Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Angela Thirkell and "Miss Austen"

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Angela Thirkell and "Miss Austen"

Article excerpt

The 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death is an apt occasion to examine Austen's impact on her diverse literary progeny. The career of Angela Thirkell, a chronicler of twentieth-century English country life in the so-called "Barsetshire novels," provides an engaging case study of how an author exploited her interpretation of Austen for literary profit. Thirkell's story also exposes the limitations of her narrow model of Jane Austen's legacy, as war and social change invaded the idealized Barsetshire Thirkell had created in the 1930s.

Thirkell defined her perspective on Austen in August Folly (1936), the fourth of her twenty-nine Barsetshire novels. Laurence Dean, heir to his wealthy aunt Mrs. Palmer, and Margaret Tebben, the daughter of learned but parsimonious parents, are planning a formal dinner for Laurence's family. Margaret says:

"Yes, Mother is a little like Mrs Norris sometimes."

As Laurence didn't answer, she wondered if he had perhaps never heard of Miss Austen, blamed herself for the ungenerous thought, then, just to make herself plain, added nervously, "Miss Austen, I mean."

"Well, it does my heart good to hear you say Miss Austen like that," said Laurence.... "People who say Jane or talk about Janeites revolt me. The sort that can walk with kings and not lose that common touch. (1) 'Miss Austen to you' is what I feel inclined to say." (157)

This agreement that "Miss Austen" is the appropriate term of reference and reverence for Jane Austen hints that Margaret is a fitting future wife for Laurence. When Mrs. Palmer launches a Lady Catherine de Bourgh-style tirade against Margaret later in the story, Margaret, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, stands up to her--and Mrs. Palmer, like Lady Catherine, eventually backs down.

Thirkell's outspoken reverence for "Miss Austen" continued at the height of her career. In Miss Bunting (1945), the novel's eponymous governess, Thirkell's exemplar of the best of English tradition, reads aloud to her last pupil "from the works of Dickens, Thackeray, Miss Austen and other English classics" (39). In 1946, Thirkell wrote in her introduction to an edition of Persuasion:

   It is not perfect, its final form had probably not been fixed when
   she died, but it strikes a note hitherto unheard, a note of
   tenderness, patience and unalterable affection. It may be a key to
   the writer herself. It may be a fresh development of her genius,
   checked by her death. This we can never know, nor, one imagines,
   would the author much wish us to enquire. To those who value her
   she will remain Miss Austen, a lady; to be alluded to on occasion
   with respect, by her full name, Jane Austen; never to be spoken of
   lightly as "Jane," a freedom which she certainly would have
   disliked and about which she would have had a few neat
   well-sharpened words to say. (vii) (2)

How an author references "Jane," "Jane Austen," and "Austen" is still an issue in Austen scholarship. (3) But Thirkell's preferred designation, "Miss Austen," was a particularly loaded dart in the interwar Austen culture battle that Claudia Johnson calls "a schism within Janeism" (104). On one side were those who admired Austen as a writer of complex political motivation and deliberate skill. (4) Reginald Farrer's pioneering 1917 appreciation of Austen championed this view and specifically denigrated those who called her "Miss Austen": no one dreams of calling the lesser writer anything but "Charlotte Bronte," while there still exists a whole sect of Jane Austen's devotees ... who to this day will always talk of her as "Miss Austen." Which is as if one were to speak currently of Mr Milton, and Monsieur de Moliere. (Southam 247-48)

Virginia Woolf and D. W. Harding, among many others writing from 1920 to 1940, continued this broad critical strand, which led to modern Austen scholarship in all its political and literary complexity (Southam 92-132). …

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