Jane Austen: Galloping girl (excerpt)

Freya Johnson

Jane Austen wrote fast and died young. Her life on paper may have spanned three decades, but all six of her celebrated novels made their public appearance between 1811 and 1817. The phrase “tell-tale compression”, self-consciously applied by the narrator towards the end of Northanger Abbey (1817), captures something of Austen’s authorial career, too. Indeed, in her case it is appropriate that the word “career”can mean a short gallop at full speed, as well as the potentially slower progress of an individual’s working life. Novelists are more usually seen as long-distance runners than as sprinters, and Austen’s mature fiction has been cherished for the gradual emergence into consciousness of its heroines’thoughts and feelings. Yet speedy progress—described in Emma (1815) as the “felicities of rapid motion”—remained central to this writer’s craft from start to finish.

Two hundred years ago, on St Swithun’s Day in 1817, Austen, near death, dictated an odd poem about horse racing to her sister Cassandra. From her sick bed in Winchester, she imagined how the festivities outside her window had come into being. The poem opens like this:

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.

The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.

Austen died three days later, on 18th July 1817. Imagining, in her last known literary composition, the origins of a horse race and the fatal allure of the “charming”, she was also excavating the origins of her writing life. That her Winchester poem concerns how the dead are mostly (even in the saintliest of cases) forgotten has perhaps also to do with her sense of a future abruptly foreclosed, and of authorial work left undone. Not only undone, but largely overlooked: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion appeared together in four volumes, posthumously, at the very end of 1817, in a print run of 1,750 copies; three years later, 282 remained unsold.

Austen, depicted by her immediate family as a covert, dutiful, and domestically-minded writer, has since her death been serially repackaged by critics and imitators as a conservative and a radical, a prude and a saucepot, pro- and anti-colonial, a feminist and a downright bitch. Perhaps this fluidity and adaptability spring from her reluctance to be pigeonholed. After all, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey warns that “from politics, it was an easy step to silence.”But facing down such overt discouragement, many critics from the 1970s to the present have discerned in Austen a writer who was far from apolitical.

During Austen’s time of apprenticeship, radical novelists typically presented their heroes and heroines as the victims of a rotten system. Conservative writers of fiction tended, by contrast, to treat their protagonists as sinners in need of correction and redemption. The late Marilyn Butler was the most forceful proponent of the line that Austen belonged in the second camp, and to insist that her brand of conservatism, Anglican and Tory, would have been understood as such by early-19th-century readers. Read in this light, her heroines contrive to endorse the status quo through their commitment to duty and self-sacrifice. Writing as a Christian moralist, Austen, it is often claimed, duly presents a view of society that conforms to religious principles and respects tradition.

An opposing school of Austen criticism has sought to present her as sympathetic to radical politics, seeing her novels as an attempt to challenge or at least to revise the established order, especially patriarchy. Several decades ago, Edward Said drew attention to the simultaneous presence of and silence about empire and slavery in Mansfield Park, a line of enquiry that has most recently been pursued (with different conclusions) in Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, published last year. Austen is undoubtedly concerned with the precarious economic position of women and therefore, more broadly, with power and inequality. Her fiction could not possess the shape or emphasis that it does without the glaring injustice of 18th and 19th-century inheritance laws. Time and again, she foregrounds the ignorance of women denied a formal education, the psychological and emotional fragility of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and widows, the exploited poverty and dependency of spinsters, and the boredom of aimless, well-to-do ladies.

Critics of Austen too often forget that she was primarily a writer and defender of fiction, not a polemicist. To say this does not mean we have to bleach her work of historical purchase, topicality, or partisanship. But it does entail acknowledging that her commitment was to everything that novels might be and do, rather than to any political cause. In her beguiling ability to convey sympathy, meaning, information and suggestion through the faulty, shifting perspectives of her characters, we come to know, and learn how to judge, a little of the world we are in. That does not mean we arrive at an understanding of everything about human behaviour, or of what motivates it

Recognising the necessarily incomplete business of such disclosure may, however, be good cause for something other than grief and vexation. Austen’s fictions set out to mislead us, and none more so than Emma, a novel full of tricks and impositions. Card games and wordplay crop up throughout this book, which is in a broader sense about what it means to toy with other people. Mischievous little clues, at the level of individual words, open up wider moral vistas and show Austen playing with her readers, too. As she wrote to Cassandra in 1813, echoing Walter Scott, “I do not write for such dull Elves / As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.”

We dull elves need to remain on the lookout. Almost a century ago, Virginia Woolf described the double bind of anyone trying to get to grips with Austen: “First…of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second…there are 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.”

By March 1817, Austen’s complexion changed for the worse. As she wrote to her niece, shades of “black and white and every wrong colour”had passed across her face. One of the many strange things about Austen’s rapid and fatal illness is that it shares so many traits with what happens to characters in her childhood stories. Her abbreviated career possesses a freakish circularity, in which Austen’s literary beginnings appear to forebode how she herself would end. The brief, hysterically brilliant teenage works are littered with sick and dying women, and with girls whose faces are—according to those who surround them—the wrong colour, either too white or too red.

The dashing teenage works are brutally funny studies in ugliness, violence, sickness and death, including suicide and murder. Pace and timing are necessarily different in the longer works of fiction, as is the sense of national and personal history. For all the hard-won patience of her final completed novel, as readers of Austen we should perhaps, in this bicentenary year, take more seriously than we are encouraged to do the last words of Sophia to Laura in “Love and Friendship”(1790): “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—.”