It’s been 200 years since readers first met the serious-minded Elinor Dashwood, heroine of Jane Austen’s first published novel, “Sense and Sensibility.” Austen-mania got off to a slow start, as the four books published during her lifetime were anonymous. But it has made up for time lost. Now, Austen is a superstar. Films, sequels, prequels and updated versions of her books bring her plots (and her life) to readers and moviegoers. And then there is the work of the academics: She was heartbroken by an Irishman — no, she was gay; she was conservative — no, she was a feminist. We love her; we hate her; we can’t agree about her; we know we should read her. Myths about her abound, but there are some truths we should universally acknowledge.
1. Jane Austen led an uneventful life.
The myth of Austen as a demure spinster was created by her brother Henry, when he published the last two of her completed novels after her death, and burnished by a nephew, who issued a biography in 1869. Guided by his religious sensibilities, her brother wanted the public to see Austen as a conventional, unambitious Christian woman with an uneventful life. Her Victorian nephew agreed, writing that “of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course.” Such portraits were perpetuated by the mini-biographies included in different popular editions of her books. In the 1960s, a Signet edition claimed that Austen “died, as quietly and serenely as she lived.”
Her rural birthplace in Steventon, England, does seem to be an ideal setting for a secluded existence. Yet Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland has shown that both Steventon and Chawton, where she lived when her novels were published, were key stagecoach stops and much busier thoroughfares during her lifetime. For five years she lived and wrote in the larger city of Bath. During that time she accepted a proposal of marriage and the next day retracted it.
Life in the Austen family was also far from sheltered: Her brother Edward was adopted by wealthy distant cousins, took their name (Knight) and inherited from them some rather remarkable property; an aunt was jailed and charged with grand larceny; a French cousin-in-law was guillotined. Then there was a neighbor, described in Claire Tomalin’s biography as a sadist-necrophiliac who, before Austen’s birth, had lived with her parents. Though her adult fiction doesn’t include such a wide variety of people, that doesn’t mean her life mirrored her novels.
2. Austen’s novels are chick lit.
Yes, her heroines always get the guy. But Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” isn’t the only man who unexpectedly falls in love. Male readers, including some severe critics, have read and reread her novels for 200 years. Though Mark Twain complained, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone,” we need to count him, too, as a repeat reader. Maybe he returned to it because it’s a novel that runs like a Rolls-Royce, as Austen scholar Richard Jenkyns has suggested.
Add to the list of famous “non-chick” readers Tennyson, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Martin Amis and Andrew Davies, who wrote the script for the famous 1995 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” that created the image of a wet-shirted, love-sick Darcy.
What many of her readers — male and female — seem to recognize is that Austen revolutionized the novel. Her writing brims with subtle characterizations, social irony and beautiful architecture. In pioneering and popularizing these elements, Austen created the modern novel.
3. She didn’t take her writing seriously.
In fact, Austen was very serious about her writing — she revised her work carefully and tracked her earnings closely. She had been writing since she was at least 11 and even placed her handwritten, youthful writings in three volumes, like the published works of her time. She revised early drafts and experimented with different forms of the novel. The manuscript of “The Watsons,” which she left unfinished and was sold at auction on Thursday for $1.6 million, illustrates her process of revision. About book readers, she wrote in a letter: “People are more ready to borrow & praise than to buy . . . but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” In 1815, when her brother Henry — who usually negotiated her book-publishing arrangements — was ill, she took over discussions with a prospective publisher for “Emma” and was closely involved with all decisions about her work. Austen edited herself, corrected drafts, changed at least one ending and was a critic for the other writers in her family. She wrote to one niece that “your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand & left.”
4. Her books are escapist fiction.
If you want to escape into them, you can. With her characters, we can enter, as Elizabeth Bennet does, “a beautiful walk by the side of the water,” with “every step . . . bringing forward a nobler fall of ground,” and then, after crossing “a simple bridge,” behold Darcy coming toward us. For some people, the novels seem to offer a world less hectic, less demanding, less confusing than ours. But, if you care to notice, you can find in them references to the crisis of poverty and downward mobility (Miss Bates in “Emma”), the slave trade and emotional abuse of a child (“Mansfield Park”), disinheritance and parental manipulation (“Sense and Sensibility”), Britain’s near-constant state of war (“Pride and Prejudice” and “Persuasion”), unwanted pregnancies, and men who practice a double standard in relationships — references that sound ripped from the headlines of today.
5. For all her popularity, Austen’s literary influence was limited.
Austen’s novels are so brilliantly executed that she has followers in high culture (academic books, monographs, literary discussions) and popular culture. Aside from all the films and fictional versions of Austen’s life, fans run Web sites and Austen-themed tours, and gather in Austenite organizations. Writers from Aldous Huxley to A.A. Milne and Fay Weldon have penned screenplays or stage adaptations of her work.
Austen is credited with inventing what is called free indirect speech, a technique that allows us to overhear what her characters are thinking. We are carried along with Elizabeth Bennet as she realizes her prejudices, or Emma Woodhouse as she imagines the future wedded bliss of her naive friend. She is the author of the one of the most frequently paraphrased sentences in English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Her influence is found in writers as diverse as James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James, Barbara Pym, James Joyce and E.M. Forster.
And why shouldn’t she have this effect? Truly, we can’t get enough of Jane Austen.
Carol J. Adams is a co-author of “The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Jane Austen” and author of “The Sexual Politics of Meat.” She is on the organizing committee for the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, which will celebrate the 200th anniversary of “Sense and Sensiblity” in October.
Adams will be online on Tuesday, July 19 at 11 a.m. ET to chat. Submit your questions or comments now.
Want to challenge everything you know? Visit the “Five myths” archive.