Though relatively unknown during her lifetime, Jane Austen (1775–1817), is among the most widely read novelists in English literature. Her literary classics, such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, bridge the gap between romance and realism.
Joan Klingel Ray is Professor of English Literature at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and former president of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). She is currently working on the Dictionary of Literary Biography volume on Jane Austen, which will be a standard reference volume in university libraries. Recent journal articles by Professor Ray are in Notes and Queries, Explicator, and Persuasions On-Line.
Simply Charly: Jane Austen is considered by many as one of the most important English-language novelists, yet she only published six novels. This question is two-fold; first, do you agree with this assessment, and what do you think makes her a “great” novelist? Secondly, what do you think is the secret to the enduring appeal of Austen’s works?
Joan Klingel Ray: By all means, Austen is one of the most important English novelists, despite the limited size of her canon, because she rescued the novel as a genre from its weakened contemporary condition. That is, by the time Austen was in her 20s, Gothic novels dominated English literary fiction: these best-sellers emphasized sentimental romance and eerie, often ridiculous, horror. (Austen burlesqued this in Northanger Abbey, completed in 1803 but published posthumously in 1818.) Along with the Gothic, sentimental novels were popular; in them, characters experience excessive—to the extent of ridiculous—feelings, which determine their behavior. Such novels are known academically as novels of sensibility, with “sensibility” meaning basing one’s judgment and conduct on emotion. Characters and persons of sensibility readily wept the sympathetic tear and fainted at even the most minor event. In 1790, as a teenager, Austen ridiculed sensibility mercilessly in her very comical Love and Friendship [sic. (Austen had a real problem with the “i before e” rule!) By the beginning of the 19th century, before Austen turned 21, a prominent literary journal, the British Critic, announced that it was dropping entirely the review of novels until there was something “worthy of report” (1801).
So with novels’ having fallen into Gothic horrors and ludicrous sentimentalism, Austen’s big achievement, as her early commentators recognized, was to move the novel onto the domestic stage and provide characters and situations that were actually realistic and probable. While she was not the first to do this—Austen learned much from reading the novels of Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney—she dealt with persons of her class, the gentry, rather than the fashionable effete world, which she ridicules through characters like the Miss Bingleys in Pride and Prejudice. Writing novels of manners, Austen dealt with the behavior and conduct of a specific period (her own, the British Regency) and people (her own class, the gentry, comprised of landowning gentlemen and their families). She used a narrative device known as “free indirect discourse,” which lets the reader into the minds of characters. Again, she was not the first to do this, but her handling of this technique is especially skillful. And her narrative voice is wonderful to have as our companion while we read: that voice can be comforting, comical, and even sarcastic. After all, Mr. Bennet’s sarcasm comes from his creator! Finally, she delivers her plots dramatically, through her characters’ conversations, so that we “hear” them speak as we read the page, just as we would hear them on the stage.
This leads me to the second part of the question: Austen’s enduring popularity. While Fanny Burney and other 18th-century English novelists such as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson are important in the development of the novel as a genre, those novelists do not have the worldwide popularity of Jane Austen, and ordinary readers normally do not go readily to those authors. Austen wrote great stories! Many think of her as a writer of courtship novels, and, of course, some readers today think of her as the founder of “chick lit” romances. And Austen can be read that way. But as I will elaborate in one of your other questions, Austen is so much more: she is a keen satirist of her world, a social novelist who casts a critical eye on the society around her.
The bottom line about Austen’s popularity is that while her novels inspire shelves of scholarly literary analysis, ordinary readers love them so much that they read and re-read them. This is not true of any other writer, including Shakespeare!
SC: One of the explanations given for Austen’s popularity is that her characters faced many of the same challenges we still confront today—love, relationships, self-discovery, social acceptance—so modern readers can relate to her characters. On the other hand, life in the early 19th century England was often difficult for women who lacked basic rights and financial independence, and had to marry “well” to be respectable. So the question is: What, if any, relevance do her works have in the 21st century?
Joan Klingel Ray: Of course, Austen’s novels present women of the gentry class who lived in a time when they had to marry because they had no rights or educational and career opportunities. But her characters and their situations are also timeless because Austen deals with human nature, which never changes. So while today Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet would likely be a law school graduate working at a Wall Street firm, she would still have to deal with her personality flaws such as nurturing social wounds, hurt pride, and being overconfident in her ability to judge other persons’ characters; indeed, Elizabeth’s acknowledgment that she never knew herself is undoubtedly something that rings true for readers. Austen features all kinds of human behavior in her novel that, as your question states, are still relevant today. This is why her novels teach us a lot about people. I had pointed out in many of my Austen classes and talks that Austen, like Shakespeare, displayed broad and deep psychological insight over a century before psychology became a formal study.
