One Evening in December as my Father, my Mother and myself, were arranged in social converse round our Fireside, we were on a sudden greatly astonished, by hearing a violent knocking on the outward door of our rustic Cot.
My Father started—“What noise is that,” (said he.)
“It sounds like a loud rapping at the door”—(replied my Mother.)
“it does indeed.” (cried I.)
“I am of your opinion; (said my Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door.”
“Yes (exclaimed I) I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance.”
“That is another point (replied he;) We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock—tho' that someone DOES rap at the door, I am partly convinced.”
--- Love and Freindship, Jane Austen (juvenilia)
Jane Austen’s characters and stories are so beloved that some of her devotees might think it treasonous to suggest that she owes anything to other novelists. Her own voice is so distinct and her genius shines so bright. We discuss her literary creations as though they are living, breathing people. How could anyone think that Austen drew on other writers for plot ideas and characters?
Many scholars do think so. And of course, we know she lampooned existing novels for her juvenile parodies. For example, the opening of Elizabeth Helme's 1789 novel Louisa, or the Cottage on the Moor, is satirized in Austen's hilarious juvenile work Love and Freindship. While she was writing her juvenilia, she was honing her art.
Helme's story begins: On a frosty night, the latter end of December (when the mild radiance of the moon, to a mind at ease, might have made even this rough scene delightful)--the inhabitants of the cottage were disturbed by a loud knocking, which was answered by a female voice, who from a window in the upper story demanded the reason of this late alarm!
Who knows, perhaps the idea of a heroine wandering on the moor and ending up at a lonely house inhabited by poor but honest genteel folk inspired more than one novel.
It is widely thought that Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are partly inspired by the sisters Louisa and Marianne in Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story (1796).
Scholar Jocelyn Harris has turned up possible inspirations for Persuasion. A girl is harassed by a little boy climbing on her back and she can’t get him off without help in The Wanderer (1814). This reminds us of Anne Elliot’s predicament with her little nephew. She suggests that sweet, retiring Anne Elliot resembles the heroine in Millennium Hall (1762), and another character in the book, Lady Lambton, is a possible precursor to Lady Russell: “a person of admirable understanding, polite, generous, and good-natured, who had no fault but a considerable share of pride.”
In the podcast series Hidden Histories, three female academics point out that the poet William Wordsworth acknowledged his debt to the poet and novelist Charlotte Smith. Sir Walter Scott, credited with being a pioneer of the historical novel, was "quite upfront in some ways" in his borrowings-- "he lifts themes and images" from previous writers. Devoney Looser shows that Scott owes a creative debt to the Porter sisters in her book Sister Novelists.
In her 1986 book, Mothers of the Novel, Dale Spender argues: "Any portrayal of [Austen] which represents her as an originator and not as an inheritor of women's literary tradition is one which has strayed far from the facts of women's fiction writing."
There are many, shall we say, glancing similarities to Austen to be found in other novels. Are we looking at similarity or inspiration? Jocelyn Harris, in Jane Austen’s Art of Memory, suggests that the haughty Miss Bingley is drawn from Miss Cantillon, a minor character in Sir Charles Grandison (1753), who is described as “pretty: but visibly proud, affected, and conceited” and who sometimes gave “affected smiles.” Likewise, she thinks Mr. Bingley owes something to another minor character, Mr. Singleton, a man “in possession of a good estate.”
Sir Charles Grandison is an early novel, and one of Austen's favourites, but I'm sure that many contemporary novels featured snobby young ladies, because they serve as useful foils for the heroine. Modern romances have them too! They are pretty much a stock character. And, as we have seen, announcing the income and social standing of a young man when he walks on to the pages of a novel was standard practice for the time.
Look at Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake (1789) by Charlotte Smith. The overall plot of this novel bears no resemblance to Austen. But there are some similar characters and some similarities of incident: a baronet’s wife is described as indolent and vacant-minded and indifferent to her children, like Lady Bertram. Ethelinde is accidentally flung out of a boat during a pleasure excursion, just as Jane Fairfax almost comes to grief in Weymouth. "The ladies of the party, affecting great terror, thought more of expressing it in the most becoming manner, than in assisting her who had occasioned it. Lady Newenden insisted upon fainting, but as nobody seemed disposed to attend to her, she very prudently contented herself with the appearance of it only."
Ethelinde turns down a marriage proposal in a carriage, like Emma turns down Mr. Elton. A cold-hearted wife tells her husband that he shouldn't give any money to his relatives because he has his own family to support, like Fanny Dashwood. Another father's "fortune was so conditioned as to leave it little in his power to provide for his daughters in a manner suitable to their rank," like Mr. Bennet. His wife frightens away her daughter’s potential suitors, like Mrs. Bennet. “It had been the study of her Ladyship’s life to get them well married; but in this important object she had hitherto failed, probably from the ill judged avidity with which she pursued it.”
Likewise, Constance (1785), Clara and Emmeline, or the Maternal Benediction (1788), Belinda (1801) and Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809)--and no doubt other novels--feature heroines who refuse to marry well-born, wealthy suitors because of their vices, just as Fanny rejects Henry Crawford. We wouldn't expect Austen to be the only author who creates a heroine who puts self-respect ahead of money.
Did Austen pick up on any of the examples I've mentioned? Or, were all these authors ringing the changes on the basic marriage plot engaged with the same social milieu, and the resemblances arise from the fact that everyone is working with the same raw materials?
The more old novels I read, the more interested I become in novelistic techniques and tropes. For example, I was surprised by the very complicated exposition techniques of this otherwise lightweight romance novel, and I think the author deserves some credit for it.
Those who have looked for influences of other writers in Austen's novels have tended to look at the best-known writers of the era--Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith, as well as the best known essayists of the past--Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson. But I've been finding connections with now-obscure writers, with the ones who wrote novels for the masses. I previously quoted Devoney Looser's remark in her Great Courses series on Austen that Jane Austen’s juvenilia shows that the young Austen was acquainted, not only with good books, but “with the opposite of great literature."
With that in mind, I'll look at the strange case of a novel with many coincidental similarities to Northanger Abbey in my next post.
Previous post: Elizabeth Helme, writing for survival Next post: The Bristol Heiress, part one
For an outline of Sir Charles Grandison and discussions of its resemblance or otherwise to Austen's novels, try this enjoyable blog series.
I've written in earlier posts about 18th century stock characters who appear in Austen novels: the female pedant, the saucy sidekick, and the vulgar underbred lady and the fop. Many of the novels which contain examples of these characters are forgotten today, while Austen's creations are immortal.
Update: Since writing this post I've discovered a book which discusses how Jane Austen used the novelistic techniques and tropes of her era. It's Jane Austen's art of allusion, by Kenneth L. Moler. University of Nebraska Press, 1968.
Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. These old novels I've been discussing are now widely available in digital versions. They provide a window into a fascinating period in history. Click here for the first in the Clutching My Pearls series.