. . . only a novel! . . . —only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language. (Northanger Abbey 38)
In 1809, on 7 July, Jane Austen returned Hampshire to live at Chawton Cottage, seventeen miles southeast of Steventon, where she had spent her first twenty-five years, and sixteen miles northeast of Winchester, where she spent her last few months. Here in a village of some 400 inhabitants, her life, to all outward appearance, “continued on its small scale” (Tomalin 240). Perhaps, as one of Austen’s Chawton neighbors said of the novel Emma, “it was too natural to be interesting” (Minor Works 437).
We know, and if we don’t we have Virginia Woolf to remind us, Austen is “of all great writers the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness” (Chapman 171). But at Chawton, we can catch Jane Austen in the act. Occasionally, she ventured into the bigger worlds of London to visit her brother Henry, and Godmersham Park, brother Edward’s estate near Canterbury. After the move to Chawton, she visited London eight or possibly nine times, and spent one major period at Godmersham in the fall of 1813. Being Jane Austen, she viewed whatever came her way with relish, with “an usually quick sense of the ridiculous,” as niece Anna recalled in later years (Le Faye, Jane Austen 76).
Thanks to that “quick sense,” and other gifts, during these eight years she revised three works—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. She wrote three more—Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. And as R. W. Chapman reminds us, she “polished and polished until the finished surface of her fiction has a brilliance which delights her admirers” (124). She lived to see four of her “darling” children published—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). Successful darlings, though modestly so, they brought her almost £700 (£684.13s), by today’s figures anywhere from $14,000 to $120,000 (Tyler 227). A touch of irony—in 1933, the original of Lady Susan, an early epistolary work Austen never intended to publish, sold at Sotheby’s for £2,100 (Chapman 163).
Shortly after publication of Sense and Sensibility, she wrote Cassandra: “I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child” (25 April 1811). After she received her published copy of Pride and Prejudice, she sounds ecstatic: “I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London” (29 January 1813). Two years later, after niece Anna had a daughter named Jemima, Austen wrote: “As I wish very much to see your Jemima, I am sure you will like to see my Emma” (? December 1815).
Jane was thirty-three when she and Mrs. Austen, older sister Cassandra, and their friend Martha Lloyd, who had joined their household in 1805, moved to Chawton. She was forty-one when she left for Winchester, on the 24th of May, 1817, with perhaps some hope of having a highly-praised doctor, Mr. Giles King Lyford, restore her health (“to see what Mr. Lyford can do farther towards re-establishing me in tolerable health” [22 May 1817]). She died in Winchester on July 18th, five months before her December 16th birthday.
Whatever the cause of death (Addison’s or Hodgkin’s Disease), she had been ill the preceding year. In May of 1816, she and Cassandra spent three weeks at a spa in Cheltenham, hoping for Jane to regain her health. But in another manifestation of greatness, she refused to become an invalid, “a dangerous Indulgence at my time of Life,” she writes niece Fanny (23 March 1817). During her last year, she began “The Brothers” (Sanditon). A dying woman, she had the “courage to resist death by writing in its very teeth” (Tomalin 282), satirizing hypochondria, a dangerous indulgence at any time of life, and writing perhaps her own “defense against illness and depression” (Litz 165).
Talent she always had. We know that from her Juvenilia, supreme “juvenile high jinks” (Bush 43). Who can resist her burlesque on the sensibility cult from Love and Freindship, written when she was fourteen? Two men of feeling, Edward and Augustus, meet, observed by their female counterparts, Sophia and Laura, the narrator: “‘My Life! My Soul!’ (exclaimed the former) ‘My adorable angel!’ (replied the latter) as they flew into each other’s arms. It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself—We fainted Alternately on a Sofa’” (MW 86).
