The Distortion of Reputation
The Distortion of Reputation: Women who read Jane Austen in the Nineteenth Century.
The material on Austen’s readers used in this paper comes from the Reading Experience Database, and the paper is designed in part to demonstrate one of many possible uses for the data in this resource.
Over the course of the long nineteenth century, Jane Austen gradually became the publicly acceptable face of the woman writer, thanks in some part to the carefully domesticated and feminized biographical half-truths circulated by her brother and nephew. The version of Jane Austen with which nineteenth-century readers and critics were presented was surprisingly influential, with elements of Henry Austen’s description of his sister’s character seeping not only into later biographical accounts but also into critical and scholarly analyses of her works.
My paper will consider the distorting effects of Austen’s reputation by looking at the responses of Austen’s readers. Taking not the familiar texts of the critical tradition, but the private and unpublished writings of a variety of her female readers, I will discuss the ways in which Austen’s reputation affected the transmission of her texts and the range of responses to her writings. I will deal here only with Austen’s female readers, partly in the interests of brevity but also because in Austen’s case, some of the most pervasive and influential half-truths about her are also about the relationship between gender, reading and writing. They therefore press most strongly on Austen’s female readership. Professional nineteenth-century female writers, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Brontë, frequently record their antipathetic reactions to a predecessor who seems to them to epitomise an ideal of ‘ladyhood’ that runs counter to their own beliefs in the rejection of constraint incumbent on a female writer. But more conventional female readers often record their sense of comfort in reading Austen’s work, or a sense of friendship with the author whose persona seems to chime comfortably with their own. In both cases, it is evident that it is not only the works themselves that influence Austen’s readers. Their perception of the author also affects them strongly, whether positively or negatively. This paper will demonstrate how the material in the Reading Experience Database can be used to build up a much fuller picture of a major canonical author’s influence and reputation than has hitherto been possible.