Five myths about Jane Austen

Jul 19, 2011

Carol J. Adams will be online Tuesday, July 19, at 11 a.m. ET to chat about her recent Outlook piece Five myths about Jane Austen In it, she writes, "We love her; we hate her; we can?t agree about her; we know we should read her. Myths about her abound, but there are some truths we should universally acknowledge."

Hello! I'm Carol Adams, and looking forward to discussing Jane Austen and answering your questions; though I cannot promise I know everything! Perhaps there are other Austenites onboard today who might join in, and thanks for being here!

Why if the Bennet estate is entailed away from the five daughters, does it go to someone whose surname is not Bennet? What am I missing? John Shepherd

The estate is entailed to a male heir, and in this case, the closest male was Mr. Collins. It is clear that there was tension between Mr. Collin's father and Mr. Bennet.

One of things I have always loved about Austen's work is that a) she had the uncanny ability to make her characters come to life--in both their virtues and especially their flaws, b) she is legitimately funny--i'm always laughing aloud when I read her work and c) she has the ability to make the reader totally immerse his or herself in a world completely unlike their own, allowing the reader to dream of balls and teatime and the politics of upper crust England. Thank you for showing people that her work is not just chick-lit and is not just some silly work. Also, go vegetarian/vegan lifestyle!

Thanks! I think reading Jane Austen is a marvelously complex experience, and rereading Jane Austen has rewards on many levels. Laughter from her lines is certainly one of them! for me, I think she helped me during times of crisis and I will always be thankful for that. 

No question. Just THANK YOU for the lovely article. It capsulizes what I have always wanted to put together in a succinct way for my high school students of British Literature and in my Women Writers course, as well as our Lunch with Jane Austen group. I have saved and will distribute the article for further distribution & conversation. See you in Ft. Worth!! Appreciatively, Linda Reinert Wheaton North High School JASNA-Greater Chicago Region

Thank you! Linda is referring to the Annual General Meeting in October which provides people who love Austen an opportunity to widen our knowledge and explore our opinions about Austen.

How is it that, in our own time, a few of the more shallow readers have actually come to imagine that Fanny is a prude?

I think Mansfield Park is such a complex novel, and that trying to show how someone might be trying to live an ethical/moral compassed life can be difficult to translate into sound bites. Also, without the context of recognizing Mrs. Norris's abusive behavior, the failure of the father to truly be present, the disruptiveness of the Crawford's, Fanny's beliefs are out of context.

Thanks for your essay. In the reader comments, one reader discounted your argument that having a brother adopted by rich relatives and a cousin whose husband was executed during the Reign of Terror would have affected Jane. During the chat, perhaps could you explain for that reader's benefit how the events you mentioned would have affected Austen very much (for instance, in Austen's time month-long visits to relatives were common and how close Austen was to Eliza, etc.)?

1) After her father died, Austen's situation was very precarious. She, her mother, her sister, and eventually a female friend lived together. Some people have described these years until 1809 when she settled in Chawton as her being nearly homeless. The brother who was adopted offered the house at Chawton which was part of his estate. So materially, Austen benefited from this adoption. Also, she and her sister would often go to Godmersham, another large estate he owned, to help with the children. Visits did last a long time. It materially changed her life. (And reading Emma you find someone else who is adopted by rich relatives). The cousin whose husband was executed eventually marries one of the Austen's brothers. Watch for references to the French, i.e., Mr, Knightley says Frank Churchill can only be amiable in French. I think one of the responders in the comments section did a great job of describing how the wartime references would have been recognized by her contemporary readers.

What would Jane Austen make of the novels of the three sisters?

I don't know for sure. We know Austen read her contemporaries, so if she had lived I am sure she would have read them. Her way of focusing her novels is different for sure. But I don't think I can guess. What do you think?

