Jane Austen told both her nephew and the Prince Regent’s librarian that she lacked the knowledge and ability to write about the big world. She worked in miniatures, she said, “two inches wide, on which I … produce little effect after much labor.”
Indirectly seconding her, Sir Walter Scott wrote: “That young lady has a talent for describing … ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but [I lack her] exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting.”
Austen’s phrase refers to small ivory figurines that were painted with a very fine brush to resemble a particular person. Like the portrait Capt. Benwick repurposes for Louisa in “Persuasion,” the small ivory pieces would be kept as a keepsake of a person. The contrast is that Austen did small things very carefully, while Scott did sweeping epics—“the big bow-wow.”
Austen’s comments to the librarian, James Stanier Clarke, were an effort to discourage his unwelcome suggestions for future novels. Her playful remarks to her nephew may have been more in the way of a writer superstitiously playing down what might be her next move.
At this time Austen was at her peak as a novelist. She had also exhausted just about every variant possible of the poor country girl seeking love and security—plus, of course, the opposites in Emma and the early villainess, Lady Susan. Do we really think the author of books as varied and complex as “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” and “Persuasion” would have kept doing the same-old, same-old?
Had she lived into her 70s or beyond, as most of her siblings, Austen must have stretched well beyond her two inches of ivory. Her last effort, “Sanditon,” of which we have barely sixty-four pages, is the story of a developer who seeks to turn a sleepy fishing village into a seaside tourist trap—a modern business treatise!
And it was to include Miss Lambe, a wealthy, 17-year-old “half mulatto” from the West Indies. It’s possible that the girl would have stayed in the background, an exotic curiosity, while the main plot revolved around which of the several bachelors would prove worthy of Charlotte. In Austen’s other novels, controversial issues such as premarital sex glide by, barely onstage, enough to raise awareness but not enough to generate outrage. The conventions of the day required her to address delicate issues obliquely.
In “Sanditon,” though, the setup implies that Austen envisioned a significant role for the girl, who was not only rich but “always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.”
The young lady’s wealth overwhelms any bias against her ethnic background or parentage: Lady Denham immediately calls on Mrs. Griffiths to arrange an introduction for her nephew Sir Edward. Perhaps the hope is that the sickly girl will not long survive marriage and Sir Edward will quickly inherit. Verily, the Lambe will be led to slaughter.
Would Austen have inserted a “half mulatto” into the main thread of the plot for her conservative white audience? Would Miss Lambe become the Harriet to Charlotte’s Emma—a major if secondary character whose happiness becomes as much of a concern to any sympathetic reader as the heroine’s own? Could Miss Lambe have ended up the heroine? One hopes something strikingly out of the ordinary would happen.
My instincts say that “Sanditon” would have pushed boundaries, that Austen was planning to go where she had not gone before—perhaps in a direction yet unseen in English novels. This could occur only beyond the norms of the country village.
The Regency era was a time of intellectual foment, of a long and exhausting war, of political dissent and labor unrest—insurrections, mutinies, and food riots were as common as a Box Hill picnic. I have always been intrigued by how Austen might have handled such a grand canvas.
The twenty-year-long battle to end the slave trade culminated in victory in 1807, as Austen reached her stride as a novelist. Her letters show an admiration for Thomas Clarkson, who devoted his life to the cause of abolition. What if she had been in a position to take slavery on directly, rather than through passing references?
These are the questions that brought me into the Austenian fold. My trilogy, The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, is an effort to determine how a spirited, intelligent woman of the early 1800s would respond when engaged on a grander scale—doing “the big bow-wow,” to use Scott’s peculiar phrase.
Though the first novel in the trilogy opens with a dance in Bath, it’s a feint. The more important scene comes the next day—an actual historical incident that was part of the technological revolution. The event enables my heroine to take charge of her life and soar in a new direction.
It was only a matter of time, in my view, before Austen engaged fully as a writer in the full-sized rather than miniature version of the Regency era. That was just the problem. Lost to the world before her forty-second birthday, she never had the time.
What I bring to fiction, and to Austen Authors, is an effort to try to imagine how she would have painted a big canvas, how she would have grappled with issues that would have tested her as a person and a writer. I hope the approach may bring a new perspective to a woman whose brother Henry celebrated for “the extraordinary endowments of her mind.”
This background is also why I’m excited to visit Bath again this week. My first trip, in 2006, led me to write this fictional biography of Austen. I was enormously affected by retracing the steps of Catherine and Anne and others of her characters.
A decade later, I’m returning there, to the Jane Austen Festival, to launch the second volume of the trilogy that grew out of the first journey.
My travel may delay responses to any comments, but I will do my best to reply in real time.
For more information about Collins Hemingway and his novels,
click over to his Author Page: Collins Hemingway