What did Jane Austen mean when she wrote, at the end of her letter to Countess Morley, the following seemingly self-deprecating comments about the writing in Emma?:
“In my present State of Doubt as to [Emma’s] reception in the World, it is particularly gratifying to me to receive so early an assurance of your Ladyship’s approbation. – It encourages me to depend on the same share of general good opinion which Emma’s Predecessors have experienced, & to beleive that I have not yet – as almost every Writer of Fancy does sooner or later – overwritten myself.”
In her post this morning in Austen L and Janeites, Ellen Moody interpreted this language as Jane Austen’s anxiously worrying out loud, in total sincerity and without irony, that she was written out, i.e., that while writing Emma perhaps she had run out of fresh ideas, invention, and imagination.
Given that I read this passage in a completely opposite way, as I will explain later in this post, I wondered to myself whether Ellen’s was the standard critical reading of that letter passage. I quickly found out that it was not only standard, it was actually the universal view (with one exception, which I will also mention, with due praise, in a moment).
Here then, in reverse chronological order, is the parade of Austen scholars who have during the past few decades taken Jane Austen literally, as writing in total sincerity and without irony about having possibly “overwritten” herself:
Claire Harman, in Jane’s Fame: “Jane’s letter of thanks to Countess Morley contains a similarly lonely, self-reflective comment…The idea of having ”overwritten herself” was not the only thing preying on Austen’s mind early in 1816.”
Emily Auerbach in Searching for Jane Austen, saw it as JA claiming she has not yet exhausted her imagination as a fiction writer.
Valerie Grosvenor Myer in her Austen bio: “Like every creative artist she was afraid of drying up.”
David Nokes in his Austen bio: “She was, as she confessed to Lady M., still greatly fearful about the success of this latest work and filled with apprehensions that she might…have already ‘overwritten herself.’ “
Josephine Ross also took JA literally.
P. Barry referred to “Jane Austen's own copy of her letter to the Countess of Morley, thanking her (in perhaps surprisingly deferential tones) for her praise of Emma, and taking it gratefully as proof that she had not yet, 'as every Writer of fancy does sooner or later – overwritten myself.”
Margaret Llewellyn wrote “Another of her anxieties was expressed in a letter to the Countess of Morley who, in admiring Emma, had encouraged her 'to believe that I have not yet - as almost every Writer of Fancy does sooner or later - overwritten myself.'
So, judging from the above critical litany over several decades, it would appear to be beyond question that Jane Austen meant what she seemed to be saying to Countess Morley.
There’s only one dissenting voice I found, and that is our very own Diana Birchall, who, in her post that initiated this thread three days ago, wrote, in passing, the following bon mot:
“As if Jane Austen could ever have overwritten herself!”
I believe I am correct in inferring that Diana would agree with me that the last thing Jane Austen would have felt anxiety about, let alone expressed anxiety in a sincere, unironic way, to anyone, let alone one of her readers, was that the writing in Emma was faulty in any way.
In the remainder of this post, I will explain myself, in detail, as to why I believe that the “truth universally acknowledged” by pretty much all Austen scholars, that Jane Austen was in want of confidence about her writing in Emma, is completely in error, in the most significant way possible, both as to the meaning of “overwritten” and also as to JA’s sincerity.
First, I suggest that JA in this letter to Countess Morley is clearly engaging in exactly the same sort of
mock-self-deprecation that we find in much more exaggerated form in her flamboyantly absurd letters to James Stanier Clarke (written, as I noted yesterday, at exactly the same time and about exactly the same interrelated subjects, Emma and novel-writing); and that we also find, and not coincidentally, in Letter 79, when JA seemed to express her fears that P&P “wants shade” and is “too light, bright, and sparkling”.
I mean, really. P&P is, arguably, the most light bright and sparkling work of literature in the English language—along with the comedies of Shakespeare and Wilde and a handful of other authors, it defines the genre of witty romantic comedy with brilliant dialog and a merry romantic war of words.
And so, are we supposed to believe that JA, in her giddy exultation over the publication of P&P, is at the same moment seriously doubting her own Mozartean achievement? As if she, who knew Mozart’s music well, didn’t know that she had created a literary analog of same--the epitome of “light, bright, and sparkling” in which she had perfectly balanced those qualities with a considerable amount of subtle “shade”!