Sometimes we just lose historical perspective on matters. In this case she has far more to do with the development of the novel. There were several ways to go. Other options were suggested by Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, Pamela. The printing press, a growing literate rate in England, public libraries,, and an increase in leisure time all lead to a demand for entertainment. The theatre with the work of playwrights was running but how often can you attend? Not everybody could afford it or even find the opportunity to attend it. Wasn't there a scene in an Austen novel where the characters spend the evening assuming the roles of various characters in a play?. It left an enormous opportunity for publishers of all sorts of literature besides the novel. Perhaps Austen's greatest contribution to the novel was the KISS principle a.k.a as keep it simple stupid. Why shouldn't simplicity be a key element in the novel's design? Unnecessary should be avoided.. Somebody once remarked that Joyce wrote for writers. In this case Austen wrote for novelists. Her influence slowly increased with further exposure but must have been overshadowed by Dickens and Thackery whose works are still aptly described by students as heavy, big and long. At some point things changed. Not o much with the public but the writers. Why must everything be so long? At some point Austen in the 19th century emerged as an influence upon other writers.In her own lifetime Austen was lost..She wasn't a part of the Romantic movement but she didn't belong with the Classical era. Like Saudi women with cars today women shouldn't be writing. Society frowned upon it. Still she felt that she knew more about her own social environment than many men. So her works reflect a more realistic world than Richardson's Pamela. Asking anybody about her best film is like asking somebody for Kurosawa's best film. People are always changing their minds.but for myself I've always thought that there was no better introduction to her works than Pride and Prejudice and certainly none better written than Emma. The others are also good reads but keep Persuasion for last. She wasn't sentimental enough for her time. Perhaps that's why early critics considered her works cold at times. I think that's true but it's so necessary to remember the position of women at the time. It would be another century before women were given the vote and her property rights were few. Marriage was a financial consideration than a romantic one. She appreciated both concerns and perhaps recognized it all as part of the pursuit of happiness. What else could a woman do in such a dire situation? Family meant far more to Austen. Without its support she feared the presure that it could apply on her when it simply was concerned with a better station in life for her and her children. She didn't reject it but she didn't accept her situation either. Her heroines are constantly seeking a solution to their dilemma in life. It certainly kept her on the reading list of quite a few young women and available for the writers at another time when they considered again how the novel should be written. Still it's escaping our attention an appreciation of the circumstances for a woman in her times as well as a world in turmoil. Harold Macmillian may have taken note of them in 1962 but the winds of changes have been blowing for centuries since the Renaissance. In a sense at that time England found itself in the eye of the storm and stay there until it drifted to America in the last century. In her own way Austen must have perceived that the world was changing around her in more ways than one. If we have lost touch with her world would she even recognize the world today?

There's a lot here. We may have a very very different world now, but we still have family and friends who influence decisions, we still have financial instability and the tension it causes, we still have cruelty and selfishness. These are all found in the novel. Austen did not keep it simple, did not follow that principle I don't think. Her novels are elegantly structured, like a Mozart concerto, she was very meticulous. She hid information, and revealed it when she wanted to. New work shows how she, and other Romantic writers, were influenced by the wartime atmosphere in England at that time.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Emma Thompson's Sense & Sensibility (LOVE Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon!) and the Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow; I also love Clueless, which is a modern adaptation of Emma. What do you think of the movies & miniseries of the Austen novels? Have you read Carrie Bebris' Mr. & Mrs. Darcy books? I love them. Do you?

Thanks for the question. Emma Thompson's film is wonderful, but it leaves us with a few false impressions. With Hugh Grant we get a sense that Edward Ferrars was probably a little more outgoing than he was. Alan Rickman is given more of a role in Marianne's recovery than he did (I had to go back to the novel to see he never actually did read to her as she recovered). I think Clueless is amazingly accurate, probably the most accurate of the adaptations in capturing who Emma was. (Cher can't drive, and Emma has limited opportunity to travel, etc.). I love the Pride and Prejudice from 1995, but I do think as it was said, it has "more Darcy." We are given a little more of Darcy than we needed. The first time I watch a film adaptation I notice what is missing and what liberties were taken; the second time I can enjoy it for what it is showing. In that sense, even the Matthew MacFadyn Darcy had some interesting points, despite the kiss at the end at Pemberly.

Which one and why?

I have two, Pride and Prejudice and Emma. But, always, just after I say that, I think of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. It depends upon my needs, really, when I am sad, I want Pride and Prejudice, which just carries me. Emma, I believe is a misunderstood novel and character. I have trouble with mansfield Park, though I know many critics think it is the best, finest novel of all. But Aunt Norris's treatment of Fanny is so painful I have trouble getting past it. You can see, there are times that I take the novels very personally! And then there are times I can approach them a little more dispassionately. I really enjoyed Sense and Sensibility which I just finished listening to as a book on CD. Let me recommend to people some of the audio book recordings are marvelous. Miss Bates, esp., is a wonderful character on audio book.

