On July 18, the Bank of England marked the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death by officially unveiling a new £10 note in her honor, the second in a series designed to replace paper currency with a more rugged polymer. It would be nice to imagine that someone at the bank had been reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and thought this an appropriate way of acknowledging the woman who figures in it as one of our most clear-sighted guides to the origins of current economic arrangements1—the Memoir’s version erases the downward-drooping lines around the eyes and mouth, plumps the cheeks, and softens the compressed lips into the hint of a smile, thus effectively airbrushing the sharp, rather dour original. Even the ruffles at the cheek and neck contribute to the effect, as does the cropping of the crossed arms that helped to give Cassandra’s portrait its faint air of defiance.
Austen’s Victorian relatives were notoriously anxious lest she appear not genteel enough for contemporary tastes, and the bank’s designers have duly obliged them by backgrounding her image with one of Godmersham Park, the landed estate owned by the wealthy relatives who had adopted one of her brothers when he was an adolescent. Like the other great houses Austen visited, this was a place at which she always remained something of an outsider—a point rightly emphasized in Lucy Worsley’s new biography of the novelist, Jane Austen at Home. To compound the offense, the bank has reproduced on the £10 bill an anodyne quotation from Pride and Prejudice (1813)—“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”—that is actually spoken by one of the novel’s snobs, Caroline Bingley, as she yawns and flings aside a book picked up only because it’s the second volume of one Darcy has chosen. Miss Bingley, in fact, has been “quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own.”
Tinkering with Austen’s image has a long history. According to Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston in Teenage Writings, their new edition of her juvenilia, even writing that Austen never intended to publish didn’t escape others’ propensity to touch it up. The work in question is a comparatively late piece of juvenilia here called “Kitty, or the Bower”—the title it was first given in the notebooks Austen kept of her adolescent writing—and the improving hand was that of the same nephew who later commissioned the Victorian portrait.
The future novelist had begun composing for the family circle when she was eleven or twelve, collecting her youthful experiments into notebooks self-consciously labeled “Volume the First,” “Volume the Second,” and “Volume the Third.” Originally dated August 1792, when the author was seventeen, “Kitty, or the Bower” appears at the end of Volume the Third, and it’s the single longest piece in the collection. It’s also the one that most closely resembles the fiction Austen eventually published. Unlike the boisterous parodies that dominate the earlier volumes, in which gleeful exaggeration and bathetic understatement alternate with dizzying rapidity while heroines drink, steal, and “run mad” at the slightest provocation, both the action and the style of this last piece are comparatively restrained.
We’re told at the outset of “Kitty” that its title character—whom Austen occasionally calls “Catherine”—“had the misfortune, as many heroines have had before her, of losing her Parents when she was very young.” But in this she only provides a less thoroughgoing send-up of novelistic convention than her namesake, Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abbey (1818), whose mother “instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect…still lived on…to have six children more.” Though Kitty’s new acquaintance, Camilla Stanley, lacks Isabella Thorpe’s infatuation with the Gothic, she also seems like a dry run for the later work, with her vapid pronouncements about literature (Charlotte Smith’s novels “are the sweetest things in the world”) and her obsessive chatter about clothes. When the unfinished tale breaks off, the generally sensible Kitty has begun to undergo a disillusionment with her new friend very like Catherine’s with Isabella in Northanger Abbey.
Previous editors have assumed that at some point Austen herself decided to turn the homely-sounding “Kitty Peterson” into the upscale “Catharine Percival” and to retitle the work accordingly. But Sutherland and Johnston, in their introduction to Teenage Writings, argue that the revisions date to 1815 or 1816, when the now published novelist had partly handed over her notebooks to apprentice writers in the next generation—her niece and nephew—and that James Edward’s renaming of the heroine was effectively a political act. By eliminating the reformist aura that the vernacular would have carried in the 1790s, he also succeeded in blunting the original opposition between Austen’s down-to-earth heroine and the frivolous Stanleys, “people of Large Fortune high Fashion.”
