So You Think You Know Jane

Or, maybe you don’t. When I read Carol J. Adams’s article in The Washington Post I discovered a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about Jane Austen. I also found out that some of the things known about the author are actually not true.

Here are the five Austen myths that Adams busts:

1) Jane Austen led an uneventful life.
Only true if you call accepting a proposal of marriage and retracting that acceptance the next day, living next door to a sadist-necrophiliac, and seeing your aunt charged with grand larceny as uneventful.

2) Austen novels are chick lit.
Her readers Tennyson, Churchill, Kipling, Amis, Davies, and Twain would disagree.

3) She didn’t take her writing seriously.
She had an extensive revision system, critiqued other writers work, experimented with different forms of the novel, and negotiated the publishing deal for Emma when her brother Henry was ill.

4) Her books are escapist fiction.
Only if you like to escape into “the crisis of poverty and downward mobility (Miss Bates in Emma), the slave trade and emotional abuse of a child (Mansfield Park), disinheritance and parental manipulation (Sense and Sensibility), Britain’s near-constant state of war (Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion), unwanted pregnancies, and men who practice a double standard in relationships — references that sound ripped from the headlines of today.”

5) For all her popularity, Austen’s literary influence was limited.
If by limited you mean being credited by creating the modern novel through her usage of “subtle characterizations, social irony and beautiful architecture,” inventing free indirect speech, and writing the most paraphrased sentence in English literature (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”), then yes, her influence was limited.

For more Jane Austen myth busting by Carol J. Adams, read this chat transcript of a live Q&A that took place this past Tuesday.

Austen means a lot to me both as a reader and a writer. There are so few women writers in literary history and Austen’s tenacity and success is inspiring and humbling.  My favorite book of hers is Persuasion, because of the main character Anne Elliot. Although her protagonist is very quiet and unobtrusive, Austen creates great tension in the novel and provides fantastic social commentary through Anne.  Something I’d like to be able to do in my own writing.

What’s your favorite Austen novel and why?


  • Brett says:

    I like Sense and Sensibility, myself.

    With that said, I’m pretty sure Twain hated Austen and may have described her as chick lit, if the term had existed.

    Here’s a bevy of anti-Jane Austen quotes by Twain (stolen from

    I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
    – Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898

    To me his prose is unreadable — like Jane Austin’s [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.
    – Letter to W. D. Howells, 18 January 1909

    Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.
    – Following the Equator

    • I think you’re right in that Twain thought of Austen as trivial, but as Adams points out: for Twain to have as many opinions on and quotes from Austen’s prose, he must have been a return reader.

  • Cathie says:

    Fun post! I get all scrunchy faced in anger when people say they can’t stand Jane Austen – it seems so shortsighted.
    I love Emma – her character is so honest and flawed and relatable. Her naivety feels so real and I love watching her growth.

    • Laura says:

      I think Emma’s my favorite, too.

    • One of my pet peeves is people not giving Austen a try because “they can’t relate” or “her prose is just not their thing.” If I had to list all the male writers I couldn’t relate to or comprehend their prose but still had to read because they contributed to literature is some way, it would take weeks and weeks.

  • Laura says:

    All I can say is thank you for using a picture of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Ever since that Keira Knightley version came out I’ve met too many ladies who don’t seem to know he ever played the part (and that no one could match him–ever!)
    And now I’m probably about to get argued with, but I hold to my opinion.
    As for Jane Austen, I’ve tried to read her seriously and I know there are lots of chunks of social commentary in there, but mostly she appeals to the kid in me who used to dress up and pretend to be Jo March–her work makes me want to wear a lovely dress and take a stroll in a garden.

  • tanya.debuff says:

    Pride and Prejudice, definitely. And I heart the BBC version movie but am also enamored of Colin Firth as Darcy. And what’s not to like? I mean, you just don’t mess with Elizabeth Bennett. She’s whip-smart, and if her dress gets dirty, well who the fuck cares. Gotta love that. Sense and Sensibility is really great too.

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