Log in

No account? Create an account
21 February 2016 @ 09:46 am
hey look, an Austen rant, haven't done one of those in a while  
Apparently I really like The Toast except when they write about Jane Austen, because I feel like every piece I have read about Austen on the site has subtly irked me in some way. I read this piece a while ago (about the Jane Austen Centre in Bath), but this quotation has been going around Tumblr lately:

To see Jane Austen’s writing desk, you have to go to the British Library in London. It’s in a glass case in their Treasures of the British Library display, across from one of Shakespeare’s folios and a few cases away from some Beatles sheet music. It is a very small desk, and foldable, designed to be easily stowed away, which it must have been often; Austen wrote in her parlor and would hide her writing whenever callers stopped by. At the British Library it is open, with very small spectacles pinned to one corner and the tiny notebook that held the first draft of Persuasion lying on top of it, splayed flat so you can see Austen’s fine, precise handwriting. Under the shadow of that desk, the disciplined confinement of her novels acquires visceral force. This much space was she permitted, and no more.

In the display case next to Austen’s desk is Dickens’s first draft of Nicholas Nickelby, in a notebook that dwarfs Austen’s entire desk, with generous margins and looping, scrawly handwriting. It is impossible for me to imagine what Austen might have done with that kind of freedom, that kind of certainty of her own right to take up space.


And, like, I get it: women's oppression, whatever happened to Judith Shakespeare*, you have the right to take up space. It's a nice contrast, Dickens' rangy, striding freedom against Austen's miniature precision and reserve. Except Austen chose to write in the parlor and hide her writing when company came over, instead of staying in her room. This idea that Austen could have just done more, just have been bigger and so much better - if she'd had the wild freedom of a Bronte, if she'd written about the Napoleonic Wars, if she'd had a bigger desk and the mazy streets of London to roam, if we added zombies - is one of those unexamined, insulting sentiments that sets my teeth on edge and makes me want to run through the streets yelling things like "Emma is a nationalist project!" and "I will fight you over Fanny Price!" Austen described her style as working on a bit of ivory, and when people told her she ought to write Bigger Things (like the time the Prince Regent's librarian suggested that she ought to write a "historical romance" about the house of Saxe-Coburg), she said, "Thanks, but no thanks,"** because - here's the shocking thing that people don't seem to Get about Austen - she knew what she wanted to do. She didn't accidentally fall into her style of writing and subject matter because it was the best she could do given her limited freedoms, or because it was the best life had to offer her after being disappointed in love, or because she was just a mimic who wrote down conversations as they happened and couldn't think beyond her social world. (I know I always say this, but read Claire Tomalin on Jane Austen's social world. If she had wanted to write some grand Gothic romance, she had several neighbors she could have chosen for inspiration, to say nothing of her cousin who married a French aristocrat who got guillotined during the French Revolution.) Austen chose to write what she wanted to write, and it makes me so mad when people don't give her that credit - whether they dismiss her for feminist reasons or not.

*Woolf's Judith Shakespeare, not the historical one.
**Or, as she put it, "No, I must keep to my own style and go in my own way." I don't know why this idea is so hard for people to understand.
ericadawn16ericadawn16 on February 21st, 2016 05:56 pm (UTC)

I have only wondered that sometimes when reading Elizabeth Gaskell and seeing what she was able to do with the genre in better circumstances and more schooling. However, maybe the only reason she was able to have all of that was because Austen was first and paved the way for everyone else.

I've read a few of the Austen with monsters books and most don't seem to actually like or at least respect her work. Norilana is the only exception.