Two hundred years ago, a book entered the world quietly and anonymously. Unlike most popular novels of the day, it featured no shipwrecks, haunted castles, sword fights, or journeys to exotic lands. Instead it followed two English sisters as they mingled with their social set. One sister learned a painful life lesson, and both married happily. The book was Jane Austen's first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, and it has continued to find loyal readers since 1811.
Austen began this novel in her youth and called it Elinor and Marianne, after the Dashwood sisters, its principal characters. They are Elinor, who masks her emotions, and Marianne, who is "eager in every thing," who lets the world see her joy, sorrow, and affection. Austen allowed the story to be told through a series of letters that offered a cynical view of a society that dealt unkindly with anyone foolish enough to betray his or her feelings, a world in which greed and ambition made up the formula for success.
Sometime later, Austen rejected the epistolary, novel-in-letters form and rewrote this book as a traditional third-person narrative. In doing so she made a crucial, and very wise, choice, one that allowed her to broaden her scope. Letters, you see, are limiting; they can reveal nothing more than the correspondents know or wish to relate. But an onmicient narrator can go anywhere. She can be present at events the main characters may not yet know about, and she can peer inside people's heads to reveal hopes and worries that letter writers might not express. Best of all in Jane Austen's case, an onmicient narrator can insert observations of her own. Austen perfected the art of the wry comment, precisely understated; no one has ever done it better:
On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse.
A fond mother ... in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow anything.
Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract by her conduct her most favorite maxims.
Austen's manuscripts of Elinor and Marianne and Sense and Sensibility have been lost, so we cannot compare one version with the other. But we can get some inkling of what the earlier version might have been like by reading one of Austen's minor works, the novella Lady Susan. Composed of letters, it is a clever, entertaining farce, but it lacks the depth of Austen's six novels. It shows us that by exercising her own voice in Sense and Sensibility rather than letting her characters do all the talking, Austen likely turned an amusing bit of writing into a significant work of literature.
The cynicism remained in the mature work, but characters who had been flat figures sketched on a page emerged as if carved in relief. They became three-dimensional people with well-developed personalities. Because of Austen's artistry, countless young women--beginning with England's Princess Charlotte in 1811--have likened themselves to open-hearted, impulsive Marianne, and readers of both sexes and every age have found in Sense and Sensibility an enlightening reflection of human nature. What is more, they have discovered in its author a friend to whom they can return repeatedly and always be rewarded for their effort.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS, MY READERS, MY FRIENDS.
As times change, so can the way readers understand a book. This is why I wasn't surprised to learn that Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park had a meaning for her contemporaries that is lost on readers today. Regency England saw in it a cautionary tale, a warning that loose morals in high places were trickling down and corrupting the young.
The bad example was being set by the Royals--the celebrities of their day--although Austen never mentions them by name. She and her readers knew that the Prince Regent himself (the future King George IV) had run up high debts and was flaunting his love for his mistress. His wife, Caroline of Brunswick, had lovers galore and is thought to have borne an illigitimate son. Caroline's behavior so shocked her philandering husband that he declared her an unfit mother and barred her from seeing their daughter, the innocent Princess Charlotte. And the prince's brother William--the Duke of Clarence and also a future king--well! He lived with a mistress and their ten children until he threw the whole brood out and started looking around for someone richer and younger.
Those in power set the tone, and in Mansfield Park Austen presents young people who have grown up in this unwholesome social climate, without proper guidance. The most glaring examples are Henry and Mary Crawford, whose guardian lived openly with a mistress of his own. This brother and sister toy freely with others' affections and value wealth and comfort over virtue. Austen makes examples as well of the Bertram sisters, Maria and Julia, who wear a veneer of accomplishment, but whose moral foundation has been shamefully neglected. Their brother Tom is in line to inherit their father's estate, but he, too, has been spoiled, and he manages money no better than the prince.
