Jane Austen’s novel pursuits (16 December 2017)

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 16 2017)

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When Jane Austen was born this day in 1775, novel-writing was still seen as a wholly undignified obsession. Old men feared the romantic nonsense it fed young women, who now, it was argued, entertained dangerously subversive tendencies such as following the heart instead of obeying their husbands. Some females too were alarmed. Hannah More, the playwright, saw in novel-reading “all the symptoms of decay” while Mary Berry, the writer, declared fiction “the great evil of all young women”. Even as Austen started Lady Susan in 1793, The Evangelical Magazine was denouncing novels as “instruments of abomination and ruin”.

In fact, a sinister connection was even made between reading fiction and such unseemly habits as masturbation. As the French doctor J.D.T. de Bienville argued in his Nymphomania, published in the year of Austen’s birth, “venomous” novels stoked the imagination, which in turn pushed women into the abyss of fantasy. They became “monsters in human shape”, prone to impious activities like self-pleasuring. Art too aided this view—works like Emmanuel de Ghendt’s Midday Heat were among several featuring a woman with her hands in the wrong place, a half-read novel lying open by her side.

And yet the young Austen was allowed to read. The daughter of a reverend, she had the unusual luxury in her formative years of enjoying uncensored access to her father’s personal library. The family had literary inclinations—one brother wrote poems, and another, sermons. Sometimes, little sketches were put up, and as a niece later recalled, Austen “read aloud remarkably well” from her own writings. She read as widely as the times permitted—and in 1813, this included such titles as Essay On The Military Police And The Institutions Of The British Empire, which she found “highly entertaining”.

Her own family had no prejudice against novels. When, in her 20s, a library owner invited them to subscribe, reassuring them that her collection held more than just novels, Austen was not pleased. “She might have spared this pretension to our family,” she wrote, “who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so.” With the explosion of print, the rise of a middle class, and a growing appetite for books of all kinds, the novel was here to stay, even if for another century it would retain, in varying degrees, some stigma—Samuel Coleridge, in 1815, considered reading fiction about as productive as “spitting over a bridge” and “snuff-taking”.

Austen’s own books reflected the social reservations attached to the novel. When, for instance, in Pride And Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is sarcastically accused of being “a great reader”, she is quick to respond: “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many (other) things.” For decades, however, there had also been some lampooning of high-class disdain for novels. In Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals, there is a scene where a character has visitors and commands her maid to conceal all her novels. “Here, my dear Lucy, hide these books. Quick, quick! Fling Peregrine Pickle under the toilet—throw Roderick Random into the closet—put The Innocent Adultery into The Whole Duty Of Man—thrust Lord Ainsworth under the sofa—cram Ovid behind the bolster—there—put The Man Of Feeling into your pocket—so, so, now lay Mrs Chapone in sight, and leave Fordyce’s Sermons open on the table.”

One of the reasons, given the context then, that Austen was writing the first drafts of her novels as early as the 1790s was that she did not begin with an intention to publish. Writing was a personal pursuit, and perhaps to be circulated and read aloud in family circles. That was that, and so public concerns about how appropriate an activity this was for a reverend’s daughter never arose.

When a desire to publish did come, it was, in what is familiar to writers even today, a painfully slow process. In 1797, in her early 20s, the book that would become Pride And Prejudice was rejected by a publisher. In 1803, the novel that the world knows as Northanger Abbey was acquired for £10, but did not see the light of day for years. It was 1811 by the time Sense And Sensibilityappeared, its success allowing for other works accumulated from over a decade ago to also manifest in print—indeed, critics have noted that Austen’s early works, written largely in the final decade of the 18th century and rooted in the privileged lives of the gentry, differ from her last works, which reflect a greater awareness of a changing world in their cast of characters, approach to class and the professions, and other attributes.

She herself was pleased with the reception of her books, even if it only brought her about £700 in her own lifetime. As the Edinburgh Magazine noted some years later, “We have no hesitation in saying, that (Austen)…will be one of the most popular of English novelists, and if, indeed, we could point to the individual who, within a certain limited range, has attained the highest perfection of the art of novel writing, we should have little scruple in fixing it upon her.” Alongside Frances Burney, Austen too thus has a place in making the novel respectable.

Curiously enough, it was only after her death that her name actually appeared as the writer of these novels, which have since sold millions around the world in dozens of languages. When Sense And Sensibility was published, the title page simply said, “By a Lady”. As other novels made their mark, their writer became known as “The Author of ‘Sense And Sensibility’”. In 1814, Austen’s identity became known in some circles due to her brother’s determination to advertise the fact, but none of the four books published before her death in 1817 carried her name—it was in the obituary that the connection was officially made.

As the Courier recorded, “Miss Jane Austen” was the “Authoress of ‘Emma’, ‘Mansfield Park’, ‘Pride And Prejudice’, and ‘Sense And Sensibility’. Her manners,” it added, “were most gentle; her affections ardent; her candour was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian.” And so it was, as has been the case with many writers before and after her, that the world woke up posthumously to the full richness of Austen’s writing, heaping recognition upon a talent that produced some of history’s most remarkable works of fiction.

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