Thanks to her sharp wit and strong female characters, Jane Austen’s literature is still utterly relevant…
Author Claire Harman asks – is she the most influential woman of the past 200 years?
In 1811, a 35- year-old Hampshire spinster had her first book published anonymously: Sense And Sensibility, By A Lady. It got two brief, polite reviews, sold 500 copies and was swiftly forgotten. But 200 years later, everyone knows Jane Austen. She’s not just a writer, she’s a cult, a brand and a cultural touchstone.
You certainly wouldn’t have guessed this at her career’s inauspicious start. Born in 1775, the second daughter of a Church of England clergyman, she was part of a not very well-off household in a quiet east Hampshire village. Five of her six brothers all married, but she and her sister Cassandra did not (Cassandra was engaged but her fiancé died of yellow fever in 1797 and Jane herself refused at least one proposal of marriage). At the age of 20, she completed early versions of Sense And Sensibility and Pride And Prejudice, but when her father wrote to a publisher in 1797, offering to send him the latter, it was turned down. It must count as one of the biggest mistakes in publishing history.
Austen wasn’t deterred though and in 1803 a publisher bought her novel Susan for £10 (the equivalent of £350). However, they failed to do anything with it. So it was only when Sense And Sensibility appeared in 1811 (almost 20 years after she had started writing it) that she was finally a published author. However, she didn’t see her own success, dying in 1817, aged 41, of tuberculosis or cancer, after which her works were largely forgotten. She earned only £600 (now less than £20,000) from her books in total.
In her latter years Austen witnessed the printing of the first edition of Emma in 1815 but it was pulped after four years with only 563 of 2000 sold. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, even Pride And Prejudice, were remaindered in the 1820s and Austen went out of print for a decade. Her fortunes only turned at the end of the century when the first biography of her was written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. Victorian society became fascinated first by her exemplary, quiet life, then by her novels.
This marked the transition from obscurity to being one of this century and last’s most influential literary figures. It’s hard to believe her six short novels – yes, it really is just six – are still bought in their millions (because her work is out of copyright, there is no accurate estimate of how many). Austen’s influence and literary pulling-power can’t be over-estimated. She’s reached millions of people all over the world, not simply through the number of languages she’s been translated into (35 at the last count), but because there’s something in her work that readers connect with instantly. We read her because we feel she understands us – despite being born over two centuries ago.
In many ways, her books are more in tune with our times and tastes than her own. In the first review she ever received, she was taken to task for a ‘want of newness’, but her books now seem markedly more original than anything else of the period. After all, have you read any Sir Walter Scott – a contemporary of Austen’s – who sold proportionally the same amount then as JK Rowling has today? Austen simply wasn’t loved by the reviewers of her time. In 1817, English author Maria Edgeworth found the plot of Emma dull, while another contemporary novelist, Mary Russell Mitford, thought the wit of Elizabeth Bennet showed an “entire want of taste”. So perhaps Austen was so ahead of her time, she couldn’t be completely understood by her contemporaries. Over the past decades we have loved the fact that Lizzie is always answering back (and is fine with making self-deprecating remarks, such as admitting that she began to love Mr Darcy when she first saw his enormous estate, Pemberley). Austen knew her characters went against the grain and that she was out of step with her times. “I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like,” she said when setting out to write Emma.
Out of Time
It is a shame Austen never got to see her legacy. We buy into her work to such an extent that there is an endless stream of film and TV adaptations, sequels, prequels, mash-ups and homages. Just when you think Colin Firth in his wet shirt can’t be topped, or the Bollywood glitz of Bride And Prejudice bettered, along comes PD James with a new mystery, Death Comes To Pemberley and Joanna Trollope announces she’s going to rewrite Sense And Sensibility as a contemporary romance. We are constantly exposed to Austen’s manners, her morals, and her portrayal of women – and it has shaped the way we view all sorts of things.
