Did you know you can buy Jane Austen toothpaste? Or Pride and Prejudice confetti? Or would you prefer an Austen air freshener? I write about odd and interesting Jane Austen merchandise in my Austen Authors blog. Found here.
This is re-posted from my Austen Authors’ blog:
In an earlier blog, I had written about the history of the novel and how Jane Austen played a role. I thought that in today’s post I would address the simple question: what genre of fiction does Austen fit into? But answering that question turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.
I had actually expected the question to be fairly easy to answer. She was a…Well…she wrote like a…Okay, her style was…. The fact is that Austen’s genre is hard to pin down. Today many people would consider her genre to be historical romance, but of course, that category didn’t exist in her day, and her books wouldn’t have been considered historical when she was writing them. The idea of “romantic” doesn’t necessarily fit either. Romantic literature at that time often had to do with prioritizing human emotions and imagination—as well as emphasizing the beauty of nature. It didn’t have the same connotation that it does today: primarily concerning romantic/erotic love between two human beings. Thus Austen’s readers would have considered Wordsworth’s poems, Walter Scott’s novels, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to be examples of romanticism; but they would not necessarily have given that label to most of the novels we consider romances today.
Another label that has been suggested for Austen’s works is comedy of manners, which is exemplified by Restoration comedies or Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Yet, those plays have a brittle humor not demonstrated by Austen’s works and lack her seriousness of purpose. In those works, poking fun at social convention is the primary goal and the happiness of the characters is secondary. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is also called a comedy of manners; and Elizabeth and Darcy sometimes resemble a Regency era Beatrice and Benedick. However, both Much Ado and Austen’s works have more drama and a greater seriousness of purpose than many of the typical comedies of manners—so I would not say it is an entirely accurate description.
Since the novel itself was still a relatively new literary form when Austen was writing, it was still quite malleable and without as many established traditions as older forms. Still, many novels had been written before Austen herself started to write. Many of the novels Austen read were in the “sentimental novel” tradition—which valorizes “fine feeling” and emphasizes scenes of distress and tenderness—and many others were in the gothic tradition—full of crumbling castles, thrilling villains, and trapped heroines. Austen’s novels (particularly Northanger Abbey and Emma) famously poked fun at these genres, but she was not free of their influence either. Her novels do feature women who face distress and tenderness and threats to their virtue or who are trapped by social circumstances, if not by portcullises and moats. So her novels can be said to have elements of these genres while not fully belonging to them.
Austen herself often saw her books fitting into a genre of realism which had a slender yet noble tradition that included Daniel Dafoe (Robinson Crusoe), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), and Samuel Richardson (Pamela). All of these novels were considered to have greater realism—often greater psychological insight—than other novels of the era. Yet, even in this tradition, Austen stands out. These “realistic” novelists tend to pick sensationalistic subjects and larger-than-life characters. Austen described ordinary people in everyday situations: dances, walks in the country, dinners, polite conversation. One critic calls this approach “social realism.”
And there is yet another candidate for Austen’s genre; there is no doubt that her stories are comedies or that that describe romances. So “romantic comedy” seems like an obvious label. Yet Austen’s books don’t exactly follow the familiar formula from today’s romantic comedies. Much of Austen’s comedy, for example, comes from social satire of the people around the hero and heroine, rather than that typical romantic comedy staple: humorous situations that the couple find themselves in. In fact, I find Austen’s use of comedy strikingly specific—as if humor helped to leaven the criticism that Austen, a woman, was aiming at a male-dominated world.
Maybe the answer is that it’s impossible to actually categorize Austen into a specific genre. Perhaps because she started writing when the novel was so new and unformed, Austen’s work doesn’t easily fit into a specific category. Or maybe Austen is so hard to categorize because she’s a genre unto herself.
Darcy’s Honor is available in paperback at Amazon! Here is the link: https://www.amazon.com/Darcys-Honor-Pride-Prejudice-Variation/dp/0997553065/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1492189671&sr=8-2&keywords=darcy%27s+honor
Below is an excerpt from Darcy’s Honor in which Darcy helps Elizabeth down from the back of a horse after encountering her on a road near Longbourn:
She clambered awkwardly down from the saddle and stood on unsteady legs as she smoothed her skirts around her ankles. Her whole body shook. “Are you unharmed, Miss Bennet?” he inquired, running his eyes up and down her form.
She gave a shaky laugh, and Darcy could not help admiring her fortitude. Many women of his acquaintance would have swooned after such an episode. “Yes, I thank you for your timely intervention. I believe the only damage is to my dignity. I assure you that I do not customarily ride a horse like a sack of potatoes.”
Darcy blinked. “Undignified” was not one of the adjectives he had thought to apply to the sight of Elizabeth on the back of a horse, particularly not with so much leg revealed. “Of course. I would imagine you are a far superior rider with a proper sidesaddle.”
She brushed errant strands of hair from her face. “You are very kind to make such an assumption given the display you just witnessed.”
How odd to be discussing Elizabeth’s horsemanship when something was so obviously wrong. How had she acquired a horse, and why was she riding at such speeds?
