Illustration: Les invisibles en Tete-a-Tete (detail), from the series Le Supreme Bon Ton, No. 16; artist unknown; published by Martinet, Paris, c. 1810-1815 with thanks to Two Nerdy History Girls
WHEN V.S. NAIPAUL picked a fight with women writers in an interview earlier this year, citing a "narrow view of the world" as the source of female inferiority, he scorned Jane Austen for "her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world," declaring that no woman, not even Austen, was his literary equal. "A woman," he said, "is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing." Women at best produce "feminine tosh."
If Naipaul's goal in putting down women writers was to get attention, he couldn't have picked a better target than Jane Austen. In fact, it's hard to imagine any other woman whose disparagement would have garnered so much notice. In a word-association game, if I say "woman author," odds are the first name in your head would be that of the creator of Pride and Prejudice. It's worth noting that when I tried to talk to one of my nonliterary friends about Naipaul's remarks, his immediate response was "Who's V.S. Naipaul?" Nobody ever says, "Who's Jane Austen?"
Naipaul's comments drew a flurry of responses, mostly of the eye-rolling, here-we-go-again variety, but clearly he touched a nerve. "The idea that Naipaul imagines he is a better writer than Jane Austen would be simply hilarious," wrote Francine Prose, "if the prejudice it reveals weren't so common and didn't have such a damaging effect on what some of us have chosen to do with our lives." An editorial on the Economist blog noted that if Naipaul's flame-throwing could prompt "a forthright discussion of gender bias in the literary world," then he would have performed a "useful public service": "No doubt there are readers who share Mr. Naipaul's belief that women writers are inferior, but such misogyny tends to be indulged in secret, or else couched in cowardly qualifications and euphemism."
Like it or not, the reality on the ground is that Jane Austen benefits and suffers from being associated with women, and her status as a major writer has been complicated by gender issues since her earliest readers. We can thank Austen's brother Henry for helping to frame the terms of the early debate. After his sister's death, he prepared the two completed novels she left behind (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) for publication and included a short biographical essay on the "authoress," which was, for most of the 19th century, the only source of information about Jane Austen, the person. To this mini-biography, he attached a few extracts from her private writing; one of these inspired an entire school of thought on how to read the novels, a fragment of a letter he claims was more of an example of "her temper, taste, feelings, and principles than any thing which the pen of a biographer can produce." He sets up th...read more