Austen contrasts this bunch with her heroine, Fanny Price, a poor niece being raised in the Bertram home, Mansfield Park, and Fanny's cousin Edmund, a younger son intended for the clergy. Both are virtuous beyond belief, so, naturally, both become targets of the conniving Crawfords. Alas for Henry Crawford, though! He sets out to make a trophy of Fanny's heart only to be smitten himself. Fanny rejects Henry Crawford's advances, but this puts her at odds with her uncle, Sir Thomas, who sees the match as a fine opportunity for his penniless niece. When the frustrated uncle sends Fanny off for a long visit with her parents and siblings in their small, shabby Portsmouth home, the story at last gets interesting--at least for a twenty-first-century reader like me.
Because just as Shakespeare's characters sometimes head for the forest to work out their problems, in Portsmouth Fanny views life from a fresh angle. Most notably, she sees Henry Crawford behaving honorably; not only does he further her brother William's naval career, but on a brief visit to Portsmouth, he treats the humble Price family with gentlemanly respect. Wow, I said to myself when I reached this point in my first reading of Mansfield Park, maybe Austen is letting these characters emerge from one-dimensionality. I was excited to see Jane Austen enter new territory. Maybe, I thought, Fanny and Henry will end up happily together after all.
But, no. At this point Austen backs up and changes direction. Henry quickly reverts to his scoundrel's ways, the Bertram girls behave especially badly, and if Fanny learns anything in Portsmouth, it is that she belongs at Mansfield Park. The novel's ending--with Fanny's marriage to her cousin Edmund--was the one I predicted at the novel's start.
Am I wrong to take issue with Mansfield Park? I've learned from experience that when a novel by an important writer rests uneasily with me, the fault can lie not in the work but in my understanding of it. With time and repeated readings, I eventually say, Aha!
This may happen with Mansfield Park, for as Austen reminds us in chapter twenty-two, "How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!" But right now I would favor a different, more adventurous course for Fanny Price. And for Henry Crawford. And even for pious Edmund. Life is about moving forward, not back.
Reading Pride and Prejudice, we follow every step in the evolving relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. No sooner do we watch them meet and hear them proclaim their mutual dislike, then we see how Elizabeth's dark, expressive eyes and quick mind capture Darcy's attention, so that he feels attracted to her in spite of himself. We get to eavesdrop on his first bungled proposal, as he manages to declare his love and insult his beloved all at once. After Elizabeth angrily rejects him, we read over her shoulder the letter he writes to explain himself. It is this letter that forces Lizzy to reconsider her first impression of her suitor and acknowledge his worth.
We are there, too, when fate brings the couple together at Pemberley, when we encounter a changed Darcy, one who is all graciousness and who will act behind the scenes to help Elizabeth's family in a crisis. And soon we are flies on the wall for that wonderful scene in which Elizabeth stands up to Lady Catherine de Burgh and signals that she would accept Darcy's proposal were it renewed.
At last Austen has cleared away every impediment and brought her lovers together. We anticipate a great love scene, but what does the author give us? A summary. Elizabeth, she tells us,
gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on this occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.
A similar thing happens in Emma, as we travel with Emma Woodhouse through the misadventurous year in which she grows up. We are privy to Mr. Elton's tipsy proposal, we listen in on Emma's banter with Frank Churchill, and we tag along on the outing to Box Hill, where Emma's thoughtless comment hurts Miss Bates. When she finally takes responsibility for her behavior, Emma is mature enough to understand that she loves Mr. Knightley, who has been watching and waiting for this very moment. Mr. Knightley steps forward to propose, and Austen steps back. "What did she say?" Austen asks about Emma, and she answers herself, "just what she ought, of course, A lady always does."
These scenes have caused readers past and present to feel shortchanged. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example, said that Austen's novels were "perfect as far as they go--that's certain. Only they don't go far enough." Some readers have complained that Austen lost interest in her characters once she got her lovers together, and so she rushed her endings. A few have even speculated that because Austen never married, she would have had no idea what lovers say at times like these, and she therefore couldn't write it. (So much for insight or imagination!)
We can't know why Austen wrote as she did, but we are free to decide whether or not her endings satisfy. I happen to side with the readers who think she knew what she was doing, first, because these novels are more about coming of age than about love; second, because writing in this way emphasized the universality of the emotions described. We all know how sensibly and warmly a young man violently in love behaves. It's the same in any culture, in any period. Brava, Jane.