Hello, I enjoyed your article. I teach British Literature and have taught Pride and Prejudice for several semesters. I love it. Do you have any suggestions/activities in regard to teaching the novel that my students might learn from and enjoy? I usually bring in my P&P board game at the end of the unit and it cracks them up that I own a P&P board game. :) Best, Nancy England UT Arlington

I will put in a shameless plug for a book my son and I co-wrote, Journey to Gameland: How to Make a Board Game from your Favorite Book, and suggest perhaps they should be assigned to make their own board games. It might be interesting to compare P and P with P and P with Zombies. How did that author skew some of the characters? when was he faithful. Can they identify just how much of the funny scenes are taken straight from Austen? They could try to imagine how this book would have been written if it were entirely an epistolatory novel. Who writes the most interesting letters in the novel? What does Mr. Bennet's last letter tell us about his character and Mr. Collins's?


Are all of Jane Austen's publications actually novels, or are some more informational than entertaining? How extensive are her publications? I have read Pride and Prejudice (one of my favorite books), Sense and Sensibility, and have yet to read Mansfield Park and Emma.

Austen has six finished novels. they are all wonderful and very different. Her juvenenlia which she wrote in the eighteenth century is lots of fun. Her letters are fascinating. She has two fragments, Sanditon, the novel she was working on when she died, and the Watsons. Also, an epistolatory novel, Lady Susan. I would recommend Persuasion and Emma. I envy you the experience of coming to these novels for the first time. Mansfield Park will be a good experience, but it is very different novel from the rest. enjoy!

My favorite novel is Persuasion, but the most wonderful sentence is near the end of Emma: "The weather continued much the same all the following morning; and the same loneliness, and the same melancholy, seem to reign at Hartfield - but in the afternoon it cleared; the wind changed into a softer quarter; the clouds were carried off; the sun appeared; it was summer again." Last year I went to Bath and reveled in seeing the places associated with Austen. The townhouse on Sydney Place, the garden walk where Anne and Captain Wentworth renewed their love, Union Street, Milsom Street. It was wonderful. Now I need to go to Chawton.

There are so many wonderful lines in the novels. One reason the movies are so wonderful is because they use lines directly from the novels. I have been to Steventon and to Winchester Cathedral. By her grave there was a note, "Let me tell you how much I admire and love you!" It was very moving. (It's a paraphrase of Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth.)  Somebody had left it there. I think it summarized many people's feelings!

I think that Bridget Jones Diary is one of the more successful Austen updates. It's very hard to turn 18th century motives and plot points into modern ones. Fielding manages it nicely, converting scandalously eloping Lydia into Bridget's Mum scandalously taking up with a larcenous gigolo.

Yes, she did a great job with that. And many other aspects. The second one is not as good. It seemed like fun just for fun.

I love Jane Austen books and truly do enter another world when I am reading them. I feel like I am an invisible character in the other characters' worlds. Please excuse my lack of historical background and knowledge, but I would like to know exactly what factors I should keep in mind while reading to fully comprehend and understand the meanings of her novels and references. (For example, I'm not sure what war Britain was on the brink of during her time.)

Let me suggest you get a book like Jane Austen for Dummies. It was written by an Austen scholar, Joan Ray, and she provides the context for the novels, more than discussing the novels. Austen was born at the beginning of the War of Independence with the States, there were wars with France, (the Battle of Trafalgar, etc.) her brothers were in the Navy and she was very alert to what was going on. Reread Persuasion and look at all the clues about the Navy, and how one might learn information at that time about Naval ships. Persuasion is said to be her tribute to the Navy. There is an entire book on Jane Austen and the Navy which is fun to read, too. I like reading the novels, and then I like reading commentary to help me appreciate them even more. (Even Col. Brandon's flannel vest has a military connotation.) Good luck!

I was glad to hear the idea of Jane Austen's possible depression and gloomy life skews her happy times. What were some of those? Emma shows she knew what happiness was.

