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 Project, Miss 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?