Jane Austen fans rejoiced recently when PBS announced that Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon will get the Masterpiece treatment as a TV miniseries in 2020. That means we have the rest of this year to wait with baited breath! Here are three books Jane Austen-ites should add to their reading lists right now, as appetizers to savor while we await the main course, Sanditon.
A Secret Sisterhood
The newest offering is A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, who co-run Something Rhymed, a site dedicated to celebrating women’s literary relationships. The animating theory of the book is that women writers are not isolated, shut-in feminine geniuses, but creators who have rich and fruitful friendships to rival the well-known male partnerships of Hemingway and Fitzgerald or Wordsworth and Coleridge. In the very first chapter, Midorikawa and Sweeney present amazing original research about Jane Austen and the one-time family governess and furtive playwright, Anne Sharp—or Sharpe, as her name sometimes appears in surviving Austen correspondence.
Miss Sharp was hired by Austen’s wealthy brother Edward in 1803 to teach his daughter, Fanny. Privately, she was also writing plays, but likely finding little time to do so: she had to look after Fanny day and night (literally—as was the custom, the governess and her young charge had to sleep in the same bed). In 1805, records suggest that Edward sent Sharp to Bath, England, to help Austen and her family pack up and move to a cheaper home after the death of her father George and the subsequent loss of his pension. Sharp and Austen were friends ever after, with Sharp invited on vacation with the family. At one point, Austen even helped stage one of Sharp’s plays among the family group.
Austen, for her part, solicited and recorded Sharp’s honest comments on her work—she liked Pride and Prejudice best and Mansfield Park not as much. When her books finally began finding acceptance with publishers, Austen had 12 presentation copies made of Emma, and Sharp was one of the lucky few to receive one, along with “His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent,” to whom the book was dedicated. Not bad company for a governess to be in.
Sharp, in fact, eventually lost her job as governess to Austen’s niece—her frequent illness was given as the reason. But her friendship with Austen remained, so much so that one of the last letters Austen wrote before her death was addressed to “my dearest Anne,” giving her the news of her failing health.
Midorikawa and Sweeney affix a quote from Northanger Abbey as an epigraph to this chapter: “The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know, and I am determined to show them the difference.” A Secret Sisterhood proves to be a fascinating window into the little known relationships of Austen and the other women writers profiled, offering the intriguing suggestion that friendship was key to these women creators.
The Making of Jane Austen
If you’re up for a meaty read, check out The Making of Jane Austen by Arizona State University English professor Devoney Looser. In this scholarly book, Looser takes us on a grand tour of Jane-dom, exploring how our image of Austen and her novels has been shaped by the arts, by politics, and by the classrooms where many readers have their first encounter with her.
We learn that Henry James considered the illustrated Austen books of his time to be trashy and commercialized and the author, over-exposed; we read about how Austen has been adopted as a mascot by diverse political combatants, from the women’s suffrage movement to G.K. Chesterton, who opposed women’s suffrage. Looser convincingly demonstrates that as Pride and Prejudice moved onto stages and screens in the twentieth century, the focus shifted from Elizabeth Bennet’s experiences and self discoveries, to Darcy’s passion for her and his battle to win her over. Thus, in Colin Firth’s portrayal, Darcy famously jumps into a lake to cool himself off after getting worked up over Elizabeth. It’s safe to say that Austen would have been rendered speechless by that scene.
The Making of Jane Austen does suffer somewhat from the common academic preoccupation with straining to find sexual dimensions in Austen where none exist (more on that later). But it’s still a useful read, especially for Austen fans who worry that she might be becoming too “basic” a part of twenty-first century women’s pop culture. This book makes clear that if Austen was going to jump the shark, she would have done so a hundred years ago.
What Matters in Jane Austen?
Best of all, however, is What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan, an Austen expert and U.K.-based English professor. Mullan reveals that Austen’s novels are not just skillfully plotted, romantic, and archly satirical, they are also intricate artistic machines. Austen built her novels like cathedrals, in which every detail is selected with care, a process that required the constant focus of a genius.
For example, in a chapter entitled “What Do the Characters Call Each Other?,” Mullen dives deep into how Austen consistently uses first names, surnames, and nicknames to tell us important information about her characters. She chooses unassuming Anglo-Saxon monikers for her heroines—Elizabeth, Fanny, Anne. She uses imported names with flair like Julia, Maria, Louisa, and Lydia, to denote women with weak personalities. The ultra-romantic Marianne’s name, an outlandishly French selection that stretches out on the page, contrasts as starkly as the character’s personality with her stoic and very English sister Elinor—whose moniker is spelled to be as short as possible.
Elsewhere, Mullen helps unravel the tricky topic of how much income Austen’s characters would really have needed to live comfortably in Regency England and the baffling fact that every character seems to know exactly how much money the others have. Armed with Mullen’s insights, when Mr. Collins asks which of the Bennet sisters he should compliment for cooking a delicious dinner—implying they are too poor to afford a cook—the reader can feel the insult the way Austen’s original audience (and Mrs. Bennet!) would have, instead of feeling vaguely that Elizabeth and Jane Bennet resemble McMansion-dwellers in Beverly Hills who don’t know how to use a microwave.
What Matters is most refreshing when it turns to the topic of sex. Mullen calls out the pop culture re-visionaries and academics, who relentlessly search for sex in places where Austen didn’t put any. Extramarital and premarital relationships are often keys to the plot in Austenland, but the author didn’t contemplate such activities for her heroines. And she ends her books with the wedding day, not the wedding night. Sex for Austen was a fact, but not a main focus, a reality that modern takes on her work often fail to appreciate.
Beyond sexual controversy, from the role of the weather to the broader meaning of how characters propose marriage, Mullen’s work is a tour de force that provides even the most dedicated Austen fan with more to think about. Don’t watch Sanditon or re-read your favorite novel, without picking up What Matters In Jane Austen? first.