Friday, 8 April 2016

Jane Austen's Comments On Her Own Novels

Jane's secretiveness about her novels is reflected in the modesty of the letters. We seek in vain for evidence of how it felt to be perfecting the paragraphs of Mansfield Park or Emma while fitting in so much socialising, shopping, travelling, walking, management of domestic provisions, piano-playing and voluminous letter-writing.

There is an interesting comment near the end of her life: ... how good Mrs West cd have written such Books & collected so many hard words, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment! Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb (Letter 145). She is referring to the prolific authoress Mrs. Jane West, whose novels included The History of Ned Evans: A Tale of the Times (1796) and A Gossip's Story; and a legendary tale (also 1796), the latter similar in plot to Sense and Sensibility.

Writing, and dealing with the procrastination of publishers, were not unfamiliar in Jane Austen's circle. Your letter was chaperoned here by one from Mrs Cooke, she writes to Cassandra on 27 October 1798, in which she says that 'Battleridge' is not to come out before January; and she is so little satisfied with Cawthorn's dilatoriness ... (Letter 10). Mrs. Cooke was the cousin of Jane's mother. The historical novel Battleridge was published – anonymously, like Jane Austen's – in 1799. Battleridge contains in effect two stories. It is a gothic novel, and happens to include lost deeds discovered in an oak coffer with a false bottom. There is also a mysterious lady prisoner in Battleridge Castle. It is just possible that Jane read the book before publication and that it influenced scenes in Northanger Abbey.

Jane had at least two other female relatives who wrote fiction. The daughter of William Leigh, a cousin of Jane's mother, was a novelist. This woman, Lady Hawke - another Cassandra - wrote Julia de Gramont which was published in 1788. There was also Mary Leigh, a cousin of Jane's mother, who wrote novels, though hers were unpublished.

All Jane's novels published in her lifetime were merely 'by a lady': she chose to be anonymous, like many women novelists. (Fanny Burney, at the start of her career, even wrote in a feigned hand.) However, Jane's identity became known to many, particularly through her proud brother Henry. By September 1813, she wrote to Frank: the truth is that the Secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now – & that I beleive whenever the 3d appears, I shall not even attempt to tell Lies about it. I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it. – People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.. (Letter 90).

In January 1799, we find Jane writing to Cassandra: Mr Ludlow and Miss Pugh of Andover are lately married, & so is Mrs Skeets of Basingstoke and Mr French, Chemist of Reading. – I do not wonder at your wanting to read first impressions again, so seldom as you have gone though it, & that so long ago. – I am much obliged to you for meaning to leave my old petticoat behind You ... (Letter 17). First Impressions, so casually mentioned, was to become Pride and Prejudice.

A few months later, amidst chatter about hats, she jokes, I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. – She is very cunning, but I see through her design; – she means to publish it from Memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it (Letter 19). 

Shortly before leaving Southampton in 1809 for her final home at Chawton, Jane resolved to be published. She wrote firmly to Crosby & Co. Using her nom de plume, 'Mrs Ashton Dennis' (initials 'MAD'), she reminded them that she was still awaiting publication of her novel Susan, which they bought six years earlier. She offered to send another copy if they had lost the original and said that, if they did not intend to publish, she would find another publisher (Letter 68[D] is a copy she made of this communication.)

Richard Crosby replied, warning that he would 'take proceedings' if she took the latter course of action but also offering to sell the manuscript back to her for the original price. She obviously accepted this offer, though we do not know when.

The repurchased manuscript became Northanger Abbey. The heroine was changed from Susan to Catherine probably because a novel called Susan had appeared in 1809.

Jane got down to business as soon as she settled at Chawton. T.A.B.Corley, writing in the Jane Austen Society’s Report for 2004, calculated that, in the four key Chawton years beginning in February 1811, Jane’s average output was 1000 words a day, despite all the family commitments and despite having to write painstakingly with a quill pen. By April 1811, during a visit to London she was correcting proofs of Sense and Sensibility: No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries. I have had two sheets to correct, but the last only brings us to W.s first appearance. ... I have scarcely a hope of its being out in June. – Henry does not neglect it; he has hurried the Printer ....' (Letter 71 - 'W' must have been Willoughby).

After finding a publisher for Pride and Prejudice, in a letter to Martha Lloyd Jane says in passing, P. & P. is sold. – Egerton gives £110 for it. – I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much. – Its' being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be welcome to me (Letter 77).

