Persuasions #10, 1988                                                                                                            Pages 127-133


In Search of Jane Austen



Park Ridge, Illinois


Most of us suffer from what has been called, vividly if rather inelegantly, “the itch for personally knowing authors,”1 especially the authors we love.  For some reason, this seems particularly true regarding great novelists: it is almost as though, when a writer is capable of making us free citizens of a believable, palpable world, we conclude that it must be but a short step to find the creator of that world.  We try to get at living authors through interviews and other forms of verbal assault – thinking that if we can only strike the vulnerable place, the real person will somehow be revealed.

When we are deeply interested in a writer from a time and place far removed from our own, we must work even harder to get to know her – as the many approaches to “Jane Austen’s England” presented at the 1988 AGM in Chicago demonstrated.  This particular form of time-travel is, in fact, part of the fun of being an Austen addict at this point in history, and we all enjoy playing the literary detective.

Like the cult of personality, the sense of historical period is essentially a modern phenomenon.  As good moderns, we know that we must investigate the language and culture, the morals and mores, of an earlier period in order to begin to understand its art.  Without demanding that we ever find its model in the “real” world, we must have some idea of what Pemberley was, or is, if we are to appreciate its stunning effect on Elizabeth Bennet or its significance for her creator.  So, too, for the endlessly fascinating quizzes and Rumfords, curricles and phaetons that fill Jane Austen’s world.

We cannot understand the novels of Jane Austen, even on the most literal narrative level, if we do not know what she means by these words, or if we do not understand where her characters are going when they go into “the shrubbery.”  That we already “know” many of these words only makes the task of reading more dangerous, because it seems that the author is speaking our language, when often, she is not.  Jane Austen and her twentieth century readers are not the first people to have been separated by a common language.

Since language shapes our sense of experience, we get a glimpse of Jane Austen when we learn that she called the midday meal “noonshine”– a word that seems somehow just bright and homely and plain enough – or that she was once tormented by a “nidgetty” cap (Letters, 195, 37).  I especially like the second word, which the OED credits to the novelist’s letters.  I find there are so many “nidgetty” things in my life.

While conceding its considerable distance from all of us, I am still surprised at just how remote Jane Austen’s world is from some modern-day readers, however.  Last year, at the end of a class discussion about Georgian architecture and design, one bright-eyed young woman asked, “By the way, what exactly is mahogany?”  I would never expect twentieth century Americans to know a barouche from a baronet, but this particular “picture of intellectual poverty” (Northanger Abbey, 79) was beyond even my wildest imaginings.  Sometimes, it seems as though all of Western civilization must be recreated before taking up any writer with a group of recent high school graduates.  What has brought us to this pass?  If a middle class girl on the threshold of adulthood considers mahogany an arcane reference, what terms can be taken for granted?  And yet, such questions are one of the ways we learn: they tell us precisely what cannot be taken for granted, what we must reconsider.

One of the terms that literary people may invoke without question is “Jane Austen’s England,” but what exactly is that?  Like legions of Austenians, I have searched for it far and wide, in diverse moods and modes.  I want to reconsider what I have discovered in my rambles in search of Jane Austen, about the hints and guesses I have caught along the way.  I am sure that others have been more successful in this endeavour than I, for often it has seemed that the whole world was in a conspiracy to keep me from finding her.

I cannot say when I started on this quest.  “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot ... or the words, which laid the foundation.”  Indeed, looking back now, I realize that “I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun” (Pride and Prejudice, 380).  It is a good thing that I began early, however, considering my luck.

