Monday, January 13, 2014

A Janeite in 1905

Jane Austen and Her Times, 1775-1817, G.E. Mitton

I should point out that G.E. Mitton never used the term "Janeite" in this 1905 study of Jane Austen, though she did refer to her subject as "Jane" throughout.  Instead she labeled herself and other Austen devotées as "Austenites."  Whatever she called herself, she was an enthusiastic and informed reader of Austen's novels, as well as works about her, and the characters of the novels clearly lived in her imagination.  Mitton also wrote as a fellow author, a novelist, as well as a biographer and a travel writer (I particularly like the sound of her 1907 novel, A Bachelor Girl in Burma).

As the title suggests, Mitton's book is both a biography of Jane Austen and an exploration of the times in which she lived.  In the first chapter, she wrote that
beyond a few trifling allusions to her times no writer has thought it necessary to show up the background against which her figure may be seen, or to sketch from contemporary records the environment amid which she developed. Yet surely she is even more wonderful as a product of her times than considered as an isolated figure; therefore the object of this book is to show her among scenes where in she moved, to sketch the men and women to whom she was accustomed, the habits and manners of her class, and the England with which she was familiar.
This is of course a standard approach to biography, but I don't know how ground-breaking it was in 1905, or if the focus on a women writer made Mitton's work unusual. It is certainly the earliest work on Austen that I have come across, other than A Memoir of Jane Austen, written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and published in 1870.  In her study Mitton moved chronologically through Austen's life, discussing the minor works and the novels in order of creation, through chapters focused on her subject's childhood, life in Steventon, the role of the clergy in society, life in Bath, and so on.

Though G.E. Mitton wrote her book less than 90 years after Jane Austen died, she suggested that "the times of Jane Austen are more removed than the mere lapse of years seems to warrant." In support of this she cited the "extraordinary outburst of invention and improvement that took place in the reign of Queen Victoria," in trade, communications, and industry.  Of course, to the 21st-century reader, Mitton's world seems much closer to Austen's than to our own.  Part of the fascination of this book is the sidelights it gives into Mitton's world, such as when she compared the freedom of the "modern" girl, with her tailored suit and bicycle, to girls in Austen's time, hampered by long skirts and unable to venture out alone.  The skirts and corsets of 1905 don't look that much less confining than those of 1805, at least in 2014.  In another place Mitton commented that
There is one custom which we must all be thankful exists no longer, the intolerable fashion of morning calls.  Calls are bad enough now as custom decrees, but we are at least free from the terror of people dropping in upon us before the day's work is begun.
She also noted that Steventon was hard to find, and that the cottage at Chawton where Austen lived for many years was currently occupied by farm workers.  Clearly there were no omnibuses or charabancs full of Austenites arriving in the village at that time.

In the light of changing times and customs, it is interesting to read Mitton's comments on Jane Austen's books.  In her telling, Pride and Prejudice was universally acknowledged the best of the books, with Emma and Persuasion also highly rated.  Northhanger Abbey on the other hand was appreciated only by true Austenites.  Mitton felt that Emma is a more skillful book than Pride and Prejudice, showing Austen's development as a writer, but lacking the sparkle and fun of the earlier book.  Like many modern readers, she thought Mansfield Park the least interesting of the books, mainly because Edward and Fanny are so dull, not to say priggish, though she fully appreciated the awfulness of Aunt Norris.

While Mitton loved Pride and Prejudice, she took serious issue with Darcy, particularly his behavior at the Meryton assembly when he refuses to dance with Elizabeth. "It is inconceivable that any man with the remotest pretension to gentlemanly feeling" should behave that way.  In fact, Mitton went on to argue that Austen, like many women authors, had "an inability to grasp the code belonging to gentlemanly conduct."  This is one of several statements that took me aback, like her assertion that Austen became a pioneer in realistic fiction by accident or instinct, with no idea of what she was doing.  It is clear from the letters that Austen read widely in the fiction of her time, and I believe that she developed her ground-breaking style carefully and deliberately.  The parodies of the juvenalia show that she could write in the prevailing style when she wanted to.

Mitton quotes a great many late 18th century sources in exploring Austen's world, as well as some later contemporaries of her own.  Unfortunately, the book has no bibliography, and I admit I did not take the time to search out all of her references.  (I did note one, Constance Hill's Jane Austen, Her Homes and Her Friends, published in 1902, an e-version of which is now on my Nook.)  Mitton's work draws heavily on the Austen-Leigh Memoir, and also the two-volume edition of Austen's letters published by her great-nephew Lord Brabourne in 1884.  (The son of Austen's beloved niece Fanny, he inherited the bulk of the extant Austen letters.)  For a 21st-century Austenite, both have some drawbacks, which are reflected in Mitton's biography.  There is no reference to her brother George, who may have been mentally or physically disabled, and who was raised in a foster home. Lord Brabourne in editing the letters cut some of the humor and the caustic comments that were probably considered inappropriate for a rector's daughter, like a joke about her niece Cassy having fleas.  He was also sometimes careless in editing.  Mitten quoted an 1808 letter, referring to a "friend's" impending visit, on which she built a complicated theory about the "friend" being a suitor, perhaps someone Austen had come to care about, perhaps her last chance at marriage.  The letter actually refers to the coming visit of some "friends."  I think Mitton's reliance on the Memoir also explains her constant refrain that Jane Austen had a happy life, always contented and cheerful, free from worry and sorrow.  That seems a bit simplistic compared to the more modern biographies I have read.

In the end, this was a very interesting book, both for the information it gives about Britain in the late 18th and early 20th centuries, and for its author's appreciation of Jane Austen.  I had to remind myself that at the time G.E. Mitton was writing this, she could only know Austen's works by reading them, or perhaps by seeing a staged version.  I couldn't help wondering what she would think of the films, and the world-wide "Janeite" phenomenon.  She died in 1955, so maybe she saw the 1940 film, with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.  Her reactions would make an interesting codicil to this book.


  1. You do find wonderful things, Lisa: A Bachelor Girl in Burma! *rushes off to find*
    I like your point about the forms of access Mitton would have had to Austen's works; and, as that bit about the skirts illustrates, one of the joys (and terrors, I guess) of biography is how much it actually reveals about the biographer.

  2. Funny that the author ended up being lured by the remote possibility of a romance in Austen's life. I've seen it often, extrapolations from the tinniest of details that could easily have been nothing. But it's too tempting to resit!

  3. Lisa, have you read Jane's Fame by Claire Harman? I think you'd really like it... I've been listening to it again as an audiobook. She's writing about the Austen-Leigh memoir now so I'm sure she'll talk about this book soon.

  4. vicki, the title page of Bachelor Girl in Burma has "by the author of Bachelor Girl in London" - which sent me rushing off as well, but I haven't found an e-version so far. I'll have to try interlibrary loan.

    Alex, Mitton didn't apparently know about the Biggs-Wither proposal, but she did know about the mysterious man who met JA on holiday but died shortly afterwards. She was very interested in JA's marriage prospects!

    Audrey, I do love Harman's book! In fact, I was just checking it last night, to see if she mentions Mitton - which she doesn't though she does include Constance Hill.

  5. I love to read your Jane Austen posts as I am not a Janeite or an Austenite myself. They always teach me something about the author and her books and give me hope that someday I will want to finish Emma and Mansfield Park and re-read the others. It sounds like she has always been a subject of speculation and interest.

  6. Anbolyn, I do hope you get back to Emma some day, just because it's such fun! I have a few more books about Austen on the TBR stacks (and will probably discover more to add), but it's been too long since I've read some of the books themselves. 2014 is the bicentennial of Mansfield Park, I've just learned.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!