I suggest the exact same reasoning applies to JA’s mock self-deprecation of Emma. To imagine that JA--- having just received tangible evidence in hand, in the form of 12 copies of the newly minted and printed Emma, that she had overcome all obstacles and had managed to produce what is arguably one of the greatest novels ever written in any language—a towering masterpiece of huge proportions, in which she in effect juggles a dozen literary balls without dropping one----was worried that she had not done a very good job, is beyond absurd.
I am not the first to notice the creative fever which took hold of Jane Austen as she wrote Emma, the way the writing seems at times to boil over from prose into a brave new combination of poetry and prose, foreshadowing Joyce’s achievements a century later.
And, on top of all this, it’s not just that all Austen scholars have completely missed JA’s huge irony in her faux self-deprecation writing to Countess Morley. They’ve even misunderstood what she meant, technically, by “overwritten”!
I assert that by “overwritten”, JA did not at all mean “written out” or “tapped out as a creative writer”, but that Emma is simply too long, i.e., that it contains passages which could have been shortened or even deleted.
But wait!—where did we read that very same critique of Emma only a few days ago? Of course, in one of the letters that Countess Morley (the recipient of JA’s above quoted letter) wrote to her sister in law, Theresa Villiers about Emma!:
“…then, surely, her talking characters talk too much. The pages filled with Miss Bates & Mrs. Elton wd. make up one of the volumes & that is more than can well be afforded.”
So, is it just a coincidence that JA writes a letter to Countess Morley, in which JA expresses apparent concern over having failed in her editing of Emma, to (in effect) “lop and crop” enough of the text; and then, within two months thereafter, Countess Morley writes to her sister in law and appears to complain about that exact same, specific defect? Of course it’s NOT a coincidence!
Now, here’s the most interesting question, then. Was the Countess, in her letter to her sister in law, being totally sincere (and clueless)? Or was she totally in on the joke, and acting upon JA’s implicit instructions to spread the word, among the literati in the Royal Court circle, that Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton’s speeches were just dross, and therefore to be ignored by any sensible reader?
As of this moment, pending further information which could tilt me one way or the other, I am on the fence on that question. It’s really hard to know whether Countess Morley was, like JA, someone who enjoyed a dangerous put-on of powerful men, and could play her role in one with aplomb; or whether she, like James Stanier Clarke, was actually a pompous pretentious gull who would fall for such a put-on, and become its unwitting agent. I’d like to think the former, but can’t solidly commit to that reading, without some additional knowledge of Countess Morley’s personality, which I currently lack—I think I need to get hold of some of her correspondence with Sydney Smith, and pore over it, to search for clues…..
And…upon further reflection, and having reread Countess Morley’s comments about Emma over and over again, I temporarily retreat halfway from my position espoused yesterday, and confess that it’s equally hard for me to know whether Countess Morley was an active and informed participant in JA’s guerilla campaign to induce the Prince to command her to dedicate Emma to him, or if she was, also like JS Clarke, a dupe in that audacious affair.
The only thing I know for sure is that from JA’s own perspective, she never for one second really meant to deprecate her writing in Emma, especially in the over-the-top verbosity of Miss Bates. As I’ve opined countless times, Miss Bates was JA’s most bravura literary self-portrait, and the entire point of all of Miss Bates’s endless speeches was to trick the gullible reader into joining into Emma’s deeply misguided opinion that it was all so much “blah, blah, blah”, when actually Miss Bates is constantly revealing everything that really matters in the novel!
In a nutshell, it is precisely the “overwriting” of Miss Bates (and Mrs. Elton, to a lesser extent) which is JA’s greatest literary achievement!
DEFINITION OF “OVERWRITTEN”
Before completing this post, I do want to bolster my claim that by “overwritten”, JA was specifically referring to verbose, baroquely ornate, overlong writing. Where’s my evidence? Well, first of all, if you check online, you will see that the consensus among dictionaries is that “overwritten” means “too verbose, too ornately written” or the like.
