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Finding Jane Austen in history

2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of R. W. Chapman’s OUP edition of The Novels of Jane Austen which dominated the market throughout the twentieth century. Recent years have seen calls to recover the unacknowledged contribution to its success of Chapman’s wife, Katharine Metcalfe.

Where Chapman scrutinized the Austen text inside a template derived from classical scholarship, suggesting its elucidation and elevation by comparison with Aeschylus and Euripides, the model provided by Metcalfe’s 1912 edition of Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s most celebrated novel, immersed the reader in a simulated Regency experience. Metcalfe undertook it after Walter Raleigh, first holder of the Chair of English Literature at Oxford, dissuaded her from writing a study of Mary Wollstonecraft.    

Many features of Metcalfe’s edition now routinely inform the apparatus of a World’s Classics packaging of a classic novel; but in 1912 the approach was fresh. Facsimile title page and a restored first-edition text (the look of a nineteenth-century printed page) were supplemented with an appendix, “Jane Austen and her Time”, being notes on life in Regency England: “Travelling and Post”, “Deportment, Accomplishments, and Manners”, “Social Customs”, “Games”, “Dancing”, and “Language”. Chapman adopted them all.  

Metcalfe’s contribution is best seen in the context of her historical moment. With a degree in English from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, she was among the first generation of female university graduates. In 1912-13, she was Assistant English Tutor at another of Oxford’s colleges for women, Somerville. Gender imbalance interacts complexly with genre: a matter of political and educational opportunities as well as hierarchies of readers and writers. Chapman dignified (or perhaps patronized) the female novelist by submitting her to the rigours of male classical textual criticism. In the early decades of the twentieth century, women graduates found intellectual space and a voice in sociological readings of literature and history. They found themselves in history by finding women from the past inside history.

“In the early decades of the twentieth century, women graduates found intellectual space and a voice in sociological readings of literature and history.”

The academic community of Somerville College was from the opening of the century to the outbreak of the Second World War a fertile ground for developments in feminist politics, Georgian history, and Austen studies. Margaret Kennedy, who went up to read History in 1915, was a contemporary at Somerville of second-generation suffragists, Hilda Stewart Reid, Winifred Holtby, and Vera Brittain. Kennedy was both historian (her first book, A Century of Revolution (1922), a study of the years 1789 to 1920) and historical novelist; she would publish a biography of Austen in 1950 and a general study of fiction, The Outlaws on Parnassus, in 1955. Holtby would write regional novels whose strong modern heroines champion social change. She lectured for the League of Nations Union and produced a feminist historical survey Women (1934), which included a section “The Importance of Mary Wollstonecraft”. Reid’s historical novel, Two Soldiers and a Lady (1932), set during the English Civil War, was praised in the New York Times for its “abnegation” of conventional history: “By deliberate concentration on what might, at first sight, appear to be historically of least importance the author has succeeded in reproducing the spirit of the period which determined the events” (18 September 1932, “Book Review”, p. 6).

Education and the social cataclysm of war propelled women into history. They saw that fiction might offer a space for mapping alternative histories and supplementing the official record. In 1923, as Chapman’s Austen appeared, Metcalfe published under her own name an edition of Northanger Abbey, though she adopted Chapman’s text.

Northanger Abbey is a novel in conversation with the novel as literary form, and it contains a famous critique of history. Its heroine, Catherine Morland, good-humouredly endures instruction from the hero Henry Tilney, but she is clear about the shortcomings of history books, what she calls “real solemn history”, in which women hardly feature at all. How can history exclude women’s lives, she asks, when so much that we take to be history consists of the colour, motives, and interpretation brought to its narration. Since “a great deal of it must be invention” it must be a kind of double fiction to exclude women from it (chapter 14).

“Writing from the margins of social history and literature, [women historians] set the past and present in dialogue.”

In the opening decades of the twentieth century, women historians (M. Dorothy George, English Social Life in the Eighteenth Century, 1923; Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850, 1930) were at the forefront of developments in social and economic history to recover different kinds of past and to complicate the discourses of established history with a finer-grained, domestic, and moralized enquiry. Writing from the margins of social history and literature, they set the past and present in dialogue.

100 years ago these women were looking back 100 years. Jane Austen was a point of orientation. Recovered within a historical context rather than a purely affective one, Austen’s novels became amenable to new purposes. For Holtby it meant discovering why Virginia Woolf’s heroines could no longer “sit behind a tea-tray” (Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir, 1936, 91); for Woolf it meant celebrating Austen’s anarchic teenage voice (in “Jane Austen Practising”, The New Statesman, 19, 1922). Heard alongside their bold reimaginings, Katharine Metcalfe’s voice, too, sounds a new and confident note. “Two apparently contradictory impressions are left after reading Jane Austen’s novels”, she wrote, “a first impression of her old-fashionedness, a second of her modernness” (Pride and Prejudice, edited by K. M. Metcalfe, 1912, 389). Only for Chapman, ventriloquizing their socio-historical approach by sourcing contemporary engravings as set dressing to Austen’s novels—a Regency window curtain, a marble fireplace, naval uniforms of 1814—did it mean the past preserved in aspic rather than a challenge to the present.  

Read Kathryn Sutherland’s “On Looking into Chapman’s Austen: 100 Years On” in The Review of English StudiesAvailable to read for free until 31 May 2023.

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