These early pieces are undeniably clever. But it is one thing to parody literary clichés. It is another to take ordinary life and write about it so that centuries later readers still laugh aloud, recognizing their world—and themselves. “She makes her people speak and act as they speak and act in everyday life, and she is the only artist who has done this with success and pleasant effect,” wrote G. H. Lewes of Austen in 1852 in an unsigned article on “Female Novelists” (Southam 133). Lewes, like Sir Walter Scott, identified her greatness, not the ability to produce “the big Bow-wow strain” which Scott felt he could do himself “like any now going” (Austen-Leigh 149), but her ability to “make accurate portraits of very tiresome and uninteresting people” (Southam 145). Lewes elaborates, “You have actually met all her heroes and heroines before—not in novels but in most unromantic and prosaic circumstances. . . . How could such folks find their way into a printed book?” (Southam 133). Some years earlier, in 1818, much the same critical perception appeared in an unsigned review in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine: “We think we are reading the history of people whom we have seen thousands of times” (Halperin 310).
Before they could find their way into print, Austen had to find her way—to determine her style and to believe in it. Perhaps she acted on this belief shortly before the Chawton move when, without male intercession, she contacted her publisher. Yet as early as 1797, her father indicated his faith in her. In November, he sent First Impressions, which she had finished writing in August, to Thomas Cadell. “Shall be much obliged . . . if you will inform me whether you chuse to be concerned in it; What will be the expence of publishing at the Author’s risk . . . ?” Cadell proved uninterested. He sent back both the manuscript and letter with a note written across the top: “declined by Return of Post” (Le Faye, JA 95).
In 1803, Jane’s brother Henry was more successful. He sold Susan, Austen’s spoof on Gothic novels, to London publisher Crosby & Son for £10. Crosby presumably planned early publication. But the work remained unpublished, possibly because Crosby was publishing the kind of Gothic romances Austen satirized. Finally, in April of 1809, Jane herself took action. Using the name “Mrs. Ashton Dennis,” she wrote Crosby a curt reminder. She offered to provide another manuscript if the first had been lost “by some carelessness.” And, she warned, she might have the novel published elsewhere if she didn’t hear from him (5 April 1809).
Crosby made sure she did hear from him, telling her that if she or anyone else published the work, “we shall take proceedings to stop the sale” (8 April 1809). But he made no comment about why he had not published the novel, nor did he supply a publication date. Instead, he offered to sell back the manuscript for “the same as we paid for it.” (Could he have had misgivings about the way she signed her letter using the initials “MAD.”—Mrs. Ashton Dennis?)
Her letter to Crosby marks a commitment to establishing herself as an author. It may have had its genesis with the writing desk her father purchased for her on 5 December 1794, possibly as a nineteenth-birthday present, “‘a Small Mahogany Writing Desk with 1 Long Drawer and Glass Ink Stand compleat’” (Le Faye, JA 83). (This desk was recently presented to the British Library by Joan Austen-Leigh, where, she noted, “it will continue to give good service to the public in the contemplation of the immortal characters who sprang to life” on it [Austen-Leigh 14].)
To catch Jane Austen in her greatness, then, one must consider Chawton Cottage (writing desk and all), the life she led there, and her views on writing. If only she had left more evidence—frenzied discussions, prolix journal entries, tedious notes, sensational salon appearances, and drafts and manuscripts, especially of the two major revisions (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice). Little material exists—family memories, hints in letters, her “Plan of a Novel,” and a draft and revision of the last chapters of Persuasion.
Family tradition had it that she wrote Elinor and Marianne, the first version of Sense and Sensibility, in an epistolary format and read it aloud in this form (Le Faye, JA 83), a tradition most biographers honor. Perhaps the long speeches in Sense and Sensibility, a novel in which “greatness comes in patches,” are remnants of its earlier style (Halperin 90). We might, however, more easily accept such a style for First Impressions. In Pride and Prejudice, that work revised, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet remain apart more than Marianne and Elinor Dashwood. But we need to temper such thinking—or become “apt players in the game of Speculation” (Kaplan 16).
Speculation aside, what we do know is that Austen rejected the style of popular novelists. She developed a technique she perfected with each novel. She learned to minimalize narrative passages, descriptions, and author intrusions, to emphasize dialogue, and to suggest thinking patterns of characters. By the time of Emma, she writes a very modern novel indeed, presenting a situation from Emma’s viewpoint, employing stream of consciousness well before its time. In his brief biography of Jane, written shortly after her death, her brother Henry observes that she rejected the style of Samuel Richardson, a favorite writer of hers. The “consistency” of Richardson’s characters, Henry explains, “gratified the natural discrimination of her mind,” but “her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative” (NA, P 7).
