Austen in August Review: Not Just Jane, Shelley DeWees

It seems a good way to close Austen in August by looking not just at Jane Austen herself but also her literary contemporaries and descendants.  DeWees was inspired to write this book after a particularly teeth-grinding stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice got her thinking about what other female authors were around other than the Big Names of Austen, Brontë and Woolf.  Research led her to the seven subjects of this book; Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craik and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  Describing Not Just Jane as a collective biography rather than a piece of literary criticism, DeWees aims with this book to bring these seven lost ladies of letters to greater acclaim.

DeWees’ obvious fervent enthusiasm for her task is admirable and her excitement over each new discovery bubbles beneath the surface of her writing but the book does have a distinct amateurish feel about it.  Her breathless excitement over discovering the places in which each of her ladies lived seems almost equal to that she has towards the writing – there is the slight tinge of the American abroad.  Although I was not expecting an academic style of book, at times the informality of DeWees’ writing surprised me – it was almost more akin to blog posting.  Some of her thought processes and reasoning too appeared rather jumbled – her description of Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff as a ‘romantic hero’ raised my hackles at an early point and a lot of her thoughts on Jane Austen herself seemed slightly addled.  Describing Austen’s works as a ‘land of delicious fantasy’ seems peculiar given that that the latter was consistently criticised by contemporaries  for making her plots too close to reality.  In the twenty-first century we can read Austen for escapism but not so when the stories first went into circulation.  It is almost as if the comparison to ‘Jane’ was a hook for Duwees’ book’s premise rather than her actually knowing her topic …

Still, while her introduction seemed to lack some fluency, DeWees’ writing gathered pace once she had moved on to the lives of her subjects.  As she aptly points out, there is something very strange to find forgotten these women who were so well known in their own time, active in society and with names readily recognisable, but yet by contrast Jane Austen and Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, quiet parsons daughters all, should still be taking the world by storm.  That being said, despite DeWees’ repeated reassurances of just how far these women had sunk into oblivion, several of them were suspiciously recognisable.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of Lady Audley’s Secret must surely be familiar to most, and Dinah Mulock Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman is a celebrated work which once had a high-profile television adaptation.  Mary Robinson may be better known as mistress to the Prince Regent and Sara Coleridge for being her father’s daughter, but yet most of these women were already on the public consciousness.  The fact that DeWees’ bibliography runs to six pages shows that there has already been quite a lot written about each of these ladies.

I have a feeling though that DeWees is perhaps simply prone to adding a certain dramatic flair – her descriptions of the horrors faced by women occasionally ventured into unbelievability.  It’s odd too that given DeWees claims to have been looking for more ‘realistic’ writers than the apparently rose-tinted Austen, the authors selected here include an author of sensationalist novels (Braddon), a writer of detective stories (Crowe), someone described as being a fantasy author (Coleridge) and authors of Gothic fiction (Smith and Williams).  Strange too though, having finished the book, I feel little the wiser on the subject matter or literary merit of any of the writing discussed, but instead DeWees chose to focus on the scandals and tragedies of these ladies’ lives.  And oh what scandals they had.

Most of her subjects were at one point or other treated badly by men – almost all were abandoned by their fathers at a young age and various others had cruel and feckless husbands.  Had DeWees actually been able to convene the shades of these women in one room, their shared collective consensus would most likely have been ‘Men are Rats!’  With Charlotte Taylor Smith being obliged to follow her husband into debtors’ prison, as was Mary Robinson, many of these women only picked up a pen because they were backed into a corner and needed some cash.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon had a long-running domestic partnership with a married man, Sara Coleridge a long-running addiction to opium, Mary Robinson became a courtesan, Catherine Crowe got involved with the spiritualists and had a mental breakdown which led to her being found naked in the street, having believed herself to be invisible.  None of these women led shy or retiring lives

Sara Coleridge

It is an interesting question about how far the creative process can operate in the standard domestic setting and in charting these women’s lives, Dewees attempts to investigate this further.  Sara Coleridge had been establishing herself as a writer when she was instructed to marry and take on a matron persona, something which clearly prompted her battles with depression and addiction.  DeWees examines how Coleridge fled the family home at one point under the pretext of being ill in order to write her novel.  Later, she was able to work cataloguing her father’s papers, despite the fact that Samuel Coleridge had never been interested in her while he was alive and had met her only a handful of times – as long as daughter Sara could pretend that she was acting as a dutiful daughter, it was acceptable for her to use her brain.  This kind of intellectual privation is distressing to read about – this idea that a woman ought not to think.

Not Just Jane is a light and enjoyable book – like so much of what I have read for Austen in August, it is fan writing, passionate in support of its cause which means that a critical review can so easily feel like a personal attack on the author.  That is the last thing that I would want to do.  I just wished that DeWees had engaged more with the question of why these women are not now more read.  While she reports on sales figures as a barometer of the writers’ contemporary popularity, she is not considering why literary tastes might be transient.  Her implication seems to be that because these writers were women, they were forgotten.  This seems odd given that even in this book, DeWees refers to how Sara Coleridge was brought up by her uncle Robert Southey.

Robert Southey was an actual poet laureate and a celebrated writer in his day but is now best known for having written to Charlotte Brontë to tell her that women ought not to write.  Having read the letter in its entirety, I think Southey is quoted unfairly since it is actually quite a kind letter to write to a woman who he didn’t know but who had sent him a slightly hysterical note asking for advice.  The point is – nobody reads Southey any more.  Nor does anyone read Lord Tennyson.  They were huge in their day but that day is gone.  Even during my own lifetime, I have seen how writers such as Iris Murdoch are steadily sliding away from public recognition.  There are so many writers who are forgotten and it is fairly indiscriminate as to whether they are male or female.  It all reminds of me when I had to study “Shakespeare and Early English Citizen Comedy” at university (my modules got messed up and I had to take what was left).  During the course I had to read several Shakespearean plays and the several from his contemporaries – Shakespeare was markedly better than the others.  Wittier, more interesting, better writing.  There is a reason why we are still quoting Shakespeare and there is a reason why we are still reading Austen and Brontë.

The author’s intentions here are faultless and where there may be wobbles in execution, her obvious wish for more people to discover these writers is hard to argue with.  It’s just that while DeWees readily convinced me that the writers within her book were brave and courageous women worthy of celebration, what she actually thought of their writing remains enigmatic here.  I was intrigued by Dinah Mulock Craik’s extended spinsterhood and her thoughts on the class structure, but then DeWees was bracingly dismissive of the characterisation within John Halifax, Gentleman.  Even Sara Coleridge’s Phantasmion feels under-explored.  I finished Not Just Jane feeling intrigued but DeWees’ book is an introduction, a handy primer for those would seek to know more.  With its cheery blue cover and peppy pink spine, Not Just Jane is very much beach-read-biography – zipping through it in a day and a half, I came away thinking that I should take a look for myself.  Going from DeWees’ afterword, this seems to have been what she hoped to achieve.

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Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees
Published by HarperCollins on October 25th 2016
Genres: History, Women, Biography & Autobiography, Literary, Europe, Great Britain, General
Pages: 336
ISBN: 9780062394637

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