Last month a draft of The Watsons, the novel that Jane Austen is thought to have begun and abandoned in 1804, sold at Sotheby's in London for more than $1.6 million. It was the last Austen manuscript held in private hands, and it is one of only a few that survive. No manuscripts of Austen's six great novels have ever been found, and we can only assume they were destroyed after printing. The loss to literature and history is enormous, but who in the early nineteenth century knew that these stories of courtship and coming of age would number among the best-loved books ever written?
The heavily corrected pages of The Watsons will reside in a suitably august home, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Fortunately for Austen's fans, one need not travel to England to read the text: The Watsons has been published numerous times, beginning in 1872.
Austen made an intriguing start, writing about sisters, as she so often did. The reader meets Emma Watson, the youngest grown child of a widower, and her bickering family. Like Lizzy Bennet and her sisters in Pride and Prejudice, the Watson women are of marriageable age but have no money to recommend them.
Available young men of varying fortunes quickly arrive on the scene. There's the aristocratic Lord Osborne, the socially ambitious Tom Musgrave, and an earnest clergyman, Mr. Howard. It seems that Austen was planning to write about marrying for money, because when Emma tells her sister Elizabeth that "Poverty is a great Evil, but to a woman of Education & feeling it ought not, it cannot be the greatest," Elizabeth responds, "I think I could like any good humoured Man with a comfortable Income." Austen presented two viewpoints, both valid because both likely true of the speakers. A marriage that suits one person can be all wrong for another, as Austen demonstrated so pointedly in Pride and Prejudice. Whereas Lizzy could not abide the thought of life with Mr. Collins, her friend Charlotte Lucas found in him a satisfactory husband even if she had no illusion of love.
The gentry of Jane Austen's England viewed marriage as a social contract. It was a way to gain or protect wealth or acquire a title and status. Even Austen, who declared herself squarely on the side of love, never said that love alone sufficed. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection," she counseled her niece Fanny Knight. But the man's character mattered, too, and so did his position. Love was just part of the package.
Austen's relative poverty limited her own prospects. She had a youthful romance cut abruptly short when her suitor's family whisked him away from her because they had bigger plans for him. Later she turned down a proposal from a family friend--a young man who could have given her wealth, a fine home, and children--because the two of them shared no love. It had been her last chance; no more proposals came.
Having better control of fate in her novels than she did in life, Austen let all her heroines marry for love to the very men who would make them happiest. We cannot know what she had in mind for Emma Watson, but I'm willing to bet that Emma would have married sincere Mr. Howard--after he had been given a comfortable living.
I am grateful for the hospitality that you extended to me during my stay in Steventon, Bath, Southampton, and, finally, Chawton. I so enjoyed meeting your loved ones and friends, especially your sister, Cassandra, your cherished lifelong companion. Some have called her tiresome--your niece Fanny complained that Cassandra's lectures gave her a headache--but we must remember that her fiance's death extinguished Cassandra's youth and dulled her hopes. I also couldn't help liking your cousin Eliza, another misunderstood woman. Those who disparaged Eliza's flirtatiousness and devotion to French fashions closed their eyes to her generosity and touching love for her son. And your friend Martha Lloyd--so down to earth but full of fun--I'd want her for a friend, too.
Getting to know you was the highlight of my visit, of course, although I sensed that you held back your finest thoughts and observations. You must have been saving them for your books. I particularly liked seeing your bond with your nieces and nephews. "She seemed to love you, and you loved her naturally in return," your niece Caroline said of you. Your kindness to two of your brother Edward's boys in the days after their mother's death especially touched me. The outings and games that you arranged for them, from rowboat rides to spillikins (pick-up sticks), eased them through a sorrowful time. would it surprise you to know that the young still feel connected to you two hundred years after your death?
