women writers: take heart from Jane Austen

Last week I caught A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy, an amazing exhibit on Jane Austen’s life and work at the Morgan Library. If you are a writer, or an avid reader, and are in New York City between now and March, don’t miss it.

I hope you will find it only a little depressing that Miss Austen died at 41 with five of the greatest novels in the English language to her name. Not that anyone really understood that then. During Austen’s lifetime, the novel was a relatively new form of writing, one often dismissed as not real writing, not worth one’s time. Sound familiar? In this age when any novel by a woman is in danger of being dismissed as “chick lit;” when Publishers Weekly can name its top ten books of 2009 including several books no one has heard of but without including a single female author (like, say, Byatt, or Atwood); and when the New Yorker has Jill Lepore dismissing writing about motherhood, by anyone, as “getting old,” I think we women writers and mommy bloggers can take heart in Jane Austen’s defense to her own contemporary critics. Thanks to The Morgan Library, which prominently posted this selection from Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey:

Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel
to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. Our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior… are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Pen and ink drawing by Isabel Bishop (1902–1988) of a scene from Pride and Prejudice. Taken from Morgan Library’s website.