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Against the Grain?

In a scene from the movie Becoming Jane*, Jane Austen meets the best-selling Gothic romance author Ann Radcliffe. Their conversation goes something like this:

“You live so quietly and yet your novels are filled with romance, danger, terror—,” Jane says.

“And you feel my life is not?” Mrs. Radcliffe asks.


“What do you wish to write?”

“Of the heart.”

“Ah! Do you know it?”

“Not all of it.”

“In time you will. Even if that fails, that’s what the imagination’s for.”

“Your imagination has brought you independence.”

“At a cost to myself and to my husband…to have a wife who has a mind is considered not quite proper. To have a wife with a literary reputation—nothing short of scandalous.”

“But it must be possible to live as both wife and author.”

“I think so, though never easy.”

We know little of Austen’s life except that, unlike Radcliffe, she did not marry. Was it a deliberate choice? Or was her creative life making the best of a spinster’s lot? In his article "Jane Austen is Everything" (The Atlantic, September, 2017), Nicholas Dames notes that Austen's writings are remarkably free of autobiographical clues. Of the thousands of letters to her sister Cassandra, only 161 remain (those Cassandra did not destroy), and there is the evidence of her juvenile writing to show that by age 11 she was well on her way to mastering the novel form. Some estimate the value of lifetime earnings from Austen’s writings (mostly self-published) at about $61,000. Her posthumous achievement places her beside Shakespeare. We can’t say what (or whom) she gave up or whether she gave up anything.

Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker article "George Eliot's Ugly Beauty" (September 19, 2013) charts the life and works of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), a woman of unconventional looks and lifestyle. An astounding intellect, the record of her fleshly connections is extensively documented. From 1855, Eliot lived 24 years with a married man and later married one 20 years her junior. In her novel Middlemarch, a town gossip says of the heroine that she couldn’t have been a nice person to have made such matrimonial choices as she did. Of her own real-life elopement with the married George Henry Lewes, Elliot said, “Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire…nor could live for. Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done—they obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner.” For most of its existence, critical reception of the novel was mixed, as were people’s responses to Eliot. Now Middlemarch is considered one of the masterpieces of the form and her then non-conformist life raises few eyebrows.

We know little of Austen and much more about Eliot. Both women wrote of provincial life and explored the complexities of human emotion and motivation. Dames notes that Austen’s appeal is essentially comic and one in which we recognize our democratic hopes. The conclusions of her novels show “spirited, rights-holding individuals living in concord” an equipoise expressed, as in Shakespeare’s comedies, by marriages between those of like mind and heart. In contrast, Mead points out that a long-standing critique of Middlemarch’s heroine is that the man she ultimately marries seems no match for her. Perhaps this is Eliot’s way of illustrating that individual happiness does not require what others recognize as “equality” to bring fulfillment or joy to either party.

A woman who does not marry (her partner), or who remains resolutely single, even celibate; a woman who marries “beneath” her. What do these roles mean today? Are they still against the grain?

*excerpt from Becoming Jane (2007); screenplay developed by Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood; based on Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Hunter Spence (2003).

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