SC: Austen’s works were published anonymously under “A Lady.” Was this her own choice? Is it correct to say that she had to do so because of the lack of acceptance of women authors at the time, or was there another reason?
Joan Klingel Ray: By the time Austen’s works were first published (1811), England had many women novelists, including the extremely popular and well-paid Ann Radcliffe, queen of the Gothic romance, who published with a byline. (England also had women playwrights, whose names were on their works.) However, especially for a woman of the gentry class like Austen (Radcliffe was not of this class), publishing with a byline was improper because it showed she wanted to earn money. But even more importantly, Austen valued her privacy. She even instructed her brother and sister-in-law, James and Mary, not to mention her authorship around their home; thus, their son, James Edward, read Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, unaware that his aunt had written them. When in 1813 he learned the identity of the author, he wrote a poem to his aunt, beginning:
No words can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise
Or make you conceive how I opened my eyes,
Like a pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife,
When I heard for the very first time in my life
That I had the honour to have a relation
Whose works were dispersed throughout the whole of the nation.
SC: By the same token, who were some of the other women writers of that era, and did Austen have any relationship with them?
Joan Klingel Ray: While Austen and her family were omnivorous novel readers, Austen did not seek any personal connections with other female novelists of her day, although she read their novels—and not always approvingly. Her relatively contemporary female novelists include Fanny Burney (Madame D’Arblay), Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Brunton, and Hannah More. Austen’s favorite novel, however, was Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison.
SC: Many of today’s authors write for a specific demographic group. Did Austen write for a specific audience as well, and, if so, who constituted the bulk of her readership?
Joan Klingel Ray: Austen wrote for and about the gentry class, which I mention briefly in my first answer and elsewhere: this was the landowning class, and to be a member of it, a gentleman (the word is taken from gentry) normally needed to own 500 acres of land. However, as an Anglican clergyman, Austen’s father was considered a gentleman by virtue of his profession. As a clergyman’s daughter, then, Jane Austen associated easily with sons and daughters of the gentry class who lived on huge estates and in magnificent homes (mansions). This does not mean that titled persons did not read her novels, however: even royalty read her novels. The Prince Regent, later King George IV, had copies of her novels at both of his royal residences (notice in your copies of Emma that Austen was invited to dedicate that book to the Prince!), and his daughter, the Princess Charlotte, loved Sense and Sensibility and identified with Marianne. Interestingly, Austen’s treatment of the nobility is satirical: Lady Catherine in P&P, the daughter of an earl, is rude, controlling, and boorish, even embarrassing to her nephew Darcy; in Persuasion, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter, the Honourable Miss Carteret, are utterly effete. (By the way, Sir Walter Elliot of the latter novel and Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park are baronets: this rank, while titled, is not noble; baronets are commoners.) Keep in mind, too, that Austen was writing in a period when literacy was still growing and both books and paper were expensive. It was only in the early 1830s, about fifteen years after Austen’s death, that her novels became available in inexpensive editions, enabling the new growing middle class of readers to buy them. Since that time, her novels have never been out of print.
SC: Some literary critics say Austen was a writer ahead of her time. Do you agree?
Joan Klingel Ray: Austen was a groundbreaker for the reasons I state in the answer to the first question. And if you read her final fictional fragment, Sanditon, which Austen wrote as she was dying, probably of the then undiagnosed Addison’s Disease (JFK suffered from this, too), you will see that she was heading in an entirely new direction that was foreshadowing Dickens with her broad, almost slapstick humor, and flat, comedic characters. I always find it sadly ironic that the ailing Austen was writing a social comedy about a group of hypochondriacs!
SC: Austen’s writing style is noted for elegance, wit, a sense of irony, and insightful observations. Yet, it doesn’t fit into the romanticism mold favored by her contemporaries. How would you describe her literary style? Was it unique or have other writers duplicated it?
Joan Klingel Ray: I need to differentiate between Romanticism and romanticism. Lately, critics have been discussing Austen’s Romanticism, with a capital R: in literary terms, the Romantics valued, among other things, emotion, nature, imagination, and memory. I have already mentioned that Austen ridiculed and warned against a reliance on sensibility or emotion as a guide to behavior. But, for example, her emphasis on memory and nature in Persuasion causes some academic readers to argue that this novel is “Romantic,” rather than Neoclassical (1660-1800), in a literary sense. I agree with the great literary critic Ian Watt who sees Austen as bringing together the Neoclassical achievements of Samuel Richardson (what Watt calls “realism of assessment” in terms of presenting the internal workings of the character’s mind) and Henry Fielding (what Watt calls “realism of presentation” in terms of presenting a character externally and in terms of the social pressures faced by that character). Thus, Austen reached the pinnacle of literary Neoclassicism in presenting characters that are not only true to human nature (the key Neoclassical characteristic), but also placed them within a highly realistic social framework that Austen frequently viewed satirically. The Neoclassical Period of British Literature was the great age of satire. Likewise, Austen’s writing is characterized by humor, something that we do not find in the writings of the Romantics.
