Austen in Autumn Discussion: Rewriting the Writers

I’ve been musing over this topic for a long while and it’s not even Austen-specific. A few years ago, a blogging friend asked me what would be my dream area for postgraduate study and to be honest, this is it. I find it incredibly strange how changing attitudes alter and shift the way in which we see historical figures. They are dead, they are gone and yet their character development must continue, their narrative not done. While this is odd enough when it comes to political and historical figures, I think it’s even more bizarre how the way in which we view deceased writers mutates over time. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the Brontë family and that of Jane Austen. Over the past thirty years or so, the trend for biographical fiction around these two camps has only increased and so I wanted to ask – is this weird to anyone else?

Whenever I read about historical fiction centred around real people, I am reminded of the following quotation from the final pages of Wolf Hall. Thomas Cromwell has just had Thomas More executed and is musing on the act itself.

It’s the living that chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives. Thomas More had spread the rumor that Little Bilney, chained to the stake, had recanted as the fire was set. It wasn’t enough for him to take Bilney’s life away; he had to take his death too.

These sentences are effectively a confession from Hilary Mantel herself that in writing fiction about the real person Thomas Cromwell, she may be doing something that is morally questionable. And that’s not just me suggesting that, she has acknowledged the same herself. Writing pretendy stories about real people especially when they can’t defend themselves is getting yourself onto dodgy ground. Myself, I try to be cautious. I can be attracted by the prospect of a book about a historical figure who intrigues me but then I can also feel very disappointed if the author can’t bring it together and then also pretty incensed on the behalf of the book’s subject if the author has taken too many liberties. To sum up, I’m ambivalent.

Where I feel it’s a bit iffy about the Brontës and the Austens is that both Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were writers. Not politicians or rulers or activists. They wished to be known by the product of their pen. Yet somehow we cannot seem to leave it that and so we reanimate them and demand more. Other than Charles Dickens, I can think of no other writers whose personal lives have been mauled over so much and even Dickens has been more or less able to pull off a secret mistress and love-child. Basically, I’m calling it out as some sexist bullshit.

I say this having truly enjoyed a lot of the fictionalised versions of Jane Austen’s life. But what I would say is that there is a pattern to a lot of it and that pattern is ‘Jane Austen Meets A Guy’. To support my argument, here is this helpful list from BookBub of ten examples. I loved how Kathleen A. Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project granted a voice to Austen as an independent thinking woman. I was also very moved by Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen which considered the position of the unmarried woman in Regency society. I even liked Miss Austen Regrets because it showed Austen’s wit and humour. And I’ll even admit that I loved Becoming Jane because it starred James McAvoy. But these are very much the exceptions to the general rule which implies that Jane Austen is in need of a ‘happily ever after’ or that she was somehow incomplete due to living her life as an unmarried woman. So again … sexist bullshit.

What is more disturbing too is how this supposition migrates into supposedly non-fictional biographical material. The parallel with the Brontë sisters continues here. Anne Brontë has had a romance dreamed up for her on almost no evidence and it is increasingly accepted as fact. Nick Holland pontificates about Anne’s ‘all-consuming conflagration’ for William Weightman because … why? There’s no evidence that she had such a thing. Presumably because as a woman, she could not have written if she had never known any kind of romance? Or else it’s the other strange theory that if a woman did ever develop feelings for a man, there was no possible way that she would ever recover or be able to ever direct her thoughts independently again. Her life would be forever centred on the ‘Him’. I enjoyed Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen biography, he wrote very sensitively but his hypotheses that Austen’s every creative thought was forever coloured by her fleeting flirtation with Tom Lefroy was incredibly patronising. Once again … sexist bullshit.

The most depressing thing though about so much of the biographical fiction around the Brontës and the Austens though is how small it makes the women become. So much of the writing about the Brontës concentrates on Branwell. His failure is seen as more interesting, more worthy of sympathy, than his sisters’ hard work and genius. Over in Camp Austen, there are similarities. Mrs Austen, the mother of the family, always regarded her eldest son James as the true family writer. Next son Edward was the star since he was adopted by the Knights and became rich. Then there’s Henry, the family charmer and all-round naughty boy. These three are always the main players in any of these romantic-fictionalisations of Austen’s life. Jane’s sister Cassandra, the person to whom she was actually most close, is generally a side-character as she’s just too dull to have any other role. When the women are so interesting, why are we still looking at the men even in stories that are literally supposed to be about them?

There are some really odd trends in how the Austen family are imagined. Mrs Austen is generally the hypochondriac narcissist. Henry is the immoral sex pest. Eliza is the glamorous sexy older woman. Cassandra is the humourless almost-widow. Mary is the bitch. There is potential here for a really interesting examination here on the tensions between married and unmarried women in Regency Britain. The scramble to gain something approaching a respectable situation would seem to bring out the worst in some women’s characters and in how they subsequently look down on those who remain unwed. Yet that’s not really what comes across in most of the stories, which again bring everything back down to sex. This hits a real fever pitch with The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen which theorised that Henry had been shagging all of his sisters-in-law, had fathered pretty much all his nieces and nephews and that Mary Austen killed off all of her romantic rivals so she could have him to herself. She also then murdered Jane Austen too to avoid suspicion.

There’s something so condescending about the idea that these women writers led incomplete lives because they did not follow the traditional domestic pattern. Rudyard Kipling suggested that Jane Austen must have longed for a Captain Wentworth figure in her own life. Umm … maybe she preferred writing? If she’d been that desperate for a house and a husband, she would have just kept up her engagement to Bigg-Wither. Charlotte Brontē’s publisher felt that she would have given up all of her genius to be pretty. Umm … doubtful. Charlotte Brontë was a colossal snob. There was no way she would have ever given up her intellect. If her publisher thought differently, he clearly didn’t read Villette properly since that was its whole point. Particularly ironic since the man that Lucy Snowe refuses to compromise herself to in order to gain his heart was based on him.