Of course, Austen’s books have surface appeal too. She is unparalleled at luring us into a fantasy world of bonnets and gossip – ‘literary comfort food’ as the author Lori Smith has called it. It’s a world where there are single men of good fortune like Mr Darcy round every corner, in possession of a stately home and in want of a wife. There’s something for everyone: a great plot, a happy ending (always), carriages, ballgowns and romance. Think about the best love scenes you’ve ever read – how many of them at least faintly echo the understated passion, or endless yearning, of Austen? She has a hold over how we see love, and our voracious appetite for it – nearly half of all paperbacks published now are romances, and Austen is the acknowledged mother of the genre. She took the age-old romance plot and gave it several twists, centralising the heroine’s point of view, tastes and desires. Guardian columnist Zoe Williams believes Austen’s greatest mainstream influence is “the heart wants what it wants idea where a person’s true love is more important than his or her social duties. In Jane Austen’s own century that actually would have been considered pretty abhorrent.”
Significantly, Austen’s books have endless sly wit and cynicism, also unusual for her time. She was one of the first women to deliver humour and intelligence to subject matter previously thought frivolous and sub-intellectual. Harold Bloom, literary critic and Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale University, believes that Austen’s acerbic comic vision has been so influential that it has helped determine who we are both as readers and as human beings. Williams says, “She has affected our sense of humour historically and nationally, defining these incredibly English arts of understatement, irony, a beautifully caustic compassion.” Her wit has also had a huge influence on modern culture. “Austen had a profound effect on our sense of humour. Authors from Zadie Smith, to Jilly Cooper and even comedians like Miranda owe a huge debt to the Austen approach to life,” says School Of Life’s bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud.
A Female Voice
The earliest readers of Pride And Prejudice were surprised that such a clever book could have been written by a woman. It is, of course, the book from which Austen’s most famous line comes: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Playwright Richard Sheridan advised a friend to “buy it immediately” as it “was one of the cleverest things” he had ever read – high praise from a man of the Regency period. Austen seemed to know too much about everyone’s follies and was so worldly that nothing shocked her. It’s a form of knowing satire that has become a national trait: deliver your cynicism with a polite smile, keeping the tone ‘light, bright and sparkling’, as Austen herself aimed to do.
That her characters were strong, witty women might have surprised those who knew Austen – she didn’t openly sympathise with radical contemporaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft, the British writer and advocate of women’s rights. Austen’s feminism is more subtle, but she was still one of the first authors to suggest that women should marry for love, and not increased social standing or money. She gave her female characters the right to be happy too – a right we now take for granted, but certainly was not a given in Regency England. Persuasion, her last finished novel, is so bold as to suggest that happiness lies in a woman’s courage to act upon her passion.
In fact, her novels all deal with the choices involved in being a woman – although she refuses to discriminate between characters on grounds of gender, and serves up fools on a plate, regardless of their sex. She saved her most searing critique not for male idiocy, but the forces behind it – morals, property, money. And it worked. She has always been widely read by men and been praised for her rationality. This was also her approach to the political and class system of the time, which was rigid and very biased towards men – using her romantic novels as a mouthpiece for social commentary.
She also highlighted that women couldn’t inherit wealth – leaving many destitute on their husbands’ deaths. It’s a very dark subject, and one which many female novelists of the time shied away from. And her female characters are always reading, always educated, always well-versed in literature.
Criticised for being ‘small scale’ and parochial, Austen famously kept to what she knew about. She can certainly be credited for lifting the mundane to the literary – she could write a love quarrel, she could write a proposal, she could write endless scenes of domestic aggression because they were what she knew. She elevated the trivial to an art. She would never attempt to guess how men spoke or behaved among themselves. Look through her entire oeuvre and you won’t find a single Austen scene in which there isn’t a woman present. The genius of keeping exactly to what she knew is how she stayed in complete control of her material. Everyone recognises the situations she deals with: as Lord David Cecil commented in 1948, “Emma is universal just because it is narrow.” She showed that a writer doesn’t have to go to big, topical or historical themes in order to be relevant: there’s plenty of human material right in front of you.