IN 1817, HENRY AUSTEN prefaced the posthumous release of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey with a decorous “Biographical Notice” that defined his late sister in pious terms: her life, we were assured, had been one of “usefulness, literature, and religion.” We learned, too, that Jane Austen had enjoyed Samuel Johnson’s moral writings and admired Samuel Richardson’s command of character, while distrusting Henry Fielding, in whom “neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals.” This little bio of Henry’s reads as a tacit family disavowal of any potentially subversive elements in the novels, and it struck at least a segment of his sister’s audience as narrow and priggish. In 1821, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine responded with Austenian verve:
We have never read of such perfection elsewhere except in epitaphs, and though we know that de mortuis nil nisi bonum should be uttered, we confess we wish her biographer had recorded some fault, and if not exactly a fault, a failing, a weakness, a peccadillo of the most frivolous character, such as daintiness in eating, or nervous fidgeting, for then we might have pictured her as a mortal woman, with a coalscuttle bonnet, sandaled shoes, and mittens of the period, but now we can think of her as nothing less than an angel writing novels with a quill plucked from one of her own wings, and unfortunately there is no known likeness of her to dissipate the idea.
The delightfully ingenuous tone of these lines is a rebuttal to Henry’s overt self-righteousness — it is ladylike and literate and no less devastating on either account.
In the 1920s, when R.W. Chapman’s foundational editions of Austen’s six major novels came forth via Clarendon, mainstream critics began to take seriously the problem identified in this playful column. In 1937, W.H. Auden published his “Letter to Lord Byron,” in which he expresses Captain Renault-like alarm at the subversive matter of Austen’s novels: “You could not shock her more than she shocks me; / Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.” The Joyce, that is, whose greatest work was banned in Britain and prosecuted for obscenity in the United States.
If each generation makes its own sketch of Austen, to whom does the author belong? We are possessive of our Janes. One can emphasize her youthful Jacobitic conservatism, or else play up the protofeminist subversion most pronounced in the juvenilia and the final, unfinished novels. We can read her as a late-life convert to English Evangelism, or as a quiet Anglican who could address adultery without sermonizing. We can call her a shy, retiring maiden-aunt, or (much more the vogue these days) a woman whose perspective, if not her itinerary, was cosmopolitan, formed by reading international newspapers and receiving detailed letters from two globe-navigating sailor-brothers. We can even, if so inclined, reimagine her as a zombie slayer....read more