In one respect at least we must be glad Jane Austen refused the proposal of marriage made her in 1802. Literature would be a little less seemly had she obliged us to think of our greatest (indeed, I more and more suspect, the greatest) novelist as Jane Bigg-Wither.
Her invention was more euphonious. Trying, in 1809, to recover the novel that a publisher had bought for £10 and sat on, unpublished, for six years (one of the lessons of the Letters is that nothing changes in the book trade), she asked for the manuscript to be returned to her as ‘Mrs Ashton Dennis’. This name she devised expressly, I imagine, to license her to sign her letter ‘M.A.D.’ The M would pass for one of the Marthas or Marys with whom the upper middle class was then strewn, but in her private imagination it stood, I am convinced, for ‘Mrs’. M.A.D. was a cryptic variant of a nonsense joke she had made a couple of months earlier in a gossipy letter to her sister: ‘Lady Sondes is an impudent Woman to come back into her old Neighbourhood again; I suppose she pretends never to have married before – & wonders how her Father & Mother came to have her christen’d Lady Sondes.’
The fact that Jane Austen, who clearly had many opportunities (or at least opportunities that she easily could have cultivated into opportunities to marry), didn’t marry probably seemed at the time the result of circumstance and chance. The death of Cassandra Austen’s fiancé in 1797 must for a while have made marriage uncontemplatable by the younger, and devoted, sister. Harris Bigg-Wither she refused because, the Memoir says, he had every advantage ‘except the subtle power of touching her heart’. She later endorsed this as just cause both through Fanny Price’s thoughts and in a letter to the real-life Fanny who was her niece: ‘Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.’ A man of unrecorded name who did, in Cassandra’s belief, touch her heart died, in a strange shadow of Cassandra’s own history, before he could present serious suit.
Circumstantial though it all seems, I think she in effect decided not to marry – and on the rational grounds that marriage, in the necessary presence of Affection but the absence of contraception, was unlikely to leave her energy enough to write her books. Later experience confirmed the assessment. Even temporary domesticity, imposed by a visit from a brother and his family, frustrated her: ‘Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb.’
Her compulsion to composition began in her childhood, which was passed under the figurehead of a mother languid and hypochondriacal after eight childbeds. At 25 she was a declared enemy of repeated pregnancies and households of noisy, fidgety infants (a dislike to which even her comic vendetta against music came second): ‘The house seemed to have all the comforts of little Children, dirt and litter. Mr Dyson as usual looked wild, & Mrs Dyson as usual looked big.’ As her own danger of marrying receded, she became more explicit and normative. For a Mrs Deedes with 11 children she commended ‘the simple regimen of separate rooms’. Her niece Fanny was advised that to postpone marriage is to postpone ‘growing old by confinements & nursing’. A pregnant niece provoked ‘Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.’ Even on her deathbed she ironically entered a race with a pregnant sister-in-law: ‘We were put to bed nearly at the same time.’
Jane Austen’s novels, on whose account she declined to marry and breed, were of course her children. As she corrected the proofs of her first publication, ‘I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child.’ Her second, yet more explicitly but not without her usual sardonicness at the expense of doting parents, was ‘my own darling child’. Mrs Ashton Dennis had to be Mrs.
As she advanced from the age of being chaperoned to the age of being a chaperon (‘By the bye,’ she wrote at 32, ‘as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon, for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like’), Jane Austen kept the question of marrying open in fantasy. In a private nonsense joke she promised to marry the exquisitely-named family acquaintance Mr Papillon; and as a professional imaginative writer (‘Writer of Fancy’) she constantly reactivated the question (and, by writing the book, re-endorsed her own original decision) by seeking almost her whole subject-matter in problems of whether, and if so whom, to marry.
As the books and her authorship of them became known, no fewer than two adolescent nieces and one nephew paid her the compliment of trying to write novels themselves. One niece, who sent instalments of a book Jane Austen had to warn her would be thought an imitation of Pride and Prejudice, elicited a fascinating run of letters which disclose much of Jane Austen’s technique through her corrections of the niece’s: this character is not self-consistent, the early history of another should be hinted earlier in the book, Honourables are not introduced as such in the drawing-room, an elegant baronet wouldn’t say ‘Bless my Heart.’ But it was her niece Fanny Knight who showed the highest intuitive understanding of the content of Jane Austen’s novels. She simply placed herself, like a boisterous Jane Austen heroine, on the verge of marrying a series of young men and applied for her aunt’s advice (or fictive expertise) about whether to proceed.
