Meanwhile Austen’s journey to publication can also be seen as a lesson in resilience, paved with rejection and false starts. After starting to write at around the age of 12, she began doing it seriously in her 20s but did not get published until her mid 30s. When she was aged 22, in 1797, her father sent off an early draft of Pride and Prejudice to the London publisher Cadell & Davies, which was rejected curtly by return of post, while six years later, another novel named Susan was accepted for £10 by Crosby and Co but never published by the London firm. “The disappointment of that must have been absolutely crippling,” says Kelly. “It’s clearly something she [had] been dreaming about for years and years.” In 1809, Austen wrote an aggrieved letter to Crosby and Co – “not a template of what to write to your publishers”, according to Kelly – which proved ineffectual. Then in 1816, just a year before she died, she finally bought the manuscript back – leading to it being published posthumously as Northanger Abbey (accompanied by a disgruntled ‘Advertisement by the Authoress’ lamenting the earlier non-publication). “It took a lot of grit to carry on especially when her brothers wanted her to look after their motherless boys,” Kelly says.
Her heroines’ growth
Austen’s heroines are similarly often required to persevere, though more stoically, suffering in silence after believing their chance of happiness has been lost forever. The moment when Elinor Dashwood steels herself before seeing her love Edward Ferrars, wrongly believing he has married another – “I will be calm, I will be mistress of myself” – is both heartbreaking and inspiring; a strength of character rendered particularly powerfully by Emma Thompson in her performance in the 1995 Ang Lee film adaptation that she also scripted. In Persuasion, protagonist Anne Elliot is confronted with Captain Wentworth who she loved and rejected nine years ago, and apparently fails to recognise her because she is so changed (“so altered that he should not have known her again”); she is mortified, as she still loves him, though she tries to hide all display of emotion. Some claim this is Austen’s most romantic novel, partly because of how Anne learns to reveal her real feelings so that Wentworth can “know” her truly, leading to one of the most moving literary denouements in which he tells her: “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope”.
“If you look at every single one of Jane Austen’s heroines, they get to some stage of the story where they think they’re not going to get the person they want, ” says Mullan. “In several of them, the central character becomes convinced that the man she loves is going to marry someone else even if the reader knows better. In that simple sense, these are stories of not just getting what you want but accepting that happy endings might not be available to you. So self-pity is not an option.”