Now as for romanticism with a small “r,” Austen is said to have written the courtship novel, and nowadays we see newspaper and magazine articles deeming Austen the mother of “chick lit.” Of course, Austen’s six completed novels deal with courtship. But what is important to note is that her couples find their “togetherness” largely through personal and intellectual compatibility. Consider Elizabeth and Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, the worldwide favorite Austen novel, featuring her most popular couple. While we read that, in spite of his insulting her at the first dance, he has noticed her physically (shortly after seeing her, he tells the enquiring Miss Bingley that his sister is now about Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s height), he confesses at the end of the novel that he came to love Elizabeth because of the “liveliness” of her mind. Indeed, he also admires her sense of self, for she is undoubtedly the first woman who has not been dancing pirouettes of admiration around him! Now consider the Austen couples who fall in love in a more romantic way: Marianne falls hard for John Willoughby in S&S, and the younger Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth fall “rapidly and deeply in love” some eight years before Persuasion opens. In both cases, the romantic love fails. So while Austen is considered a great writer of love stories, the long-lasting romance in her novels is based on intellectual and moral compatibility.
SC: How did you first become interested in Austen?
Joan Klingel Ray: While I read Pride and Prejudice as a young teenager and swooned over Darcy, I first studied Austen seriously in graduate school, when I took a yearlong course on the 18th-century British novel; the course concluded with Austen’s completed novels. By this time in my life, her handling of narrative, her humor (both dry and overt), and her satire intrigued me. But I did not work seriously on Austen on my own until the early 1990s, when I had a sabbatical and decided to focus on Austen’s life and work because no one in my department at the university was teaching her work. (FYI: My dissertation was on Samuel Johnson’s Shakespeare criticism.) As I began to re-read Austen with an academician’s eye, I paid special attention to her satire: satire is written to point out the flaws of society and individuals; the satirist writes because he/she cares. My first scholarly essay on Austen was about Mansfield Park: “Fanny Price as Jane Austen’s Case Study of Child Abuse.” I have since received numerous e-mails from graduate students saying how much this article changed their perceptions of that hitherto unpopular heroine.
SC: In an article you wrote for a publication of the Jane Austen Society of North America, you state: As an actual professor of living, breathing students, I admit that Sense and Sensibility is the hardest Austen novel for me to teach. Can you explain why?
Joan Klingel Ray: First of all, there are too many Dashwoods! In the first chapter, students get confused by encountering many characters with that surname; two Dashwoods even have the same first names, Henry / Harry Dashwood. To try to alleviate my students’ confusion, I have drawn a family tree, which I distribute in class in class before the students read the novel, and I advise them to look at that handout as they read. Many students also want to change the marriage partners in the novel: they want Elinor to marry Colonel Brandon. What the students miss—and I believe I was the first to write and publish about this (with my thoughts since repeated without acknowledgment in one or two Austen critical works that I shall not name so as not to embarrass the authors)—is that Colonel Brandon, while older than Marianne, whom he eventually marries, is the male character in the novel with the most sensibility and thus the best match for Marianne because he has the sense to keep his strong sensibility under control, a behavior that Marianne must learn. Furthermore, students and other readers fall into the trap of believing what Willoughby and Marianne say about Brandon early in the novel: the two are not trustworthy evaluators of his personality. Other readers see him as trying to recapture in Marianne his lost love of youth, Eliza Brandon. But I see his interest in Marianne, as he observes her behaving rashly with Willoughby, as a deep concern that she will endure the same heartache that Eliza did. Brandon certainly forms a “second attachment” in his love life, but Marianne is not a reincarnation for him of the dead Eliza!
SC: Who among contemporary writers—both male and female—has been influenced or inspired by Austen the most?
Joan Klingel Ray: Talking about influence can put us on a slippery slope. But later novelists who owe some of their craft to Austen include Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry James, E. M. Forster, and Barbara Pym. I would also note that while Austen “updates” such as Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones” books are certainly inspired by Austen, they show how difficult it is to do an update: the intelligent Elizabeth is turned into the ditzy Bridget. I think Amy Heckerling’s film “Clueless” is the best Austen update, based on Emma. Heckerling found in a 90210 high school the same class-consciousness that pervades the Austen novel. Kudos to Heckerling!