In a fine review article covering two recent books that combine memoir with literary criticism while dealing with the vexing figure of Jane Austen, Audrey Bilger leads off by sharing V.S. Naipaul’s insufferable dismissal of Austen’s work. She goes on to discuss the lingering misogyny that places Austen on the margin’s of many a high-minded (male) writer’s pantheon.
Like it or not, the reality on the ground is that Jane Austen benefits and suffers from being associated with women, and her status as a major writer has been complicated by gender issues since her earliest readers. We can thank Austen’s brother Henry for helping to frame the terms of the early debate. After his sister’s death, he prepared the two completed novels she left behind (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) for publication and included a short biographical essay on the “authoress,” which was, for most of the 19th century, the only source of information about Jane Austen, the person.
In these words, Bilger mentions some of the “serious” literary figures whose shelf life has proven less enduring than Austen’s. All Jane Austen did, it seems, was write novels about life in a way that could strongly play upon the imagination. I suppose it’s a shame she wasn’t more obscure.