On earning money, Jane told her niece Fanny that praise was all very well but she also liked people to buy her books: People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy – which I cannot wonder at; – but tho' I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too (Letter 114). 

Letters of 1815 include references to dealings with publishers. She was in London, staying with Henry, during the printing of Emma. He, typical male of the time, tended to handle his sister's dealings; but when he was taken ill, she fended well for herself. The bookseller and publisher John Murray (1778-1843) of Albemarle Street had succeeded Thomas Egerton (of The Military Library, Whitehall) as Jane's publisher. He brought out Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and a second edition of Mansfield Park.

Disappointed at the time it was taking to get the novel printed, Jane wrote firmly to Murray: My Brother's note last Monday has been so fruitless, that I am afraid there can be little chance of my writing to any good effect ... . She did not refrain from name-dropping in an attempt to pull strings: Is it likely that the Printers will be influenced to greater Dispatch & Punctuality by knowing that the Work is to be dedicated, by Permission, to the Prince Regent? (Letter 126).

Writing to Cassandra the next day, Jane said the delay was caused by a shortage of paper. She added that John Murray had been 'most civil' and 'very polite indeed'. He was even lending books to her and to Henry.

The publishers provided a bound copy for the Prince Regent: Jane wrote to John Murray: I have received the Prince's Thanks for the handsome Copy I sent him of Emma. Whatever he may think of my share of the Work, Yours seems to have been quite right (Letter 139). The dedication copy sent to the Prince Regent was specially bound in red morocco gilt, at a cost of £1 4s. It is now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

It was Jane who finally dealt with Murray over both Emma's financial terms and typographical detail. She also handled the dealings with Murray at the time of Henry's bankruptcy.

On 1 April 1816, she requested Murray to direct any post or packages to me (Miss J. Austen) Chawton near Alton (Letter 139). In the same letter, she thanked him for sending her a copy of Sir Walter Scott's review of Emma, which had appeared in The Quarterly Review. She was pleased that she had nothing to complain of in Scott's treatment of her, except his total failure to mention Mansfield Park. In 1814, Jane Austen made £350 from sales of that novel.

Letter 78 brings a brief reference to Mansfield Park, then in the process of composition. At the time, Jane's mother was reading Sir John Carr's recent book about his travels. Jane learned from it that there was a mistake she had to put right in Mansfield Park: I learn from Sir J. Carr that there is no Government House at Gibraltar. – I must alter it to the Commissioner's.

On 29 January 1813, she had just received her first copy of the newly-published Pride and Prejudice. For once, she allows herself some self-satisfaction: I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London; – on Wednesday I received one Copy, sent down by Falknor, with three lines from Henry to say that he had given another to Charles & sent a 3d by the Coach to Godmersham; just the two Sets which I was least eager for the disposal of. I wrote to him immediately to beg for my two other Sets, unless he would take the trouble of forwarding them at once to Steventon and Portsmouth – not having an idea of his leaving Town before to day; – by your account however he was gone before my Letter was written. The only evil is the delay, nothing more can be done till his return. Tell James & Mary so, with my Love. – For your sake I am as well pleased that it shd be so, as it might be unpleasant to you to be in the Neighbourhood at the first burst of the business. – The Advertisement is in our paper to day for the first time; – 18s – He shall ask £1-1- for my two next, & £1-8- for my stupidest of all. – I shall write to Frank, that he may not think himself neglected. Miss Benn dined with us the very day of the Books coming, & in the eveng we set fairly at it & read half the 1st vol. to her – prefacing that having intelligence from Henry that such a work wd soon appear we had desired him to send it whenever it came out – & I beleive it passed with her unsuspected. – She was amused, poor soul! that she could not help you know, with two such people to lead the way; but she really does seem to admire Elizabeth. I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know. – There are a few Typical errors – & a "said he" or a "said she" would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear – but "I do not write for such dull Elves, As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves." – The 2nd vol. is shorter than I cd wish – but the difference is not so much in reality as in look, there being a larger proportion of Narrative in that part. I have lopt and cropt so successfully however that I imagine it must be rather shorter than S. & S. altogether (Letter 79). (Incidentally her reference to 'dull elves' was a paraphrase of a couple of lines from Sir Walter Scott, whose work both Cassandra and Jane must have known well.)

By the way, Miss Benn was an impoverished neighbour. Her brother - the rector of a nearby parish - had twelve children to support, so he could do little to help her. She rented a cold, leaky house. Her poverty reminds us how difficult things might have been for Jane if generous brothers had not contributed to her support.

