The Jane Austen that never wasNovember 17th, 2019
What if Jane Austen had lived longer than the 41 years she did, and had written more than the six novels she did?
I recently explored this question in a presentation I did for the University of Missouri’s Lifelong Learning Institute.
Despite her relatively small output, she is one of the most loved, researched, discussed, parodied, admired, and copied writers in the English language. She pioneered realism, writing insightfully about genteel families in small English villages in the early 1800s. And then she died young of what some researchers believe to be Addison’s disease.
It’s fun to speculate about what she could have written. For example, what if she had completed a novel during the two years she lived in Southampton? I think she could have written a spectacularly good novel during this period. It would have had all the wit and humor and irony of her maturing talent, but could been backgrounded against Britain’s Navy, Britain’s growing Empire, and the Napoleonic Wars. This ‘lost novel’ I envision would have been a transitional novel, like Mansfield Park, but would have incorporated a broader sweep than her previous novels Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.
In reality she wrote no novels while she was there, but she did incorporate the naval lore she learned from her brother Francis (with whose family she was living) into the characters Charles Price in Mansfield Park and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.
That ‘lost Southampton novel’ does not exist, which is our loss.
Here’s another speculation: what if Jane had lived as long as the rest of her family? Her sister Cassandra lived to be 72 years old. If Jane had lived longer she would almost certainly have written at least three or four more novels. And it is highly probable she would have written her best work during this latter period of her life.
But would she have stayed on the narrow track she set for herself with her early novels? I think not. In real life, her last two novels, Emma and Persuasion were already beginning to evolve away from the classic characters, plots, and settings she used in her previous novels. An older Jane would have become the contemporary of writers such as Poe, Turgenev, Melville, and Hawthorne, whose style and topics she would surely have considered when writing her own books.
The Regency Era disappeared quickly. In the Victorian age, literature was dominated by newspapers and serialized novels. Would Jane have serialized her novels as Dickens did a few years later? Serialization forces certain changes in plot structure, but I believe Jane would have been comfortable with it.
There was also a more subtle, but vastly larger, change occurring, which Jane, with her powers of observation, would surely have been aware of. Youth had become a time of experimenting and learning, of wide horizons, and of opportunity. Previously, people seldom strayed far from the village where they were born, and children were apprenticed early, and for life. Those with rank and inheritance were constrained by ancient rules of rank and inheritance. The rapidly growing middle class, fueled by the Industrial Revolution changed all that. In Jane’s later novels, would her heroes and heroines been more adventuresome, less class-conscious? I think so. And I think she could have used this vast social change as a backdrop to write a masterpiece.
But that is the Jane Austen that never was.
Many readers are perfectly content with the Jane Austen we have. They want Jane Austen to forever stay ‘Aunt Jane’ with her cozy set of six classic novels. Why did her family so carefully promote the legend of modest Aunt Jane? Could it be that they feared a more critical biography would damage her reputation? Mary Shelley’s biography of her father William Godwin, did damage his, but only for a time. Later biographers lauded Mary’s honesty about her father.
Despite the carefully circumspect description of her by nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in his 1869, A Memoir of Jane Austen, Jane, like any human being had faults. She suffered the same loneliness, money problems, and regret for roads not taken, that most people suffer. And it is only recently that biographers and fictionalizers of her life a show a more ‘humanized’ Jane Austen.
Speaking of regret, there is a nicely done 2007 BBC bio-pic about the last few years of Jane Austen’s life. It’s called Miss Austen Regrets and shows us a bit more realistic picture of Jane’s last few years than the always-smiling ‘Aunt Jane’ her brothers and cousins promoted to the world.