Janine Barchas is professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the curators of the recent exhibition “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity” at the Folger Shakespeare Library last fall. On the bicentennial of the author’s death, Barchas grew weary of all the saccharine tributes not in keeping with Austen’s own style, and turned to satire with this piece:
It seems so obvious now that 200 years have given us the proper perspective.
Jane Austen of rural Steventon did not write the novels that we credit to her. She could no more author such complex stories as “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility” without being exposed to a wider range of experiences than occurred inside the narrow walls of her father’s rectory than Herodotus of Halicarnassus could so vividly describe the source of the Nile in his fifth-century history of Africa without ever having seen it in person.
Great writers, we are always told, write about what they know. Naturally, “The English Patient” could not have been written by someone who had not personally experienced the type of physical trauma that induces blood-poisoning and coma in North Africa. Ergo, Daniel Defoe himself spent 28 years on an uninhabited island reforming a stranded cannibal.
Defoe’s ordeals occurred long before Herman Melville spent years hunting a white whale and centuries after Geoffrey Chaucer traveled from Canterbury to the Holy Land with a motley crew to gather the colorful experiences that would feed his art. Perhaps it is J.R.R. Tolkien, an expert on Middle Earth and Middle English, who traveled farthest before putting pen to paper.
Given these logical and just-about-scientific truths, the Austen canon cannot stand.
The woman named Jane Austen who died 200 years ago today was a spinster whose life experiences in the realm of romance were limited to an engagement to one Harris Bigg-Wither (the name speaks volumes) that lasted less than 24 hours.
Yet the timeless texts conventionally attributed to her assume a knowing familiarity with rakish iniquity (think Wickham, Crawford, Willoughby or Thorpe) and allude to the intimate relations between men and women and the rules that govern their behavior.
Not unlike the case of the Zapruder films, we seek the key to unlocking what must be a larger academic conspiracy that has, up to now, hidden from view the true authors of well-known literary works. For example, and just among other female novelists, what of Emily Dickinson’s passionate poetry, the windswept stories of the Brontë sisters, Mary Shelley’s monstrous Frankenstein, or Radcliffe’s gothic gore? Surely these stories were brought forth by more than mere hermits, spinsters or wives with no regular access to pathology labs or the morgue?
True, genuine writers of genius can, occasionally, transcend their own biographies.
For example, there is no evidence to suggest that Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead” was written by someone certified as an architect who had dynamited a self-designed temple dedicated to the human spirit. And whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, J.K. Rowling does not practice witchcraft — even if she did grow up in Edinburgh. In addition, J.D. Salinger was almost certainly never young.
Only extraordinary geniuses can, through their gifts of imagination, put themselves in places where experience cannot reach. This is why the war stories of Tom Clancy are such convincing and moving pieces of fiction. This is also why “Le Petit Prince” remains a childhood classic. Conversely, the relative lack of embedded personal experience is precisely why the war epics of Homer and Leo Tolstoy, especially the sing-songy “Iliad” and the interminable “War and Peace,” suck.
Jane Austen lived a life of unrippled quiet and died at the age of 41 in a whisper. Experts debate her cause of death, periodically circling round her corpse with talk of tuberculosis, Addison’s disease or arsenic poisoning.
While we must allow that she died young, she did not suffer from any of the ailments required for artistic greatness, namely mental illness or drug addiction. Although every artist nurtures their own unique reasons for committal, Jonathan Swift, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath each spent their requisite time in an asylum.
The great Samuel Johnson lived with what he called his black dog, a severe recurring depression. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (and co-dependent wife Zelda) battled booze. Honore de Balzac suffered from a caffeine addiction so brutal that it demanded fifty cups of Turkish-style slurry a day.
Along with basic domestic conflicts, such disorders and addictions help us to make sense of an artist’s work by humanizing their literary achievement.
Never once do Austen’s letters confess alcohol dependence or destructive thoughts. Perhaps the mystery around her early death should, in fact, be read as a pseudo-Victorian euphemism for the type of liver failure that is induced by heavy drinking. Only such an interpretation could put her legacy in alignment with our established pantheon of truly great artists.
As it is, the only peer Jane Austen can claim is Will Shakespeare — whose literary achievements can, of course, be similarly dismissed as simply inconsistent with the capacities of an ordinary person with little formal education who had neither fortune nor title.
Plebeians. Pesky creatures.