In the letter to the London Evening Standard linked to, above, Melanie Mcdonagh begs every possible question about how we (by which I gather she means, modern, well-informed, intelligent, close readers) ought to read Jane Austen’s novels. And, in particular, she reveals her own readerly pride and prejudice, and prodigious ignorance of biographical and literary facts, in ways that are highly ironic, and would have made JA smile a wry smile, as I will now briefly elaborate:
First, it’s no accident that McDonagh’s article leads with a huge image of the famous, ubiquitous, Bowdlerized portrait of a placid, cow-faced Jane Austen that JEAL commissioned in 1870, to replace Cassandra’s authentic 1810 sketch of the real Jane Austen, a hard-edged, strong woman. So, right off the bat, McDonagh reveals either her ignorance of the existence of the authentic portrait (which of course is prominently displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in London), or her prejudice in choosing to present, unannotated, the fake image that JEAL used as the springboard for his whitewash of JA’s life and writing. But as you will see, below, McDonagh’s understanding is more or less that of JEAL, 145 years old and as false as it was the day he wrote the Memoir!
Second, McDonagh conflates the majority of modern Austen fanfics and spinoffs with modern scholarly discoveries of a truer version of JA’s novels and life story via literary sleuthing like Jill Heydt-Stevenson, Colleen Sheehan, Janine Barchas, Jocelyn Harris, Linda Walker, and Barbara Mann already published, as well as mine, Diane Reynolds’s, and Anielka Briggs’s, etc.
I.e., it is very true that most modern fanfic Darcys, Elizabeths, Emmas and Knightleys bear little resemblance to JA’s actual characters, and only a minority (like our own Diana Birchall’s nuanced spinoffs), shed any interesting light on JA’s novels. But, McDonagh throws a very large baby out with the bathwater, by convincing herself that David Cecil (a truly benighted Austen biographer if ever there was one) knew all there was to know about Jane Austen a half century ago, and that anything that has been discovered about JA in the past 50 years is a distortion of the truth, when actually, the opposite is the case.
But then McDonagh goes off the charts of absurdity when she then writes:
“She was an unaffected Anglican; she wasn’t a feminist; she didn’t give a toss about the inequality of the sexes; she was extraordinarily modest — “few so gifted were so unpretending,” said her nephew. So, really not 21st century at all.”
Wow. So, McDonagh quotes JEAL as if he told the Gospel truth 145 years ago, when I and others have shown a hundred or more ways that his Memoir was as big a fraud as you will ever find in the realm of literary biography. Plus, McDonagh caps it off with her biggest whopper—her assertion that JA was not a feminist, and did not care about gender inequality—even though nothing shines through more clearly to the discerning and well informed reader of JA’s novels and student of her letters and biography that JA’s largest and most persistent hobby horse was the pernicious oppression of women in her world. McDonagh really could not be more wrong.
And the worst part about McDonagh’s article is that even the comment I will shortly post there linking to my blog post will probably not be read by more than a very readers of that article, and most of the rest will come away believing that McDonagh actually knew what she was talking about!
Such is the way that the Myth of Jane Austen continues to survive, in the face of an ever growing mountain of debunking evidence.
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