The Biggest Myth About Jane Austen’s Writing Life

Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh

Can we ever have enough of Jane Austen? From the search for the modern Mr. Darcy (think Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary) to the appropriation of her iconic narratives (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters) to fan-fiction sequels (Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife), to using the books themselves as a device for telling a contemporary story (The Jane Austen Book Club), there seems to be no such thing as Too Much Jane.

Although it must be said, other than Bridget Jones’s Diary, these other titles were fairly slammed by readers. And that’s just considering books — counting all the film and TV adaptations of her novels is a topic in and of itself.


The perpetual  adulation of Jane Austen makes it even harder to believe that this beloved author’s legacy, modest enough during her lifetime, began to decline soon after her death in 1817.

 

Memoir of Jane Austen: Planting the Myths

It took the biography — Memoir of Jane Austen —by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, to revive her flagging reputation. And for reasons not readily apparent, that’s just what it accomplished. . Published in 1871, some fifty years after his aunt’s death, its tone is respectful, even somewhat reverent.

Still, it planted some intransigent myths about Jane Austen. “I do not think that she herself was much mortified by the want of early success, “ he wrote, “She wrote for her own amusement. Money, though acceptable, was not necessary for the moderate expenses of her quiet home.”

Austen-Leigh also the first to set out the idea that Austen was somehow shamed by writing:

“She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.”

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Cassandra Austen's portrait of Jane Austen (ac.1810)

Learn more about Jane Austen’s Literary Ambitions

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Perpetuated by Virginia Woolf

It’s difficult to know how accurate these observations were, as Austen-Leigh relied on the memory of scenes occurring decades past, when he was a child. Still, the story gained enough traction that it was perpetuated by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own:

“At any rate, one would not have been ashamed to have been caught in the act of writing Pride and Prejudice. Yet Jane Austen was glad that a hinge creaked, so that she might hide her manuscript before anyone came in. To Jane Austen there was something discreditable in writing Pride and Prejudice.”

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She was proud, not ashamed

Jane Austen’s scant remaining letters tell a different story. She didn’t write merely for her own amusement, but was deeply invested in having her work published and read. An avid reader herself, she was aware of contemporary authors, and took for role models Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Lenox, and Fanny Burney.

Her talent was valued and taken seriously by her entire family; her father, and later her brothers, acted as her agents, working diligently to get her books in print and to preserve her literary reputation.

One observation by Austen-Leigh that holds up in some measure is that Austen did experience “want of early success.” Her works weren’t huge sellers, perhaps, but they took hold slowly yet steadily.

Austen herself spoke with delight and pride of her literary efforts. Here she describes how she felt upon seeing Pride and Prejudice in print: I want to tell you that I have got my own darling child from London…I must confess that I think her [Elizabeth Bennett] as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know.”

When lack of interest in money, modesty, and even shame are falsely attributed to women authors, especially those as beloved as Jane Austen, it does harm to all women in their creative pursuits.

Adapted from The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas

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