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Jane Austen and Her Biographers: The Woman Writer as Literart Icon

Leila W. MacDonald Ryan

Abstract

This thesis examines the biographies of Jane Austen written between 1817 and the present in an attempt to discover how life writers have shaped the reputation of a woman writer. While Austen's art is often compared to Shakespeare's in its ability to delineate 'real' life and character, biographers have tended to deny her the worldly experience which they deem so necessary to the formation of Shakespeare's art. Both these authors present similar problems for life writers in that so little evidence remains of their lives, but the portrayals of them suggest that in the absence of verifiable 'fact' biographers tend to depict their subjects in terms of gender stereotypes. In this construct, the occupation of author demands worldly experience which is by definition denied the female subject. This tension, between the need for experience and the perception of femininity as necessarily innocent, is apparent in biographies of Austen written well into the twentieth-century.

My investigation reveals that the Austen family's concern to maintain their relative's gentility played a significant role in the way she was depicted. When this coincided with the Victorian impulse to portray authors as virtuous examples to their readers, Austen's reputation became frozen into that of a literary icon. Not only did she become the saintly maiden aunt, but my study suggests that biographers and many critics read the novels solely as drawing-room comedies, and in the process often identified the author with her female characters. From the 1860s onwards some literary critics did challenge this image of sweet perfection, but their views were generally not reflected in the lives of Austen. Biographies written in the twentieth-century have not appreciably altered this situation; only recently, for example, has a biographer chosen to depict Austen as cranky and disillusioned by her lot in life. My conclusion is that the biographers' acceptance of stereotypes of femininity, and their perception that domestic life is impermeable, uneventful, and hence has no influence on the creative process, are particularly detrimental to the portrayal of Austen, both as woman and as artist.