Austen’s own transformation of her art over the course of these notebooks proved far more consequential, however. As the raucous picaresque of the early writings gave way to the incipient courtship plot of “Kitty, or the Bower,” the young writer seems to have found her form: a comic structure so familiar from the mature works, in fact, that we should have little difficulty in guessing where this particular variant is heading. Though the manuscript breaks off just as Kitty manages to convince herself that Camilla’s brother is in love with her, no experienced Austen reader is apt to imagine that this heroine was destined to marry the flirtatious Stanley, who clearly belongs instead with the likes of Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park (1814): the deceptive or unreliable suitor who simultaneously helps to drive the novel’s plot and to point up, by contrast, the merits of the hero. Comedy is an inherently conservative genre, and the very consistency of Austen’s fundamental design can appear to intensify the effect, as if the grown woman had decisively put behind her the buoyant energies that drove the writing of the teenager.
Yet we read Austen for style as much as—if not more than—for plot, and the relentless irony of her narrative voice continually unsettles easy certainties. Nor does the predictability of the novels’ resolutions necessarily signify a complacent endorsement of the status quo. She herself, after all, openly delighted in mocking their artifice, as when the narrator of Northanger Abbey observes that “the tell-tale compression” of the remaining pages means “that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.”
To read the novels in sequence is also to register how she approached that artifice as a persistent challenge to experiment: alternating between her poor “creepmouse” of a heroine in Mansfield Park and the overbearing heiress of Emma (1816), for example, only to shift gears yet again in Persuasion (1818)—not just by focusing on the reticent and often marginalized Anne Elliot, but by following a novel whose social trajectory is so static that its married heroine remains in the very house where she was born with one whose heroine is perpetually on the move, even as the world continues to change around her. It’s no wonder that readers of Austen have been tempted to draw very different conclusions about her politics.
Twentieth-century feminists sometimes assumed that they were the first to challenge the domesticated image promulgated by Austen’s relatives, but in The Making of Jane Austen, Devoney Looser reports that Parliament was already debating her position in 1872, two years after the Memoir was published. At issue was the pointedly named Women’s Disabilities Removal Bill, which proposed to extend the franchise to women of property, and speakers on both sides of the question managed to invoke Jane Austen in support of their cause. While a Conservative MP from Wales was convinced that “the incomparable” Austen would have opposed the bill, a Liberal from Cork argued to the contrary—only to be countered by another opponent who didn’t specifically mention the novelist but announced, “I am against ‘woman’s rights’ because I wish to retain women’s privileges.”
Since the speaker turns out to have been E.H. Knatchbull-Hugessen, a great-nephew of Austen who would go on to produce the first edition of her letters (1884), we may not be so far from family politics after all. But battles over the vote continued to be waged in Austen’s name, from the suffragists who staged A Pageant of Great Women in 1909, with the role of the novelist played by a prominent militant, Winifred Mayo, to G.K. Chesterton, who amused himself after the General Election of 1929—the first in which women younger than thirty had the franchise—by imagining the smooth-talking Wickham from Pride and Prejudice as a modern politician successfully wooing “the Flappers’ Vote.”
Other chapters in The Making of Jane Austen take up illustrations of the novels, dramatic adaptations, including MGM’s 1940 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier as the sparring lovers, and early appearances of Austen in the classroom, whether as recommended reading or transformed into school texts through abridgment and excerpting. Looser has deliberately taken what she terms the “back roads” of Austen reception, and she has uncovered some arresting material: a turn-of-the-century vogue for amateur staging of scenes from the novels in which the heroines talk back or refuse marriage proposals, for example, that Looser associates with the incipient feminism of the era’s so-called New Woman; or the farcical history of MGM’s various attempts at the Pride and Prejudice screenplay, which at one point had Darcy requesting a copy of Macaulay’s Essays (1843), as he and Elizabeth meet cute in the “Misses Anderson’s Book Shoppe,” and at another had Wickham teaching Lydia Bennet to shoot a gun. Viewers who object to the final version, which avoided giving offense to the clergy by making the pompous Mr. Collins a librarian, draped its flighty Elizabeth in Victorian costume, and turned Lady Catherine de Bourgh into a crusty but kindhearted matchmaker, have reason to be thankful, Looser suggests, that the damage was no worse.
