It is high time we rescued Jane Austen from the stifling limitations of her modern success. There is far more to her than godmother of romance, National Trust treasure and all-round safe read. As the 200th anniversary of her death approaches, we should instead be celebrating Austen as a pioneer — the inventor of the modern novel, the first English novelist to explore the effect of contemporary war on the home front, and a businesswoman prepared to stake all on fame and fortune.
Austen’s novels broke new ground in subject matter and style. She saw that everyday events in ordinary places could be the stuff of fiction. But she saw far more. One of her greatest contributions to literature was a way of writing, centred on the heroine, that recognises the longing in each one of us to grow, to change, to become other. Her heroines have inner lives, represented on the page as a kind of conversation with the self. The extraordinary intimacy that Austen inspires in her readers, the identification that her characters generate in each of us, springs from this. Her characters become real to us and, through them, our own limitations become a little less real and our fantasies appear a little more substantial.
Austen wrote about the world she knew, famously declaring “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” to be “the very thing to work on”. To the men and women who commemorated the centenary of her death 100 years ago, her seeming ignorance of public events licensed her novels as comfort reading in the trenches of the first world war. Austen’s village, clustered around the great house, the rectory and the church, was a vision of England worth fighting to preserve. “Her kingdoms are hermetically sealed, in fact, and here lies the strength of their impregnable immortality,” wrote the traveller Reginald Farrer in July 1917. But consider Henry Tilney’s patient explanation of village politics to the impressionable Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey: “Remember that we are English . . . every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies”. How are we to reconcile this with Farrer’s Austen? Surveillance, as we know, is not an unalloyed comfort.
Austen was war-conditioned; Britain was at war with France almost continuously from 1793 to 1815, most of her adult life. She was also war-informed. Rumour and intelligence, newspapers, an efficient postal service and army and navy lists ate up the distances between far-flung campaigns and home. Chawton these days may be a sleepy Hampshire village, but when Austen moved there in July 1809, it lay at a vital junction on the roads to Winchester, Gosport and London. Her niece Caroline recorded in old age how, when staying with her aunt, “the awful stillness of night” was “so frequently broken by the noise of passing carriages, which seemed sometimes, even to shake the bed”. Making land on the south coast, Napoleon might well have marched his army past Austen’s door.
Austen’s remarkable family connected her to danger and to war zones. Living in Paris in the 1780s, her glamorous cousin Eliza Hancock, almost certainly the natural child of Warren Hastings, governor of Bengal, met and married the Comte de Feuillide, a captain in the Queen’s Regiment of Dragoons. A frequent visitor to her Austen cousins, Eliza was in England only days before the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Though she escaped the excesses of the revolution, her husband was guillotined in 1794. Settled in London, and later married to Jane’s brother Henry, a banker, Eliza remained entwined with the exiled French community. Moving in émigré society on her regular London visits, Austen attended their benefit concerts, heard of their misfortunes and declared herself amused “to see the ways of a French circle”. Eliza was a major influence on Austen’s writings, while Henry acted as her informal agent in procuring book deals.
Two of Austen’s brothers, Frank and Charles, were sailors who saw service in the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. They sent home gifts to their sisters bought with prize money, realised by the capture of enemy ships. They sent letters from the East and West Indies, the Middle East and Mediterranean and North American waters; and Austen posted replies: from Chawton to “Captn Austen, HMS Elephant, Baltic”, and to China. Frank Austen, flag captain of HMS Canopus, one of six ships-of-the-line sent by Nelson to re-provision, missed the action at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, but recorded the victory and Nelson’s death in Canopus’s logbook.
Austen repaired the record in her final novel Persuasion, when she allowed Admiral Croft a share in the victory at Trafalgar, while his brother-in-law, the novel’s hero Frederick Wentworth, attains his captaincy after the action off St Domingo in the Caribbean in February 1806, where Frank Austen commanded the Canopus.
And in a letter of October 12 1813, she joked about the stream of biographies of Nelson: “Southey’s Life of Nelson; — I am tired of Lives of Nelson, being that I never read any. I will read this, however, if Frank is mentioned in it.”
Austen’s wartime vision is neither detached nor limited; what conspires to conceal her response in plain sight is her commitment to record events from the perspective of everyday reality — the routines of women (and men) who wait at home. How many readers today, opening their paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice at the title page, notice that it was published in a “Military Library”? Thomas Egerton, Austen’s first publisher, carried a list composed of military treatises, maps and training manuals, works designed to feed the war effort against Napoleon. Austen was his first female novelist. Three of her books appeared in his Military Library.
By 1813, the year of Pride and Prejudice, the south of England resembled a military camp, with infantry barracks and militia stationed in the smallest towns. Billeted in local lodgings, the militia had a reputation for drinking and womanising. The disruptive effects of the militia on civilian life and morality form the novel’s dark plot. Its love story may centre on Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but their relationship is only cemented after George Wickham, an officer in the militia, seduces giddy Lydia Bennet.
