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Jane Austen wrote fast and died young. Her life on paper may have spanned three decades, but all six of her celebrated novels made their public appearance between 1811 and 1817. The phrase “tell-tale compression,” self-consciously applied by the narrator towards the end of Northanger Abbey (1817), captures something of Austen’s authorial career, too. Indeed, in her case it is appropriate that the word “career” can mean a short gallop at full speed, as well as the potentially slower progress of an individual’s working life. Novelists are more usually seen as long-distance runners than as sprinters, and Austen’s mature fiction has been cherished for the gradual emergence into consciousness of its heroines’ thoughts and feelings. Yet speedy progress—described in Emma (1815) as the “felicities of rapid motion”—remained central to this writer’s craft from start to finish.
Two hundred years ago, on St Swithun’s Day in 1817, Austen, near death, dictated an odd poem about horse racing to her sister Cassandra. From her sick bed in Winchester, she imagined how the festivities outside her window had come into being. The poem opens like this:

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.

The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming. —

The Hampshire locals, hell-bent on having fun, ignore their religious allegiances. But, in placing their bets on pleasure rather than on duty, they have backed the wrong horse. The reward for such fixity and determination is an eternally blighted party: St Swithun curses the races, in perpetuity, with rain.
Austen died three days later, on 18th July 1817. Imagining, in her last known literary composition, the origins of a horse race and the fatal allure of the “charming,” she was also excavating the origins of her writing life. That her Winchester poem concerns how the dead are mostly (even in the saintliest of cases) forgotten has perhaps also to do with her sense of a future abruptly foreclosed, and of authorial work left undone. Not only undone, but largely overlooked: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion appeared together in four volumes, posthumously, at the very end of 1817, in a print run of 1,750 copies; three years later, 282 remained unsold.
In another poem, Austen recorded the fact that, in 1804, her close friend Anne Lefroy had fallen from a horse. Lefroy died 12 hours later, on 16th December, Austen’s 29th birthday. Every year thereafter the novelist looked on this “natal day” with understandably “mix’d emotions.” Horses and horse racing may have spelt disaster for Austen. They also comprised a dark joke about getting to the finish line—a comedy of accelerated action bound up with a disrespect for authority and a vivid contempt for being reined in. But to throw off the shackles of duty and convention entirely was a possibility to be entertained only in her early fiction. By the time she died, Austen had published four novels in which the rewards for chasing pleasure and ignoring tradition prove to be very grave indeed.
In the character of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park (1814), for instance, we find another troubled union of the “charming” with the “alarming.” Mary (an ill-omened name in Austen) is a gambler who loses out. As she tells Fanny Price—the sickly “creep mouse” who wins the dubious prize of Edmund Bertram, a man who rarely forgets his obligations—“If I lose the game it shall not be from not striving for it.”
Austen, depicted by her immediate family as a covert, dutiful, and domestically-minded writer, has since her death been serially repackaged by critics and imitators as a conservative and a radical, a prude and a saucepot, pro- and anti-colonial, a feminist and a downright bitch. Perhaps this fluidity and adaptability spring from her reluctance to be pigeonholed. After all, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey warns that “from politics, it was an easy step to silence.” But facing down such overt discouragement, many critics from the 1970s to the present have discerned in Austen a writer who was far from apolitical.
During Austen’s time of apprenticeship, radical novelists typically presented their heroes and heroines as the victims of a rotten system. Conservative writers of fiction tended, by contrast, to treat their protagonists as sinners in need of correction and redemption. The late Marilyn Butler was the most forceful proponent of the line that Austen belonged in the second camp, and to insist that her brand of conservatism, Anglican and Tory, would have been understood as such by early-19th-century readers. Read in this light, her heroines contrive to endorse the status quo through their commitment to duty and self-sacrifice. Writing as a Christian moralist, Austen, it is often claimed, duly presents a view of society that conforms to religious principles and respects tradition.
“Time and again Austen’s fiction foregrounds the ignorance of women denied a formal education”
An opposing school of Austen criticism has sought to present her as sympathetic to radical politics, seeing her novels as an attempt to challenge or at least to revise the established order, especially patriarchy. Several decades ago, Edward Said drew attention to the simultaneous presence of and silence about empire and slavery in Mansfield Park, a line of enquiry that has most recently been pursued (with different conclusions) in Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, published last year. Austen is undoubtedly concerned with the precarious economic position of women and therefore, more broadly, with power and inequality. Her fiction could not possess the shape or emphasis that it does without the glaring injustice of 18th and 19th-century inheritance laws. Time and again, she foregrounds the ignorance of women denied a formal education, the psychological and emotional fragility of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and widows, the exploited poverty and dependency of spinsters, and the boredom of aimless, well-to-do ladies.
But does all this make her a feminist? Maybe, maybe not. Silly, outspoken, and unruly female characters in Austen find themselves ridiculed and brought to book. Her heroines are compelled to sacrifice their freedom to the men who sometimes rescue and always confine them, although such a sacrifice is not necessarily presented as a bad thing. Those heroines are also subdued to the generic requirements of a three-volume courtship novel that must end in marriage.
Some of Austen’s women appear to glimpse the possibility of escape and to chafe against novelistic and social convention. Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1813) gets to turn down the appalling Mr Collins, and good for her. But she does so only to make a far more spectacular match with Mr Darcy (having initially turned him down, too). Lizzy’s friend, Charlotte Lucas—someone who is sensible and intelligent, but neither rich nor pretty—decides on prudential grounds to throw in her lot with Mr Collins instead. Lizzy’s immediate reaction to this turn of events is utterly uncompromising: Charlotte, she thinks, is disgracing herself. But Lizzy’s first thoughts are often proved wrong. The novel itself is less judgemental than its heroine as far as Charlotte’s coolly pragmatic decision is concerned. Yes, she has chosen to marry a pompous clod in exchange for the “worldly advantage” of a house, a garden, and some chickens; on the other hand, this may not have been the worst of bargains. In fact, we are told that “at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome,” Charlotte “felt all the good luck of it.”
Critics of Austen too often forget that she was primarily a writer and defender of fiction, not a polemicist. To say this does not mean we have to bleach her work of historical purchase, topicality, or partisanship. But it does entail acknowledging that her commitment was to everything that novels might be and do, rather than to any political cause. In her beguiling ability to convey sympathy, meaning, information and suggestion through the faulty, shifting perspectives of her characters, we come to know, and learn how to judge, a little of the world we are in. That does not mean we arrive at an understanding of everything about human behaviour, or of what motivates it. “Seldom, very seldom,” as the narrator cautions us in Emma, “does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”

