Jane Austen & the Secret of Her Enduring Appeal
Jane Austen is a great writer. We accept that, right? It’s a given, isn’t it? But just what is it that makes her so special? We asked Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm, guest blogger and author of Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen and There’s Something About Darcy to share her thoughts
Jane Austen's output resulted in six completed, published novels, composed over twenty years. She died at the all too early age of 41. A collection of incomplete manuscripts and novel fragments she left offers us a chance to speculate as to the direction in which her work was moving. (Probably in a more satirical direction!)
And so, Austen is a great writer. Even her detractors, some of them famous such as Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain, have always had to admit that her achievement is admirable, even if they did not enjoy the end product. Her books have always been in print, translated into dozens of languages, and she has only risen in popularity over the past few decades. But why? What makes her so good? What is so special about Jane Austen?
Jane Austen by James Andrews, watercolour c1869, private collection
So often, in literary culture and in the consideration of reputations and legacy, a lot of assumptions are made about an author’s talent and the reasons for their longevity. Where Austen is concerned, we are sometimes encouraged to think that her fame is not based on literary merit. Giles Coren, Times columnist and broadcaster lent his support in 2017 to the tradition of disparaging Austen for being out of touch, dull, and just a writer of romances for women. He even went so far as to produce a documentary on the subject to coincide with the bicentenary of her death as a counterbalance to the lavish, and in his view undeserved, praise that had been heaped upon her, calling her work: “ … a tawdry glimpse into the bored life of a long-dead Hampshire spinster making up love stories about imaginary facsimiles of herself.”
To paraphrase Austen herself from Mansfield Park: I will let other pens dwell on that baggage, I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can …
Austen’s claim for greatness, and even genius if you are inclined in that direction, is based on the ways in which she crafted her novels. Think of her as being at the intersection of a set of cultural influences during her lifetime. The 18th Century had experienced an explosion of print culture and saw a rise in political pamphleteering, theatre, satire, and the serial novel. It is hard for us to imagine a time in which there was no widespread availability of books. Nowadays, we can just put our hand out to a shelf and retrieve the bestseller of the day in a bookshop or our own home. We can click a purchase button on our devices and immediately read an e-book. Or, even, receive free books as downloads just because there are now no printing costs! Imagine just what a young Austen would have made of that.
Austen took on the influence of the burgeoning 18th Century market and combined that with her love of histories and biographies. How did she have access to these? Her father, the Reverend George Austen, encouraged his daughters to read and make use of his library. In this, she was amongst a minority for her time. Access to books, reading, and theatre was limited to those who could afford it and helped to make her the writer she was. She was part of what was to become the robust 19th Century history of the daughters of clergymen and professionals who managed to turn what they learned from their early reading habits into brilliantly crafted novels thanks this access. George Austen believed in his youngest child’s abilities, and made her a gift of a portable mahogany writing desk that now resides in the British Museum’s collections.
So, what is Austen’s particular skill? What did she bring to the art of the novel that makes her work so enduring?
Whenever you read a novel, you enter into a relationship with its narrator. An author can be distanced from the narrative; aloof, and regarding the world they have created with detachment. In that way they can give something like a universal view; they can be a god-like presence. An author can also be present in the form of a character that performs as their surrogate. This gives the reader a close, intimate relationship with the action. Less universal, perhaps, but just as powerful.
Austen was working at a time when writers were grappling with what constituted a novel. It was a relatively new art form for the 18th Century. With the rise of printing and the wider availability of reading matter, authors told stories – but from whose point of view? If you are familiar with 18th Century novels you will know they were an experimental, wayward, youthful market. Some were told as epistolary novels – in the form of great sequences of letters and correspondence. Some were told as a diary, or the biography of a central heroic figure. From Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) – one of the longest novels in the English language – to Voltaire’s philosophic and satirical masterpiece Candide (1759) – we can see novelists working things out in episodes. Characters might travel and keep a journal, they write letters, they step in and out of their own narratives. And novels were long, serial soap opera-like adventures.
Austen’s brilliance was to help consolidate all these different ways of writing into what Professor John Mullan (What Matters in Jane Austen, Bloomsbury 2013) calls her ‘revolutionary’ contribution to the art of the novel. Austen, he argued in the Guardian (2015), was one of the first writers to manage the ‘alchemy’ of the novel; to combine character, pace, intimacy, and command of the fiction into a world that is utterly absorbing and convincing from start to finish. She credibly handled the ‘self-deception’ of characters such as Emma Woodhouse, so that the whole of that character’s story is one based on ‘the path of Emma’s errors.’ He recognises ‘the first-time reader will sometimes follow this path too, and then share the heroine’s surprise when the truth rushes upon her.’
Austen’s greatness, in Mullan’s words, was to combine the ‘internal and external’ lives of characters and bring in her own authorial voice. This means she is our mediator. She is in the room, circulating among her characters as our guide, nudging us and letting us in on the secret of the gossip or the inner feelings of her heroes and heroines. This is why we like her as a person. She comes across as a character in her own work with whom we would like to have a conversation or share correspondence.
Probably one of the most concise and precise examples of Austen crafting this internal and external existence for her characters comes at the end of Chapter 7 in Pride and Prejudice. It’s a crucial moment; the one in which Darcy realises his deeply conflicted feelings about Elizabeth when she arrives at Netherfield in her muddied petticoat. He is torn between his attraction for her and the reservations he has about her and her family’s conduct.
[Elizabeth] was shown into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother’s manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.
Austen dips into each character’s internal response whilst allowing them to exhibit the external expression that society demands of them. Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley are all politeness, but that veils their inner ‘contempt’. Bingley has no façade or mannered approach; he is totally sincere. Darcy, of course, is deeply troubled. And Mr. Hurst thought only of his breakfast. We rise with Austen as Elizabeth walks in, delicately visit each character and end with a sublime expression of Darcy’s realisation of his feelings, until finally the bubble is burst with Mr. Hurst’s love of breakfast.
We can walk in Austen’s footsteps in her novels as she guides us through her world as a friend and confidante. It is her crafting of prose, her wit, her combination of internal and external voices, and the way in which she makes it feel effortless that makes her so popular. It also makes her a writer’s writer. Whether they like it or not, all subsequent authors owe something to her as a founder of the modern novel.
You might like to watch this short film in which Professor Kathryn Sutherland explores Jane Austen's manuscripts and discusses the significance of her dense handwriting and lack of punctuation. Filmed at the British Library.