I must mention one thing. I still don't know what to make of your penchant for gossip. Deliberately pointing out others' faults, if only to entertain friends, seems unnecessarily cruel. Yet when one has a talent for clever, cutting remarks, making them must be hard to resist. And yours are so witty. In the months since we parted I have heard again in my mind your description of poor Mr. Warren, whom you called "ugly enough; uglier even than his cousin John," and innocent Miss Langley, a young lady you dismissed as being "like any other short girl, with a broad nose and wide mouth, fashionable dress, and exposed bosom." Of course, you write novels, and novelists must be willing (dare I say eager?) to show characters in an unfavorable light.
Since leaving Chawton, I have been staying in the north, in the Yorkshire village of Haworth, with a clergyman named Bronte and his three grown daughters. I'd love to hear what you would say about them! They wear old-fashioned dresses, attend no balls, and shun most company. They have all written novels called shocking in their time and deemed unsuitable for young ladies to read. Now I will pass along some gossip of my own: Charlotte, the oldest Bronte sister, has read your books, and she said they lack passion!
Dearest Jane, in closing I will only say that I am sorry you had to leave us so soon.
It changes. If asked in my early teens, I would have said Emma, because Emma Woodhouse was inclined to get into mischief, and I would have wanted her for a friend. If the question were repeated a few years later, I might have mentioned Sense and Sensibility, because Marianne Dashwood's free-spiritedness appeals to young women, even though it leads Marianne ultimately to be chastened. Who doesn't go through a spell of wanting to signal, "I'm different; I don't necessarily conform to society's rules"?
Today I would choose Pride and Prejudice. It's as refreshing as a sparkling stream--an enchanted one that reflects human nature when one peers into it. In her second published novel, Austen got everything right. The plot glides smoothly forward; the light, inviting tone pulls the reader along like a steady current; and not a word is wasted. Humor abounds and is evident from the first sentence, which only a literary genius could have composed: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." This opening promises so much--the single man, the schemers who hope to marry him off, and an abundance of fun. And Jane Austen delivers.
In Pride and Prejudice Austen created some of her most memorable characters. Chief among them, of course, is the captivating Elizabeth Bennet. Austen gave Lizzy Bennet intelligence and wit as well as vigorous good health and a beautiful expression in her dark eyes. Elizabeth is "alive to the very tips of her fingers," noted a critic in 1898, and more than a century later, readers agree. Proud, wealthy Fitzwilliam Darcy is attracted to Lizzy in spite of himself.
Minor characters can seem one-dimensional in other Austen novels, but not in Pride and Prejudice. Whereas Mr. Woodhouse is never more than a caricature of a worrying hypochondriac, the cynical Mr. Bennet emerges as a real man with a genuine affection for his second daughter. Mr. Collins would be nothing more than a buffoon except that Charlotte Lucas sees some worth in him.
The scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks has called Pride and Prejudice a Cinderella story. A woman of Lizzy Bennet's station would never have had the slightest chance of marrying a man of Darcy's wealth and stature, she has said. This may be true, but it doesn't bother me a bit. Fairy tales endure because they help us understand our dreams and motives, and this wouldn't be the first time one has found its way into great literature. Think of a story that begins once upon a time, long ago, when a king divides his kingdom into three parts. Sound like the stuff of storybooks? It's King Lear.
We've all been there, to that painful private place where we face up to something we said or did, without making excuses. In these moments we wish we could curl up and hide from the rest of the world. We feel shame or regret, and we decide for a time that we don't like ourselves very well anymore. It's an awful place but a necessary one--or so Jane Austen teaches us. We emerge from it sadder but wiser, yet the wonderful thing is that the sadness doesn't last, although the wisdom does.
Almost paradoxically, it is this hard-won wisdom that points characters toward happiness in Jane Austen's world. There is a point in Pride and Prejudice, for example, when Elizabeth Bennet must admit to herself that her first impression of Fitzwilliam Darcy was mistaken, and she was wrong to speak ill of him. "How despicably I have acted!" she cries out. "I, who have valued myself on my abilities!" Acknowledging her shortcomings causes Elizabeth pain, but she is wiser for doing so. "Till this moment, I never knew myself," she says. With self-knowledge comes maturity; Elizabeth has grown up.
