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Regarding Jane Austen

I was surprised to see a reference to one of my books in yesterday’s Book Review section of the New York Times (7-17-2017):  “In 1979, Warren Roberts produced a thoughtful study called “Jane Austen and the French Revolution.”  The great event is never mentioned in the novels, but it is there, Roberts argues, invisibly woven into the narratives.  Kelly (who wrote the book under review) makes the same point herself to support her “secret radical” thesis.  But Roberts conclusions are cautious.  Kelly’s are adventurous.  Some work better than others.”

My book on Jane Austen came out in 1979; I wrote it after spending a sabbatical year in England in 1970-71.  I had just completed my first book and had no idea what I would do next.  We lived about fifty miles from Steventon, where Austen grew up; I had read her novels and decided to drive to Steventon, even though her village house no longer stood.  But the chapel, just outside the village, still stood; seeing it, being inside it, made a deeply lasting impression.  It is very small and has plaques, memorials to Austen’s father and one of her brothers who were both rectors in the parish.  It was a beautiful day; no one else was there; I remember the wind blowing through the fields behind the chapel.  Seeing the chapel in Steventon made me decide to continue work on Jane Austen; I bought a copy of her letters and her youthful writings; by the time we returned to America I had begun the book on Jane Austen.  I finished the manuscript and sent it to three American university presses; none were interested.  I decided that was it; I would turn to another writing project.  It was at this precise time that my wife Anne, who was a librarian at the University at Albany, where I taught, brought home a copy of a book that had just arrived at the University library.  It had not yet been catalogued.  There was an article by an eminent Austen scholar, whose work I had read carefully.  His piece covered some of the same material that I also covered in one of my chapters; I sent him a copy of that chapter.  Within a couple of weeks I received a letter from Macmillan requesting a copy of my manuscript; the Austen scholar, B.C. Southam, contacted Macmillan about my manuscript.  I sent them my manuscript; they accepted it for publication without calling for revisions. 

The title of my book, “Jane Austen and the French Revolution,” came out of my training and thinking; I am an historian.  Jane Austen never referred to the French Revolution in her novels or in her extant correspondence, but I saw her and her fiction within an historical framework in which the French Revolution was important; it changed English life profoundly.  Austen was born in 1775; she died in 1817; she lived through an age of upheaval.  She did not refer to the French Revolution but it left its mark on her and her writing.  Or so I argued.  It has been almost forty years since my book on Jane Austen was published; I was greatly pleased to see the reference to it in yesterday’s NY T.  Tomorrow will be the 200th anniversary of her death.  She was little known during her lifetime; her name did not appear in any of her novels during her lifetime.  It was only much later that her novels began to occupy the prominent place that they have enjoyed ever since. Yesterday’s Book Review section of the NYT has six pieces on Jane Austen; she is now one of the immortals of English literature.    



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