Why Are We Still Reading Jane Austen (But Not Mary Brunton)?

H. J. Jackson—

Up to 1860, the career paths of Jane Austen and Mary Brunton were strikingly similar. If Brunton had an advantage in the reviews and reference books, Austen—who after all produced more novels—gradually took the lead in numbers of editions and reprints. Almost exact contemporaries, they both started publishing fiction for the circulating-library market in 1811 and achieved a measure of recognition before they were cut off by death, Austen in 1817 at the age of forty-two and Brunton in 1818 at forty. Within a year of their deaths, their families produced the customary posthumous tribute of a memoir with literary remains, in both cases publicly naming “the Author of” for the first time. Brunton’s publisher brought out a collected edition of her works in seven volumes in 1820, but Austen had to wait until 1833, when Bentley, who had acquired the copyrights of her novels for his “Standard Novels” series from two separate owners, finally issued a set of “The Novels of Miss Austen” in five volumes. Bentley kept the works of both authors in print through the 1840s and then, as individual titles began to come out of copyright, Routledge and other publishers moved in with cheaper editions—not many, but enough to suggest that the novels were still viable, and with the same target audience of “railway” readers and “parlour” readers. Reference books of the time described them in similar terms as authors of morally improving domestic fiction—the one English, the other Scottish. The one early reader whom we know of who thought to compare the two—the actor William Macready, reading Emma, probably in Bentley’s set, in 1834—expressed his preference for Brunton.

When Brunton’s name comes up in Austen’s letters, Austen always makes a point of distancing herself from her rival’s kind of fiction. She declares that Self-Control has nothing of “Nature or Probability” in it, though she concedes that it is well-intentioned and “elegantly-written”; on another occasion, she sportively proposes to write a novel as unlike her own and as much like Brunton’s Self-Control as possible. Following her lead, Austen specialists always stress the contrasts between them, particularly between Brunton’s adopted vehicle of the “novel of incident,” as Kathryn Sutherland legitimately labels it, and Austen’s deliberately uneventful plots. I do not deny the differences between Brunton’s work and Austen’s, nor the significance of those differences, but an exclusive concentration on what sets Austen apart from her contemporaries does both parties a disservice. Austen was neither a freak nor a pioneer hacking out a fresh path. Like Scott and Brunton, she had learned from her predecessors and wrote gratefully about them. She appears even to have learned lessons about the representation of interiority from Brunton. (And Brunton may have learned from her. Though her letters do not refer directly to Austen’s work, the plan to write more “domestic” fiction after Discipline and the marked absence of exciting incidents in Emmeline at least show her moving in Austen’s direction. “Domestic” was a label that reviewers typically attached to Austen’s novels.) Austen’s work was conventionally mainstream enough to thrive in a market dominated by circulating libraries, and good enough of its kind to earn the Prince Regent’s request for a dedication (which she reluctantly provided, in Emma). Brunton and Austen both wrote improving novels with abstract titles, featuring likable and essentially good young women with flawed parents and sketchy suitors. They reliably include familiar conversation, comical minor characters, country houses, wise but unobtrusive narrators, hard cases of conscience, and happy endings. When I first read Brunton’s books, it was the likeness between the style and settings of her novels and Austen’s that struck me most. There is also some evidence that contemporary readers could not tell them apart: after Queen Charlotte died in 1818, the sale catalogue of her library attributed Brunton’s two novels to Austen.

What happened to Brunton—the gradual fading and extinction of her name—could easily have happened to Austen. From the vantage point of the 1860s, it might have seemed inevitable that it should. But as we all know, exactly the opposite happened: far from declining, the reputation of Jane Austen began an upward climb that looks, a century and a half later, as though it will never end. Austen rapidly accumulated most of the tributes that the nineteenth century had paid to Scott (translations, adaptations, illustrations, pilgrimages) and garnered others unimagined by the Victorians, such as reenactments, academic conferences, the heritage industry, websites, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Scott’s reputation barely carried his works into the era of movies, but Austen triumphed in it. She is routinely described, with awe, as a classic equally successful in the academy and with the general public, “a major writer as popular and accessible to the public as any contemporary,” in the words of Marilyn Butler, “a popular author as well as a great one, with a considerable cult,” according to Brian Southam in his second volume of collected reviews and opinions. There is no need for me to document this phenomenon, both because that has been well done already and because the proof is all around us. What I can do is consider it in relation to the process of writing for immortality and in comparison with Austen’s counterparts Scott and Brunton. I shall begin by considering Austen and her posthumous career in the years leading up to what is widely accepted as a transformative event, the publication of James Austen-Leigh’s Memoir in 1870.