Chawton Cottage has a simple history. By 1809, Jane’s brother Edward, who had been adopted in 1783 by the Knights, wealthy distant cousins, was able to offer the Austens this permanent home. (In 1812, he and his children officially took the name of Knight.) A few hundred yards down the road from the cottage is Edward’s Manor House, or The Great House, now being restored as the Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing. A mile or so away is Alton, the village to which Jane and Cassandra often walked.
Not particularly attractive—Nigel Nicholson calls it “just plain ugly” (89)—Chawton Cottage is a late seventeenth-century L-shaped brick house with tiled roof, six small bedrooms, and some garrets. A vestibule connects the drawing room with the dining parlor, “used for general living as well as eating” (Watkins 76). On the main route between Winchester and London, coaches passed closely by, so close, in fact, passengers could sometimes see in the windows. A gentleman reported to Edward’s adopted mother, Mrs. Knight, that as he rode by in a post-chaise, he had seen “‘the Chawton party looking very comfortable at breakfast’” (Howard 60). Nicholson thinks the Cottage “must have echoed like a tambourine to the noise of passing carriages” (90).
Despite such visibility and noise, the Austens led quiet lives. Most of their visitors were relatives. They enjoyed visits from James, now rector of Steventon and living in their former home (a morning’s ride away), and his three children—Anna, James-Edward, and Caroline. Of Mary, James’s second wife, even though she was sister to Martha Lloyd, they weren’t overly fond. Edward and his large family often appeared at the Great House, and sometimes he and Fanny, his oldest daughter, stayed at the cottage. The sailor brothers Frank and Charles and their wives and children appeared on occasion, as did Henry, first a banker and later, after his bankruptcy, a clergyman.
A few Chawtonians dropped by. Miss Benn seems to have been a frequent visitor. Present one evening during a reading of Pride and Prejudice, shortly after its publication in January, perhaps she did not understand it as well as she should, Jane writes to Cassandra, because Mrs. Austen didn’t “speak” as the characters should, though she understood them well enough (4 February 1813). Of course, Miss Benn had no idea she was sitting with the author herself, someone who could “speak” very well, as her family knew. In his biographical note, Henry explains that Jane “delivered herself with fluency and precision” (NA, P 5). “She read aloud with very great taste and effect. Her own works, probably were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth” (7).
During these years Jane’s most frequent travels were to London, fifty miles away, to visit Henry and his wife Eliza. She shared in their social life, shopped, attended plays, visited art exhibitions, and dealt with proofs and publishers. At one exhibit, she wrote Cassandra, she saw “a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her” (24 May 1813). (This is the former Jane Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, published in January of that year.) In this portrait, Mrs. Bingley “is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her” (24 May 1813). Jane thinks Mrs. Darcy (Elizabeth) will be in yellow. But she had to suffer disappointment, she writes later that evening. Even though she and Henry attended another exhibit, she found no portrait of Mrs. Darcy. She concludes, “I can only imagine that Mr. D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye” (24 May 1813). Austen’s darling children, it seems, were always with her.
Henry, for the most part, worked out Jane’s arrangements with publishers. Thomas Egerton published Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and the first edition of Mansfield Park. The second edition of Mansfield Park and Emma were published by John Murray, who also bought the copyrights of Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, all on such lucrative terms for himself that Austen wrote to Cassandra calling him “a Rogue of course, but a civil one. He offers £450—but wants to have the Copyright of MP & S&S included. It will end in my publishing for myself I dare say” (17 October 1815). By arrangement with Henry, Murray also published an edition containing Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (originally called Susan) after Jane’s death. In this volume Henry included a brief biography of Jane, the first to be written. Today’s biographers question his idealized picture of her as the perfect woman, talented but not ambitious: “She became an author entirely from taste and inclination. Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives” (NA, P 6). Perhaps Samuel Johnson, an Austen favorite, offers a more realistic view in his observation that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” And Jane admitted to enjoying her earnings, for as she explained to niece Fanny Knight, “tho I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too” (30 November 1814).
