How has the response to Jane Austen changed in the two hundred years since the publication of Sense and Sensibility? In some ways, there is a recognizable continuity between the earliest critical response and the reassessments represented by the papers at the bicentenary Sense and Sensibility conference in St. Andrews. In other ways, we can now see that the history of Austen criticism and biography tells us as much about the obsessions of her readers as it does about her work and life.
Austen’s very first critics emphasized her “realism,” that is, her ability to “copy” or convey the impressions of “real life.” The first review of Sense and Sensibility, in The Critical Review (Feb. 1812), was favorable, if restrained; the book was “pleasant and entertaining” and “well-written”; its “incidents are probable, and highly pleasing”; the novel was without doubt “better than most.” The first reviews paved the way for Walter Scott’s powerful claims, in The Quarterly Review (Oct. 1815), in an unsigned review of Emma that also embraced Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice (though, interestingly, not Mansfield Park), to the effect that Jane Austen was the first novelist of his age—perhaps of any age—to go far beyond the conventions of gothic and sentimental fiction. “Neither alarming our credulity nor amusing our imagination by wild variety of incident,” she perfected instead “the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.”
The downside of Scott’s reading was the assumption that Austen’s commitment to “the common walks of life” meant that she was immoveably attached to village life and consciously chose in her novels not to engage with the political and historical events of her time. This view of “Gentle Jane” was further instantiated by her brother Henry’s posthumous biographical notice (1818), in which he described his sister’s life: “A life of usefulness, literature and religion, was not by any means a life of event.” The family tradition was calculated to say nothing of such events as the guillotining of her sister-in-law’s first husband, Warren Hastings’s probable paternity of that same sister-in-law, or her brother’s involvement in the India-China opium trade. It was equally silent over her knowledge of the Prince Regent’s goings-on at Kempshott Manor (just down the road from her home) and her attentive reading of Thomas Clarkson’s great history of the abolition of the slave trade. Similarly, Henry’s insistence that Jane “never uttered a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression” is belied by the caustic wit of the juvenilia in which a quite different, often shockingly funny and irreverent, authorial voice emerges. It is understandable that a bereaved brother should have remembered only the very best qualities of a beloved sister, but it was unhelpfully reductive to depict her as a writer who was pious, reserved, and did not engage with her historical and political context.
Like Shakespeare, with whom she has been compared ever since a generous notice of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in the Quarterly Review of January 1821, the elusive and myriad-minded Jane Austen is remade by each age. The sentimentalized “dear Aunt Jane” of the late Victorian era—given definitive form in the 1870 family Memoir of Jane Austen—was replaced in the twentieth century with other more intellectually rigorous, though often contradictory, manifestations.
The fight-back against the limited, and limiting, family view began with a review of the Memoir that appeared in the North British Review in April 1870. It was by Richard Simpson who, fittingly enough, also effected a major advance in the Victorian understanding of Shakespeare. Simpson was the first to argue at length that Austen’s irony was at the very foundation of her genius. Far from being a constraining influence, he suggested, her “little social commonwealths became a distinct personal entity to her imagination, with its own range of ideas, its own subject of discourse, its own public opinion on all social matters.” For Simpson, Austen was truly Shakespearean in her creative vision. Despite this, he retained the assumption that “she had no interest for the great political and social problems which were being debated with so much blood in her day.”
The spirit of Simpson endured in Austen criticism through the first half of the twentieth century when it was her technical mastery and subtlety of language that were emphasized. The predominantly moral and formalistic approach began to be challenged in the 1960s, for example in searching essays by Brigid Brophy. But the full-scale political analysis of the novels only emerged in the 1970s. The pioneering work was Alistair Duckworth’s The Improvement of the Estate (1971). Marilyn Butler followed up with Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975), though many subsequent critics, most notably Claudia Johnson (Jane Austen: Women, Politics and Novel ), have challenged her representation of Austen as a conservative writer opposed to innovation and change in a time of revolution.
At the extreme ends of political interpretation, Austen has been seen as an upholder of both capitalist and Marxist ideologies. In the 1980s, she was a champion of female politics, a subversive writer engaging with the feminist ideology of her time. In the 1990s, she became a little “camp,” not to say “queer.” One instance of discontinuity in the two centuries of Austen’s afterlife would be the gulf between the first response to Sense and Sensibility in the Critical Review in early 1812 and the language of Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick’s 1991 Critical Inquiry essay “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” with its anatomy of Marianne Dashwood’s alleged auto-eroticism. There could be no more striking—and, to some Janeites, alarming—example of the capacity of later readers to reconfigure the novels into the language and preoccupations of their own time.
