In 1818, an unknown critic in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine went out on something of a limb. One day, he claimed, Jane Austen would be among the most popular of English novelists. By the middle of the century, with George Henry Lewes complaining that she’d been unjustly forgotten, this claim must have seemed even more unlikely than it did at the time. Only with the 1869 publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh did the tide begin to turn, and her books to be more widely read.
But, as we now know, that anonymous critic turned out to be a master of understatement. These days, you can trumpet your love of Austen with key rings, mugs, calendars and fridge magnets. You can wear barbecue aprons proclaiming ‘Let’s BBQ Wickham’ or ‘Who invited Mr Collins?’, and any number of T-shirts with variations on the theme of ‘Mr Darcy is mine!’ In 2012 scientists at the University of Liverpool identified a pheromone in the urine of male mice that makes them irresistible to females — and duly named it Darcin. Cue this month’s 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and another officially sanctioned bout of Austen mania.
Of the two books here, the more ambitious is Paula Byrne’s. As in her previous Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, Byrne takes a weirdly sniffy view of conventional biographers, with their tendency to proceed ‘from cradle to grave at an uneventful pace’. Her own approach, she assures us, will be far more exciting. Presumably influenced by the success of Neil MacGregor’s 100 objects, she takes 19 of her own, each one launching a discussion of a different aspect of Austen’s life and work.
At times, the link between object and theme is fairly straightforward: the vellum notebooks of Austen’s teenage writings lead to a sharp, informative analysis of their irreverent and hugely precocious contents. At others, it’s more tortuous — as when a randomly-chosen card of lace requires a lengthy description of Georgian lace-making before Byrne can get on the real business of Austen’s fondness for shopping. (‘Domestically produced bobbin lace, typically from the English Midlands, used patterns copied from Flemish Mechlin lace, worked with a simple twist-net ground, or from strong French Valenciennes lace…’) Yet, on the whole, the scheme works more often than it doesn’t. The traditional answer to the question ‘When is a gimmick not a gimmick?’ is ‘When it works’, and by that criterion The Real Jane Austen never feels too gimmicky for too long.
As for the thematic approach, that also holds together pretty well. Of course, by abandoning stuffy old chronology, the book does have moments of overlap and repetition, along with recurring phrases like ‘as will be seen’. Nonetheless, if you pay attention, the shape of Austen’s life is clear enough — and by keeping the discussion of, say, Jane Austen and children, or of her surprisingly numerous suitors, within the confines of a single chapter, Byrne can trace Austen’s changing attitudes without the need for us to keep flicking back. There’s the advantage, too, that her famously bewildering array of brothers, nephews, nieces and cousins can be separated out, and used to illustrate discrete facets of her life.
According to the blurb, the portrait that gradually builds up ‘brings Jane Austen dazzlingly into the 21st century’ — which sounds about right, except that a better adverb might be ‘determinedly’. Needless to say, Byrne isn’t the first person to argue that Austen was more worldly than the ‘country mouse’ of strangely persistent myth. Even so, few people can have argued it more vigorously. Thanks to that extended family, Byrne reminds us, Austen was closely connected to almost every important development of the day. Warren Hastings’s son accompanied her parents on their honeymoon. Her cousin Eliza, whom she knew well, had a husband who was guillotined during the French Revolution. Other family members had links to slavery, the opium trade and the unrest in the English countryside. By contemporary standards, she was extremely well-travelled, and entirely at home in London.
And yet there remains the nagging feeling that, in seeking to overthrow Austen-Leigh’s ‘dear Aunt Jane’ — a kind of secular saint cunningly adapted to a Victorian audience — Byrne is not above some cunning adaptations of her own, and for much the same reasons. Certainly, the Austen we meet here couldn’t be more in tune with today’s standards of virtue: on the one hand, a feminist who ‘did not want her own voice to be stifled by marriage’; on the other, a fun-loving character who ‘kept up with fashion with all the avidity of a modern woman reading Vogue’. Not only that, but she was racially and sexually tolerant, firmly against slavery (with Fanny Price in Mansfield Park ‘speaking truth to power’) and politically committed.
At one point Byrne even suggests that Austen’s often-criticised silence about the French Revolution might have been ‘not so much because she knew and cared little about it, but because she knew too much and cared all too deeply’. In other words, Byrne is just as smitten as Austen-Leigh ever was.
And there’s more Austen worship in Susannah Fullerton’s Happily Ever After. Aimed squarely at the fellow-fan rather than the scholar, the book sets out to answer such questions as ‘Why does Pride and Prejudice have such universal appeal?’ and ‘Why does Elizabeth Bennet outclass every other heroine?’ Its breezy women’s-magazine prose (‘Jane Austen…could never have guessed that with the publication of her novel, the world of literature was to be changed for ever’) comes complete with exclamation marks to indicate the jokes and such critical assertions as ‘the dialogue of Pride and Prejudice is honed to perfection.’
The result mixes a brief, rather good history of how the novel was written and published with a handy guide to the characters and what looks suspiciously like quite a lot of padding. Two of the early pages consist of a list of the people who’ve liked the book, from G. K. Chesterton to ‘chef Gordon Ramsay’ — while anyone who wants a summary of the 2008 adaptation on Israeli television, or the various porn versions of the novel (‘Jane Bennet, ill at Netherfield, enjoys lesbian sex with Caroline Bingley and her sister Louisa Hurst’) need look no further. Now and again, even Fullerton herself seems to weary of some of the material — ending a discussion of whether Chevening Place was the original for Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s Rosings Park with a ringing declaration that ‘it does not really matter’.
Still, there’s no denying that the book is jolly enough, and a perfectly fine ornament to any Austen fan’s loo. It’s also nicely illustrated and especially good on the kind of merchandise I mentioned earlier. (Another T-shirt slogan Fullerton cites is ‘Dibs on Darcy — you can have Wickham’.)
In one respect, though, it’s not all that different from Paula Byrne’s more substantial work — because, in the end, both books feel less like cool examinations of the continuing craze for all things Austen, and more like products of it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013