They Did Not Enlarge The Circle Of Her Acquaintance

Recently I was reading a biography of Jane Austen (review forthcoming) and I found a rather poignant extended quotation about the life and social circle of Jane Austen from her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, who was one of her first biographers:  “Jane Austen lived in entire seclusion from the literary world; neither by correspondence, nor by personal intercourse was she known to any contemporary authors.  It is probable that she was never in company with any contemporary authors.  It is probable that she never was in company with any person whose talents or whose celebrity equaled her own; so that her powers never could have been sharpened by collision with superior intellects, nor her imagination aided by their casual suggestions.  Whatever she produced was a home-made article…Even during the last two or three years of her life, when her works were rising in the estimation of the public, they did not enlarge the circle of her acquaintance [1](141-143).”

For a variety of reasons, this made me feel somewhat melancholy upon reading this.  The biggest reason for this is a certain feeling of empathy.  Despite the fact that Jane Austen lived the life of a spinster writer on the shabby edge of genteel poverty, she wrote six novels that have never been out of print and that are read and regularly turned into profitable adaptations.  During the course of her life she only made about 50£ a year or so from her writings from the time she began to seek publishing for her novels, most of that in the last few years of her life as she finished more novels and began to develop a reputation as a notable novelist.  And yet, as her nephew (who was himself a gentry landowner of considerable local influence) notes, Jane Austen was a literary genius more or less in isolation.  She lived in a small cottage in a small village that no one would care about if she hadn’t have lived there.  She passed her time with relatives who either were nowhere remotely near her level as a creative writer or intellect or who occasionally interfered with her writing process.  She was thoughtful in giving advice to others and in being a good audience for the writing efforts of relatives, but none of her regency writing peers dropped in or sent her a few pounds so that she could go on tour to the Lake District or Scotland or something like that.

I feel a certain indescribable sadness in thinking about how Jane Austen’s genius as a writer, genius that is easy to recognize for all of its irony and complexity today, for the subtlety of her work and her ability to draw great insights out of confined social circles and the very limited social world she and her characters inhabited.  Most writers greatly enjoy the company of other writers and find it easy to socialize with them.  Several of the greatest writers of the 20th century, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, met several times a week in Oxford and in a local pub as part of a literary club where some amazing works were read, critiqued, and encouraged.  And this is not an isolated circumstance.  Writer’s conventions and circles and clubs are not very uncommon.  Creativity is by no means an easy thing to keep up and even those of us who are more reclusive and less sociable than the average writer still have a social circle, sometimes including other creative people, to encourage our writing and to comment upon what we have written.  To think that Jane Austen had just her own relatives and a few neighborhood women to appreciate her work is an immensely saddening thought.

It is not as if it had to be this way.  Part of Jane Austen’s isolation was no doubt due to the circumstances of her time and social circle.  Living her entire life under the shadow of the Wars of Revolution in Europe, it would have been by no means easy for Jane Austen to have acquired the sort of international group of associates that would have been possible during the Age of Johnson fifty years earlier or the Victorian period of Charles Dickens thirty to fifty years later.  During those times she likely would have been able to travel to France or America to talk to those who appreciated her novels or engage within the salon conversations of a cultured elite of which she would have been an honored part, no matter how genteel her poverty.  As it was, even within her own life, she received (through an intermediary) what amounted to a royal demand by the Prince Regent to dedicate one of her novels to him.  Given that her fame had reached to that level, it is only a matter of time before she would have made some friends among the writers of her time.

But time is not something she had a lot of.  By the time she died she had written six mature novels that remain part of the canon of English literature and whose reputation has only grown in the intervening decades as readers have found more and more to appreciate within Austen’s restrained but talented prose.  Two of those novels were published after her death, revealing the identity of the author to her reading audience as a whole for the first time.  Even in contemporary times it can take a while before a book is viewed as a classic, especially when that book is not an instant bestseller.  Even a writer like C.S. Lewis began seeking to publish his works in the period just after World War I and it was not until two decades or so later that he was recognized as a writer of note within the Christian world.  Jane Austen didn’t have that much time.  Sense & Sensibility, Austen’s first published work, came out in October 1811.  Within six years of her first publication, she was dead and buried in Winchester Cathedral.  She didn’t have enough time to build the word of mouth reputation that would have made her a cherished social fixture among fellow writers.  Even within her short life she had started drawing the attention of other writers, but just barely.  If she had lived longer, she could have been a grand dame of whatever small social circle in Hampshire she wanted to be a part of while enjoying frequent chats with the Jane Austen clubs of the British Isles and around the world, but she didn’t live long enough to reap the fruits of her writing.  And that is a great shame.

[1] Quoted from Shields, Carol. Jane Austen:  A Life.  New York:  Viking, 2001.  Print.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to They Did Not Enlarge The Circle Of Her Acquaintance

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Knowing these circumstances merely underscores her brilliance. Jane’s lot in life was cruel, but her mind put to pen and paper has transcended time and place. She is the most remarkable heroine of all.

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