I would like to posit that Jane Austen was happy writing! When we see the care with which she was writing her novels, how she revised, the joy when she found out a novel was making money, I think we see what writers experience as joy--the process of creation and the process of reception to our writing. She kept a book where she recorded comments on her books (comments made by friends who didn't know she had written it, and comments made in response to the books). I think we can sense joy in many of the letters when she reported back to Cassandra things she had heard, seen, or thought. Also, I think her ironic, wicked sense of humor is a source of joy!

Do you think that there is any modern author who's writing sensibilities seem similar to that of Jane Austen? What would you say to be the hallmarks of her writing?

I am sure there are probably 100 different answers to this question, and I am not sure my own answer can be very helpful. I know Barbara Pym is seen in that tradition and her novels are delicious! Also there is Angela Thirkell (I hope I have the spelling correct). My sister keeps telling me to read Thirkell. In some ways, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in their focus on the inward thoughts and specific movements of a day, or another specific amount of time, are doing their own Austenian practice.  As for hallmarks, again, lots of possible answer--the novel's structure, the free indirect speech, excellent dialogue, precise characterization, dramatic moments executed with great control, never too much info of the left hand or the right.

Let's not forget it! While it is definitely not one of Austen's best books, I think that it certainly shows Austen's ability for satire and humor.

Yes. You are right. The Tilneys, all of them, are wonderful. And it is the first mention of baseball in a novel! I interviewed a graphic artist who illustrated NA as a graphic novel, and she had some wonderful things to say. It's in the Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Jane Austen.

Do you think, if she hadn't refused the proposal of marriage and had, in fact, married, that she could have written/completed her novels? How much did her circumstances affect her writing?

Well, I know many people do not believe she would have become a novelist if she had married. Also, she probably would have been unhappy, since she didn't, apparently love him. Lots has been written about how circumstances affected her life, but certainly her concern about women in economically fragile situations can be found throughout. She also clearly has complex feelings about mothers (who are usually ineffective in the novels). The hypochondria found in Persuasion and Sanditon--is that a reflection of her mother's complaints or not? Her brothers being in the Navy... all of these are examples of circumstances. But, what she did with all this material and much more is where her genius lies. 

May I recommend Georgette Heyer for those who seek a similar immersion in the Regency world? Well written, fun characters, immaculately researched, and with no jarring 20th jargon to make you wince.

Recommendation accepted. Thanks.

The premise behind this book was that everyone has their own version of Jane Austen. I remember thinking that it was a great idea, but poorly executed in this book (one of the most forgettable books I've ever read). Did you read it? What did you think? (BTW, I'm a freelance editor and Jane Austen's name often comes up on editorial tests: "Jane Austen" vs. "Jane Austin." An educated editor will recognize the misspelling and correct it.)

Actually, I loved the Jane Austen Book Club. I loved what Karen Joy Fowler did with the novels. After I read it, I reread all the novels just to find all the references she placed in her novel. then I reread the JABC to see if I found them all. (I interviewed her for the Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair companion and found her delightful. And found out which references I missed, too). I loved the way genealogy was used in the Persuasion chapter, for instance. It made me wish for the opportunity to sip wine in California on a porch and discuss Emma. Also, the view of the reader who arrives with all six books in one volume. I think both she and the author of the Three Weissman's of Westport have perfected a sort of free indirect style plural form. 

Enjoyed questions and response regarding movies. Gwyneth Paltrow's performance in Emma earned her my "Favorite Living Actress Award." I did also enjoy the newer Emma miniseries put on by the BBC. It begins with a brief look at the three events that affected the lives of three small children: Frank Churchill's removal from his father to live with the Churchills, Jane Fairfax's separation from her aunt and grandmother, and Emma Woodhouse's losing her mother. A nice way to link the three and give important backstory. What did you think of the Emma miniseries?

I never got a chance to finish watching it. I should go back and watch it based on your recommendation. There are a lot of motherless children in Emma!

What exactly is discussed in this publication? The life and works of Jane Austen? It sounds very interesting!

