Jane Austen’s Children
- Jane Austen’s Letters edited by R.W. Chapman
Oxford, 519 pp, £15.00
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 2 No. 2 · 7 February 1980
SIR: Roy Fuller, on Radio 3, looked forward to the development of your magazine. So do many. He noted that there were ‘strange, even alarming, features of the present-day literary scene that seem insufficiently recognised’ in the new magazines, and was particularly concerned by Arts Council subsidies to political activity ill-guised as theatre. He might have been equally agitated by the London Review of Books subsidising less blatant platforms. I find it alarming that Brigid Brophy’s review of Jane Austen’s Letters could have your approval (LRB, 6 December 1979). The crude, feminist whine is tiresomely familiar elsewhere, but surely you can guard us against it? And if you will not or cannot, surely your standards should be rigorous enough to bar from your pages such ludicrously procrustean argument?
In the third paragraph of her notice, Brophy says: ‘The fact that Jane Austen … didn’t marry probably seemed at the time the result of circumstance and chance.’ In the next paragraph she tells us that ‘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.’ One paragraph later, this silly conjecture is presented as fact: ‘Jane Austen’s novels, on whose account she declined to marry and breed …’
At no stage in her review does Brophy give any but the most flimsily circumstantial evidence for such certainty. Mary Russell Mitford, writing in 1815 to Sir William Elford, noted that her mother was acquainted with Jane Austen before her marriage: ‘Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers.’ Probably deadly accurate. Further, the reason for Jane Austen’s non-marrying was clearly the same as it was for thousands of other young women of her time: chance did not have it so. Brophy’s dislike of marriage and children is her own business and I resent her trying to make it mine: I do not subscribe to the London Review of Books to read about her private dislikes, and I am offended and disappointed that you, as editor, should allow her to impose her aversions on a great novelist.
Finally, a word about her obligatory swipe at publishers. Since I became a full-time writer three years ago, I have had dealings with Hutchinson’s. As a first novelist, I am unknown, likely to remain so, unlikely ever to make even a modest profit for any publisher. Considering the ‘names’ on the Hutchinson list, I was prepared to be ignored and maltreated in the way that Brophy and others over the years have described. Why then, in all my dealings with them, have I found courtesy, encouragement, concern, and – when my first novel fared badly – a kind of magnanimity which I was led to believe had disappeared from publishing years ago? My experience with my American publishers has been the same.
Brigid Brophy writes: The Mitford butterfly was exploded in 1869. Mary Russell Mitford was recounting her mother’s supposedly eye-witness account, which her mother dated to the period before her own marriage. J.E. Austen-Leigh was able to show that the mother moved out of the Austens’ neighbourhood when Jane Austen was seven. Being nice to writers they exploit is an old tradition of British publishers. Jane Austen wrote of one of her publishers: ‘He is a rogue of course, but a civil one.’ The notion that I dislike marriage and children will surprise my husband and daughter.
A word was omitted from a sentence of James Lighthill’s in the article ‘Strange Loops’ which appeared in the LRB of 24 January. The sentence in question should have read: ‘Indeed, Gödel’s work is related by Hofstadter to linguistics and to biology quite as much as to musical and visual art.’