LOOK AT HER LETTERS. look at how wicked and wonderful and multi-dimensional she really was. and here’s something telling: HER SISTER CASSANDRA BURNED THE MAJORITY OF THE LETTERS. if what’s left shows a flirtatious, intelligent, sincere and deliciously bitchy jane, JUST IMAGINE WHAT WAS IN THE BURNED LETTERS. who knows, perhaps more tales of tom lefroy, harsher words for her neighbors and family, even more brutal honesty. if we must go on comparing austen and shakespeare, i would say that both of their lives are equally shrouded in mystery.
That’s not the half of it. It’s a well known fact that Austen’s relatives heavily censored her letters when they were first published and they suppressed much of her writing. In fact correct copies of her letters were not printed until the 1950s and her so-called juvenilia wasn’t published until the early 20th century.
Emily Auerbach’s wonderful book Searching for Jane Austen shows you just how revolutionary Austen was and how heavily she was suppressed. The Jane Austen Society of North America has one of the chapters from the book on their site about this censorship: Restoring the “Fleas” and “Bad Breath”
It’s eye opening. Today we look at Austen as this stereotypical maiden aunt: sweet, never getting in anyone’s way etc … That idea comes from the first biography of Austen that was published in 1870 by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh.
Auerbach shows how Austen-Leigh makes claims about his aunt that are blatantly false.
“The politics of the day occupied very little of her attention,” Austen-Leigh concludes, but he fails to tell readers that he has carefully excised her remarks [in Austen’s personal letters] about sloops and frigates, the East Indies, Nova Scotia, and a 44-gun ship called the Expedition. Austen-Leigh also needed to support his claim that his aunt knew nothing of medicine, so he cuts sentences referring to bones, fractures, bile, and emetics. To keep his aunt from sounding too intellectual or bookish, he takes the razor to her allusions to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and other literary works. Better a reference to a petticoat than a novel, apparently
And it gets worse than that. Much worse!
Seriously, go read Auerbach essay (or the whole book if you can get it!). It is painful, PAINFUL how heavily Austen was censored and how powerful Austen-Leigh’s claims are today. When most people talk about Jane Austen today they are really talking about Austen-Leigh’s fake version of her. As Auerbach concluded:
Why is it important to remind ourselves about the extensive censorship of Jane Austen’s letters? It epitomizes the decades of whitewashing and pigeonholing, sweetening and softening that transformed Jane Austen into a writer too often regarded even in the twenty-first century as the author of “girlie books” and the inspirer of “chick flicks.” The most recent Jane Austen seminar I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison consisted of 39 females and 1 male student who apologetically explained, “My mother made me take this class.” In any search for Jane Austen, we must break free of dear Aunt Jane and of two centuries of attempts to put her down, touch her up, and shut her up. We must strip off those ruffles and ringlets added to her portrait, restore the deleted fleas and bad breath to her letters, and meet Jane Austen’s sharp, uncompromising gaze head on.
(p.s. Bravo to the O.P.!)
Seriously, read Auerbach’s book — so you can throw it at the next person who calls Austen’s work pre-Twilight chic lit.