Jane Austen did not write for immortality—that is to say, there is no record of her declaring that ambition. Of course she might have harbored hopes but been restrained by convention from expressing them: like Brunton, she was part of the respectable family of a clergyman and did not put her name to her books. Both women expressed horror at the idea of being publicly exposed as writers. Brunton said she would feel like a ropedancer, Austen that she would be like a wild beast on exhibition. On the other hand, both spoke up for the novel and gave thanks for fellow artists, Austen notably in the extravagant defense of the novel (“work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed,” etc.) given to the narrator in chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey, Brunton in the letters that were published with her husband’s memoir in 1819. They seem to have believed that the best novelists deserved “immortality.” But they forswore lasting fame for themselves, and I believe they meant it. That position would have been not only traditionally modest but also realistic under the circumstances: in the circulating libraries, novels circulated only until they were displaced by something newer. Austen and Brunton also rejected “popularity,” though they both welcomed the prospect of riches that even a temporary popularity could provide. Austen’s rare comments about her work invariably say that what she hoped for was not fame but money—though she did admit that she enjoyed praise, which is to say the approval of her own circle. Greed and vanity, she cheerfully declared, were the forces that drove her. (Claire Harman admiringly calls her attitude toward publishing “hard-nosed.”) She did not further differentiate between these two favorite sins, but it’s worth pointing out that while the commercial motive might have led her to write fiction in the first place, it was the desire for praise from the readers whose praise she valued, the people she wanted to please, that would motivate her to write as well as she could and then to rewrite and polish as much as she did. Hers was not a model of missionary authorship but not purely mercenary, either, as her casual comments in letters suggest. She was proud of writing well. I don’t want to use “hard-nosed” or “selfish.” Can we call it “self-motivated” authorship?

Until 1860 or so, Brunton and Austen held their places in the field of popular fiction more or less lockstep, as I have indicated, with Brunton enjoying perhaps a small advantage. In the 1860s, with hindsight, we can see that Austen’s works began to outpace those of her rival, thanks in part to multiple American reprints of all her novels in the 1840s and 1850s, which had circulated along with English editions and laid the foundation of an overseas following. (The afterlife of Keats followed a similar pattern: American audiences led the way.) American reviewers of the 1840s and 1850s praised and recommended her work; we hear of an American fan, Susan Quincy, who contacted the Austen family in 1852 hoping for an autograph and was sent one of Jane Austen’s letters. British reviewers also spoke up for her occasionally, citing the positive views of eminent critics such as Walter Scott and Richard Whately, archbishop of Dublin. In a particularly notable Blackwood’s article published in 1859, G. H. Lewes described Austen as a novelist who was widely read but unknown, which is to say that readers enjoyed the novels but did not attach her name to them. He noted that Scott, Whately, and Macaulay had expressed their admiration, “but beyond the literary circle,” he wrote, “we find the name almost entirely unknown.” (There’s a distinction to be observed here. Lewes did not say that the novels were unread—on the contrary—only that the majority of the readers who liked them did not make the connection between works and writer.) He pointed out that there was no portrait of the author and that people knew nothing about her life; he called for a proper biography. The reason for public ignorance, he suggested, was that the excellence of her work is “excellence of an unobtrusive kind, shunning the glare of popularity.” It seems to have been a groundswell of pressure such as this from diverse sources that eventually led members of the Austen family to marshal their resources for the first freestanding biography, persuading Bentley to adopt it as a companion volume when he issued a new edition of the novels in his “Favourite Novels” series in 1870.

It proved a good investment. The Memoir was quite widely reviewed. It sold well enough to justify an expanded second edition in 1871 that included previously unpublished literary remains—Lady Susan, The Watsons, extracts from Sanditon, and a canceled chapter from Persuasion—entailing a fresh round of reviews and increased demand leading to further editions (six altogether by 1886). Initially sold alongside Bentley’s collected edition of the novels, it was incorporated as part of it when it was renamed the Steventon Edition—the name itself inspired by details in the Memoir—in 1882.

The Memoir was very much a family affair. Austen-Leigh built on Henry Austen’s “biographical notice” of 1818 and acknowledged the contributions of sisters and cousins whose recollections supplemented his own. Family industry carried the project of documentation and memorialization well into the twentieth century, when it was taken over by professional scholars. Austens laid the groundwork, providing among other things the essential instruments of an edition of Austen’s letters and a definitive life-and-letters biography. In 1894 a leading academic critic, George Saintsbury, coined a word and declared himself a Janeite. But the type had existed as early as 1876, when what Leslie Stephen referred to as “Austenolatry” was already in the air, thanks mainly to the efforts of Austen-Leigh. Although on close inspection, as Annika Bautz has pointed out, publishing history shows that the number of editions of Austen’s works was already growing, that the Memoir had no immediate effect on sales, and that therefore it could be considered as merely “part of an upward trend” (reflecting rather than producing the reversal of Austen’s reputation after 1870), what the Memoir unquestionably did do was create an enduring image for Jane Austen. It put a face to the relatively unknown author and made her an object of idolization.

