Jane Austen, on the money

“Anyone”, wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, though of course she didn’t mean “anyone” but “me”, “who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.”

Times have certainly changed: chaste aunts these days are about as rare as a Bob’s your uncle and the twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who might resent you are now millions worldwide who will happily abuse you on Twitter. We’re all Janeites now: and if you’re not, look out. In a world – to use a phrase that might usefully serve as the introductory voice-over to the trailer for any recent Austen adaptation/biopic/retelling – in which the mute are always inglorious and fame is the only guarantee of value or quality, posterity has proved her worth. (Auden was right, as he was about most things, in “Letter to Lord Byron”: “She wrote them for posterity, she said; / ’Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read”.) Which is why, like many writers before and since – obsessed with the mechanics and economics of reputation formation – Virginia Woolf was fascinated as much by Austen’s fame as with her work. In a review in 1922 of a collection of Austen’s early writing, Love and Freindship, Woolf opined that
All over England for the past ten or twenty years the reputation of Jane Austen has been accumulating on top of us like . . . quilts and blankets. The voices of the elderly and distinguished, of the clergy and the squierarchy, have droned in unison praising and petting, capping quotations, telling little anecdotes, raking up little facts . . . . So they pile up the quilts and counterpanes until the comfort becomes oppressive. Something must be done about it.
The metaphorical quilts and blankets of the squierarchy and the clergy have now become the films, the television series, the fine uniform and collector’s editions, the appalling paperback editions, the fan fiction, the mugs, the ornaments, and indeed the actual quilts, blankets, fleeces, snugglies, slippers, dressing gowns and pillow cases that are all part of the academic-entertainment complex devoted to the perpetuation of the memory of our dear Jane (or in Henry James’s formulation, “their ‘dear’, our dear, everybody’s, dear Jane”). There are in fact now so many books on the Austen phenomenon that they are themselves a phenomenon – from Eckart Voigts-Virchow’s perfectly serious Janespotting and Beyond: British heritage retrovisions since the mid-1990s (2004) and Beatrice Battaglia and Diego Saglia’s Re-Drawing Austen: Picturesque travels in Austenland (2004), to the truly epiphenomenal Among the Janeites: A journey through the world of Jane Austen fandom (2013) by Deborah Yaffe, and Maggie Lane’s pitch-perfect Growing Older with Jane Austen (2014), a book with a title so brilliantly targeted at its intended audience that one might amend Alan Coren’s old joke about the only books guaranteed to sell being about golf, cats and Nazis, to golf, cats, Nazis and Jane Austen.

“It is possible to say of Jane Austen”, according to Lionel Trilling, writing back in the 1950s, “as perhaps one can say of no other writer, that the opinions which are held of her work are almost as interesting, and almost as important to think about, as the work itself.” Almost. These days it might be possible for someone to spend their entire time studying and thinking about the many blogs and social media posts devoted to Austen without ever having to study or think about Austen herself – indeed, some PhD student at Poppleton is doubtless doing so even now. So, tweet me. “Jane Austen” has become a signifier of such high semiotic intensity, possessing such incredible power both within and outside the academy that it has finally become the ultimate fiction: money. As if she weren’t already ubiquitous enough, you can now find Jane lurking in your pocket, on the £10 note, and also on commemorative £2 coins. When the new £5 notes were recently released, a small number were engraved with a special Austen micro-portrait, making each fiver, according to the Daily Mail, and my mother, worth approximately £50,000. Thus, men and women up and down the land were finally reduced to searching for Jane Austen with a magnifying glass.

Something really must be done about it. The first thing to do, as always, is to return to the novels, in the hope that they might flush entirely from one’s mind the horrid vision of an endless all-star omnibus Austen, in which Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Michael Gambon, Anne Hathaway, Emma Thompson and Alison Steadman are for ever jumping in and out of chaises and dancing cotillions.

