By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 30 2020 01:00PM
Fifty-fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
Some years ago, as I was finishing up Among the Janeites, I decided to include an appendix summarizing the plots of Jane Austen’s novels, so that readers who were rusty on the details wouldn’t be lost when I referred to specifics.
As I boiled Austen’s brilliant creations down to their bare bones -- meetings, flirtations, dances, proposals, marriages – I came to a realization: It’s not about the plots. Austen’s genius lies not in what happens but in how it happens, and who it happens to.
It’s an obvious point, but one that seems lost on those readers who complain that nothing happens in Austen’s novels -- or at least nothing important, like war and politics and economic change. For these readers, novels are all about plot, and plot is all about incident.
Curiously enough, it seems that Austen herself was sometimes susceptible to this misunderstanding. Or so we might conclude from the letter she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 209 years ago today (#72 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), in which Austen discusses her efforts to obtain a copy of the hot novel du jour: Mary Brunton’s Self-Control, whose first edition had sold out soon after publication two months earlier.
“We have tried to get Self-controul, but in vain,” Austen wrote from London, where she was staying with her older brother Henry. “I should like to know what her Estimate is—but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever--& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled.”
To us, it’s unthinkable that Austen could ever have feared being eclipsed by a writer as obscure as Brunton is today – especially since we know that it’s Austen’s unforgettable characters and incomparable prose, not some easily cribbed storyline, that make her so extraordinary. Still, there’s something appealing, and perhaps a little bit sad, about this glimpse of Austen’s insecurity. Even the Immortal Jane suffered from the self-doubt that is every writer’s portion! The genius was human after all!
Two years later, by contrast, Austen no longer felt intimidated by Brunton’s success: in an October 1813 letter, Austen describes Self-Control – whose plot is a luridly melodramatic affair climaxing in a desperate escape via Indian canoe -- as “an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.”
Why the new self-confidence? Austen’s work was just as brilliant as it had been two years earlier, but everything else had changed in the meantime. In April of 1811, Austen was an unpublished scribbler who wouldn’t see her first book into print for another six months. By October of 1813, she had sent two successful novels out into the world and was finishing up a third. By then, she must have known that it wasn’t about the plots.