perusal of
be not allowed to rank in the very highest class of modern Novels, it certainly may claim a least a distinguished degree of eminence in that species of composition.’
Though she compared herself confidently with other novelists, especially other women novelists, of her times, there is no evidence that Austen herself dreamed of posterity. Her famously modest description of her own art in a letter to her brother James – ‘the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’ (
, 146) – is so arch that some have taken it as a kind of boast: surely she did not think her work was such a small thing. Yet there is something incongruous about her latter-day status. Shakespeare and Dickens, the only other English authors who can rival her continuing, international appeal, were successful candidates for fame in their own day. They were also conscious innovators in the forms they used, whose audacity was widely – by rivals, grumpily – recognised. Here is the reason why that question about Austen’s creative self-awareness is irresistible: she did things with fiction that had never been done before. She did things with characterisation, with dialogue, with English sentences, that had never been done before. Is it possible that she had no particular idea of how singular her novels were? Or did she have some hunch that her fiction was unlike that of any of her contemporaries, and would duly outlive all her rivals?
‘Few so gifted were so truly unpretending,’ wrote Henry Austen in his posthumous Biographical Notice of his sister.
Critics and biographers of recent times have tended to bridle at the version of the author that came down from her family: a woman who wished nothing of fame and whose writing was undertaken more to amuse her relations than to reach out to any public. Yet the widespread resistance to the image of a modest lady has been allowed to obscure an important truth: she was in some ways the most surprising genius of English Literature. She lived in an age distinguished by its literary intimacies and exchanges: we cannot think of the so-called Romantic period without thinking of the networks of friendship among its leading writers. Jane Austen knew not a single notable author, even distantly. Her most renowned female predecessor, Fanny Burney, had conversed with men and women of letters, and had been befriended by Samuel Johnson, no less. Her best-known female contemporary, Maria Edgeworth, may have lived in seclusion in Ireland, but when she did come to London she consorted with Jeremy Bentham and Walter Scott. The thoroughly eccentric William Blake, much of whose work was produced in very limited editions for a small number of patrons, was still known by a circle of London artists and literati, and his writings were discussed by fellow poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Even the so-called peasant poet John Clare became acquainted with Coleridge, Hazlitt and Lamb, and had his high season in the salons of literary London. Not Austen. There are a couple of poignant passages in her letters where she looks forward to the possibility of meeting the poet George Crabbe – then acknowledges that she has missed her chance of doing so. In his memoir, Henry Austen recalls a planned meeting with the French novelist and intellectual Germaine de Staël, which duly never took place.
Though her books sold well in her lifetime, Jane Austen was utterly unknown to her great literary contemporaries. Her one encounter with a leading author came when
was reviewed at length in the
by Walter Scott. Yet the review, while admiring, was anonymous. In a letter to her publisher John Murray, Austen expressed regret that ‘so clever a Man’ as the reviewer should have left
out of his survey of her work (
, 139). It is unclear whether this means that Austen knew she was reading the considered response of the novelist who had burst on to the scene with
less than two years earlier.
Jane Austen’s obscurity among her contemporaries is all the more striking when one considers her technical audacity. There was nothing so surprising about the fact that she wrote novels. There was something miraculous about the fact that she wrote novels whose narrative sophistication and brilliance of dialogue were unprecedented in English fiction. She introduced free indirect style to English fiction, filtering her plots through the consciousnesses of her characters. She perfected fictional idiolect, fashioning habits of speaking for even minor characters that rendered them utterly singular. She managed all this with extraordinary self-confidence and apparently without the advice or expert engagement of any other accomplished writer. She had had access to books, of course, and the conversations of a bookish family, but no circle of fellow authors. It might be a wrench to think of Austen, the conservative literary genius in a revolutionary age, as an experimental writer, but such she was. This has nothing to do with her subject matter: indeed, provide some bare plot summaries of her novels, and they can be made to sound rather less daring than those of contemporaries such as Maria Edgeworth or Mary Brunton. Her brilliance is in the style, not the content. Even when it comes to her characters, her success is a matter of formal daring as much as psychological insight. We hear their ways of thinking because of Austen’s tricks of dialogue; their peculiar views of the world are brought to life by her narrative skills.
Virginia Woolf, a reader completely alive to Austen’s fictional intelligence, said that ‘of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’.
Woolf meant that it was nearly impossible to take a single scene, or single paragraph, as an epitome of that greatness. The apparent modesty of Austen’s dramas is, though, only apparent. Look closely, and the minute interconnectedness of her novels is a bravura achievement. This interconnectedness is the reason why, when you re-read her novels, you have the experience of suddenly noticing some crucial detail that you have never noticed before, and realising how demanding she is of your attention. One of the special delights of reading Jane Austen is becoming as clever and discerning as the author herself, at least for as long as one is reading. And when you do notice things it is as if Austen is setting puzzles, or inviting you to notice little tricks, which do justice to the small, important complications of life. Readers of Austen love quiz questions about her novels, but the apparently trivial pursuit of the answers invariably reveals the intricate machinery of her fiction. Are there any scenes in Austen where only men are present? Who is the only married woman in her novels to call her husband by his Christian name? How old is Mr Collins? Among the pleasures of knowing Jane Austen’s novels is trying to answer such questions, but in this book I hope to show that doing so also reveals the true depths of her fictional world.