Like most other sane people, my copies of the works of Jane Austen last got an outing in the frantic few weeks before having to sit an exam and regurgitate gobbets sprackled with undigested bits of Tony Tanner, Lord David Cecil and Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own. Since then, I seem to have acquired two extra copies of Emma, my Mansfield Park has gone missing, and the tangerine spine of my Penguin Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon – bought new for 50 pence, presumably as a distraction from the impending exams – remains as crisp and unbroken as an old Lucozade wrapper, destined now to remain a worthless mint condition heirloom and a reminder of the gassy, dimpled hopes and dreams of the late twentieth century. Plus I had never knowingly read Northanger Abbey.

So to begin with the entirely unknown: Northanger Abbey is the work of a young woman with an eye on the main chance. Barbara Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye note in their edition of the novel in the Cambridge University Press nine-volume edition of the complete works, that “between 1784 and 1818 no fewer than thirty-two novels had been published containing ‘Abbey’ in the title, not to mention many others using such related nouns as ‘Convent’, ‘Monastery’, or ‘Priory’, ‘Abbot’, ‘Friar’, or ‘Nun’”: for Northanger Abbey, read Girl in a Gothic House. Written during 1789/9 but not published until after Austen’s death in 1817 – and originally titled “Susan” by Austen, then changed to “Catherine”, and finally given its published title by Austen’s brother Henry and sister Cassandra, the first keepers of the flame, who clearly understood the importance of a contemporary-sounding and eye-catching title – the novel is a fair representation of what Austen could and couldn’t do. If you really don’t like Northanger Abbey, I can now safely attest, you are not much going to enjoy the others. There is a lot of shifting about from place to place, from ball to carriage to garden to the Pump Rooms, with characters endlessly obliging and disobliging one another with their company and opinions. A good test for incipient Janeiteism would be to measure a reader’s tolerance for something like General Tilney’s invitation to Catherine to visit Northanger Abbey, which doesn’t in fact occur until about halfway through the book: “Can you in short be prevailed on to quit this scene of public triumph and oblige your friend Eleanor with your company in Gloucestershire? I am almost ashamed to make the request, though its presumption would certainly appear greater to every creature in Bath than yourself”. If you like this sort of fine-milled quibbling, you are going to love all things Jane: it’s not what she says, it’s the way that she says it. (E. M. Forster, a self-proclaimed “Austenite”, rightly pointed out that the true Austen fan, like the regular churchgoer, “scarcely notices what is being said”, anyway.) There are perhaps no books in English that are easier or more tempting to skim read, and no books which when skimmed so entirely lose their flavour. Northanger Abbey is thus either the very epitome of dullness – a parody performed ironically, when everyone knows a parody should really be deadly serious – or a profound lesson in how to read and an exquisite challenge to try and understand exactly what’s to be taken seriously and what’s not. The sharp tongue is firmly in cheek from the first sentence of the first paragraph on the first page:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine . . . . Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard . . . . Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense . . . . She had three sons before Catherine was born; and, instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on . . .
You can just imagine Lucy Worsley saying this – can’t you? – straight to camera, in a bonnet. It’s not so much a tone as a procedure – or a tone that becomes a procedure, as in any comic routine – and is presumably what perplexed Joseph Conrad, who famously wrote to H. G. Wells asking, “What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?” What’s it all about is entirely the wrong question. What’s it all about is what it’s avoiding.

Which brings us to Sense and Sensibility, the first of Austen’s novels to appear in print, in 1811, and possessed of perhaps the longest, slowest swerve in all of her work, which is always happily detouring – taking three volumes and 300 careful pages to unsettle the Dashwoods (“The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex”, begins the book), only then to plant them safely elsewhere (sisters Elinor and Marianne end up happily married in Devonshire and Dorset). C. S. Lewis believed that one of Austen’s great strengths – her moral virtue – was being able to write about the boring without being boring, though Sense and Sensibility tests this undoubtedly remarkable skill to the very limit. Plot summary, for the sake of those few remaining out there entirely unconvinced and un-Austened, would be both pointless and impossible, since the obvious and deliberate parallels and doublings and triplings of various excursions and encounters and indeed conversations is a structural principle which entirely determines the book’s long drift through endless scenes designed to explore and explain the sense of “sense” and “sensibility”.

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