‘Austen month’ is a good time to ditch the wilful misogynist misreadings of the revolutionary novelist’s life and work
It is a truth universally acknowledged that this is a month in which said phrase will be much overused. For January 1813 marked the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the opening 23 words of which have long been the recourse for writers on everything from neurobiology to breakfast cereal.
Fattened on chocolate-box adaptations with all the nuance of Quality Street designs, we imagine we know all there is to know about Austen and her small but perfectly formed oeuvre. Indeed, such is our collective possessive ignorance that we throw up our hands when adaptations appear that do not fit the fantasised Janeite bill.
Thus Andrew Davies’s heaving-bosomed, wet-shirt fetishising 1995 Pride and Prejudice was deemed orgiastically “sexed-up”, in a book that records the falling, or near falling, of two women, and a certain mental toppling even on behalf of its stalwart heroine. While Patricia Rozema’s film adaptation of Mansfield Park (1999) was condemned for its politicisation, when the Park’s being built on plantation money is clear, its servile heroine herself demanding of its patriarch: “We have no slaves at home – then why abroad?”
As Paula Byrne’s new book, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, elaborates, we have erroneously exaggerated Walter Scott’s view of Austen as “close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life”. Indeed, our Austen stereotype is now rather closer to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who – like many Victorians – was rather more insulting, complaining that she depicted a “pinched and narrow” existence in “sterile”, overly conventional novels.
Accordingly, there is a pervasive misogynist fiction that Miss Austen was a retiring, domestically cloistered, prudish, apolitical, conservative type, amateurishly concerned only with the machinations of the “3 or 4 families in a country village” that she recommended to her novel-penning niece while composing Emma (1815), which atypically maintains such a focus.
In fact, as Byrne suggestively contends, Austen was spirited, cultured, courageous, worldly, well-travelled, globally politically aware, anti-slavery, au fait with hardship, mental illness and sexual scandal, fond of London and the theatre, proto-feminist in her attitudes to marriage, children and career, diligent, professional, actively interested in both fame and earnings, and entirely capable of coquetry, hangovers, and even sodomy gags (see Mary Crawford’s knowing reference to naval “Rears, and Vices” in Mansfield Park, 1814).
Even Austen’s Christianity surpassed the standard C of E apathy in favour of something altogether more devout and practical. Intelligent, assertive, humanitarian, engaged, not beyond an interest in the latest bonnet, she was, in short, the prototype Guardian gal.
Part of our wilful misreading of Austen is not only that readers fail to recognise her more worldly references, but that we necessarily read her in the light of her subsequent influence. Her decision to eschew the purple schlock horror of the sensibility cult and gothic novel – so exquisitely satirised in Sense and Sensibility (1811) and, more explicitly, Northanger Abbey (1818) – represented not plodding convention but radical realism; for which Wordsworth, but not she, has been credited.
Just as Shakespeare’s shaping of literature was such that one only begins to appreciate how innovative he was in comparison with his more hamfistedly histrionic peers, so – without an immersion in the period’s breathless blatherings and Monty Python-esque dei ex machina – we fail to recognise Austen’s revolutionary qualities.
As Annabella Milbanke, future wife of Byron, wrote of Pride and Prejudice: “I think [it] a very superior work. It depends not on any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, no conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lapdogs and parrots, not chambermaids and milliners, nor recontres and disguises. I really think it the most probable fiction I have ever read.”
Comparisons between the swan of Avon and the swallow of Steventon began in her own century. What they also share is that their creations’ opening out on to a wider world makes them available for a multitude not only of interpretations, but re-imaginings. Austen has given us the valley girl satire Clueless (1995), Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996-), Bollywood head bobbling, Darcy porn pre- and post-Fifty Shades, and a flourishing zombie sub-genre, featuring Elizabeth Bennet as a Buffy-esque slayer.
I will be celebrating Austen month not with a ninja Pride and Prejudice but with the more restrained pleasures of Persuasion, her final completed novel, posthumously published in 1818. Its plot concerns a heroine who did indeed let prejudice reign and a hero whose pride might still prove his undoing. Its social satire remains yet more excruciating: the vanity of Sir Walter Elliot, for whom “the blessing of beauty” was “inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy”, not least. There are bad parents, ghastly siblings, and undesirable suitors for the most ardent Pemberlean to relish.
Yet it is also pained, postlapsarian, adult, the beginning of the kind of author the mature Austen, who died at 41, might have been; its heroine in the interesting position of being past the first bloom of youth … I must also confess to the most violent crush on its hero, Captain Wentworth.