What do you imagine Jane Austen would do if she were transplanted into the 21st century?
Jane Austen was in many ways very modern. She decided to have a career as a writer in an age when women had no careers. The history of her publishing choices sounds remarkably familiar to an author in 2011. She paid a publisher to produce the first edition of Sense & Sensibility on commission – the equivalent of today’s self-publishing. It was an overnight sensation and sold well, so her publisher was happy to buy the rights to her next book, Pride & Prejudice, which was written before Sense & Sensibility but published afterwards. When her traditionally published book didn’t earn as much, she went back to self-publishing. Sound familiar?
I think she was also more adaptable than modern readers tend to think. Jane Austen is often misunderstood today due to the thorough whitewash job by her family after her death. Think of the famous drawing of her in a ruffled bonnet. Guess what? The ruffle was added after her death to make her look more feminine. Her family censored her letters to make her appear more sweet and innocent – at least those letters that her sister Cassandra didn’t burn because she didn’t want anyone at all to read them. Here’s an example of the censorship in her letters in which she boasts of being able to pick an adulteress out of a crowd:
I then got Mr. Evelyn to talk to, and Miss T. to look at; and I am proud to say that [omitted: "I have a very good eye at an adulteress, for"] though repeatedly assured that another in the same party was the She, I fixed upon the right one from the first.
Jane wasn’t the sweet maiden aunt who was pure in mind; she was smart, incisive, sardonic, and nobody’s fool. She might have lived in a small country town, but she kept very good track of events in the world and didn’t hesitate to speak her mind in her letters. For anyone who thinks she was a sexual innocent, I encourage you to read her Juvenilia, the books she wrote in her teens for her own amusement and never published. The title character in Lady Susan repeatedly manipulates and seduces younger men.
I’d like to think she’d still be a writer if she lived today, though with so many more options for independence open to her, it’s hard to tell. As a writer, though, she’d have far more scope for her cutting wit and be allowed to publicly express her worldliness. As an unmarried woman, she couldn’t publish anything that so much as showed awareness that lips were used to kiss. Since there are intimate scenes in some of my novels, I’m often asked if I think Jane Austen would have written bedroom scenes if she could have. I don’t know, but my bet is that she wouldn’t blink an eye at the idea if she thought it would advance her tale. I’d give a lot to see how Jane Austen would skewer some of those intimate events with her tongue-in-cheek comments. I wouldn’t go up against her in a war of wits, that’s for certain!
Thanks for inviting me.
THE PEMBERLEY VARIATIONS by Abigail Reynolds is a series of novels exploring the roads not taken in Pride & Prejudice.