A similar thing happens to Emma Woodhouse in Austen's novel Emma. Convinced of her own cleverness, Emma tries too hard to impress her friend Frank Churchill and glibly insults kindly Miss Bates, whose only fault is talking too much. Emma's moment of truth comes later, when Mr. Knightley, a much-admired family friend, points out that she did wrong. "Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life," Austen wrote. "How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!" Emma made her hurtful remark out of immaturity; when she goes to apologize to Miss Bates, she has taken a big step toward womanhood.
Austen parodied gothic novels in Northanger Abbey, but even the heroine of this work gets her comeuppance. Catherine Morland's imagination runs wild, and during her visit Northanger Abbey, home of her new friends the Tilneys, she expects at any moment to discover dark, hidden secrets. It's all harmless fun until she conjures up the notion that her host, General Tilney, murdered his late wife. When Catherine is caught snooping in the dead woman's room--by none other than handsome, eligible Henry Tilney--she is embarrassed for having gone too far. From this moment on, her actions will be rooted in reality.
The author gave a different structure to Persuasion, her last completed novel, but the lesson is the same. Readers meet Anne Eliot, who at twenty-seven is Austen's oldest heroine, eight years after she has suffered her painful moment. At nineteen Anne had been persuaded to break her engagement to a man she loved, and she has regretted this mistake ever since. Austen was kind to Anne, giving her a second chance at love, a chance the author never enjoyed in her own life.
Some critics have faulted Jane Austen for losing interest in her characters once their path to a happy marriage is clear. They have occasionally blamed her single status for keeping her ignorant of engagement and marriage. Yet Austen's novels are not really about love. It is true that all her heroines marry, and marry rightly, but at the core these books are about growing up.
I'm a diligent, productive writer, so I hear the question often. I also ask it of my writer friends, because I am interested in them, and because I am intrigued by the great variety of ideas that appeal to people's creativity. I find it curious that after I answer, my questioners tend to respond in the same way. In other words, a particular book-in-progress yields a particular response. When I was writing about Whitman, for example, people wanted to know, "How are you handling his homosexuality?" No one asked how I was presenting his poetry, which is the more important question, but I always answered straightforwardly: I mention it, but I don't dwell on it.
The loveliest responses came when I was writing about Cummings. Many people spontaneously recited a fragment of poetry, whether it was by Cummings or someone else:
as if as
somewhere i have never travelled...
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone...
More recently, when I told my questioners that I was writing about Jane Austen, a number of people asked, "In your book, what do you say was the cause of her death?" I told them that I wrote the truth: we don't know. But I would have given the same answer if they had asked about Austen's appearance, or her religious views, or how she spent the months between January and August of 1796. The fact is, we know surprisingly little about this major figure in world literature.
Because biography is so much about character, these gaps presented the biggest challenge I faced when writing Jane Austen: A Life Revealed. I chose to address them head-on, beginning with one of the most intriguing mysteries, her unfinished novel Sanditon. The fact that there are limits to historical and literary research is a useful lesson for young readers to learn.
The biographer of Austen works with precious little. The only authenticated portrait of her is a watercolor by her sister, Cassandra, but people who knew the author said it failed to do her justice. When friends and family described Austen's appearance, they contradicted one another. Her hair was long and black or curly and brown, and she was pretty or plain, depending on which eyewitness we choose to believe. She wrote an estimated three thousand letters, but her relatives destroyed all but one hundred sixty, and we don't know why. As Austen's fame grew, they presented her to the world as they wanted her remembered: always considerate and forgiving, and certainly never unkind. Then there are the six published novels and a small body of lesser and unfinished works.
Yet from it all a woman emerges. She is brilliant, witty, and occasionally nasty. She is devoted to her large, active family and loyal to her few close friends. She is also an astonishingly perceptive student of the human heart and, of course, a gifted writer. We who live two hundred years removed from Austen must accept the fact that our view of her remains somewhat obscured.
And what about her death at forty-one? The prevailing opinion among historical medical detectives is that Jane Austen died of Addison's disease, which was untreatable in her day, and that it was possibly triggered by tuberculosis. This diagnosis best matches the symptoms that Austen and others recorded, which included skin discoloration, intermittent fever, weakness and fatigue, but no real pain. Still, we don't know for sure.