But second and far more probative even than dry dictionary proof, I give you, as Exhibit A, from Volume 8 of Sir Charles Grandison, the following textual smoking gun as to JA’s intended meaning. In the below quoted passage, the heroine, Harriet Byron, in one of the incredibly long letters which appear everywhere in Richardson’s novels, gushes to her cousin, Lucy Selby, regarding Harriet’s extreme gratitude to, and adoration of, Sir Charles & his sister.
This letter seems clearly to be among the passages in SCG, upon which JA modeled—but of course in JA’s vastly superior, understated writing style--- Lizzy Bennet’s thoughts and spoken words reflecting her identical rapture over Darcy & Georgiana in the last volume of P&P.
But I reproduce it for you below to show you that in a literary source extremely well known to JA, Richardson used “overwritten” in precisely the same sense as those dictionaries indicated:
“…I HAVE WRITTEN A LONG, LONG LETTER, OR RATHER FIVE LETTERS IN ONE, of my distresses, of my deliverance: and, when my heart is stronger, I will say more of the persons, as well as minds, of this excellent brother and sister. But what shall I do with my gratitude? O my dear, I am overwhelmed with my gratitude! I can only express it in silence before them. Every look, if it be honest to my heart, however, tells it: reverence mingles with my gratitude—yet there is so much ease, so much sweetness, in the behaviour of both—O my Lucy! Did I not find that my veneration of both is equal; did I not, on examination, find, that the amiable sister is as dear to me, from her experienced tenderness, as her brother from his remembered bravery, (which must needs mingle awe with my esteem); in short, that I
love the sister, and revere the brother; I should be afraid of my gratitude.
I HAVE OVER-WRITTEN MYSELF. I am tired. O my grandmamma! you have never yet, while I have been in London, sent me your ever-valued blessing under your own hand: yet, I am sure I had it; and your blessings, my dear uncle and aunt Selby; and your prayers, my Lucy, my Nancy, and all my loves;
else my deliverance had not perhaps followed my presumptuous folly, in going dressed out, like the fantastic wretch I appeared to be, at a vile, a foolish masquerade.—How often, throughout the several stages of my distress, and even in my deliverance, did I turn my eye to myself, and from myself, with the disgust that made a part, and that not a light one, of my punishment! And so much, my Lucy, for masquerades, and masquerade-dresses, for ever!” END QUOTE
Indeed, Harriet Byron was spot-on in her assessment of the letter she was writing, it was indeed and in her own words, extremely “overwritten”!
So, JA, in writing to Countess Morley about Emma being overwritten, is not only writing satirically and with a total lack of sincerity, she is reinforcing her irony by this veiled allusion to the very famous work read by every English novel-reader—in effect, for satirical purposes, JA assumes the pathetic persona of Harriet Byron, who DOES overwrite, constantly! JA by this covert allusion shows that she knows very well what “overwritten” looks like in fiction—but whereas Harriet Byron’s overwritten letters do not conceal a satirical subtext, Miss Bates’s speeches all do!
Now, back to Emma for one final observation. I suggest to you that anyone who actually thinks Emma is too verbose or ornately written, surely belongs in that special circle of hell where resides the Emperor Joseph II, who infamously opined to Mozart that his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio contained “too many notes”. [an anecdote from the 1780’s which I have found in print in English as early as 1817, so perhaps JA was aware of it in late 1815!]
But seriously….is it not every bit as absurd to imagine that JA thought the writing in Emma too bloated, as to imagine she thought P&P too light, bright and sparkling? Then, how is it possible that Austen scholars have all been so utterly taken in? How has it been possible that they’ve all failed to recognize that she was KIDDING around in both cases?
I suggest to you that the power of the Myth of Jane Austen, which still largely prevails in the 21st century as surely as it did when it was first propagated by the likes of Henry Austen and James Austen Leigh, is still extremely formidable. Because it is a “truth universally acknowledged” that Jane Austen was the kind of modest, unprovocative lady who would never have dared to engage in audacious put-ons mocking the most powerful and rich people of her era, even the most informed Austen scholars are blind to who she really was. Over and over and over again. And I don’t know if there is a better example of this community of shared blindness than this interpretation of “overwritten” Emma.
So, one more bravo to Diana for her witty insight, and I will now move on to demolish the next part of that monstrously inaccurate, pervasive and insidious Myth.
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