The immortal Jane Austen was not the first English novelist. Not even the first English woman to write a novel. But she is one of the best, and hers are the earliest English novels that are still commonly read and loved today.
This episode is part of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists.
My major source for this week was Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home, but there are many biographies and websites about the divine Jane, and there are a few other scattered links below.
Last week we talked about Murasaki Shikibu and The Tale of Genji. This week we hop over to another island off the opposite end of the Eurasian continent.
We are also skipping about 700 years, and the novel has become a recognized genre in the interim. Even for those who think the novel is a Western concept, there is no consensus on who wrote the first one. But it certainly isn’t Jane Austen. Even if we confine ourselves to English novels, there is no consensus. One contender is by a woman named Aphra Behn’s 1688 book called Oroonoko: or the Royal Slave, a True Story, which was not at all true, since it was fiction. Behn is very interesting, and I may cover her someday, but the first blockbuster, the first best-seller, the first establish-the-genre-in-the-minds of publishers novel was Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson.
It was published in 1740. Pamela is a 15 year old maid. Her employer makes repeated sexual advances, but she, the ever virtuous, rebuffs them all, defending her chastity, until lo, he realizes her worth, mends his ways, and proposes marriage. Thus the maid becomes the mistress of the house with a now charming husband, who is of course, going to walk the straight and narrow from here on out. I will here pause so that you can finish vomiting.
Pamela was a huge success, and it is a small comfort to know that it had its detractors even at the time. There were people who said it was stupid. People who said it was immoral. And even dangerous.
It is less comforting to know that some modern bestsellers have a very similar plotline, but I won’t name them for fear of insulting your favorite series.
Anyway, the novel was here to stay, and thousands of would-be novelists rose to the challenge despite all the moralists wringing their hands and the very real fear that this new thing called fiction would corrupt its readers into madness, sexual perversion, and even Methodism.
“Nonsense” said some folks. You may or may not like Pamela, but that doesn’t make all novels bad. One family that took that view was the family of George and Cassandra Austen.
George was a clergyman. He had two livings, which meant he preached at and oversaw two adjacent parishes and collected the tithes from both of them. Both he and Cassandra had wealthy relations, but were not wealthy themselves, which makes the Austen family very much like the families Jane Austen would later write about: families on the lower fringes of genteel life and perpetually strapped for cash.
What is not at all like the novels is the composition of the family. Jane Austen is famous for writing about families of girls. So you may be surprised to hear that she grew up surrounded by boys. Jane was born on Dec 16, 1775, and she was the 7th of 8 children. She had 1 sister and 6 brothers. And on top of that the family took in boys as students, so at any given time there were 11 or 12 boys around the place.
Jane was sent away to boarding to a dry nurse when she was very young and then later to boarding school. Neither of these were particularly uncommon, but neither were they so routine that we don’t ask why. We don’t have a firm answer, but one possibility is that for a family struggling to maintain itself and taking in pupils for a fee, her space in the house was more valuable than the cost of sending her away at school. Her sister Cassandra was with her, and they would remain close for the rest of Jane’s life. Jane returned home at age 11 to this large, mostly loving and supportive family.
In her novels, Jane throws out information like Mr. Bingley had £5000 a year and expects you to know what that means, so let’s put that into context. A farm laborer might expect to make £20 a year. They didn’t necessarily have to pay for everything out of that because some room and board might be provided as well. The young Jane herself received £20 a year from her father. She also did not pay for her room and board, but she did travel, dress, give presents, give charity and the like out of her £20 a year. And let me tell you, the clothes mattered. When a girl is going to balls and parties as if her future career depends on it (which in fact it did), it mattered whether you were well turned out and whether could make a shilling go a long way.
£500 per year was the smallest sum at which a family could pretend to gentility. That is the amount Jane gave to the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Austen at the height of his earning pulled in £1000 per year, which meant he could afford a carriage. But his fortunes didn’t stay that high and they had to give it up.
The Austens kept servants, which sounds like wealth to us, but wasn’t particularly. Remember, there was no plumbing, dishwasher, washing machine or anything like that. Housework was heavy, heavy labor, and it was well worth hiring a girl or two to help if you could possibly stretch the budget that far. But unlike the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, the Austens could not afford a cook or a butler, and Jane definitely had work to do in the kitchen.
Even at that young age, she could hardly have failed to notice that some people get a lot and some get a little and there is no fairness to it. Her mother’s great-aunt had left her £200 in her will. But her brother had received a large fortune and a large estate from that same great-aunt because he was a boy.