From lurid to sober and back again: a sketch of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra ©North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo
Recognising the necessarily incomplete business of such disclosure may, however, be good cause for something other than grief and vexation. Austen’s fictions set out to mislead us, and none more so than Emma, a novel full of tricks and impositions. Card games and wordplay crop up throughout this book, which is in a broader sense about what it means to toy with other people. Mischievous little clues, at the level of individual words, open up wider moral vistas and show Austen playing with her readers, too. As she wrote to Cassandra in 1813, echoing Walter Scott, “I do not write for such dull Elves / As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.”
We dull elves need to remain on the lookout. Almost a century ago, Virginia Woolf described the double bind of anyone trying to get to grips with Austen: “First… of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second… there are 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.”
Braving that small mob of chivalric pensioners, Woolf proceeded to ask what kind of writer Austen might have gone on to be, had she lived beyond her early forties. What clues does her final completed work of fiction, Persuasion, contain? That novel is governed less by dialogue than the earlier writings are; it is shot through with melancholy reflections and a sketchy, romantic sense of landscape. This book handles, tactfully and feelingly, the persistence of love years after any hope of its reciprocation has died. It gave little or no suggestion, to Woolf’s mind, that an older Austen might have turned to crime, passion, or adventure as her subject matter. But she would have known more, and she was herself becoming a little better known as a writer. She might have lived long enough to experience a degree of literary fame; her sense of authorial identity might therefore have changed, and this in turn might have affected the style and focus of her prose. Persuasion struck Woolf as a less funny, more vague and mysterious piece of writing than the earlier fiction; evidence, perhaps, that Austen’s mind was sometimes not on the job, and that she was unhappy.
She was also dying. By March 1817, Austen’s complexion changed for the worse. As she wrote to her niece, shades of “black and white and every wrong colour” had passed across her face—although the affliction seemed to be temporary. Medical practitioners and historians have since interpreted the symptom as evidence that she was suffering from Addison’s disease, a condition aggravated by shock and characterised by fever, nausea, weakness and fainting.
One of the many strange things about Austen’s rapid and fatal illness is that it shares so many traits with what happens to characters in her childhood stories. Her abbreviated career possesses a freakish circularity, in which Austen’s literary beginnings appear to forebode how she herself would end. The brief, hysterically brilliant teenage works (which I recently finished co-editing with Kathryn Sutherland) are littered with sick and dying women, and with girls whose faces are—according to those who surround them—the wrong colour, either too white or too red. Alice Johnson, excessively fond of claret, is marked out by the “high colour” that results from daily binge-drinking; the ill-favoured Jezalinda plasters her cheeks with rouge, vainly attempting to disguise her ghastly features; the Lesley sisters, immured in a Scottish castle, are “horridly pale.” The face of an Austen character persists as an index of social status, beauty and health, from the wonderful Lady Williams, “a widow with a handsome Jointure & the remains of a very handsome face” in “Jack & Alice,” to that of Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, whose flushed cheeks prompt the sneers of the Bingleys but the admiration of Mr Darcy.
The colours and hues of Austen’s fiction change across her career, from the lurid to the sober and back to the lurid again. The exuberant, outlandish novel known by her family as Sanditon (1817), left unfinished when Austen died, breathes the same hectic atmosphere as that of her earliest works. Whether due to her illness or not, this experiment in fiction sounds more like the young and febrile Austen than the dawn of a new one. The just over 11 chapters of Sanditon move fast, opening with an accident and an injury when Mr and Mrs Parker’s horse-drawn carriage overturns. The setting is a fashionable coastal resort overrun with invalids and speculators; both groups are prone to monomania. Temperatures run high despite the delicious sea breeze. Houses are small or overheated; children are numerous; there is a great deal of rhapsodic, inconsequential talk, stuffiness, snugness and warmth, mostly of the unwelcome variety. Across this crazy landscape paces the shrewd country girl Charlotte Heywood. “Young, lovely and dependent,” fond of walks and right-minded literature, she is the immediate target of Sir Edward Denham’s plans for seduction. Sir Edward springs from another kind of novel, however: Charlotte is no dupe, and soon begins to find his aristocratic title scant recompense for his absurdity.
We do not know how this story might have ended, although there have been attempts to conclude it on Austen’s behalf. But it is appropriate that we possess evidence, in Sanditon, of work left incomplete while doing its best to charge to a close. It reminds us that being finished, or finished off, at breakneck speed is what Austen’s first known writings are all about.
The dashing teenage works are brutally funny studies in ugliness, violence, sickness and death, including suicide and murder. Pace and timing are necessarily different in the longer works of fiction, as is the sense of national and personal history. For all the hard-won patience of her final completed novel, as readers of Austen we should perhaps, in this bicentenary year, take more seriously than we are encouraged to do the last words of Sophia to Laura in “Love and Friendship” (1790): “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—.”