Why aren’t the Letters better thought of? It seems churlish to blame the editor, the diligent pioneer who dug out most of the detailed background information necessary to following them. Yet he is not without that condescension which the non-creative (like the Prince Regent’s librarian indeed) often apply to the genius they fasten on. How can he write of her as ‘Miss Austen’? He knows, in fact notes, that she herself observed the convention whereby only the eldest daughter was Miss X, the younger ones being Miss Martha X, Miss Mary X, and so forth. She asked for letters to be addressed to her as Miss Jane Austen. The thing would therefore be a solecism even were he contemporary with her. Since he isn’t, it can be read only as a coy (posing as fond) belittlement, which he wouldn’t dare commit but for the fact that she belongs to two belittled classes at once, women and novelists. Conceive of a modern editor writing of Mr Keats or Herr Mozart.
This new impression differs from its 1959 predecessor only by the addition of two lines, not by Jane Austen, to a preliminary page. It is still in one unwieldy volume and still designed to be studied, not read. To follow text and notes simultaneously, meanwhile keeping your route open not only to the letters added out of chronological order towards the end but to the more indispensable of the eight indexes, one of which you have to consult continually if you are to identify the kin she writes to and about, it is necessary to make the book bristle with bookmarks like a paper battleship. It is welcome back into print except insofar as it will deter publishers from providing the minor flotilla we need instead, namely two or three manoeuvrable volumes with essential information at instant access.
Even aside from one’s natural sympathy towards an author who usually (though nothing so regularly as always) writes ‘neice’, ‘beleive’, ‘veiw’, ‘peice’, ‘Adeiu’ and even, splendidly, ‘schollar’, and who has to be told by her printer that ‘arrowroot’ is not ‘arra-root’, the Letters are full of enticing turns of phrase (‘We had a beautiful night for our frisks,’ ‘It will be a releif to me after playing at Ma’ams’) and indicting observation: ‘She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck.’
The accidents of what chance and Cassandra preserved plunge the reader in, as if to a novel by Jane Austen, at the moment when the two high-spirited sisters are just grown-up. (She wrote later to her would-be novelist niece: ‘You are but now coming to the heart & beauty of your book; till the heroine grows up, the fun must be imperfect.’) The high spirits issue at first in a surrealism that often, as in the fictions she wrote in childhood, takes a violent turn. In the world of the ‘little social commonwealth’, as she called it in Persuasion, exogamy depended on longish visits to other commonwealths, which might be quite distant in travelling time. The rule that women of marriageable age must not travel unchaperoned necessitated elaborate advance planning, to which we owe several of the Letters. The rule came in handy for the plot of Mansfield Park, where it detains Fanny Price in Portsmouth, but in real-life practice it obviously irked everyone, imprisoning girls on visits they had grown bored with and placing fathers and brothers under levy to go miles out of their road to play escort. The frustration it caused the young Jane Austen is expressed in lurid nonsense fantasy. If something were to go awry with the elaborate timetable, ‘I should inevitably fall a Sacrifice to the arts of some fat Woman who would make me drunk with Small Beer’; or ‘You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ash Park Copse by Mrs Hubert’s servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not.’ She threatens that, if her father won’t ‘fetch home his prodigal Daughter from Town’, she will implicitly turn into a prodigal son and ‘walk the Hospitals, Enter at the Temple, or mount Guard at St James’.
In later letters surrealism is replaced by the quieter nonsense she patiently wrote to her brothers’ children (her dislike was general, not particular) in backwards spelling or in a cousin of the B language (‘mo up in the Poach’).
She emerges as a resolutely non-autobiographical novelist. Her fictitious families often contain a superfluity of girls – one of her devices, I think, for putting pressure on her heroines to marry and thereby presenting them with more acute moral dilemmas. That was the opposite of the state of the Austen home, where, even without the ‘suppressed’ brother, there were five boys and the father took in pupils. It must have been the first of many noisy, overpopulated households to earn her disapproval. She still found her eldest brother noisy (‘walking about the House & banging the doors’) when he was a clergyman in his forties.
The most exciting progression is from literary self-correction (‘We walked to Weston one evening last week, and liked it very much. Liked what very much? Weston? No, walking to Weston. I have not expressed myself properly’) to confidence and professionalism in the exercise of her imagination. The profession she entered was, however, as rickety then as now. Waiting to discover whether a publisher would consider a second edition of Manfield Park a commercial possibility, she wrote in 1814 what might be the motto of the PLR campaign: ‘People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy – which I cannot wonder at; – but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.’
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