When I visited the Jane Austen’s house in Chawton a couple years ago, I remember learning the story of Austen writing in the parlor and listening alertly for the sound of a creaking door in the front of the house. It would alert her to the presence of visitors so that she could hide her writing from judgmental eyes.
However, in a July 2017 New York Times article, Devoney Looser, a professor at Arizona State University, casts doubt on the accuracy of this account, which was based on a memoir about Austen written fifty years after her death by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. Looser notes that there are no contemporaneous accounts of Austen concealing her writing and that her family was aware of her activities and supportive of them.
On the contrary, Looser, points out, Austen’s authorship was something of an open secret among her acquaintances and evidence from her letters suggests she was not a reluctant or shy author. In fact, her letters show her to be rather bold and opinionated—not at all a shrinking violet.
So how did she acquire a reputation for being shy and ashamed of her work—the Emily Dickinson of Chawton, England? She did publish anonymously, but that was a common practice for both men and women writers at the time. Certainly, it was considered a rather immodest act for a woman to publish a book, and, as a genre, novels often had a somewhat lurid reputation. But did Austen subscribe to these ideas? Did she really feel shame at writing and publishing her works? Looser is suggesting that these feelings were projected on her (backward in time) by Austen-Leigh and other relatives who—although they themselves may have been proud of her achievements—expected her to exhibit the traditional feminine reluctance and diffidence about moving outside of the private realm.
As Looser points out, such assumptions are worth re-examining. Austen’s writing itself demonstrates that she did not subscribe to traditional views of proper female behavior, and she was well aware of unfair inequalities between men and women in her time period. If she had been all that concerned with propriety, Austen would have—no doubt—gotten married (we know she had at least one offer) and led the life of a traditional women. Instead, she remained single and doggedly pursued (and published) her writing.
She was unconventional in many ways. Why would she necessarily be conventional in her desire to reveal her writing? So, it’s an interesting question. Are these accounts of her concealing her writing an attempt by her family and others to put her into a more traditional feminine box? Do they reflect the kind of behavior that is expected from women—projected on to Austen—more than the forward thinking that her life and work portrayed?
We may never know the complete truth of such accounts, but I do think it is important to examine our own expectations of her. She violated many norms of proper female behavior for her time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she was ashamed of it. We need to let Jane be Jane.