Sunday, July 16, 2017

Jane Austen Wasn’t Shy

by Devoney Looser

New York Times

July 15, 2017

It is a fiction that should be universally acknowledged: The old yarn that Jane Austen hid her writing, and was reluctant to claim credit for it, is an improbable story based on flimsy evidence. “Private,” “secret,” “mysterious” and “hidden” stick to her legacy like a wet white shirt on Colin Firth’s torso. In this, the bicentennial of her death, it’s time we tossed them out.

Interest in Austen is once again waxing, with devotees organizing celebrations of her fiction, life and legacy on almost every continent as the 200th anniversary of her death on July 18 approaches. It’s no wonder. She’s one of the best (and for some, the best — period) of our classic novelists. She’s among the most revered authors writing in English who also happens to be female.

Whether or not you think calling her a woman novelist is a good idea, her gender matters deeply. Austen was the female face selected for new British coins and bills, after feminist activists pressed for the change. In elementary schools, costumed Jane Austens are found alongside another inaccurately mythologized historical giant, George Washington, on ever-popular “impersonate a famous dead person” days. Children share the famous story of Austen’s hiding her writing, still included in many juvenile biographies, despite the fact that its status deserves to be downgraded to that of cherry tree chopping. The myth of a great woman writer’s overwhelming dread of being caught in the act of writing shouldn’t outlast a male president’s supposed childhood confession of hatcheting a tree.


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