“On the contrary,” Darcy returned. “It requires great skill to remain atop a strange horse under such circumstances. I am quite impressed.”
She regarded him with narrowed eyes for a moment, as if assessing his sincerity. Finally, she said, “I thank you for the compliment, sir.”
Would she think him impertinent to inquire about the circumstances of her ride? But surely the unusual situation cried out for some kind of explanation. “You were in quite a hurry. Is there an emergency?” he asked.
She glanced over her shoulder at the road behind her. “No, I do not believe so.”
This ambiguous response left Darcy at something of a loss. Why had she ridden so fast if there was no urgency? And why did she watch the road so intently? Finally, he settled on a different but not unrelated line of inquiry. “I did note that you departed the church on foot.”
He had meant his words as a light-hearted jest but cursed himself for a fool when he saw the blood drain from Elizabeth’s face. He cleared his throat. “Does, er, the Longbourn stable boast such a creature?” he asked, knowing full well she had not had sufficient time to reach her home.
“No…” Her face was now quite red. “I…er…that is, I—”
“Borrowed the mount?” he inquired as though a simple explanation would work. He reached out and took her gloved hand in his. “Please be assured, Miss Bennet, I only wish to help.”
Her eyes widened as if she had not expected such an offer from him, although he could not imagine why. But he was then rewarded with a small smile and a slight loosening of the tension in her shoulders. She let out a long breath. “No, indeed. The horse actually is the property of”—she cleared her throat —“Viscount Billington.”
“Billington!” Darcy echoed in surprise, releasing her hand. That was the last name he expected to hear. “He lent you his mount?” Was Darcy wrong in assuming she wished to have no connection with the man?
“He did not precisely loan it to me—” She covered her mouth with her hand. “Although I am quite concerned he could label me a horse thief. I must be sure the beast is returned to him.” She pressed her lips together into a white line. “Perhaps I should not have— Oh, what a terrible tangle I have created!”
Suddenly, the various oddly shaped pieces of the puzzle fell into place. He took a step closer to her. “Billington accosted you on the road?” His voice was a low growl.
She nodded miserably but lifted her chin and met his gaze. “The horse was the only way to escape.”
To Darcy’s own surprise, he began to laugh. “Serves him right! You should keep the animal.”
Elizabeth’s eyes were wide, and her mouth hung open. Darcy could only imagine the expression on Lord Henry’s face when Elizabeth jumped into his horse’s saddle. Darcy laughed even harder.
Her brows drew together. “Did you, perhaps, help Mr. Lehigh finish off the communion wine?”
Thinking of the vicar sobered Darcy, and he shook his head. “Miss Bennet, to be clear, I believe you should be commended. A lady should always have a horse at hand when encountering such a man,” Darcy said.
And here is the synopsis: Elizabeth Bennet is relieved when the difficult Mr. Darcy leaves the area after the Netherfield Ball. But she soon runs afoul of Lord Henry, a Viscount who thinks to force her into marrying him by slandering her name and ruining her reputation. An outcast in Meryton, and even within her own family, Elizabeth has nobody to turn to and nowhere to go.
Darcy successfully resisted Elizabeth’s charms during his visit to Hertfordshire, but when he learns of her imminent ruin, he decides he must propose to save her from disaster. However, Elizabeth is reluctant to tarnish Darcy’s name by association…and the viscount still wants her…
Can Darcy save his honor while also marrying the woman he loves?
I hope you enjoy it!
Here’s the cover for my upcoming novel, Darcy’s Honor, which is available for pre-order on Amazon and Smashwords (and soon at BN.com, Kobo, and Apple). It should be out on April 13 on Amazon and a little later elsewhere.
Also, there’s a cover reveal and giveaway at JustJane1813! http://justjane1813.com/2017/04/05/darcys-honor-by-victoria-kincaid-a-cover-reveal-giveaway/?replytocom=12628#respond
Below is a copy of a blog I wrote for the Austen Authors’ website. Enjoy!
I remember the moment in college when I realized that the novel was a relatively recent writing form. Novels are so dominant today—pushing all other writing formats to the side—that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. But in fact, the ancient Romans and Greeks had plays and poems (some very long epic poems that seem like novels)—as well as various nonfiction forms—but nothing resembling a novel. It wasn’t until the 1700s that we start seeing something that we would consider a novel today; in fact, the very name “novel” suggests that it is a new form of writing.
The ancestors of today’s novel were Elizabethan prose fiction and French heroic romances, which were long narratives about noble characters (the word for novel in many European language is “roman”—suggesting the form’s connection to medieval romances). What distinguishes these genres from novels is that they tend to focus on larger-than-life characters, epic quests, extraordinary heroes, and unbelievable adventures—which often symbolize primal human hopes and fears. Obviously, some novels share some of these characteristics. But what distinguishes the novel from the romance is its realistic treatment of life and manners. Its heroes are men and women like ourselves, and it primarily examines human character in society (certainly a good description of Austen’s work!).
The question of what was the first English novel is the subject of some debate. Some scholars would give that title to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) (followed by his Moll Flanders in 1722). Both are rather episodic narratives stitched together mainly because they happen to one person. However, these central characters are regular people living in a solid and specific a world. Thus Defoe is often credited with being the first writer of “realistic” fiction.