A characteristic effort was the day I went to the National Portrait Gallery to see Cassandra Austen’s drawing of her sister.  An innocent enough intention, one would think – something easily accomplished by millions.  Yet, on the day I chose, in the picture’s place there hung only a small sign bearing those most dreaded of words, “In Conservation.”  Whenever I travel, it often strikes me that the entire world is, like the Musgroves, in a constant “state of alteration, perhaps of improvement” (Persuasion, 40), but this was a hard blow indeed.  If I were discussing literature and not life, I would say that my not finding that picture of Jane Austen was somehow emblematic of my entire quest for this elusive figure – as suggestive, in its way, as the tantalizing image in the well-loved watercolour, also by her sister, which shows the writer just as she has turned away from view.  Is there any other famous picture of a famous person in which the main subject is viewed from the back?2

Sometimes, when a subject is so elusive, the most effective strategy may be not to look for anything at all.  (Or, as novels tend to tell us, to expect only to find something other than what we thought we were looking for.)  A few years ago, when I was reading some unpublished Sayers papers at the British Library, I happened to walk past a display case that caught my eye.  Of all the exhibits I could have noticed, this one contained the manuscript of the original last two chapters of Persuasion.  This prosaic case began speaking to me with all the power that “immense heavy chest” had for Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey, 163), and its contents sent out one insistent signal: “READ ME.”

If one considers the likelihood of this happening, of my actually noticing, in that enormous barn of a building, anything other than what I was ostensibly looking for, it becomes clear that even if I had not been looking for Jane Austen, Jane Austen had been looking for me.  Perhaps I “had been born to an extraordinary fate” (Sense and Sensibility, 378).

Every day, on my way back into the subterranean atmosphere of the manuscript reading room, my “delicious consciousness” (Persuasion, 246) of this tantalizing prospect became more acute.  Promising myself not to touch it until I had finished my proper job, I requested it for my last day in London.  When I arrived that morning, in a “state of schemes, and hopes, and connivance” (Emma, 343), I saw that the case was empty.  Only a tiny yellowed slip of paper, bearing the legend “In the hands of a reader,” lay inside.  (Oh, the English, with their interminable bits of paper!)

My own hands feeling fairly empty, I entered the manuscript room, and saw – to my horror – that no book lay on my desk.  “With all the wonderful velocity of [what passes for] thought” (Emma, 430) in my disordered brain, I concluded that the idiots had given my manuscript to someone else!  Since I was properly brought up and have a well-developed sense of guilt, I immediately acknowledged that this was only right; I was not supposed to be dawdling around with Jane Austen just then, anyway.

Creeping abjectly over to my desk, I spied yet another slip of paper – but this one carried a magical message: “Your exhibited manuscript is with the Keeper.”  Trying to suppress the considerable “flutter of pleasure” (Emma, 426) that such a missive would cause in any right-minded person, I shot across the room and took into hand what R.W. Chapman has called “this precious fragment.”3

With “a total inattention to stops” (Northanger Abbey, 27), I spent the rest of the day scrutinizing those tiny sheets – not the metaphoric two inches of ivory, but the actual pieces of paper, just six inches long by three and five-eighths inches in width, on which the artist strove to get her last novel’s ending right.  The close, sepia-toned scrawl covering those sheets seemed somehow so fitting for this tidy, disciplined, frugal artist – and for the deliberately small compass of her fictional world.  It was almost as though the paper on which the novel was written was a material expression of the tight boundaries of the novelist’s world.  Thanks to the Jane Austen Library, which published a facsimile of this fragment in 1985, readers no longer have to go to London to study the manuscript, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to catch a glimpse of the writer at work.4

I had to tell someone about my coup, of course, so I wrote to the only genuine Janeite I knew at the time, saying “I had held in my hands” – notice my debt to the dreaded sign-maker’s diction – a manuscript from one of Jane Austen’s novels.  By return air post, came her terse, unforgettable response: “Don’t wash your hands!”

Buoyed by this success, the next time I was up at the Bodleian, I requested some of Jane Austen’s letters, as well as her personal copy of Camilla, which according to the catalogue, had a note pencilled in it.  This was exciting indeed – a chance to see Jane Austen contemplating Fanny Burney.  It was exciting, at least, until the book came, and I found that I could not quite make out what the note said.  Whenever I work with manuscript material, I become irrationally convinced that it is only those lines which cannot be made out that are really important, and I was sure that some vital clue in the mystery of Jane Austen was locked in that brief passage.

People often say that Jane Austen would be surprised to see the intense academic and popular interest in her novels today, but I think she would be even more shocked by the sight of a woman – any woman certainly, but perhaps even more so, a colonial female – working in the inner sanctum of Duke Humphrey’s Library.  Even with all her quickness, I do not think the novelist could have ever foreseen such a spectacle.