The Making of Jane Austen is far from the first book in recent years to concern itself more with what others have done with the novelist than with the novels themselves. Looser provides a “Selected Bibliography on Jane Austen’s Legacy” that runs to over a hundred entries, a majority published since the millennium. What distinguishes Looser’s work, by her account, is its focus on some hitherto obscure aspects of the Austen phenomenon and its doggedly populist slant: though there are moments at which she clearly can’t help flinching at what has been done to the novelist—MGM’s film is a case in point—Looser is determined not to identify with “the elite caretakers of her image” or to adjudicate among competing versions. “Who can say,” she asks at one point, which is “really” Jane Austen, “—and with what authority?” She isn’t wrong about the difficulty of pinning down Austen’s politics, but choosing to abdicate judgment seems like a perverse tribute to this most discriminating of writers.
Lucy Worsley has no such qualms about deciding which Austen she prefers. Though she begins, somewhat misleadingly, by quoting the nineteenth-century publisher Richard Bentley—“Miss Austen…is, emphatically, the novelist of home”—Worsley is less interested in the tranquil domesticity such pronouncements may evoke than in the single woman’s longing for a place of her own. While numerous biographers have puzzled over the gap between Austen’s life and her fiction, Worsley believes she deliberately chose to remain unmarried, so as to keep herself free of domestic entanglements.
At the same time, Worsley thinks that both the woman and the novelist were deeply invested in the problem of finding a home: indeed, she proposes that this, rather than love and courtship, is the motor of Austen’s plots. Organized around the various places Austen inhabited, from the Steventon rectory in which she was born and raised to her “final home” in Winchester Cathedral, where she is buried, Jane Austen at Home offers an engagingly written account of a woman far more alert to hard economic realities than the original keepers of her image liked to acknowledge. Worsley’s Austen learns from her own experience the sort of painful inequalities that Piketty’s Austen anatomizes.
Lovers of Austen have often been tempted to revisit the places associated with her. Worsley recalls how Alfred Tennyson insisted on being taken to the Cobb in Lyme Regis, so that he could “see the steps from which Louisa Musgrove fell” in Persuasion; and at the turn of the last century Constance Hill and her sister Ellen commemorated their pilgrimage through “Austen-land” by writing and illustrating Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends (1902). But Worsley, who has little patience with the Austen family’s retrospective claims to gentility, is particularly good at cutting through the aura of cozy charm that sometimes threatens to suffocate Austen’s story. At Steventon, she reminds us, both parents worked the land2 (Had Worsley or her press seen fit to document such quotations, the slip might have been avoided, but not even chapter numbers or dates of letters are provided. Not coincidentally, the book was published the same month that Worsley—a rather gushing host of history shows on British 3 Worsley’s prediction that Anne Elliot will follow Captain Wentworth “like a devoted dog,” only to retreat to land when children arrive, completely overlooks Austen’s obvious model for their relationship, the strikingly egalitarian—if not female-dominated—marriage of Admiral and Mrs. Croft. It may not be chance, however, that Austen imagines the Crofts as childless.
With its ironic dismissal of the landed estate and its openness to perpetual change, Persuasion would seem to provide the best case for the novelist that Helena Kelly claims to uncover in Jane Austen, the Secret Radical
—except that there is nothing especially “secret” about the comparative radicalism of Austen’s last novel. Like Pride and Prejudice, which offers a milder critique of the landed aristocracy while granting its upwardly mobile heroine some spirited ripostes to class prejudice, Persuasion certainly complicates any attempt to enlist Austen as a diehard conservative.
Mansfield Park and Emma are trickier, if only because both novels superficially appear to affirm the status quo—in the first case by seeming to forgive the ill-judging patriarch, Sir Thomas Bertram, while banishing his adulterous daughter and the urban sophisticates who have helped to corrupt her, and in the second by chastening the fantasies of social mobility in which Emma appeared to indulge when she encouraged her friend Harriet Smith to marry above her station. (Harriet proves to be not a gentleman’s daughter, as Emma has imagined, but only the illegitimate offspring of a tradesman, and she ultimately finds her level by marrying the yeoman farmer whose candidacy Mr. Knightley, Emma’s counselor and her own eventual suitor, has long supported.)