In the same letter, Jane thanks Cassandra for the results of her 'enquiries'. These probably concerned the time Edmund would need to become ordained in Mansfield Park. She then asks whether Cassandra could discover whether Northamptonshire is a County of Hedgerows, maybe to check the validity of a reference to Mrs. Grant's shrubbery.

In February, Jane was still revelling in the success of Pride and Prejudice, though her comments tend as usual towards the playful: our 2d evening's reading to Miss Benn had not pleased me so well, but I beleive something must be attributed to my Mother's too rapid way of getting on – & tho' she perfectly understands the Characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought. – Upon the whole however I am quite vain enough & well satisfied enough. – The work is rather too light & bright & sparkling; – it wants shade; – it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long Chapter – of sense if it could be had, if not of solemn specious nonsense – about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte – or anything that would form a contrast & bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile (Letter 80).

In suggesting that she ought to have included digressions on 'serious' topics, Jane Austen was making fun of this characteristic of novels on which she had been brought up. Henry Brooke's The Fool of Quality (1770) frequently strays into comment on the status of women, the British constitution, the imprisonment of debtors and the definition of a gentleman.

In her next letter, Jane was enjoying wider appreciation: I am exceedingly pleased that you can say what you do, after having gone thro' the whole work – & Fanny's praise is very gratifying; – my hopes were tolerably strong of her, but nothing like a certainty. Her liking Darcy & Elizth is enough. She might hate all the others, if she would (Letter 81).

Visiting art exhibitions in London, Jane amused herself seeking likenesses of the characters: Henry & I went to the Exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased – particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs Darcy; – perhaps, however, I may find her in the Great Exhibition which we shall go to, if we have time; – I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds's Paintings which is now shewing in Pall Mall, & which we are also to visit. – Mrs Bingley's is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs D. will be in Yellow (Letter 85). After visiting the latter exhibitions, she added that she was still disappointed, for there was nothing like Mrs D. at either. – I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye. – I can imagine he wd have that sort of feeling – that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.

In a letter of September 1813 to Frank, who was commanding HMS Elephant, Jane reported that every copy of Sense and Sensibility had been sold, bringing her £140, besides the Copyright, if that shd ever be of any value (Letter 86). She also requested Frank's permission to use in a novel the Elephant & two or three other of your old Ships. (Mansfield Park alludes to the Cleopatra, Elephant and the Endymion.)

In Mansfield Park, Mr. Price says: The Thrush went out of harbour this morning . . . Captain Walsh certainly thinks you'll have a cruize to the westward with the Elephant. . . she [the Thrush] lays close to the Endymion, between her and the Cleopatra…’. The Elephant was the ship on which Francis Austen was in command in the Baltic; the Endymion was the ship on which Charles Austen sailed in the Mediterranean; and the Cleopatra the ship which Charles sailed home from North America in 1811.

About this time, Fanny Knight (now aged twenty) played the joke of sending her aunt a letter addressed to Miss Darcy. Jane wrote to Cassandra: it made me laugh heartily; but I cannot pretend to answer it. Even had I more time, I should not feel at all sure of the sort of Letter that Miss D. would write (Letter 85).

Jane could soon rejoice that Pride and Prejudice had attracted distinguished admirers. Her brother Henry revealed the author's identity to Lady Robert Kerr; and Warren Hastings also praised the novel. Lady Robert is delighted with P. & P - and really was so I understand before she knew who wrote it – for, of course, she knows now. – He told her with as much satisfaction as if it were my wish. He did not tell me this, but he told Fanny. And Mr Hastings – I am quite delighted with what such a Man writes about it ... His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me (Letter 87).

In October 1813, there is a reference to the second edition of Sense and Sensibility. Jane reports dining upon Goose yesterday – which I hope will secure a good Sale of my 2d Edition (Letter 91). She is referring to an old proverb: the person who eats goose on Michaelmas Day 'Shan't Money lack'. With Henry's assistance, the second edition was being reprinted at Jane's expense: I shall owe dear Henry a great deal of Money for Printing &c. (Letter 95).

In the same letter, no doubt thinking of the typical Reynolds portrait, she jokes about her increasing fame: I do not despair of having my picture in the Exhibition at last – all white & red, with my Head on one Side. A Mrs. Carrick has told her that her fame has spread to Ireland: I am read & admired in Ireland too. – There is a Mrs Fletcher, the wife of a Judge, an old Lady & very good & very clever, who is all curiosity to know about me.