Jane was in London during Eliza’s final illness in April 1813, and later in 1815, when Henry became seriously ill. During his recovery, he revealed to his doctor that Jane was the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The physician, who attended the Prince Regent or had connections with those who did, arranged for the news to reach His Royal Highness. Thus Jane Austen became recognized by the Prince Regent. She was told he so admired her work he kept copies in each of his residences. While they never met, at his invitation on 13 November 1815, she was given a tour of the London residence, Carlton House, by his librarian James Stanier Clarke.
Jane Austen was also asked to dedicate a future work to HRH, which accounts for the dedication of Emma: “To His Royal Highness The Prince Regent, This work Is By His Royal Highness’s Permission, Most Respectfully Dedicated . . . .” Ironically, Austen was not fond of him because of his treatment of his wife Caroline (Sales 68). Indeed, writes one biographer, he was “a man she heartily despised” (Tucker 111). Yet she dedicated Emma to him, “an honour she could not avoid” (Jane Austen 48, “Emma”), and provided him with a red-morocco three-volume edition bearing the Prince of Wales’s Feathers on the spine (Wilks 129).
On occasion, Edward visited in London when Jane was there, and Jane visited Edward and his large family in Godmersham in Kent. Cassandra, however, was the more frequent visitor, helping sister-in-law Elizabeth with frequent confinements, consoling Edward and his eleven children after Elizabeth’s death on 10 October 1808, a few weeks after the birth of a son. Presumably her family spared Jane these traditional tasks of single women in order to facilitate her writing—“the Austens always seem to have accepted that her peculiar gifts lay in literary composition, and allowed her to spend a great deal of her time in writing her novels” (Le Faye, “Jane Austen’s Letters” 86). Jane also visited cousins, the Cookes, in Great Bookham (where she may have “explored” Box Hill) and James and Mary, who lived in the rectory in Steventon where Jane had been born. In 1816, on May 22, she and Cassandra left from Steventon to go to the spa in Cheltenham. By now, Austen was seriously ill.
But most of Jane Austen’s best writing days were spent in the Chawton cottage where she followed an easy routine with “everything she valued about her: family, garden, the Hampshire countryside—and the products of her imagination” (Lane 159). Although very possibly “Jane could write anywhere” and “her works owed nothing to the circumstances of their composition, for Chawton was small, ungainly” (Nicholson 90), something about her life there contributed to her success, to her decision that she could, should—and would—be a writer.
When Cassandra was home, she tended to most of the domestic chores, with the help of Martha Lloyd. Mrs. Austen no longer dealt with such matters. James-Edward reports that in the summer of 1809, as she approached 70, Mrs. Austen left domestic arrangements to Cassandra and concentrated on her favorite pastimes—patchwork and gardening (Le Faye, JA 157). This seems to have been the household routine. Jane got up first, played her piano, and then fixed a simple breakfast (tea and toast) for the others at 9 o’clock. She also handled the tea and sugar stores, and the spruce beer, mead, and wine (Halperin 187). In the afternoons, she and Cassandra walked to Alton, or to the Great House to visit Edward if he were in residence, or to stroll through the grounds.
In A Family Record, Caroline remembers her aunt’s lifestyle:
It was a very quiet life according to our ideas but they were readers & besides the housekeeping our Aunts occupied themselves in working for the poor & teaching here & there some boy or girl to read & write. . . . Aunt Jane began her day with music. . . . She practised regularly every morning. . . . I don’t believe Aunt Jane observed any particular method in parcelling out her day but I think she generally sat in the drawing room till luncheon; when visitors were there, chiefly at work—She was fond of work—and she was a great adept at overcast and satin stitch. She could throw the spilikens for us, better than anyone else, and she was wonderfully successful at cup and ball—. (LeFaye, JA 158-59)
When Cassandra was away, Jane had less time to write since she had to assume more domestic chores, especially if Martha Lloyd were also away. Letters to Cassandra boast of domestic success or occasionally note that composition “seems to me impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb” (8 September 1816). But mostly she enjoyed, as was her wont, the small life: “The Chicken are all alive, & fit for the Table—but we save them for something grand” (29 May 1811). The columbines “are already in bloom,” she notes in a typical comment, and “the Syringas are coming out” (29 May 1811). And a few days later she tells Cassandra that the row of beech “look very well indeed” and “I hear today that an Apricot has been detected on one of the Trees” (31 May 1811).
