By Deborah Yaffe, May 11 2017 01:00PM
In Austen studies, originality is hard to come by. The primary sources – novels, letters, family reminiscences, unfinished work – are relatively sparse, and everyone from amateur enthusiasts to dedicated scholars has pored over them for a century or more. Austen criticism crams the shelves of every academic library, and some two dozen biographers have done their best to recreate Austen’s life and times. Read a few of these Lives of Jane Austen and you’ll soon feel a creeping sense of familiarity.
In that context, it’s hard to know quite what to make of a plagiarism kerfuffle that the British press has ginned up this week.
In one corner: Paula Byrne, author of the well-regarded 2013 biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. In the opposite corner: Lucy Worsley, author of the new biography Jane Austen At Home, due out next week in the UK and this summer in the US.
In an unsigned article in its May 5-18 issue, headlined “Playing fast and Lucy,” Private Eye, a venerable British bi-monthly magazine that combines satire, commentary and journalism, accused Worsley of “unacknowledged borrowing” of Byrne’s phrasing and ideas – enough to give readers of the earlier work “a distinct sense of déjà-lu.”
Around the same time – the chronology is murky -- Byrne withdrew a review of Worsley’s book that she had written on commission for the London Sunday Times. In an interview with the newspaper, published May 7, she endorsed Private Eye’s take. “Lucy is very good at picking up stuff,” Byrne told the Sunday Times. “But I could not find any original research other than her adoption of the idea, even if most think it is bollocks, that Austen died of arsenic poisoning.”
At least two other British papers – first the Mail on Sunday and then the daily Times, the Sunday Times’ sister publication – leaped into the fray. (Inevitably, they both went with the headline “Pride and plagiarism.”)
Byrne isn’t saying more; on her website, she’s posted a no-comment paragraph calling the controversy “a bit of a storm in a fine china teacup, perhaps with cake.” On her website, Worsley defends herself in two somewhat contradictory ways: first, by saying the parallels between her book and Byrne’s “would appear in any up-to-date, well-researched biography of Jane Austen” and second, by calling her own book “fresh, current, and shaped by the most recent scholarly debate.”
So how strong is Private Eye’s evidence for plagiarism? To my mind – a mind that enjoyed Byrne's book but hasn’t yet read Worsley’s -- kinda meh. It’s hardly unusual for an Austen biographer to point out that Jane Austen grew up in a houseful of boys, that her family had ties to India and revolutionary France, or that she may have based Persuasion’s Captain Harville on her sailor brother Frank. And surely any author influenced by feminism would argue, as do both Byrne and Worsley, that Austen passed up the marital chances that came her way because her writing was too important to give up.
On the other hand, Worsley probably should have footnoted Byrne’s observation that important Austen scenes often take place outdoors, as well as Byrne’s argument-cum-informed-speculation that Cassandra Austen’s portrait of her bonneted sister, seen from behind, may show Jane Austen gazing out to sea. Still, neither of these insights strikes me as so earthshattering that to leave it unattributed smacks of brazen theft.
The contretemps is strangely reminiscent of an earlier Austen plagiarism brouhaha, which also – perhaps not coincidentally, given the British press’ fondness for the Catfight Motif -- pitted two female Austen scholars against each other: In 2009, the Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland suggested that her one-time student, biographer Claire Harman, had improperly lifted ideas from Sutherland’s 2004 academic study Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood and used them in her own then-forthcoming book Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World.
The contours of the Sutherland-Harman fight were somewhat different: Sutherland is an academic who, Harman suggested, was lashing out unfairly because she envied the wider audience that a popular biography could garner. By contrast, the current dispute is between two popularizers: Byrne, like Harman, is a full-time writer with several other general-interest biographies to her credit, and Worsley, though she holds a history doctorate, is best known as that quintessentially British creature, a “TV historian.” (Worsley, the curator of several of the UK’s most famous palaces, likes to appear on screen in period dress.)
For a snarky journalist type like me, perhaps the most interesting question raised by the new conflict is this: Who put Private Eye onto this story? Surely only the most devoted Paula Byrne reader – or, as a White House reporter might put it, a source very close to Paula Byrne -- would remember unprompted that she, like Worsley, had called Jane Austen’s letters “a treasure-trove” or that both writers had quoted the same Virginia Woolf comment on Austen’s juvenilia. Is it curious that the day before she told the Sunday Times that she had read and reviewed Worsley’s book, Byrne apparently told the Mail on Sunday that she hadn’t read it and would wait to do so before commenting on Private Eye’s claims?
Who knows? I certainly don’t. Perhaps the Mail on Sunday misquoted Byrne. Perhaps the similarities between the two books have been publishing-industry gossip for months. Perhaps Private Eye, which feuded with Worsley over attribution issues in an earlier book and TV series of hers, set out to examine her new book with a literary microscope.
Will the conflict hurt Worsley’s sales? Again, hard to say. For the umpteenth Jane Austen biography, maybe there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Ho hum. Me, I'm rather lukewarm on both these authors. The Austen book I'm really looking forward to reading this summer is Devoney Looser's.
Which I was lucky enough to read already, since I got to blurb it! It's great fun -- I recommend it.