Of course, Austen’s novels are far subtler than these partial plot summaries might suggest, and ever since the British scholar Marilyn Butler paid Austen the compliment of taking her politics seriously by arguing the Tory case in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975), others have been questioning Butler’s conclusions. They note, for example, the ominous silence with which Sir Thomas greets Fanny Price’s question about the slave trade when he returns from his West Indian estate in Mansfield Park, and connect the novel’s critique of Fanny’s own oppression to letters in which Austen expressed enthusiasm for the anti-slavery crusader Thomas Clarkson. Similarly Emma balances the moral correction of its heroine both with Knightley’s admission that his frequent lecturing was as likely to have done harm as good and with the egalitarian implications of his willingness to begin married life in Emma’s house rather than his own, in order to engage in what we now might term elder care for her hypochondriac father, Mr. Woodhouse.
Kelly ignores this entire debate, even when other critics have made arguments that might seem congruent with hers. As its breathless title suggests, Jane Austen, the Secret Radical has no use for previous readings of the novels, since they all have apparently missed the coded messages Austen was trying to convey. Though Kelly sometimes waffles on this point, implying that the novelist’s contemporaries knew “how to read between the lines” as we do not, she offers no evidence to this effect, other than the extravagant claim that they would have developed this skill because the conservative backlash after the French Revolution meant that they were living in an “essentially…totalitarian” state.
Under such conditions, it seems, Austen could do no more than hint at the oppressive designs she wished to expose: the church’s complicity in the slave trade, for instance, which Kelly thinks is symbolized by the ominous fit between the cross and chain (read “slavery”) that Fanny Price wears to the ball at Mansfield Park, or Mr. Knightley’s sinister plans to enclose the Donwell estate and complete his domination of Highbury by marrying the heiress of the adjacent property. Isn’t this what he is really up to, Kelly asks, when he tells his brother he is thinking of moving a local path? (She doesn’t mention that he speaks of doing so only if it won’t inconvenience the neighbors, nor does she remark the comedy of the scene, in which he is attempting to distract his brother from the unwelcome medical advice of Mr. Woodhouse.) As for Knightley’s moving in with Emma, this only proves that “he’s a terrible landlord,” as quick to abandon his servants and parish as he’s already been to immiserate his neighbors.
Even when Kelly reads with rather than against the grain, she remains tone-deaf. “This, right here, is a revolutionary moment,” she says of the scene in which Elizabeth listens willingly to Wickham’s hostile gossip about Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice; and lest we somehow miss the fact that Austen’s aristocrat is “not a Lady Bountiful,” we are solemnly reminded of the consequences: “From the corner of our eyes we can see the shadow of the guillotine.”
Kelly apparently thinks that a generation raised on BBC costume dramas and film adaptations needs to be convinced that “Jane is an artist,” and that the way to do so is to demonstrate that her work is covertly designed “to examine the great issues of her day.” But a defense of Austen that has no ear for irony misses both the art and the real subversiveness of her writing. “Ignore the banknote,” Kelly exhorts us in closing. “Read Jane’s novels…. Read them again.” I prefer to call her Austen, but I couldn’t agree more.
Though the National Portrait Gallery treats the sketch as authentic, the only portrait of Austen whose provenance can be strictly confirmed is a watercolor by Cassandra in which the subject turns her back to us. An oil painting of a young woman long misattributed to Johann Zoffany—the so-called Rice Portrait—has a strong claim, but the issue is still disputed. For a lively account of this and other candidates, see Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures (University of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 16–67; and for the latest update on the Rice Portrait, whose authenticity Johnson supports, see www.janeaustenriceportrait.com. ↩
The Austen scholar Deborah Yaffe keeps a useful blog where she registers such misquotations. ↩
Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord, At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, from Austen to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2017). ↩