How did Austen write? Very secretly, it seems. James-Edward remembers how careful Jane was not to reveal to others outside the family that she was writing. And they honored her wish for privacy, all except Henry.
She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote on small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming. . . . In that well-occupied female party there must have been many precious hours of silence during which the pen was busy at the little mahogany writing desk, while Fanny Price, or Emma Woodhouse, or Anne Elliot was growing into beauty and interest. (Le Faye, JA 187)
Caroline adds: “My Aunt must have spent much time in writing—her desk lived in the drawing room. I often saw her writing letters on it, and I beleive [sic ] she wrote much of her Novels in the same way—sitting with her family, when they were quite alone” (187-88).
One suspects Austen was always composing. Playing her pianoforte, tending to joints of mutton, admiring syringas, walking to Alton, teaching some fortunate child to read and write, she also was discovering the perfect word, the exact phrase, the significant detail. She must have spent happy hours turning airy nothings into those local habitations and names, limitations, and virtues we now cherish—Lucy Steele’s bad grammar; Mrs. Allen’s concern with dress; Mrs. Bennet and her nerves (Mr. Bennet’s old friends “‘these twenty years at least’”); Mr. Woodhouse and “poor Miss Taylor” and “the sad business” of her wedding, which he tried to put off because “‘it rained dreadfully hard for half an hour’” at breakfast (Emma 10); Sir Walter Elliot’s penchant for mirrors; Mrs. Croft’s joy at being at sea with her husband the Admiral: “‘[A]s long as we could be together, nothing ever ailed me’” (P 71).
Working on her “little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory . . . with so fine a Brush” (16 December 1816), drawing to perfection “pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages” (1 April 1816), she wrote carefully, building up the language of a character, paring down descriptions (Litz 92), revising and polishing. She avoided the clichés and jargon of the land of fiction—“the common novel style,” she called it—fancy phrases, for example, like “vortex of Dissipation,” a favorite of niece Anna. “I do not object to the Thing,” Austen explained, “but I cannot bear the expression:—it is such thorough novel slang—and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened” (28 September 1814).
Austen’s method seems to have been to sketch out first what people say and then characterize them (Lascelles 94). Also it seems to have been her habit “to allow a manuscript to rest for some time before undertaking the final version” (Litz 149). Noting “the stiffness and barrenness of the first chapters” of The Watsons, Virginia Woolf speculates that Austen “was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere” (141). R. W. Chapman agrees, observing that “her creative imagination worked most freely within a framework fixed for her by small points of contact with reality. Once she felt herself at home, her fancy would soon be busy fitting and arranging every detail” (Facts 122).
And there lies the answer to G. H. Lewes’s question of “how these folks found their way into a printed book.” Understanding the method, however, does not diminish the miracle—characters like Fanny Dashwood, convincing her husband he need not fulfill his promise to his dying father to provide for Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters. After all, Fanny counsels him, “‘I would not bind myself to allow them any thing yearly. It may be very inconvenient some years to spare a hundred, or even fifty pounds from our own expenses’” (SS 11); Mr. Collins, whose “deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society” (PP 70); Lady Catherine, gathering her party around the fire to “determine what weather they were to have on the morrow” (PP 166); gourmand cleric Mr. Grant, whose death was brought on by “three great institutionary dinners in one week” (MP 469); dear Miss Bates, with her “amorphous syntax” (Phillips 12), out of breath, never finishing a sentence, never waiting for an answer to her questions, repeating verbatim what was said to her, all minutiae—Jane eats so very little:
“I dare not let my mother know how little she eats—so I say one thing and then I say another, and it passes off. But about the middle of the day she gets hungry, and there is nothing she likes so well as these baked apples, and they are extremely wholesome, for I took the opportunity the other day of asking Mr. Perry; I happened to meet him in the street. Not that I had any doubt before—I have so often heard Mr. Woodhouse recommend a baked apple. I believe it is the only way that Mr. Woodhouse thinks the fruit thoroughly wholesome. We have apple dumplings, however, very often. Patty makes an excellent apple-dumpling. . . .” (Emma 237)
And Sir Walter Elliot, vaunting his aesthetics: “He did not mean to say,” he explains,
“that there were no pretty women, but the number of the plain was out of all proportion. He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five and thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop in Bond-street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them.” (P 141-42)
One marvels at the paradox—greatness in a small “just plain ugly” place. Behind the creaking door to the dining parlor, as she sat at work on the little table, the little mahogany desk, few people were present. James-Edward learned about his aunt’s writing only in the summer of 1813, after publication of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. He wrote her a charming piece of light verse: “Oh dear! just to think (and the thought drives me mad)/ That dear Mrs. Jennings’s good-natured strain/ Was really the produce of your witty brain” (Le Faye, JA 180).