In Jane’s own family, brother #2, George Jr., was sent away permanently and not even mentioned in many accounts. Why? Because he was epileptic, a condition not at all understood and suspected to be contagious.
Brother #3, Edward, was also sent away, more or less permanently. Why? Because one of Mr. Austen’s rich cousins Mr Knight and his wife thought Edward was charming and handsome, and they wanted to adopt him, and when a rich childless couple wants to adopt you, that is absolutely the best career you could hope for. So off he went, and yes, he became the wealthiest member of the family.
The career plan for Jane and Cassandra was marriage. Jane was taught to read, write, manage a household, needlework, and music, which was all a genteel girl needed to know. Knowing more was even dangerous. It made her strange and less likely to attract an eligible young man.
Jane did reasonably well at all of these subjects. She played the piano and kept a large collection of sheet music, most of it painstakingly copied out by her. But books were her true love. Her father loved novels and kept a library of them, even if brother #1, James, was against such a frothy, frivolous form of entertainment.
The Austen family often read aloud to each other in the evening. Not only was it a way to share a good time together in an age before TV, but it was economical: only one person needed enough candlelight to read by.
Sometimes what was read was also written by a member of the family. Eldest brother James was ackowledged as the most literary member of the family. Great things were expected of his poems and essays.
But little Jane was encouraged too. Mr. Austen spent a not inconsiderable amount on paper for her. He bought her notebooks to write in, and we have to this day, 3 volumes of what the teenage Jane considered her best work, carefully and clearly copied out.
Among other delights is something you might recognize if you have seen the 1999 movie of Mansfield Park. In it Fanny Price writes a “History of England by a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian.” Well that spoof actually exists because the teenage Jane wrote it.
These early writings are not novels, but even so Jane’s style is already present: sharp, clean, witty, and always laughing. Her characters have strong feelings, but rational decision making is more highly praised. Her heroines don’t tend to gush. Especially not about men.
And speaking of men, Jane was now in her late teens, and it was time for her to be about the business of finding an eligible young man. By the Georgian era, it was known that love in marriage was a plus, but it was not like our own overly romantic age where love is considered the only reasonable basis for a marriage. Love was good, but money, position, temperament, and the approval of both families were at least as important as love, if not more so.
The best way to meet eligible young men was to go to balls,which Jane did. She loved dancing and the picture of her there reminds me strongly of one of her least likable characters, Miss Lydia Bennet, for after one ball Jane wrote, “There were 20 dances and I danced them all.” And her neighbor described her as “the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly.” (Worsley, 110)
And it seemed to be working. She met and fell in love with Thomas Langlois Lefroy, a law student from Ireland. She chased him across 3 balls and expected him to propose before he left town, though she planned to refuse him. She was very young.
However, the proposal never came. Lefroy enjoyed her company, and then he left.
Generations of Austen-lovers have tried to determine just how heart-broken Jane was, but it’s so hard to tell when she is serious and when she is laughing, even at herself.
Meanwhile she was keeping busy. She was only 21, but she had already written a version of Sense and Sensibility and was hard at work on Pride and Prejudice while her own romance was floundering.
There are other parallels to her own life too. For example, she went to visit rich brother Edward in 1796. He seems to have been reasonably kind, but then she came home and created the character Lady Catherine de Bourgh, so you do have to wonder.
Mr Austen knew novels well enough to know that First Impressions (as Pride and Prejudice was then called) was very, very good and he took it on himself to be her agent and sent it to a publisher . . . who refused it.
Of course this novel-writing thing was not a job because her real job was to find herself a man. All her life, Jane would make long stays at the homes of various family members and friends. These were generally not by her own choice, but when you have met all the men in your own village, you must seek them abroad. It was Jane’s bad luck that she came of age at the height of the Napoleonic wars, England was losing 20,000 men a year and many more were simply overseas. Her sister Cassandra was also unlucky in love. Her fiance died before their wedding day.
The chances of Jane making a good match were never very great, but that’s lucky for us because the long stays apart from family and friends necessitated an enormous amount of letter writing and many of those letters still survive today. Many have read the letters and found them . . . boring. They are all about the quality of different teas, little alterations to clothes, small doings of the neighbors. But this is not a reflection on Jane. It’s a reflection on the world she lived in: she had no opportunity for deep study, business investment, politics, independent travel, social reform, or anything we might consider “significant.” All such things were forbidden, first by her gender and then by her financial position. Is it in any way surprising that she and the women around her focused on the things they could control: like the brand of the tea or the lace on a frock?