The first substantial biography and the only one available for the next forty years, the Memoir was the founder of the mainstream critical tradition as well as the origin of the cult. (Southam suggests that 1870 also marked the start of the countertradition that emphasizes Austen’s satire, irony, and malice, in the form of an iconoclastic essay by a Shakespearean scholar, Richard Simpson. But Simpson’s essay had little or no impact at the time.) Austen-Leigh’s act of family piety brilliantly matched Austen’s life to the interests and values of genteel mid-Victorian Britain, creating a myth of enduring authority: that of a ladylike “dear aunt Jane,” who lived contentedly in a country village “in entire seclusion from the literary world,” put family duties first, and was, in her own words, “the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.” She was a natural genius, and “whatever she produced was a genuine home-made article.” What seem to us now the transparent distortions of the Memoir had a number of unexpected consequences. By conflating Austen with her heroines, they created a rounded portrait of an author who had been imageless before. By dwelling upon her unpopularity, they made her popular. The Memoir’s romanticized descriptions of places gave her locatability and visualizability. And Austen-Leigh’s nostalgic representation of the family background made Jane Austen, whose determined realism had led some readers of her own time to reject her novels as too tediously ordinary, into a romancer, a historical novelist in her own right, poised to displace even Walter Scott.

Austen-Leigh was not yet twenty when Jane Austen died, and he had never known her well. He was over seventy when he wrote the Memoir. These facts make it easy to account for the method and tone of his work. In the first place, it is clear that he felt he had come to “know” Austen through her novels. (Interestingly, in a move that supports Bautz’s research and her conclusions, he seems to presume that his readers had also already read them.) Unlike his predecessor Henry Austen, he does not make a clear separation between Austen’s life and her fictions; on the contrary, in the Victorian mode of biographical criticism, he blurs distinctions and is given to circular reasoning with inferences from one to the other. The Austens’ house in Steventon, he tells us, had on its southern side “a terrace of the finest turf, which must have been in the writer’s thoughts when she described Catherine Morland’s childish delight in ‘rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.’” The actual life, then, “must have been” the basis of the imagined world. Correspondingly, the imagined world provides evidence about the actual life. “There can be no doubt that Jane herself enjoyed dancing,” writes Austen-Leigh, “for she attributes this taste to her favourite heroines.” But there was no need for inference: Henry Austen’s notice of 1818 had already testified that “she was fond of dancing, and excelled in it.” Using the novels as evidence of the life and personality of the author in the absence of more trustworthy sources such as letters and contemporary reminiscences, Austen-Leigh constructed a character as satisfyingly complete as any in fiction because it is a fiction.

For this beloved character he also provided a rich material background, reinforcing the impression he wanted to give of a retired and devout but definitely genteel life, untainted by scandal. At one point he quotes Charlotte Brontë’s rejection of the Austen model, summed up as “ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses,” and thus reveals both the image that he endorsed (elegant houses) and the one that he opposed, that of the controversial modern woman writer—Brontë as represented by Elizabeth Gaskell in her celebrated Life, which he cites in a footnote, and for that matter Gaskell herself. When Austen-Leigh came to write about Austen’s family background, he specified indicators of class such as income and connections, just as Austen had done in her novels, but as commentators have often observed, he selected for respectability, mentioning the cousin who married a French count but suppressing the aunt who was charged with shoplifting and the brother who went bankrupt. Austen’s immediate family “had peculiar advantages beyond those of ordinary rectories,” he observed complacently. He took the time to explain many customs and attitudes no longer prevalent, thus making Austen and her work representatives of a vanished era. This part of his work is charming still, with its details about rural and domestic life, for example the clipping of horses and home spinning, but it cultivated nostalgia and encouraged readers to use Austen’s novels as an escape route from everyday life. In some ways he antedates her: it is disturbing to find him glossing the novels with parallels from the Spectator of a hundred years earlier, as though they belonged to the same era. This part of the work, however, provides the groundwork for his assessment of her achievement at the end, when he maintains that she was above all an accurate portraitist, her writings “like photographs” that bring back a vanished world, “the opinions and manners of the class of society in which the author lived early in this century.”

