Jane’s Fame – Mouldering in the Grave (Chapter 3)

Jane Austen died in July 1817 – she was 41. Her death notice in the Courier was the first public acknowledgement of her authorship. However, no mention appeared on the memorial inscription on her grave stone.

Both James and James Edward wrote poems to commemorate the occasion. Both mention how she put her domestic duties before her writing. James even seems to imply that this dutifulness was strategic – honouring a contract rather than a free choice.

At her death no one expected Austen to leave a literary legacy. Cassandra inherited everything (except two small legacies) including the manuscripts of Susan (now called Catherine) and The Elliots. Cassandra sent them to Murray to be published on commission. They were published as a four volume work with a brief biographical notice. This biographical notice received the most notice – it finally revealed who was the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and it wasn’t Augusta Paget or Elizabeth Hamilton, but an unheard of daughter of a clergyman. Henry wrote the biographical notice (which revealed her identity) because in his mind the story was over – ‘the hand that guided the pen is now mouldering in the grave’. In his notice Henry, like James, focussed on her conventional domestic skills. He also claimed that she hoarded her manuscripts for years and only after much strenuous persuasion did she agree to try to get them published.

The posthumous publication generated overviews of her body of work. Richard Whately wrote a long piece in the January 1821 edition of The Quarterly Review. He considered her to be uniquely truthful about women…

[Authoresses] seem to feel a sympathetic shudder at exposing a naked female mind […]Now from this fault Miss Austin [sic] is free. Her heroines are what one knows women must be, though one can never get them to acknowledge it.

Harman writes …

The books exposed female fallibility so brilliantly and with such sporting candour that, as men picked up on the fact that these might not simply be ‘ladies’ novels, Austen’s male readership grew enormously.

The reviewer in Blackwoods praised her truth to life and thought she was truly remarkable in going against the style of her time (which was historical and highly romantic).

Immediately after her death there was only a small number of copies of her books in circulation, but her readership grew slowly – especially once she began to influence literary style. In the 1820s there was a set of novelists (including Thomas Lister) who wrote ‘escapist novels that idealised high society life’. Thomas Lister Grandy which seem to include many Austen like touches …

from a flirtation scene like that between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland to home theatricals involving a Crawford.

Lister, however, sold many more books that Austen ever did.

At this time, there were French, Swedish and Russian translations of her novels (although not very accurate translations). Austen might even have influenced Pushkin.  One writer she did influence was James Fenimore Cooper (who went on to write The Last of the Mohicans) whose first novel Precaution is remarkable similar to Persuasion.

By the 1820s Austen was out of print and her novels were remaindered – this meant Cassandra and Henry had to pay the costs. In1831 Murrary offered to buy the copyrights, but Cassandra turned him down. Henry, however, accepted a similar offer a year later from Richard Bentley. Murray was the better imprint and would have paid more , as Harman says ‘this was something of a collapse’. Having all six novels inprint at the same time and affordable kept Austen’s readership growing.

Next chapter – A vexed question. 


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  1. Pingback: My BookClub Reviews » Blog Archive » Finger Lickin’ Fifteen - Janet Evanovich

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