Biography too has been subjected to such shape-shifting. The sentimentalized hagiography of Henry Austen’s “she never uttered a hasty, a silly or a severe expression,” which initiated the myth of “Gentle Jane,” has been corrected by biographies that make use of the letters and the works to present her in a more balanced way. Indeed, biographers were in many respects ahead of academic critics in turning their attention to social, literary, and historical contexts. Two of the most elegant and thoughtfully written are Elizabeth Jenkins’s Jane Austen: A Biography and Mary Lascelles’s Jane Austen and Her Art, published in 1938 and 1939 respectively. As a novelist herself, Jenkins had a writer’s intuition, and she was very adept at setting Austen in her Georgian context. Lascelles, meanwhile, gave a detailed examination of Austen’s technical and artistic achievement and portrayed her first and foremost as a writer, paying due attention to her predecessors such as Fanny Burney and Elizabeth Inchbald.
The most probing, thorough, and reliable modern biography is that of Park Honan (Jane Austen: Her Life ). By making full use of family manuscripts, he broadened the scope of the life. Her naval brothers and East Indian connections were brought into the picture. George Tucker’s biographical study of the extended Austen family, A Goodly Heritage (1983), had paved the way for this approach, revealing a sleuth-like ability to nose out obscure but revealing details such as the decisive evidence of the affair between Warren Hastings and Jane Austen’s aunt Philadelphia.
More recent biographies such as those by David Nokes and Claire Tomalin (both published in 1997), with characteristically twentieth-century Freudianism, focused on the psychological aspects of her life, whether her mentally deficient brother’s banishment from the family home (Nokes) or the alleged impact of dry nursing on her emotional stability (Tomalin). This approach was perhaps at the expense of a full exploration of Jane Austen the professional woman writer. Tomalin in particular had a bizarre notion—flying in the face of such manuscript evidence as The Watsons and the revision of Lady Susan—that Austen underwent a prolonged period (a full decade!) of writer’s block as the result of the move to Bath. Jan Fergus, by contrast, has written a small but perfectly formed literary biography (1991) that shows us Austen the professional, negotiating with her publishers Egerton and then Murray.
A twenty-first-century innovation has been the biography of the posthumous reputation, in the manner of such precedents as Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives (1971) and Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth (2004). Kathryn Sutherland pioneered the approach (Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood ), with Claire Harman (Jane’s Fame ) and Claudia Johnson (Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures ) following in her slipstream. This particular approach has been highly illuminating, but one senses that the work is done for now.
Two hundred years on from the publication of Sense and Sensibility, it is time for a new direction in Austen biography. The family memoir by James Edward Austen-Leigh inaugurated the tradition of the full-length treatment. It proceeded from cradle to grave at uneventful pace and with provincial calm. Biography after biography has followed the pattern of James Edward and tracked Jane Austen’s daily life from Steventon to Bath to Chawton to Winchester. The problem with traditional biographies of this sort is that they tend to lose sight of the wood for the trees. The biographer who seeks to tell the full story has a duty to cover every base, to treat each aspect of the life with equal weight. The essential insights are often buried amidst the incidental facts.
As a literary genre, the heavily footnoted biographical doorstopper had its heyday in the second half of the twentieth century. Twenty-first-century literary biography is already proving to be more varied, more flexible, and more selective. Frances Wilson explores the life of Dorothy Wordsworth by working outwards from a single moment and a single document: her journal entry on her brother William’s marriage (The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth ). James Shapiro approaches the greatest of all writers by way of a single key year (1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare ). Serena Vitale explores the life of Russia’s national poet by means of a missing button on his bekesh (Pushkin’s Button ). Experimental approaches such as these have helped to liberate biography from the shackles of comprehensiveness. Jane Austen is ripe for a selective, angled biography of this kind.
A generation ago Richard Holmes wrote a pioneering volume of memoirs and personal reflections on the art of biography, in which he literally walked in the footsteps (or, in the case of Robert Louis Stevenson, the donkey tracks) of his subjects (Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer ). But he was not the first to “footstep” in the name of biography. In 1901 Constance Hill and her sister Ellen set off on a literary pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of Jane Austen. Ellen drew sketches of places now demolished, such as Steventon Rectory and the Assembly Rooms in Lyme Regis, where Austen danced in 1804. They brought to life a lost world. Constance’s Jane Austen: Her Home and Her Friends (1901), illustrated by her sister, showed that the family did not have a monopoly on Austen’s life and that the cradle-to-grave narrative was not the only possible approach.
My own attempt to explore Austen’s life and work in a new way might, if it were being presented in the style of a Hollywood pitch, be described as Constance Hill on Jane Austen meets Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in One Hundred Objects (2011). It seeks to avoid the deadening march from cradle to grave by focusing each chapter on a key moment, represented by a variety of vivid scenes and objects in the life and the work. Each moment will lead into an account of both a phase of Austen’s life and a key aspect of her novels. Instead of a series of chapters running, in the style of the family memoir, from Steventon to Bath to Southampton to Chawton, there will be such chapter titles as “The Family Profile,” “The Ivory Miniatures,” “The Vellum Notebooks,” “The Barouche,” “The Royalty Cheque,” and “The Bathing Machine.” First drafted in the bicentenary year of Sense and Sensibility, it will be published on the occasion of the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice.