Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery: the misconceptions of Jane Austen

By Émer O’Toole

Jane Austen has inspired enough reverence to accumulate a following of Janeites, and since it was published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice has sold more than 20 million copies. Austen herself might marvel at this. She had to buy her first manuscript back from Thomas Cadell, of the eminent London publishing firm Cadell and Davies, after it was rejected.

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can” begins the last chapter of Austen’s Mansfield Park. It’s a moment that addresses the reader — 34 years before Charlotte Brontë famously did the same thing in Jane Eyre with its ‘reader I married him’ line — and is one of the ways in which Austen was a pioneer of literary techniques.

To celebrate the novelist’s bicentenary, the Bank of England has produced a new banknote with Austen’s face on it.

It’s actually not her face. It is taken from a picture commissioned for a family memoir published 50 years after she died. She looks more attractive and happier than she does in the only contemporary portrait of her which exists (and is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London).

In the background of the banknote there’s a picture of Godmersham — a big house where Jane Austen didn’t live. It will also feature a quote from Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, when Caroline Bingley exclaims: ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!’ before yawning and tossing her book aside.

The problem is that most people characterise Austen’s novels with these misconceptions — shallow women and petty dramas in big houses. Seeing this on a widely circulated banknote is only going to exacerbate it. Critics in the nineteenth century also underestimated Austen. Charlotte Brontë described Pride and Prejudice as ‘a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck.’ Joseph Conrad was exasperated by her novels: ‘What is all this about Jane Austen?’ he asked HG Wells. ‘What is there in her?’ Even positive criticism contained backhanded compliments, such as a review where Pride and Prejudice was said to be ‘too clever to be by a woman’ when it was published in 1813.

Many of these critics limited Austen to the small world and small concerns of her characters. DH Lawrence called her ‘English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word.’ However, Austen’s novels subvert the conventions of other English novels written in the same time period. In Mansfield Park, instead of using the traditional motif of the country girl coming to town and being corrupted, Austen brings Henry and Mary Crawford to the country, where they corrupt everyone around them.

Austen’s novels also differ to other English Victorian novels in the sense that she never killed off a main character. This may sound irrelevant but compared to other nineteenth century works that followed hers in the genre she helped to create, it is quite a brave decision. Austen doesn’t use death as a form of Victorian moral justice the way Dickens does when he kills off Nancy, the thief and prostitute, in Oliver Twist. Death could be used as a plot device to tug at the readers’ heartstrings, and more importantly, drive serial sales. It comes up all the time in the novels of the Brontës and Dickens in the form of Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, Mr Krook in Bleak House, Magwitch in Great Expectations, and Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

However, Austen isn’t revolutionary in terms of plot or subject matter. She’s revolutionary in terms of technique. Mark Twain famously wrote that when reading Pride and Prejudice, he wanted to dig up Austen and beat her with her own shin bone. He said this despite the fact he frequently used the technique she pioneered, free indirect speech — a distinct kind of third-person narration which seamlessly slips in and out of a character’s consciousness while still being presented by the third-person narrator.

Virginia Woolf believed if Austen had lived longer and written more novels, ‘she would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust.’ Austen’s novels are unusual in their focus on the ordinary and this is what makes people underestimate her. She’s a controlled comic who parodied conventions of the Gothic genre in Northanger Abbey, but perhaps what makes Austen’s work enduring is her self-awareness: she understood the cult of sensibility and laughed at it.

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