As long as I was at Oxford, I decided to have a look at Chapman’s transcript of the manuscript of Sanditon.  This is not my favourite text – not something I would make a special trip to see, certainly, but in reading it, I caught the sound of Jane Austen clearing her throat, as it were, while she worked on revisions.  It is interesting to hear her changing a line which was originally drafted as “a spirit which we admire” to the more felicitous and characteristic, “a spirit truly admirable,” or working through the hesitations of a passage like “She is much worse than I expected – meaner – a great deal meaner – she is very mean” until settling into the distinctive cadence: “She is thoroughly mean.  I had not expected anything so bad.”5

Thus, in the search for Jane Austen, we find hints and guesses, hints and guesses – often when we least expect to.

We automatically associate the city of Bath with the author of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but I had been there several times before I felt I had seen it as she saw it.  I had gone up from London with a friend who was particularly keen about seeing the restored Roman baths.  That interest was quickly satisfied, however, and soon we found ourselves ambling around town on a brightly sunlit afternoon, nodding to the very streets and buildings known to Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, spreading, I am sure, “purification and perfume all the way” (Persuasion, 192).  Suddenly, the phrase “the white glare of Bath” (Persuasion, 33) came to mind, and the words seemed as right as the proportions of the Georgian buildings shining relentlessly in the sun.

Remembering that we could take afternoon tea in the Pump Room, we decided this was a good excuse for taking cover from the rare English sun – and surely, I thought, there would be some good Austenian vibrations in the Pump Room.  I knew that I was in trouble as soon as the string quartet started playing.  Their programme that day consisted of some particularly maudlin late nineteenth century music.  This was absolutely insupportable: “I had not expected anything so bad.”  Whatever Jane Austen’s England is, it is not that.

Obviously, they had geared the music to the food, not the place – or at least, my idea of the place.  Not unlike eating a succession of treacle tarts, listening to such music makes me “sick and wicked” (Letters, 486) and I started to laugh, or rather, to try not to laugh – a fatal choice.  Thinking, as I was, of the twittering Isabella Thorpe, and of poor Mrs. Allen, who feared her hair had been “hurt” by a “push” (Northanger Abbey, 22), did nothing to help me regain my composure.  A little boy nearby, noticing what the combination of hay fever and hysterics was doing to me, asked his mother, “Why is that lady crying?” and that finished me off.  “With what happy feelings of escape” (Letters, 208) did I flee Bath on that hot August day.

Without really thinking about it, Jane Austen’s house at Chawton was the very first place I visited on my first trip to England.  Perhaps the fact that I did not belabour this choice is the most telling detail of all, and there is certainly something of her in that house, in its cool, comfortable, unassuming rooms.  Surely they are part of her England, those rooms where she crafted some of the greatest English prose, where she “lop’t and crop’t” (Letters, 298) and sent it out into the world.  We often visit writers’ birthplaces, but it is less common, and more provocative, to be able to walk through the rooms where the work of their maturity was done.  As those who have been to Chawton know, there is a curious ineffable pleasure about being in that place, recalling the well-loved lines and scenes and characters that were shaped and reshaped there.  The very walls seem to vibrate with their luminous lives.

I remember, on one trip to Chawton, standing in the late afternoon light, at the window near the small table where Jane Austen is reputed to have written, wondering what she had seen when she looked through that window, wondering what she would think now, if she could see this strange apparition peering out of it.  I remember feeling embarrassed, even impudent, as I stepped over the threshold into her bedroom – it seemed somehow a slightly indecorous thing to do.  What would she think, this most private of women, about all of these foreigners traipsing through her home?  She, who had asked so long ago, “What has become of all the Shyness in the world?”  (Letters, 178).  Could she possibly understand what had brought me here?  Could I?  And I remember feeling something I had no name for until much later.  Now I would call it “gratitude” – gratitude not only for the preservation of this place, but for all that had made it worth preserving.