Mansfield Park, Austen’s third novel, published in 1814, is a wartime meditation on the place of family in the defence of the nation. Austen’s unusual reading during its composition attests to her sombre mood — “Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire” (1810), by Charles Pasley, a captain in the Royal Engineers. A veteran of the Spanish Peninsula campaign, Pasley found the British government guilty of inadequate preparations and half-measures in the face of Napoleon’s brutal fighting machine. He was, Austen joked, “[t]he first soldier I ever sighed for”.
The novel’s action is divided between the spacious Northamptonshire estate of Mansfield Park, home of the Bertrams, and the cramped Portsmouth lodgings of their poor relations, the Prices. But its backdrop is global, encompassing Sir Thomas Bertram’s voyage to his Antiguan plantations and midshipman William Price’s past campaigns in the Mediterranean and West Indies, with North America and the Netherlands in prospect. Portsmouth, an English Channel port of great strategic significance, was in the 1810s a city dedicated to war. During visits to the dockyards (with its new blocking machinery, to the design of the French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) and walks on the city’s ramparts and saluting battery, the sophisticated rake Henry Crawford makes his unsuccessful assault on heroine Fanny Price’s heart.
Austen’s writing career was attuned far more than has been acknowledged to fluctuations in the British response to war. With Persuasion, most extraordinarily of all, she took the newly invented historical novel and turned it inside-out. It is Austen’s most time-stamped novel — a tale of mourning and loss (lost youth, lost beauty, lost happiness, lost estates). In Persuasion, the little non-events of heroine Anne Elliot’s suspended life do duty for years of separation and war — the domestic made public. Begun on August 8 1815, the novel opens precisely one year earlier in the late summer of 1814. Written after Waterloo, its events unfold before Waterloo, during the brief respite from fighting that ended abruptly with Napoleon’s escape from Elba in February 1815. In the real and fictional summer of 1814, peace looked secure, naval officers returned home, and among them Captain Frederick Wentworth. The novel’s narrative moves from autumn to spring. Hope recovers. At the same time, the contemporary reader’s slight dislocation from events ensured the poignant understanding that happiness, like peace, is fragile too. The resumption of conflict and with it the threat of loss — what the narrator calls “the tax of quick alarm” — lie just beyond the novel’s frame.
Austen aligned herself with those, like her combat-hardened sailor brothers, whose advancement was by virtue of merit, not inheritance. Merit and risk defined her progress as a writer. Frank Austen’s chief regret at missing the action at Trafalgar, “the loss of pecuniary advantage as well as professional credit”, would strike a chord in one who said she wrote for “praise” and “Pewter” (money). Dependent from birth on her father and latterly on the provision made by her brothers for their widowed mother and unmarried sisters, Austen was clear-eyed in her concern with how to lay out her talent to maximum profit.
Austen was war-conditioned; Britain was at war with France almost continuously from 1793 to 1815
The gamble was whether to sell or keep control of her manuscripts. Apart from Pride and Prejudice, Austen chose to publish all her novels “on commission”. This meant that although she was liable for losses, she retained her copyrights and covered costs for paper and printing out of profits, the publisher taking a handling commission (usually 10 per cent). She always regretted selling the copyright for Pride and Prejudice, which proved her most popular novel. A first edition of Mansfield Park brought her at least £320, her biggest lifetime return on any novel; but the cheque for the sum of £38 and 18 shillings (£38.90, worth about £3,480 today) made out by her second publisher, John Murray, to “Miss Jane Austin”, on October 21 1816, and payable four months later, was all she received from sales of Emma more than a year after publication. A disastrous second edition of Mansfield Park, issued in February 1816, ate up profits, and in any case Emma sold slower than expected. Henry Austen’s banking collapse in March 1816, along with its effect on the financial support available for the Austen women, explains her reluctance to venture on publishing Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, the two final novels. The crisis probably exacerbated her final illness.
Austen’s lifetime earnings of around £630 were modest by any contemporary standard. Her writing never provided financial independence. Posthumous profits and Cassandra Austen’s sale of her sister’s remaining copyrights in 1832 brought Austen’s overall earnings from her novels to around £1,625, most of which were received after death. Despite mounting esteem in her lifetime and latterly the prestige of working with John Murray, the most glamorous publisher in London, Austen earned far less than her contemporaries, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth and the bestseller Walter Scott, all now little-read by comparison. “The Rich are always respectable”, Austen quipped. She too has always been respectable, but she would surely have relished the irony that later this year, when hers will be the face of the Bank of England £10 note, she will at last have money and fame.
Kathryn Sutherland is a professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and curator of ‘Which Jane Austen?’, a bicentenary exhibition opening at Oxford’s Weston Library on June 22
How famous was Jane Austen in her lifetime? Although Jane Austen saw some of her works published and favorably received, she herself remained a relative unknown in the literary world during her lifetime. The books were published anonymously, and Austen's name was only attached to them late in 1817, several months after her death. The accolades came quickly and Jane Austen's name became one of the most famous in English literature. Fan clubs for the writer abound; some of the most devout Austen cultists even took her name, calling themselves Janeites. Originally, the self-proclaimed sophisticated Janeites aimed to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi who just loved her stories. Nowadays, the term is more all-inclusive, referring to any readers who are obsessed with Austen and her works. Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775.
"Nobody minds having what is too good for them." — Jane Austen