The final element in the myth is contemporary neglect. Austen-Leigh added the name of Jane Austen to the growing catalogue of geniuses slighted by their own time—the model that Johnson had dismissed and Wordsworth promoted. He singled out for credit, however, the discerning few who had recognized her merit, strategically quoting a line from Horace that we have seen before, “satis est Equitem mihi plaudere” (It is enough if the Knights applaud me)—in Latin without translation, thus indicating that the people he was writing for were educated men like himself. He also names names and quotes testimonials or what we would call celebrity endorsements from respectable, serious men. “Archbishop Whately” and “Lord Macaulay” head the list, followed by other figures dear to the Establishment (at least at the safe distance of 1870), among them Robert Southey, S. T. Coleridge, Sir James Mackintosh, Lord Morpeth, Sir Henry Holland, William Whewell, Lord Lansdowne, Sydney Smith, and Sir Walter Scott. “To the multitude” and to “readers of more ordinary intellect,” on the other hand, according to Austen-Leigh, the novels still appear “tame and commonplace, poor in colouring, and sadly deficient in incident and interest.” Although the historical record clearly indicates otherwise—Austen always had numbers of readers, more than enough to keep up demand and keep her work in print—the effect of Austen-Leigh’s survey in the Memoir was to endow her works with snob appeal, conveying the message that the novels were too subtle for common readers but that those who bought the complete edition with the Memoir attached belonged to a select, discriminating group. As Deidre Lynch points out in the introduction to Janeites, “Over the last century and a half much has been invested in the premise that the appreciation of Austen’s excellence is a minority taste” or, in other words, “caviar for the deserving few.” Thus “Austen’s popularity is a function of her not being popular.”

The combination of image, nostalgic historical appeal, and caviar status contained in the 1870 Memoir and then reinforced in other projects of the Austen family lifted Austen’s work over the next hurdles in the afterlife of a Romantic author—the rise of English literature as an academic subject, and the transfer to new media. Her works had already had a small role in education through Chambers’s self-help series for young people and adults. Successive Elementary Education Acts between 1870 and 1893 ensured universal education for children in Britain; the Act of 1880 made schooling compulsory to the age of twelve. Unlike Brunton’s novels, Austen’s were judged suitable for children, and editors, abridgers, and publishers were quick to capitalize on the new market. In 1880, under the pseudonym “Sarah Tytler,” Henrietta Keddie targeted young readers in Jane Austen and Her Works, a thick one-volume introduction that was successful enough to earn a public rebuke from Lord Brabourne in his edition of the Letters shortly after: he insisted that readers should not be content with Miss Tytler’s summaries, but should read the books for themselves. (In the long introduction to the letters, Brabourne revealed how he himself read the novels, reacting to the characters as though they had been personal acquaintances. “I frankly confess that I never could endure Mr. Knightley,” he wrote. “I always wanted Emma to marry Frank Churchill, and so did Mr. and Mrs. Weston.”) Dramatizations of scenes from the novels began to appear about 1895, and abridgments about 1896. Though the bibliographer David Gilson records no specially designed textbook editions of the novels before 1926, children were certainly being encouraged to read them, for instance Blackie’s Northanger Abbey of 1895 in its “School and Home Library” series or Partridge’s Pride and Prejudice of 1896, offered as “pure and healthy literature” for boys and girls in “these days of universal education”—along with Fry’s chocolate, which was advertised on the back wrapper.

In the same popularizing vein, in an increasingly competitive Austen market, publishers at the end of the nineteenth century raised the stakes with far more, and more creative, illustrations. Bentley’s series had made do with frontispiece engravings of scenes from the novels. Some of the Routledge editions of the 1880s included attractive cover illustrations in color, and some of the serially published editions of the same decade included multiple woodcuts. An American edition of 1892 experimented with photographs. But the great phase of extensive illustration and named artists began in 1894 with Hugh Thomson’s lively line drawings—kitschy, as Claire Harman complains, but almost as inseparable from the Austen image from then on as the illustrations of Phiz are from the works of Dickens. Drawings by C. E. Brock followed close on their heels, and today the list of artists associated with Austen illustrations runs to three tightly typeset columns in Gilson’s index. When the great age of illustration was succeeded by the great age of motion pictures, that in turn by video, and that in turn by the World Wide Web, Austen visualizers kept pace, and so it has come about that to some specialists today the majority of her fans seem scarcely literate: instead of rereading all the novels every year as their elders used to do, they watch “entire cycles of television and movie adaptations” over and over again.