Niece Anna and Aunts Jane and Cassandra, as Anna’s daughter later remembered, one summer’s day visited the circulating library at Alton. “It was in searching this Library that my mother came across a copy of Sense & Sensibility which she threw aside with careless contempt, little imagining who had written it, exclaiming to the great amusement of her Aunts who stood by ‘Oh that must be rubbish I am sure from the title’” (Le Faye, JA 170-71).
Niece Louisa Knight, eight at the time, remembered how her aunt, during a visit to Godmersham in the autumn of 1813, “would sit silent awhile, then rub her hands, laugh to herself and run up to her room” (Le Faye, JA 184, 248). Niece Marianne, then twelve, remembered during the same visit that Aunt Jane “would sit quietly working beside the fire in the library, saying nothing for a good while, and then would suddenly burst out laughing, jump up and run across the room to a table where pens and paper were lying, write something down, and then come back to the fire and go on quietly working as before” (184).
What could Aunt Jane have been writing? By the autumn of 1813, she had most likely finished Mansfield Park, probably accepted for publication in November of that year. And she didn’t begin Emma until January of 1814. Perhaps she was “polishing and polishing”: Mrs. Norris making off with the curtain from that disastrous drama production as her cottage “happened to be particularly in want of green baize” (MP 195); adding to the characterization of Henry Crawford, so bent on “improving” Edmund’s rectory in Thornton Lacey (“‘Then the stream—something must be done with the stream’” ). Or was she perfecting these lines describing Maria’s wedding: “It was a very proper wedding. The bride was elegantly dressed—the two bridesmaids were duly inferior—her father gave her away—her mother stood with salts in her hands, expecting to be agitated—her aunt tried to cry” (203)?
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, in all innocence, hits upon truth. Henry Tilney has just told her he understands her very well. She replies: “‘Me?—yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible’” (133). In Sanditon, Sir Edward Denham illustrates Catherine’s comment. Speaking of Robert Burns, he loads his talk with jargon, something he considers speaking well: “‘It were Hyper-criticism, it were Pseudo-philosophy to expect from the soul of high tone Genius, the grovellings of a common mind.—The Corruscations of Talent, elicited by impassioned feeling in the breast of Man, are perhaps incompatible with some of the prosaic Decencies of Life . . . ’” (MW 398).
Busy with such writing, Austen found the Chawton years happy ones. Yet they were not without sorrows and difficulties aside from her final illness. Deaths occurred—the deaths of two sisters-in law: Eliza in 1813, and Charles’s wife, Fanny, of childbirth, in 1814. Mrs. Austen’s brother James Leigh-Perrot died in 1817. This was not unexpected, but the resultant will was. He left everything to his wife for her lifetime. To his sister, who was not wealthy, he left nothing although after his wife’s death, the Austen family would inherit property and money, especially James, the principal heir. This situation disturbed Jane, perhaps because by now she was seriously ill and perhaps also because Edward’s estate was being threatened. She wrote Charles that the shock of her uncle’s will brought about a relapse (Le Faye, JA 222).
In 1816, Henry Austen’s banks failed, first the branch in Alton, and then the main London bank. His brothers who had invested in them also lost money and were no longer able to contribute to Mrs. Austen’s income. From March of 1814 to April of 1818, Edward was involved in a lawsuit that questioned his right to the Knight estates and wealth. He had “to cut a great swathe through Chawton Park Wood in order to raise £15,000 to buy off his opponents” (Le Faye, JA 195). He ended up paying £30,000, much of it for legal costs (Myer 181).
