A clever novelist


The Times has a great article on a tidbit in the auction catalog of the books of Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, which included books by Jane Austen–apparently her son, the Prince Regent, was not the only Janeite in the family–and listed two of Mary Brunton’s books as written by Jane Austen. The books, like Jane Austen’s, had been published anonymously, though the posthumous editions of Persuasion and NA included the biographical notice that identified Jane Austen. The Queen’s librarian assumed that Mary Brunton’s anonymously-published works were the work of the same author. This is particularly ironic, since Jane Austen wrote some snarky commentary about Brunton’s novel Self-Control in one of her letters.

The Queen had died in November 1818. Her collection included Austen’s posthumous publications, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published in December 1817 with the “biographical notice” that named Austen publicly as an author for the first time and correctly identified all her novels. Between them, then, the Queen’s librarian and Christie’s cataloguer should have known better than to add to the list the forbiddingly titled Self-Control and Discipline. But they did not. It is an intriguing error. It must signal the presence of qualities that contemporaries associated with Austen; mere carelessness would not account for the addition of these anonymously published titles to the set of her works rather than to somebody else’s. Their author was not formally identified until 1819 – too late for the sale catalogue – when her widower published Emmeline. With Some Other Pieces. By Mary Brunton, Author of Self-Control, and Discipline.

[. . .]

Jane Austen, who was just at that time seeing her own first novel through the press, complained that she had been unable to lay hands on a copy. She seems to have feared being scooped by the unknown author, for Sense and Sensibility is also about self-control. When she did finally read Brunton’s book, however, she found that the work was in a different mode from her own, full of suspenseful adventures and hair’s-breadth escapes. (Even the most favourable reviews deplored the melodramatic ending, in which the heroine escapes over a waterfall somewhere near Quebec City, lashed to a birchbark canoe.) Two years later, Austen’s considered assessment, given with what sounds like a sigh of relief, was that Self-Control was “an excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it”. Yet Austen did reread and learn from it.

[. . .]

Brunton and Austen were almost exact contemporaries and their novels, produced for the same readership, have more in common both superficially and at deeper levels than Austen’s brief remark about Nature and Probability might suggest. It is quite conceivable that Christie’s cataloguers could not tell them apart. Though Brunton’s stories may to a modern eye look like Austen’s with added sex and violence, a contemporary might have thought of the comparison as working the other way round: Austen’s were like Brunton’s but with less of that. Brunton was the more popular. Her books were more frequently reprinted than Austen’s, more widely reviewed, and quicker to win the tribute of American editions. For fifty years after the authors’ deaths (Austen’s in in 1817, Brunton’s in 1818), Brunton’s maintained a slight advantage in the market. But as her work faded from view, Austen’s began to be taken up first by cognoscenti and then by the school system, aided by a myth-making biography of 1870 and by a decorousness – at least on the surface – that made her fiction acceptable for all ages. Brunton appears to have lost ground less because of her didacticism than because of the adult content of her novels.

For those Janeites who always are wondering what to read after reading Jane Austen, here’s a suggestion.

I am not proposing to replace Austen with Brunton, only to spread the word about one worthwhile neglected writer…For those “general” or “serious” readers who like the psychic space of Regency Britain first encountered in Austen, it might be a pleasure to explore lesser edifices and so bit by bit to discover the great city that surrounds the monument.

EDITED because it would probably help if we actually put in the link to the article. (D’oh!)