The Austen adaptation industry may have taken on a life of its own. Certainly the visual tradition has distinct conventions and its own line of descent, progressively more reliant on the cinematic kin and more independent of the texts that inspired them. But feature films are expensive to produce, and the triumphant sequence of Austen movies from the Olivier-Leigh Pride and Prejudice (1940) to the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice of 2004 and beyond, especially the boom from 1995 to the present day, would not have happened if readers had not been familiar with the novels since their school days, and that would not have happened if Austen’s work had not been so universally approved of.

The contrast with Scott is telling. At the turn of the century, as Austen’s star was rising, Scott’s once universal popularity was waning, and complaints were more insistently leveled at the quality of his work. The mandarinate abandoned him. In 1896, when the self-proclaimed Janeite George Saintsbury, writing as a literary historian, described Scott and Austen as equally the parents of nineteenth-century fiction (he the father of the romance school, she the mother of the realistic novel), he expressed far warmer enthusiasm for Austen. She “set the clock,” he said, for “pure novel-writing… to this present hour”—that is, she originated trends in the novel that came to dominate the nineteenth century and pointed the way forward, while Scott seemed always to be looking back. Saintsbury praised Austen’s ability to extract “perennial and human” characteristics in her record of minute details in everyday life, thus achieving timelessness; but most of all he praised her irony as rare and subtle, and consequently inaccessible to duller readers. (Scott, on the other hand, was and always had been notoriously accessible to readers of all kinds.) It was the backing of respected professionals such as Saintsbury, ones whose livelihood rested on their superior powers of discrimination, that saw Austen’s novels onto university syllabi in Britain and North America even before the end of the nineteenth century. Later significant academic landmarks were R. W. Chapman’s edition of her works in 1923—the first scholarly edition of any British novelist, with full textual apparatus and historical annotation and illustration—and F. R. Leavis’s co-opting of Austen in The Great Tradition (1948). Scott had historical importance that conferred one kind of lasting fame, but Austen’s work appeared to be still relevant and still competitive with new writing—an extra level of distinction that belongs to real literary immortality.

Scott steadily lost both popular and critical support and was gradually relegated to the past, being no longer a household name, whereas Austen’s readership continued to expand. Kramnick, citing Bourdieu, describes the way that popularity and prestige, or market values and aesthetic values, are perpetually at odds with one another, until those works that are identified as “artistic goods” are “released from the vulgar domination of commercial sales” and “the ‘loser wins,’” but he does not discuss the further stage perfectly exemplified by Austen, whereby the supposedly unpopular author, having once gained canonical status, becomes commercially desirable as the source of a status-enhancing product. When Virginia Woolf came to review an important new family biography in 1913, she could point out as a matter of fact that Austen’s name would come at or very close to the top (first, second, or third) in anybody’s list of the great English novelists.And while Woolf herself may have felt some ambivalence toward Austen, other feminists adopted her—the mother of the novel, after all—wholeheartedly. Fellow writers—Kipling, James, Forster, and Wharton, for example—also expressed their admiration; she enjoyed high peer approval.

During the First World War and in its aftermath, while Scott might have been viewed, however unfairly, as a Scottish nationalist and even as a warmonger, Austen’s novels came to symbolize core English peacetime values—though which values varied from time to time and from one sector to another. Evidently Austen’s works, like the Bible, contained something for almost everyone and could be selectively mined to support contradictory positions. The Jane Austen Society, founded in 1940 to see to the shrines and monuments, soon generated regional and international offshoots with their own evolving functions. Thus, by the middle of the twentieth century, Austen had attained the extraordinarily broad audience that we still see today: reader and non-reader, young and old, male and female, gay and straight. With its moviegoers, heritage tourists, quarreling academics, readers of popular romance, and historically minded reenactment buffs among others, her following remains unmatched for size, diversity, and loyalty by any of the poets. None of them comes close, not Wordsworth with his hillwalkers, Blake with his multimedia appeal, nor Byron with his international glamour. Much of her popularity she owes to her choice of genre, for everyone who can read can read novels, but for at least a century now not everyone has been capable of reading poetry, let alone of reading it for pleasure. But the process by which she outstripped other novelists of her age depended on less obvious factors, most of them extraneous to the works themselves, as the comparison with Scott and Brunton reveals.

From Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame by H. J. Jackson, published by Yale University Press in 2015. Reproduced by permission.

H. J. Jackson is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, where she was one of the founders of the graduate program in book history and print culture. She has explored every major research library in the U.S. and spent many happy summer months in the British Library and other collections in the U.K. She lives in Toronto.

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Featured Image: “Jane Austen, ‘Persuasion’: Irony and the Mysterious Vagaries of Narrative” licensed for use on the public domain by Gresham College via flickr.

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