In the winter of 1816, while Charles’s ship was chasing pirates off the coast of Smyrna, it struck some rocks on the shore. He was shipwrecked, but was cleared of all blame (Myer 223-24). His court martial resulted in an acquittal because “the shipwreck had been due to the incompetence of the local pilot” (Le Faye, Letters 458). Charles did not receive another command, however, for ten years (Tyler 215).
And one must consider events of the outer world, though Austen, as society’s rules for ladies dictated, makes little reference to them in her fiction or letters. From 1810 to 1812, England underwent a second Regency Crisis. King George III suffered another bout of madness. Parliament, concerned about debts, debated the role of the Prince Regent, notorious for his “conspicuous pursuit of pleasure” (Sales 68). Then, there was the French trouble, England’s twenty-five years of intermittent wars with France. In 1814, these abated, of course, when Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the Isle of Elba. But in March of 1815, he escaped. Finally, in June of that year, he met his Waterloo.
But why deal with such “odious” matters? “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (MP 461). So on to pleasanter matters: Jane Austen’s views on writing, which she suggests in several letters and in her “Plan of a Novel.” In two letters, Austen reveals that she had made conscious decisions to write in her own way, her own style. On 11 December 1815, she answered the request of James Stanier Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent, who had suggested she write the life of a naval clergyman, someone like himself, in fact. “I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman,” she explains, “but I am not.” She then notes that, knowing nothing of science and philosophy, she could not deal with such a man’s conversation, especially in those areas. After all, she assures him, “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.” (In her own novels, she never allows two gentlemen to converse alone.)
In April of the next year, she responds to another request from Clarke, that she write a historical romance on the house of Saxe-Cobourg. She couldn’t do it unless she had to save her life, she notes, and even then “I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.” And, she concludes, emphasizing that she knew where her greatness lay: “I must keep to my own style & go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other” (1 April 1816).
In February, she indirectly criticizes other less effectively “lop’t and crop’t” writings. Referring to Pride and Prejudice, she explains:
The work is rather too light & bright & sparkling;—it wants shade;—it wants to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter—of sense, if it could be had, if not, of solemn specious nonsense—about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte—or anything that would form a contrast & bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile.—I doubt your quite agreeing with me here—I know your starched Notions. (4 February 1813)
Several comments in a series of letters (five in all) to twenty-one-year-old niece Anna about Anna’s novel (which she later burned) reveal much the same critical awareness. Commenting on the manuscript, Aunt Jane affirms conciseness, accuracy, and attention to detail, preaching, as it were, what she herself practiced: “here & there, we [Cassandra and herself] have thought the sense might be expressed in fewer words—and I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables etc. the very day after his breaking his arm” (10-18 August 1814). In the same letter, she continues with this good advice: “And we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations.” (She followed such advice herself in Emma, remaining in Highbury, never going with the Dixons to Ireland.)
Attention to detail, yes, she suggests, but the detail should not be overdone. “You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand & left” (9-18 September 1814). Finally, she advises, in an oft-quoted line from the same letter, don’t write on too broad a canvas: “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.”
Not only does Austen give advice, she quickly enters into Anna’s situations and suggests ways to manipulate plot and character. Anna needs to “increase the interest” for someone named Egerton to reveal his good qualities. Can she create “distress among Brothers or Sisters” or take him mysteriously away and have him reappear in Edinburgh or York “in an old great Coat” (28 September 1814).
These letters advise Anna to rely on a tight, credible style. But a good writing teacher, she also finds something to praise:
I hope when you have written a great deal more, you will be equal to scratching out some of the past.—The scene with Mrs. Mellish, I should condemn; it is prosy & nothing to the purpose—& indeed, the more you can find in your heart to curtail between Dawlish & Newton Priors, the better I think it will be.—One does not care for girls till they are grown up. Your Aunt C. quite enters into the exquisiteness of that name. Newton Priors is really a Nonpareil.—Milton would have given his eyes to have thought of it. (9-18 September 1814)
Austen also shared comments with eighteen-year-old nephew James-Edward. She explains why she could not have “purloined” the missing chapters of his novel. After all, she writes in a totally different style, in miniature, as it were: “What should I do with your strong, manly spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow?—How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” (16 December 1816).