And then came disaster. In December 1800, Mr. Austen decided to retire. He was 70 years old, so this was not unreasonable from his point of view. But it meant moving, as the house they lived in was a perk of his church position. They, would, he decided, go to Bath. Jane was informed, not consulted.
Not only that, but almost everything must be sold: the books, the paintings, the piano, the collection of sheet music. All was converted to cash and in May of 1801, the silence was deep as they journeyed to their new home. “We did not speak above once in 3 miles,” Jane said. And they weren’t traveling fast. (Worsley, 153)
Bath was a party city, a gilded place where the upper classes came to rest, play, and take the waters. But all that took money, and the Austens were now significantly more strapped for cash than ever before. They could not agree on an acceptable house for what they could afford to pay. Back in Hampshire, elder brother James and his family were now enjoying the home Jane had loved and Jane was bitter: “The whole world is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expense of another,” she wrote. (Worsley, 159)
Moving didn’t mean that a constant stream of long visits elsewhere stopped. Or that the eternal husband-hunting stopped. One thing that is noticeable in any biography of Jane is the extent to which any man who once danced with Jane is still discussed and speculated on as the possible love of her life. Believe me, I’m skipping over a lot of possible men.
And then it happened. In 1802, Jane was staying with friends, when the son and heir of the estate, Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither gave Jane Austen a proposal of marriage. And she accepted him.
Mr. Bigg-Wither had much to recommend him, despite his unfortunate name. He had a comfortable home. And considering his character, connection, and situation in life, you might say that Jane’s chances of happiness with him were as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.
And yet the following morning Jane changed her mind, and said no.
Now if you are a Sense and Sensibility fan you might wonder how she can do that. Her character Edward Ferrars had every possible inducement to break his engagement, and yet he would not and is applauded for his integrity.
This is one of the very few situations where women of this time period held the upper hand. A woman was allowed to change her mind with no real consequences. But if a man did the same that was not only ungentlemanly behavior, he could actually be sued for breach of promise, as Mr. Pickwick was in Charles Dickens’ novel.
But why did Jane change her mind? Well, one family member said that Mr Bigg-Wither was so awful that “one need not look about for a secret reason to account for a young lady’s not loving him.” (Worsley, 174)
He was awkward, sickly, and a little bit rude. Not hanging offenses. But apparently they were enough for Jane. They would not have been enough for many other women throughout history. But Jane was a proto-Romantic, and she turned the marriage down, knowing full well that like her character Lizzy Bennett, “it was by no means certain that another offer of marriage [might] ever be made” to her.
But by 1803, she had other things to think about. Her novel Susan had found a publisher at last! She was paid £10 which was the first money she had ever earned for herself. But that wretched publisher never printed it, which by the way, is a thing publishers still do. I know because they’ve done it to me.
And by 1804, she had yet more to deal with because her father died, and with him went most of the small income. The income that remained to support Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane was £210 per year, well below the amount needed for even the most pitiful pretense of gentility.
Now was the time for the other members of the family to show some family solidarity and Christian spirit. Edward’s Christian spirit amounted to £100 per year. Henry, Frank, and James gave £50 per year each and that was okay because they were less well off than Edward. George, the epileptic brother, gave nothing because he had nothing. And Charles’s letter on the subject was burned. Apparently his Christian spirit was somewhere in the neighborhood of £0.
Adding it all up, it still comes to less than the minimum £500 per year, and yet Henry wrote to Frank, that their mother would be very comfortable, and the fact that they had to go down from 3 servants to 1 would be agreeable, and they would suffer no personal deprivation as a result.
Possibly he expressed the same sentiments to Jane or she saw the letter. She was still revising Sense and Sensibility, and you do wonder whether it was before or after this that she had Mrs. John Dashwood say:
Altogether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that?—They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something.Sense and Sensibility
Do you think Henry ever recognized himself?
Jane, grief-stricken and struggling, may well have spared a few shards of regret for Mr Bigg-Wither, but she would write no novels. The Bath years were a fog of depression, frustration, and tragedy. The novel she worked on there was never finished.
She was not at all sorry when in 1806, Frank offered to rent them a house in Southampton. It wasn’t a good house. And it came with Frank’s wife as a housemate, which was not an inducement. But they went.
For a brief period, they thought they might strike it rich after all when one of Mrs. Austen’s wealthy relatives died, but, no, they were left out of the will again. It all went to the richer and more male branches of the family.
After a few years, Edward offered them a home back in their beloved Hampshire, and that seems to have been what was needed to getting Jane going as a writer again.
