Jane Austen in Context

Has anybody seen the movie Becoming Jane? It’s just come to our local theater, and I’d like to see it, although I also think it’s rubbish. It has very little relationship to Austen’s real life (I haven’t seen the movie, obviously, but I’ve read enough about it to know), but I suspect it might be fun to see, if I can keep the real Austen and the movie Austen completely separate in my mind (if such a thing is possible). By the way, there’s a good article on the movie here (thanks to Jenny D. for the link).

Much better than seeing Becoming Jane, most likely, is watching the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice, which I borrowed from the library for the weekend. I’ve seen it before, but it was a long time ago, and I can’t wait to see it again.

At this point, what with the Jane Austen in Context book and all, I’m in danger of getting sick of everything to do with Austen, but I don’t feel that way quite yet …

There were a couple fascinating bits from the book I thought I’d share (and by the way, I’m not giving away nearly all of the good stuff, so don’t think the book is spoiled because I’ve posted so much on it). In an essay on book production, the author notes that in the year Austen was born, 1775, 31 new novels were published in England. In 1811, when Sense and Sensibility was came out, 80 new novels were published. The author calls this “an expanding and competitive market for books,” but it seems quite small from our perspective, doesn’t it? If I lived then, I could plausibly attempt to read every novel published each year!

Also interesting to note is that three quarters of all novels published in 1776 were epistolary novels. It’s in that context that Austen’s complex third person point of view — her free indirect discourse — starts to look so very new and exciting.

Nearly three quarters of all novels published between 1770 and 1820 were published anonymously or pseudonymously, many of them saying only “By a Lady” or “By a Young Lady.” Also interesting is the numbers of men vs. women writing; as one critic notes about the 1810s, “The publication of Austen’s novels was achieved not against the grain but during a period of female ascendancy.” In the 1820s the balance shifted, and the men began to outnumber the women.

Also fascinating is the chapter on Austen in translation, which argues that Austen never got quite as popular on the continent as in England because continental translators didn’t know what to make of her — she didn’t fit in with their existing literary traditions and couldn’t be easily accommodated to them. Many of the early translations weren’t really translations at all, but were retellings of the stories with some dramatic changes, to tone down Elizabeth Bennett’s sauciness, for example. Some translators even omitted chapters and changed endings. Many of them lost the nuances of Austen’s third person point of view, which would make it harder to appreciate her genius. Modern-day translators would never get away with the changes Austen’s early translators made to her texts (at least I don’t think so!).

Interesting stuff, don’t you think?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

10 responses to “Jane Austen in Context

  1. Oh, that is interesting stuff. if only 31 novels a year were published I could read them all and then re-read a few favorites! 80 a year though, that’s small enough to be able to read a lot of them and big enough for a person to be selective. Can we call that the “good old days?” 😉


  2. Very interesting indeed! I had not idea there were so few novels at the time, and so many epistolary ones. From what you say about the continental literary tradition I guess she wasn’t following them either. She really did blaze her own trail, didn’t she?


  3. Hmm. Intriguing. With so few new books published each year, one can actually finish all the new books. So people back in those days actually have more time for re-reading. They probably read more of the classics too, with so little new titles competiting for attention.

    About how Jane Austen not making it bigger overseas in transaltion – it brings me back to the question of how much we are missing out on books written in other languages – simply because the translators don’t know what to make of them.


  4. I’m having the same feelings about “Becoming Jane.” Not really sure I want to see it. I think I’ll wait for it to come out on DVD, so if it gets really annoying, I can just stop watching it. And you? Sick of Austen? I can’t see that happening. And imagine a time when only 31 novels were published, and you didn’t have other free-time choices like movies, televisions, and computers. I’d like to go there.


  5. Stefanie — with all the wealth of reading material we have that can get so overwhelming, looking back at that time does make it seem like a golden age!

    Sylvia — she did blaze her own trail, and I find it fascinating. I love learning about her influences and sources (all those 18C novels she loved and was responding to), but she did something so different with her material.

    Orpheus — Well, I’m talking about novels, so as for all books, there would have been a lot more. But I’m sure there was more time for re-reading. And you’re so right about translations — I think modern translators are more faithful to the text than they were in Austen’s time, but still, your point stands that we miss so much.

    Emily — I’m kind of looking forward to Becoming Jane, but partly because I’ll have fun scoffing at it 🙂


  6. hepzibah

    Yes — very interesting Dorothy! Especially the part about women writing more than men — it is much different from what I assumed — and only 80 books were being published per year! That is also very telling of the society…

    Someone told me about the movie, and said I had to see it, if I do I will let you know! And I also have been meaning to watch the A & E version, but I have never watched it the entire way through…


  7. I will watch the movie when it comes out in DVD. I think it will be fun if only to see the costumes and setting. Can you imagine so few a novels being published now. What a weird thought, but maybe I wouldn’t try and read everything at once if there were a manageable number! Thanks for sharing bits of those essays–I think it is always interesting to read these sorts of things, so feel free to post more on it!


  8. Hepzibah, oh, you should watch the A&E version, it’s really wonderful! We finished watching it last night, and I’m convinced once again that it’s one of the best Austen adaptations ever.

    Danielle, yes, I agree about the costumes and setting — they are always a pleasure in Austen films even if the rest is no good!


  9. I loved all the statistics in this post – I shared it with my Austen-loving friend who also enjoyed your post. I placed my order for this book today – I’m just so intrigued by it! I did see Becoming Jane last night – with my Austen loving friend. We enjoyed it, I think she more than I. We both went into it with eyes wide open, not expecting the truth and enjoyed it for what it was.


  10. Tara, I hope you like the book! I’m hoping to see Becoming Jane this weekend.


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