Revealing as these letters are, they contain no discussions of irony and wit and the need for self-knowledge and moral awareness—what we think of as quintessential Austen. Indirectly, however (with irony and wit), she alludes to these areas in another work, her “Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters,” probably written in 1816 (MW 428), possibly in May during a visit from Edward and Fanny (Le Faye, JA 212), and undoubtedly inspired by James Stanier Clarke’s earlier requests.
Everything in the “Plan” “implies a thorough rejection of the scheme and style of contemporary popular novels” (Jane Austen 52). She makes fun of clichés and melodramatic plots. The nameless heroine, for example, is a picture of perfection, “a faultless Character herself—, perfectly good with much tenderness & sentiment, & not the least Wit.” The characters are clergyman father (“perfect in Character, Temper & Manners”) and daughter, who “converse in long speeches, elegant Language—& a tone of high, serious sentiment.” They travel all over, “never above a fortnight together in one place,” so “the scene will be for ever shifting from one Set of People to another.” The heroine is “continually cheated & defrauded of her hire, worn down to a Skeleton, & now & then starved to death.” The father finally dies “after four or five hours of tender advice and parental Admonition to his miserable Child” and expires “in a fine burst of Literary Enthusiasm.” The heroine “crawls back towards her former Country,” manages to avoid the villain by “turning a corner” and runs into the arms of “the Hero himself”—“all perfection of course” (MW 428-30).
A last reference to Austen’s writing relates to her revision of the final chapters of Persuasion, the only manuscript of the six novels which survives. Austen finished the first draft of Chapter 10 of the second volume on 16 July 1816, and added a further paragraph on 18 July. In this version, Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth become reunited through Admiral Croft’s effort. He meets Anne on the streets of Bath near his lodgings and insists she call on Mrs. Croft. In reality, anxious about rumors of her marriage to Mr. William Elliot, he wonders if he should offer to give up his lease to Kellynch Hall but hesitates to introduce the topic. Perhaps brother-in-law Frederick, now at the Crofts’, will do it. The Admiral accompanies Anne to his lodgings, Anne and Frederick meet, Anne denies any romantic relationship with Mr. Elliot, she and Frederick re-establish their love, and all is well (P 258-73).
Dissatisfied with this version, Jane “‘thought it tame and flat, and was desirous of producing something better. This weighed upon her mind, the more so probably on account of the weak state . . . of her health; so that one night she retired to rest in very low spirits. The next morning she awoke to more cheerful views’” (Le Faye, JA 214). She must have reached a decision: to reject Chapter 10, to create two new chapters (the present Chapters 10 and 11), to let the original Chapter 11 become Chapter 12.
Instead of Admiral Croft bringing the lovers together, the final version allows the lovers themselves to effect their reunion. How easily Austen creates new details, changing scenes, manipulating characters. She uses a different setting, an apartment for the Musgrove party in the White Hart. Now Mrs. Musgrove, Henrietta, Charles and Mary, and Captain Harville have come to Bath and ask Anne to help Henrietta shop for wedding clothes. When Anne, delayed because of rain, arrives at the White Hart, Henrietta and Mary have gone but indicate she is to wait till they return. She is startled to see Captain Wentworth there writing a letter for Captain Harville, all plausible in the context, as is the rest of the scene.
What can Anne do while she waits? Mrs. Musgrove entertains the visiting Mrs. Croft with details of Henrietta’s engagement. Captain Harville, standing by a window close to where Frederick writes, motions for Anne to join him. Old friends, they move into a discussion of the relationships between the sexes. Anne eloquently defends women. They love the longest, just as she has, “‘when existence or when hope is gone’” (P 235). Frederick, listening to her, realizes how much he loves her. Though surrounded by other people, he manages to write and give her a letter: “‘I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul’” (237). In Austen’s final version, hardly “tame and flat,” Anne and Frederick assume control of their lives.
During those eight years at Chawton, Jane Austen revealed much the same spirit. She chose to go on in her own way—to reject the prolix style of contemporary novels, to write comedy about a variety of ordinary people “with success and pleasant effect.” Living a life almost too natural to be interesting, refusing to “indulge” in illness, she managed to revise three works and write three more, “liveliest effusions of wit and humour” “conveyed to the world in the best chosen language”—“only” novels.
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