She had by now revised Sense and Sensibility many times, and in Oct 1811 it was finally published in a run of 750 copies at author’s risk. Every last one of them sold. At first no one knew who had written it because it was only signed as “By a lady” which was not uncommon at the time. After all, people were still railing about novels being dangerous corrupter of youth. You might not want to be known as a chief corruptor.
Sense and Sensibility did well enough that the publisher bought Pride and Prejudice outright for £110. It sold terrifically well, which meant the publisher made an enormous amount of money and Jane still only got that flat fee.
Henry was ultimately the one who blabbed that his sister was the authoress, but Jane didn’t really mind. She was finally published and people liked it! And she was writing again. Mansfield Park and Emma are creations of this period.
By the time Emma was published, Jane’s confidence had grown. She went to London to meet publishers on her own. She got back the copyright on Susan. She got herself in with the same publisher who worked with celebrated names like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. The Prince of Wales was a fan of hers. She was invited to meet him and also to dedicate her next book to him, which was not the kind of invitation you turn down. Unfortunately, Jane didn’t like him at all and she wasn’t alone, as he made himself very unpopular, particularly with his own wife. “Poor woman” wrote Jane, “I shall support her as long as I can because she is a Woman, a because I hate her husband.” (Worsley, 287)
Emma was still dedicated to him because there was no way to get out of it. Sadly, it didn’t sell as well as her previous novels. Jane had published this one at her own risk again, determined not to let the Pride and Prejudice debacle happen again. This time, she should have taken the flat fee. Her total lifetime earnings were £668. A paltry sum for an author who has by now sold over 20 million copies, just of Pride and Prejudice alone.
Meanwhile, the financial difficulties continued. £668 was welcome, but one could not live on that indefinitely and living off your brothers meant you were subject to all their changes in fortune and bad decisions. Life was precarious.
Particularly so for Jane, whose health began to fail in her thirties. The medical advice of the time was, shall we say, not helpful. Subsequent doctors have suggested Hodgkin’s disease or maybe Addison’s, neither of which means much to me. But Jane was failing and then rallying repeatedly, and the explanation that does mean something to me is the suggestion that her well-meaning but misguided doctors were prescribing her arsenic, and she was slowly poisoned.
In the better times, she revised Susan into Northanger Abbey, wrote Persuasion, and started another novel. But none of these would see a publisher in her lifetime.
She died on July 18,1817. Her sister Cassandra wrote “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.” (Worsley, 319).
There remains the question of Jane Austen’s impact on the world. And as I was researching this I was reminded of why I was a history major, not an English major. When Robert McCrum, author of The 100 Best Books in English says that Jane Austen is the first serious novelist, I’m here wondering if that means that all the ones before her were just kidding? I really don’t understand what that means.
When Roy Pascal and John Mullan write that Jane Austen pioneered the technique of free indirect discourse, I am slightly more impressed, but I still have to dig around for some explanation, and in case you are too, I’ll just let you know that it means narration that is in the third person but is still drenched in the thought patterns of the character, rather than being an all-seeing God-like narrator who is always right. This is most pronounced in Emma, where the snobbish main character is constantly deluding herself and us. This was a new technique in the literary world.
I’m a lot more interested in Jane’s impact on the world than I am in her impact on literary techniques. She has been accused of being unbearably trivial. Nothing much happens in her novels: people go to balls and pay social calls, do a little shopping and have tea, write a letter or receive one. It’s all very mundane. And that is precisely the point: life is very mundane and great swathes of it are filled with triviality. Jane’s gift was to create mundane situations where the characters are so well drawn that even 200 years later, women read her novels and recognize themselves and their families. Lizzy, Elinor, Fanny, Emma, and Catherine are fictional, but they are also real. They make decisions we might have made and mistakes we definitely have made. Despite their flaws they deserve happiness, and they get it. It’s true that their happiness always takes the form of a good man, but let’s remember Pamela. The message before Jane Austen was that if he had money and a house, he was worth marrying, even if he was a sexual predator. Jane Austen’s heroines would never settle for that. Biographer Lucy Worsley writes it this way:
“What [Jane] did was to bring romance—the possibility of finding an overwhelming, personal, one-of-a-kind, unique love—into the grasp of ordinary people. . . Until you had seen such a relationship described by Jane Austen, you did not know that you wanted it. You had other expectations from marriage: security, wealth, children, respect and the comfortable feeling of having satisfied God’s requirements of your time on earth. Only with Austen did women begin to think that they wanted—no, needed—to find Mr. Darcy. Only with Austen were women’s thoughts and feelings beautifully, accurately and amazingly brought to life. Only with Austen did women begin to live as they live today.”(Worsley, 324-325)