Other scholars would give the title of first English novel to Pamela, an epistolary novel (told through a series of fictional letters) written in 1741 by Samuel Richardson. Pamela often gets the nod because of its psychological depth and careful examination of emotional states.
There are, however, other contenders for the title of first novel. One is Japanese author Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji (1010) which demonstrates an interest in character development and psychological observation. Another claimant is Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1687), a collection of fictional letters by Aphra Behn, who was the first woman in England to earn her living as a writer (she was primarily a playwright). Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-15) is considered an important progenitor of the modern novel.
All of this is to say that the novel was still a relatively new form of writing when Jane Austen came along. It had not been popular or widespread for even a hundred years when Pride and Prejudice was written. By then a lot of novels were being written, many of them with romantic elements and many of them written by women. Although the history of the novel often credits men with earliest examples of the genre, it is important to understand that many female authors (often forgotten today) were also part of the rise of the novel. Jane Austen did not simply spring spontaneously into being; rather, she was writing in the same tradition as Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and other writers like them.
In fact, many scholars would suggest that there is a particular connection between female writers and the novel form. The history of the rise of the novel also parallels in some ways the rise of the female author. The advent of the novel made possible the publication and popularity of the Bronte sisters, George Elliot, and many other female authors who are not as well known today.
Virginia Woolf notes this confluence in A Room of One’s Own. She writes about how novels allowed women to adapt a new kind of sentence—rather than the kind of writing necessary for poetry or plays—to their own needs. “All the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she [womenkind] became a writer. The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands.” Woolf describes how women were able to use and shape a genre that did not have rigid traditions: “since freedom and fullness of expression are the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women.”
Throughout the book, Woolf pays tribute to Austen as a progenitor female author, and particularly calls out her the way she shaped the novel’s prose for her purposes: “Jane Austen looked at it [the traditional sentence] and laughed at it, and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence for her own use…” I love this image of Austen taking language, laughing at the clumsy tool she has been given, and reshaping it to her own purposes. It makes me think not only of Austen’s genius, but also the fun she must have had while she was writing—as she helped to create not only new stories, but also a new genre.
Was Jane Austen a feminist?
In order to answer that question, we first need a definition of feminism. Here is how Merriam-Webster defines it: “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” By this definition, most modern women (and men) are feminists.
Of course, “feminist” is a moving target. In the 1900s, feminist meant someone with the radical idea that women should vote. In the 60s and 70s, it meant someone who believed women could work outside the home. But back in Jane Austen’s time there would have been many men (and women) who disputed the basic premise: that men and women could or should be equal in rights and opportunities. Austen’s world did not provide equality. Unmarried women of Austen’s class could not easily support themselves and lived lives that were circumscribed in many ways. Married women had it even worse: once they married, all of their property became their husband’s.
While the word feminist was not in use during Austen’s era, there is plenty of evidence that she was aware of and unhappy about disparities in rights and opportunities between men and women.
Austen’s life itself may be the best argument for Austen as a feminist. Women weren’t supposed to write novels, which many considered to be lurid and in bad taste. They especially weren’t supposed to publish them. Women were supposed to confine their lives to the private sphere of family and the home. (In Persuasion, Austen writes: “We live at home, quiet, confined…”) The “public” aspect of publication should have disqualified Austen as an author—according to the customs of the time. But Austen did publish, and she published as “a lady,” rather than using a male pseudonym, as the Bronte sisters did later. It was obviously important to her that readers knew her books were written from a female perspective.
In Austen’s works you can also find many demonstrations of feminist beliefs. While none of her characters agitate overtly for changes in gender norms, they also do not blindly follow the dictates of convention. Elizabeth Bennet is too outspoken for a woman and refuses to bow to societal pressure to marry for the sake of money. Fanny Price sticks to her internal sense of right and wrong no matter what her “betters” say. Sense and Sensibility is a very eloquent examination of how women wrestle with questions of being ruled by head or heart. In all of her books, the heroines are struggling to find a place in the world where they can be true to themselves—without compromising their values and needs.
However, I believe there is no better way to represent Austen’s feminist beliefs than a quote from Persuasion. Hargrave says, “I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” Anne replies, “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.” When I saw this scene in the movie version of Persuasion, I wanted to stand up and cheer.
I don’t think it was until I was in college that I realized how thoroughly disenfranchised women are in the history of literature. With rare exceptions, women’s voices were not heard and women’s experiences were not represented until the 1800s and the popularization of the novel as a form of literature. Yes, men have written—sometimes wonderful—female characters. But we have no way of knowing what women themselves would have written if they’d had the opportunity through the centuries. All we do know is that it would be different from what men wrote.
Austen herself demonstrates this truth. A man could not have written her novels. They are about a female world and a female experience. Readers may swoon over Mr. Darcy, but it is Austen’s exploration of the feminine that makes her books unique. Thank goodness Austen had the courage to “go public” with her stories, otherwise we wouldn’t have them. We can all be thankful that Austen was a feminist.