Monday, January 28, 2013

Jane Austen Novels vs. Jane Austen's Life

As many of you know, today is the 200th birthday of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice! And since I only just finished Northanger Abbey, I've had Austen on my mind. So in honor of the day, I'll share with you a question I've been pondering:

Should Jane Austen readers know about Jane Austen's life? 

Of course, "should" is a term I use loosely. I don't mean to say that readers have an obligation to learn about an author's life. No, what I'm wondering is this: Does knowing about Austen's life enrich the reading of her books?

You could probably ask that about any author, but I personally think that Jane Austen is a bit of a special case. For one thing, there's a lot we don't know about her, since her sister Cassandra burned most of her letters after her death. For another, Austen didn't write about crazy adventures; the lifestyle her characters enjoy seems to be closely related to the lifestyle she probably had.

And for yet another thing, Austen has this very knowing voice in all her novels. You get the feeling, when you're reading her books, that she knows something you don't, and that she may or may not be laughing at you whenever your back is turned. As much as many of the males in my life (and probably more than a few females, too) like to assume that Austen was this very prim, proper sort of person, I don't get that idea from her novels at all. Actually, that's exactly the sort of person that Austen constantly makes fun of--people obsessed with what's "proper."

But anyway, there's this feeling with some of the characters, especially characters like the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility and Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, that's very uniquely personal, where the author seems to have a lot of sympathy for them, and it's easy to wonder whether Elizabeth or Elinor is a mirror image of Austen herself.

I read a Jane Austen biography recently, where the author made it seem like each book was closely patterned off Austen's life, especially Pride and Prejudice. I've also heard that Mansfield Park is practically an autobiography (unfortunately I have no opinion on that, since it's the only major Austen I haven't read).

However, so many of Austen's characters are caricatures, like Mr. Collins (P&P) and Mr. Woodhouse (Emma). As true to 19th-century life as the books are, the characters aren't always real people. They're often just surface characters, seemingly with little underneath. While Austen may have based her characters off people she knew in real life, I'm suspicious that in some ways, she wasn't actually trying to re-create real life; a lot of the time, she was trying to teach a lesson, like plenty of other authors of the time period. For example, Sense and Sensibility seems to be a lesson in finding a balance between being sensible and feeling deeply. In most Austen novels, there seems to be a clear "moral of the story." That puts us pretty far from a feeling that the books are some kind of autobiographic journal.

My last thought is that in every single Austen book I've ever read, the characters end up happily married to the man of their choice. And yet, Austen never married, although she had several proposals. I feel that more than almost anything else, this colors any reading of Austen's books. Obviously, Austen wasn't approaching her stories with the naive opinion that "everything will always turn out right in the end," and "right" means "get married." Austen knew better than anyone that marriage and happily ever afters don't always happen. So why did she constantly write in these happy endings? Did she feel that she would let down her readers if her characters didn't end up as happy as possible? Or was she living vicariously through her own characters, expressing a wish that she would find her own happily ever after?

What do you think? Is it possible to truly understand Austen's novels without understanding Austen's life?


  1. I think that it helps to understand her life -- I've only read a couple short bios of her, like at the beginning of different editions of her books and in this other book I'm reading called "Jane Austen: Cults and Cultures." And I think that it can be an interesting exercise to draw parallels between her life and her books, but ultimately, they ARE fiction. I think most writers write elements of their own lives into their books, in one way or another. And as a fiction writer who was seeking publication, I think that the marriages all around at the end of the book was her way of satisfying the wants of her audiences. Also, I'm not perfectly convinced all the marriages would be completely happy (especially at the end of "Mansfield Park," which is the one book of hers I really don't care for).

    1. Hmmm, that's an interesting thought...that maybe the marriages aren't all happiness and joy. I have thought it interesting that all Austen's novels are about characters looking to get married; none of them describe much of life after the marriage. Maybe that's yet another example of Austen laughing at me behind my back...(good-naturedly, of course).
      And I agree with you. Austen probably wrote about what she knew, like many fiction writers do. It's impossible to write a completely objective novel.