The spin-offs around these authors’ lives that I have actually enjoyed have all had one thing in common – they made a sincere effort to connect with the lives of their subjects rather than trying to squash them into a template that does not suit. The Austen ProjectMiss Austen and even Jude Morgan’s Brontë-centric The Taste of Sorrow all acknowledge that the lives that these women lived were hard, full of trial and that nobody ever really stepped in to make things any easier and that despite all of that, they never gave up. There is enough injustice in that all four of these women lived short lives, that they died with tasks uncompleted. In life, they were looked down upon as spinsters. In death, can we not grant them the dignity of being remembered as writers?

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10 thoughts on “Austen in Autumn Discussion: Rewriting the Writers

  1. Yes, there is a lot of sexist bullshit around when it comes to the way female writers are written about and discussed. Austen and the Brontes are the most obvious examples, but I’ve noticed similar things with Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, as in both of these cases, there seems to be more emphasis than is wholely respectful placed on the fact that they both had mental health issues and ended their own lives. If they had been men, I somehow think there would have been less focus on their personal lives when discussing their writing. As for Dickens, I am able to sepparate the idea of him as an apalling husband and father with the fact he has written some of the most enduring stories of the 19th century, and one of my favorite novels of all time, but I completely agree he has been given a much easier time of it over his transgressions and inconsistancies as a human being because of his gender. Thank you for another thought provoking discussion.

    1. I tend to avoid a lot of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, in part I think because of the personality cults that grew up round them among my fellow English students when I was at university. A lot of that was around they met their ends and it is pretty unfair. Thank you for bringing them up – I don’t know that I would have thought of them as being in this bracket too.
      I think Dickens ran a very effective PR machine – a lot of people were just very invested in keeping his myth going. I have a hard time working out whether he was actually a bad man or just immoral in terms of his personal relationships. I loved David Copperfield but I am so disgusted by his personal conduct. It’s a puzzlement. Thank you for the comment – you have definitely made me think!

  2. This is such a fascinating post. I don’t feel like I know enough about the Austens OR the Brontes to comment on how these portrayals happen or how they reflect (and don’t reflect) reality, but this was a really, really great post to read.

  3. Interesting post – I’ve not read/watched any of the biopic type things except bits of Becoming Jane (what was that accent!) and the Sally Wainwright Bronte thing ‘To Walk Invisible’, which I actually loved. I think Jane Austen might’ve enjoyed some of hers though – they’d give her a good laugh. And I’ll have to read her letters one day.

    1. I really liked both of those (yes, the accent was odd but the film stars James McAvoy!) I completely agree that Austen would have had a good laugh at a lot of her biopics – I think she would have found it utterly hilarious how bad a light they portray so many of her relations. Poor Mary Austen would be rolling in her grave!

  4. There is something so enraging about the commonly expressed notion that it’s “ironic” that Jane Austen was always writing about love and supposedly never experienced it, hence the wish to give her a love story, whether based in some sort of fact (Thomas Lefroy) or fancy (the mysterious seaside clergyman who died). It’s always seemed to me a way to diminish her genius without seeming to do that directly. I suppose the blame for this must fall partly on her own family, on the nieces and nephews who sought to create a socially acceptable biography for her later on in the 19th century and emphasized her sweetness and domesticity. But they were doing what they felt they had to at the time, in a very sexist age. Why are people still repeating this nonsense more than a hundred years later?

    Likewise, I feel like Gaskell has a lot to answer for in her domestic-gothic, often absurd picture of Charlotte and the other Brontes that has been so influential in shaping subsequent ideas about them. But, again, she faced pressures we do not. Why aren’t we doing better?

    I was happy to be reminded of The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen!! Aaaa, what a crazy book.

    1. I know! Right?! Right?! The whole thing about Aunt Jane definitely definitely not writing for money, what no, she barely knew what money was. What she actually cared about was her needlework! It’s so funny because they surely MUST have known that this was a fib but it really has affected the way that a lot of people see Jane Austen now.
      I take more of an issue about Gaskell because she literally pried paperwork out of the protesting hands of Charlotte Bronte’s widower and father. She lied and lied and lied. I went through a phase of thinking she was just the absolute worst. I don’t think that quite so much now but I still think that she behaved boorishly towards Charlotte’s immediate family.
      Did you read the Mysterious Death too?? It was only after I hit Publish on that post that I remembered that that book also had a Completely Unnecessary Lesbian Subplot. It was pretty wild.
      Thank you so much for the comment!

  5. Ugh, YES – I hate the enforced “but if only she’d found a man” imaginings and retellings of all female historical figures, writers or otherwise. I wonder if it’s also, perhaps, the time that has passed and the comparatively little autobiographical work we have of Austen and the Brontes that contributes to this. For writers like Plath and Woolf, we have so much existing content – letters and diaries in particular – and their lives and writing were so recent that it seems more of a stretch to push new “love interests” into fictionalised accounts of their lives, casual readers wouldn’t accept it so readily. Just a half-formed thought that occurred to me as I was reading this 😉

    1. That’s a good point. There’s more wriggle room for writers from longer ago. I think though that you still get the ‘but if only she’d found a man’ narrative being pushed though even now – that’s why you get all the fuss around Jennifer Aniston still being single. Society just abhors the idea of a woman being happy on her own. It’s very strange.
      Thank you for the comment – hope you’re having a lovely week 🙂

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