I have always felt that I caught a drift of Jane Austen as I moved through that house, ascending its narrow staircase, taking a turn in the garden, walking round in back and finding her little donkey cart sitting in the shed, almost as though she has just left it.

I think I was close, too, in Winchester – not so much in College Street, where she spent her last days, nor in the ancient cathedral which holds her bones, but on a busy commercial thoroughfare, where I had gone on an errand and stopped to look in the window of a newspaper office.  The newspaper was displaying a number of old issues under a banner which boasted of “Serving County Families for Over Two Hundred Years.”  (Ah, yes, I thought; I know some of those families so well.)  Superimposed over the fading pictures of generations of Hampshire life were the fleeting images, reflected in the glass, of the people of Winchester today, going about their business on an ordinary afternoon, quite unaware that they were being observed at all, or that they, too, would one day be relegated to the category of “period” figures by people as yet unborn.  In the kaleidoscopic image in that window, I think we catch a glimpse of the vibrant world, pulsing with life, that is the novelist’s territory.  This kind of perception is what Dorothy L. Sayers means when she insists on our having a sense of the contemporaneous quality of the past, or the ability to comprehend a great artist, from whatever period, in the eternal present of creation.6

In a lovely little book called 84 Charing Cross Road, the American scriptwriter Helene Hanff examines her own irrational, insatiable desire to see the England she had read about: “I dreamed about it for so many years.  I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets.  I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for.  I said I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said: ‘It’s there.’ ”7

Although it may be increasingly difficult to find, many of us still go to England looking for the England of English literature – and to most lovers of the English novel, that also means Jane Austen’s England.  And yet, the question persists: where is that?

I could never put it on a map, but I did see it, at least once.  It was on what Jane Austen would have called a fine day, and I was riding on the boat train from Dublin to London, my head buried, as usual, in a book.  I remember looking up for a second, just as the train slipped down into a verdant valley.  In that instant, the creaking train, the noisy passengers, even the streaked window next to me melted away – and there it was, something I had seen before only in my mind’s eye: “a sweet view – sweet to the eye and the mind.  English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive” (Emma, 360).  I cannot say even what county we were in, but I know that, to me, that was Jane Austen’s England, the England of English literature – the England of memory and desire.  It became hers when she put it into words, when she loved it into being – and it is ours so long as readers read and remember.  It was born of a capacious mind and is endlessly enlarged by each mind open to it.  It is here, in this room, today.

As Eudora Welty has said of the nagging desire to find Jane Austen: “The reader is the only traveler.  It is not her world or her time, but her art, that is approachable, today or tomorrow.  The novels in their radiance are a destination.”8  And that is a journey I shall make again and again.

Realizing that many in my audience suffer highly refined sensibilities and should therefore taste poetry – especially great poetry – very sparingly, I have not pitched this piece in the sublime mode befitting its subject.  I do, however, offer the following extract, which could just as easily serve as epigraph to this little history of my unending search for Jane Austen.



The Inscrutable, Ineluctable Jane


There once was a spinster from Hampshire,

Who proved quite elusive of capture –

She gave chase to the beaux,

As she dodged in the prose –

And that was the source of the rapture.





All citations to the works of Jane Austen are to the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, 3rd ed. Ed. R.W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) and Jane Austen’s Letters, 2nd ed. Ed. R.W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).


1 Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 57.


2 Reproduced in colour on the dust jacket of the English edition of Lord David Cecil’s A Portrait of Jane Austen (London: Constable, 1978).


3 The Manuscript Chapters of Persuasion, Ed. R.W. Chapman (London: The Athlone Press, 1985), Preface.


4 See above for publication information.


5 Transcript of “Sanditon” by R.W. Chapman in the Bodleian Library, Oxford: Ms. Eng. misc, c. 122; pp. 14, 36.


6 This is an important tenet of all Sayers’s literary criticism and religious writing.  It is especially notable in her introductions to The Man Born to Be King (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979) and to the Penguin edition of her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.


7 Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road (London: Futura Publications Limited, 1976),p. 91.


8 Eudora Welty, “The Radiance of Jane Austen,” in The Eye of the Story (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 13.

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