Jane Austen wrote daily, revised her work, recycled material from unused drafts, negotiated with publishers both directly and through an agent, corrected her proofs, read reviews, made changes for later editions, and kept track of her royalties. In other words, she was a committed professional writer.
This might seem obvious were it not for the energy with which her brother and her nephew tried, in the decades after her death, to promote a very different image – of Austen as a cheery amateur storyteller who dabbled charmingly with no thought of fame or fortune. No doubt they meant well, these Austen men. They wanted to keep the reading public from seeing their beloved relative as ambitious – and thus, in nineteenth-century terms, unwomanly.
But what did Austen herself think of ambition? Did she see it as a vice, a virtue, or something more ambiguous – a human impulse that could be deployed for both good and bad ends?
These were the question opened up most entertainingly this past Saturday by writer and critic Sarah Emsley, who spoke at a luncheon meeting I attended, sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania region of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Emsley argued that while Austen condemns characters like Mary Crawford and Isabella Thorpe for aspiring to raise themselves through mercenary marriages, she rewards those characters who hold quieter, more modest ambitions – people like Edward Ferrars and Elizabeth Bennet, who aim primarily to achieve their own vision of love and happiness.
Along the way, Emsley considered Christian, Aristotelian and Johnsonian definitions of ambition; touched on the reasons that ambition has traditionally inspired mixed feelings; and noted the ambitions that Austen arouses in her readers, including a desire to read more deeply and to think more carefully about how to live their lives.
Emsley says her ideas remain a work in progress, but she’s off to a good start. I look forward to seeing her intellectual ambitions rewarded with publication (along with love and happiness, of course).