Jane Austen: Galloping girl

Jane Austen wrote fast and died young. Her life on paper may have spanned three decades, but all six of her celebrated novels made their public appearance between 1811 and 1817. The phrase “tell-tale compression,” self-consciously applied by the narrator towards the end of Northanger Abbey (1817), captures something of Austen’s authorial career, too. Indeed, in her case it is appropriate that the word “career” can mean a short gallop at full speed, as well as the potentially slower progress of an individual’s working life. Novelists are more usually seen as long-distance runners than as sprinters, and Austen’s mature fiction has been cherished for the gradual emergence into consciousness of its heroines’ thoughts and feelings. Yet speedy progress—described in Emma (1815) as the “felicities of rapid motion”—remained central to this writer’s craft from start to finish. 

Two hundred years ago, on St Swithun’s Day in 1817, Austen, near death, dictated an odd poem about horse racing to her sister Cassandra. From her sick bed in Winchester, she imagined how the festivities outside her window had come into being. The poem opens like this: 

When Winchester races first took their beginning 
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint 
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin 
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint. 

The races however were fixed and determined  
The company came and the Weather was charming 
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined 
And nobody saw any future alarming. — 

The Hampshire locals, hell-bent on having fun, ignore their religious allegiances. But, in placing their bets on pleasure rather than on duty, they have backed the wrong horse. The reward for such fixity and determination is an eternally blighted party: St Swithun curses the races, in perpetuity, with rain. 

Austen died three days later, on 18th July 1817. Imagining, in her last known literary composition, the origins of a horse race and the fatal allure of the “charming,” she was also excavating the origins of her writing life. That her Winchester poem concerns how the dead are mostly (even in the saintliest of cases) forgotten has perhaps also to do with her sense of a future abruptly foreclosed, and of authorial work left undone. Not only undone, but largely overlooked: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion appeared together in four volumes, posthumously, at the very end of 1817, in a print run of 1,750 copies; three years later, 282 remained unsold. 

In another poem, Austen recorded the fact that, in 1804, her close friend Anne Lefroy had fallen from a horse. Lefroy died 12 hours later, on 16th December, Austen’s 29th birthday. Every year thereafter the novelist looked on this “natal day” with understandably “mix’d emotions.” Horses and horse racing may have spelt disaster for Austen. They also comprised a dark joke about getting to the finish line—a comedy of accelerated action bound up with a disrespect for authority and a vivid contempt for being reined in. But to throw off the shackles of duty and convention entirely was a possibility to be entertained only in her early fiction. By the time she died, Austen had published four novels in which the rewards for chasing pleasure and ignoring tradition prove to be very grave indeed. 

In the character of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park (1814), for instance, we find another troubled union of the “charming” with the “alarming.” Mary (an ill-omened name in Austen) is a gambler who loses out. As she tells Fanny Price—the sickly “creep mouse” who wins the dubious prize of Edmund Bertram, a man who rarely forgets his obligations—“If I lose the game it shall not be from not striving for it.” 

Austen, depicted by her immediate family as a covert, dutiful, and domestically-minded writer, has since her death been serially repackaged by critics and imitators as a conservative and a radical, a prude and a saucepot, pro- and anti-colonial, a feminist and a downright bitch. Perhaps this fluidity and adaptability spring from her reluctance to be pigeonholed. After all, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey warns that “from politics, it was an easy step to silence.” But facing down such overt discouragement, many critics from the 1970s to the present have discerned in Austen a writer who was far from apolitical. 

During Austen’s time of apprenticeship, radical novelists typically presented their heroes and heroines as the victims of a rotten system. Conservative writers of fiction tended, by contrast, to treat their protagonists as sinners in need of correction and redemption. The late Marilyn Butler was the most forceful proponent of the line that Austen belonged in the second camp, and to insist that her brand of conservatism, Anglican and Tory, would have been understood as such by early-19th-century readers. Read in this light, her heroines contrive to endorse the status quo through their commitment to duty and self-sacrifice. Writing as a Christian moralist, Austen, it is often claimed, duly presents a view of society that conforms to religious principles and respects tradition.

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