In March 1814, Henry escorted Jane to his London home. They began reading the proofs of Mansfield Park during the journey. Every few hours, Jane reports on Henry's reactions: Henry's approbation hitherto is even equal to my wishes; he says it is very different from the other two, but does not appear to think it at all inferior. He has only married Mrs R. I am afraid he has gone through the most entertaining part. – He took to Lady B. & Mrs N. most kindly, & gives great praise to the drawing of the Characters. He understands them all, likes Fanny & I think foresees how it will be (Letter 97). A little later in the same letter, she adds, Henry is going on with Mansfield Park; he admires H. Crawford – I mean properly – as a clever, pleasant Man

Mansfield Park also pleased Jane's old friend and distant relative the Revd. Cooke. Mr Cooke says "it is the most sensible Novel he ever read" – and the manner in which I treat the Clergy, delights them very much (Letter 101).

In November 1814, she reports to Fanny: You will be glad to hear that the first Edit: of M.P. is all sold. – Your Uncle Henry is rather wanting me to come to Town, to settle about a 2d Edit: – but as I could not very conveniently leave home now, I have written him my Will & pleasure, & unless he still urges it, shall not go. – I am very greedy & want to make the most of it; – but as you are much above caring about money, I shall not plague you with any particulars (Letter 109). 

Jane enjoyed the income and the opportunity it gave her to treat her sister: I am extremely glad that you like the Poplin, I thought it would have my Mother's approbation, but was not so confident of yours. Remember that it is a present. Do not refuse me. I am very rich (Letter 89).

She joked that dedicating one of her novels was attractive if it paid well. I hope you have told Martha of my first resolution of letting nobody know that I might dedicate ... & that she is thoroughly convinced of my being influenced now by nothing but the most mercenary motives (Letter 128). Jane was referring to the dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent. The Carlton House librarian, Revd. James-Stanier Clarke (1767 - 1834), had told Jane the Prince would be willing to have one of her novels dedicated to him. She took the precaution of asking for this in writing before inscribing the Work now in the Press, to H. R. H. (Letter 125D), because she would be equally concerned to appear either presumptuous or Ungrateful. The assurance was given by return of post. The Revd. Clarke went on to suggest the depiction of a certain type of clergyman as subject matter for a future novel. Jane replied politely but firmly. As elsewhere, she uses the ploy of self-deprecation. I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a Clergyman as you gave me the sketch of in your note of Nov: 16. But I assure you I am not. The Comic part of the Character I might be equal to, but not the Good, the Enthusiastic, the Literary. Such a Man's Conversation must at times be on subjects of Science & Philosophy of which I know nothing – or at least be occasionally be abundant in quotations and allusions which a Woman, who like me, knows only her Mother-tongue & has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. – A Classical Education, or at any rate, a very extensive acquaintance with English Literature, Ancient & Modern, appears to me quite Indispensable for the person who wd do any justice to your Clergyman – And I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress (Letter 132D).

The subtext is that she is a successful authoress who knows perfectly well what she is about and requires no meddlesome assistance from the likes of Clarke!

Incidentally, Clarke did not give up. He sent a fulsome letter, proposing that Jane wrote about a clergyman after her fancy and suggesting how a plot might develop: Carry your Clergyman to Sea as the Friend of some distinguished Naval Character about a Court ... (December 1815). The Revd. Clarke had become Librarian to the Prince of Wales in 1805. With wide literary enthusiasms, he had started the Naval Chronicle, which ran for twenty years. The following Spring, Clarke wrote to Jane yet again, suggesting she should dedicate a book to Prince Leopold, in whose service he was now working: any Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting. Again, Jane defended her territory: such a book, she says, would be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem. – I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter' (Letter 138D).

To her niece Caroline (a budding novelist), Jane wrote in one of her last letters: I have just recd nearly twenty pounds myself on the 2d Edit: of S & S - which gives me this fine flow of Literary Ardour (Letter 334). (An interesting comparison arises from the fact that Mrs. Radcliffe had been paid £500 for The Mysteries of Udolpho and £800 for The Italian.)

In the same month, she wrote to Fanny: Miss Catherine is put upon the Shelve for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out; – but I have a something ready for Publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence. It is short, about the length of Catherine (Letter 153). 'Miss Catherine' is Northanger Abbey and the 'something' is Persuasion. A few days later, Jane told Fanny: You will not like it, so you need not be impatient. You may perhaps like the Heroine, as she is almost too good for me. – Many thanks for your kind care for my health; I certainly have not been well for many weeks ...' (Letter 155). The 'heroine' is Anne Elliot.