It is part of a series that tries, in a sense, to cover all things Jane Austen. We provide synopses of the novels without giving away the plot. We try to provide background say, on what carraiges were like, or food in Jane Austen, we talk about whether Emma is based on a Midsummer's night dream, we discuss the movies, Austen's experience as a writer, her relationship with publishers, provide a mini-biography. It's a book that provides a way into Austen, general information, and then there's some fun, too! (Why Mr. Bennet married Mrs. Bennet). I wrote this with my son and daughter in law, and my son, a composer, discusses the musical choices for the BBC/A and E 6 hour Pride and Prejudice. I found that fascinating myself! We summarize scholars on a variety of topics. We tried to make it interesting! thanks for the question.

For people wanting historical context, there's a book out there entitled "What Jane Austen Wore and Charles Dickens Ate" (I may have gotten that slightly wrong, but both names are in the title). It gives details of daily life during those periods and sets the context for readers.

Yes, it's the other way around. And it had been criticized for that (that there was a degree of sexism in saying "what Jane Austen ate.") But another way to learn about these novels is to buy an annotated version. On one side of the book is the text and the other side an explanation of any references that the compiler thinks the reader might not know. These are very enjoyable.

Several authors have written "the next chapter" of Jane Austen's books. I believe they include the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy, Georgiana's search for a husband, and Lydia's fate. I liked "P&P and Zombies" and I like modern interpretations (Bridget Jones, etc.) but I just can't embrace straight sequels (though perhaps I should read at least one before dismissing them.) Do you have an opinion of these sorts of books?

Yes, I agree. I just don't trust any writer to take Austen further. though there was one that was really interesting, and recommended by an Austenite when I was visiting Winchester. I believe it is Emma and Knightley, written by a well-respected author. I am not at home so I can't check quickly. I prefer adaptations. I like seeing how other authors trampoline off of Austen, and really, The Three Weissmans of Westport is terrific in its take on Sense and Sensibility. But in general, I avoid sequels.

At the end of P and P: "Jane smiles; I laugh!"

Yes! Elizabeth is wonderful at that moment, as she is throughout the book. 

Ok. Hmm. Maybe I will have to revisit it. I liked the idea, just thought the writing was rather weak.

I guess that's personal taste, I just enjoyed the Austenian framework so much. And the way she made it into a contemporary situation, and the discussions of Austen. Let me know!

In your bio, I see you have been quite an activist for women's rights and reproductive justice and against racism, homelessness, domestic violence, and unfair housing practices. Are you still active in promoting awareness of these issues? How have you fought or promoted them in the past? Thanks!

Wow, probably can't do justice to that here. Just, briefly, founded a hotline for battered women, organized a suit to achieve intregrated housing in upstate New York, volunteer with a homeless day program in Dallas,  and written a book for clergy about appropriate responses to domestic violence. If you go to the minnesota review website, and click on the "feral issue" there is a long interview with me and in it I am asked about my activism.  This might be the link to that issue

1. She drove an ambulance in WWI. 2. She fought bulls in Spain. 3. She climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

1. Gertrude Stein actually did, and her stream of consciousness perhaps is in this lineage of Austen's free indirect speech!

2. Probably a stretch for Austen!

3. Really? Wow.

I am concerned if these myths really exist out in the Google sphere! 

I'd like to thank you all for joining in on this conversation/chat. As Karen Fowler says we each have our own private Jane Austen. We probably each have our own public Jane Austen. Debunking Jane Austen myths helps us with our public Jane Austen, but the best way to have our private Jane Austen is by reading. I'm not evangelizing here, really, just saying, that reading the novels has its own special rewards for each reader.

For me, Jane Austen saves my sanity! Repeatedly.

I am trying to write about that now, just exactly how she did.

Thank you for participating. I know we only skimmed the surface of all things Austen. I also love this website

which can be very helpful. And check website for the Jane Austen Society of North America and see if there is a group near you! the

Thanks again! Carol

In This Chat
Carol Adams
Carol J. Adams is the co-author of The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Jane Austen and The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Frankenstein. She is also the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, now in a 20th anniversary edition. She has been a keynote speaker at academic conferences in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Britain, and Australia. She has also been an activist against domestic violence, racism, and homelessness, and for reproductive justice and fair housing practices. She is immersed in writing her second Jane Austen book and is on the organizing committee for the upcoming Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America that celebrates the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility, to be held in Fort Worth in October.
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