Jane Austen’s Byronic Heroes I: Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility

  • Sarah Wootton


Jane Austen and Lord Byron are strange bedfellows. Perhaps even more so than Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, the focus of subsequent chapters, the inclusion of Austen in this book may seem misplaced. Yet, despite the seeming incompatibility of Austen and Byron, authors and critics have commented on this unlikely couple if only to emphasise differences in the scope and style of their work and in their respective life experiences. As Rachel Brownstein suggests,

Austen and Byron, close contemporaries, beg to be talked about together, and frequently have been. They seem to embody and invite and thus reinforce familiar binary oppositions: male and female, free and constrained, celebrated and obscure, self-indulgent aristocrat and saving, respectable homebody; Romantic poet and domestic novelist, careless producer of endless versions and careful rewriter, oversexed and asexual, sinner and saint; a handsome creature we have many gorgeous portraits of and a sharp little face in a sketch.1


Woman Writer Film Version Subsequent Chapter Romantic Poet Male Protagonist 
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  1. 1.
    Rachel M. Brownstein, ‘Romanticism, A Romance: Jane Austen and Lord Byron, 1813–1815’, Persuasions, 16 (1994), pp. 175–84 (p. 176). Brownstein reflects critically on this polarisation in a later essay, stating ‘When their names turn up on the same page today, it is usually to suggest the range of Romantic period writing and/or the binary opposition between genders and genres: compare and contrast the maiden novelist who signed herself “A Lady” with that exhibitionist rake, the Noble Poet’. SeeGoogle Scholar
  2. Rachel M. Brownstein, ‘Endless Imitation: Austen’s and Byron’s Juvenilia’, in The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf, ed. by Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005), pp. 122–37 (p. 122). For Shobhana Bhattacharji, contrasts between Austen and Byron provide a starting point for exploring genre and mood, as well as travel and pilgrimage. See Google Scholar
  3. Bhattacharji, ‘The Gloom and Cheerfulness of Childe Harold and Elizabeth Bennet’, in Byron: Heritage and Legacy, ed. by Cheryl A. Wilson (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008), pp. 151–63.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    A number of authors and critics have noted the proximity of Austen and Byron in terms of satire. Doucet Devin Fischer claims that ‘Austen’s awareness of the multiple ironies that Byron chose to compress into one clever pun is diffused throughout her fictions’, in ‘Byron and Austen: Romance and Reality’, Byron Journal, 21 (1993), pp. 71–9 (pp. 73–4). See, also, William Galperin, ‘Byron, Austen, and the “Revolution” of Irony’, Criticism, 32:1 (1990), pp. 51–80. W. H. Auden, when contemplating Austen as the recipient of his ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (1937), the ‘one other author in my pack’, offers a pastiche of her audacious satire: You could not shock her more than she shocks me; Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass. It makes me most uncomfortable to see An English spinster of the middle-class Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’, Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety The economic basis of society.Google Scholar
  5. W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927–1939, ed. by Edward Mendelson, rpt (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), p. 171. Subsequent page references will be given in the text.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    See Beth Lau, ‘Placing Jane Austen in the Romantic Period: Self and Solitude in the Works of Austen and the Male Romantic Poets’, European Romantic Review, 15:2 (June 2004), pp. 255–67 (p. 264); and ‘Home, Exile, and Wanderlust in Austen and the Romantic Poets’, Pacific Coast Philology, 41 (2006), pp. 91–107 (p. 91). See, also,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  10. 4.
    ‘[H]ints of common ground dissolve into a basis of significant dissimilarlity’, argued L. J. Swingle in ‘The Perfect Happiness of the Union: Jane Austen’s Emma and English Romanticism’, Wordsworth Circle, 7:4 (1976), pp. 312–19 (p. 312). This article was published in a special issue of The Wordsworth Circle devoted to the topic of Austen as a Romantic writer. Swingle’s later essay, for the same journal, argued for a link between Austen and her contemporaries in terms of an ‘almost obsessive preoccupation with contrarieties’. See ‘The Poets, the Novelists, and the English Romantic Situation’, Wordsworth Circle, 10:2 (Spring 1979), pp. 218–27 (p. 220).Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book VII, l. 150. See Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, ed. by John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway (London: Penguin, 1995). Subsequent references to Barrett Browning’s poetry will be given in the text. Anne Mellor, among others, has argued for ‘at least two romanticisms, the men’s and the women’s’ in an effort to shift the study of Romanticism away from a presiding group of male poets.Google Scholar
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  14. 6.
    The following represents a brief selection of the critical studies that have reframed the debates over Romantic dialogues and legacies in recent years: Beth Lau, ed., Fellow Romantics: Male and Female British Writers, 1790–1835 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009);Google Scholar
  15. Michael O’Neill, The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007); ‘Romanticism and its Legacies’, special issue of Romanticism, 14:1 (2008), guest ed. Michael O’Neill;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  22. 8.
    See Gaye King, ‘Catton Hall’, Transactions of the Jane Austen Society, 2 (1991), pp. 61–3 (p. 62). For details of the poet’s involvement in Lord Portsmouth’s scandalous second marriage, seeGoogle Scholar
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  24. 12.
    The responses to Austen’s novels, by both Annabella Milbanke and Lady Bessborough, are cited in Elizabeth Barry, ‘Jane Austen and Lord Byron: Connections’, Persuasions, 8 (1986), pp. 39–41 (p. 39).Google Scholar
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    David Gilson, ‘Jane Austen’s Verses’, The Book Collector, 33 (1984), pp. 25–37 (p. 37). Here Gilson provides bibliographic details for some of Austen’s occasional verse. In an essay on Austen’s poetry, David Selwyn argues for ‘a tradition of family verse-writing’, and reminds us that her final written words were a poem. See Selywn, ‘Poetry’, in Jane Austen in Context, pp. 59–67 (p. 59).Google Scholar
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    Quotations from Byron’s poem, ‘Napoleon’s Farewell’, are taken from Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. by Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), III, pp. 312–3. Quotations from Austen’s copy, ‘Lines of Lord Byron, in the Character of Buonaparté’, are taken from the original manuscript, MS8/A0174, housed in the University of Southampton Library. I would like to thank the Senior Archivist, Karen Robson, for her assistance.Google Scholar
  35. 22.
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  36. 23.
    Corin Throsby, ‘Byron, Commonplacing and Early Fan Culture’, in Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750–1850, ed. by Tom Mole (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), pp. 227–44 (p. 228). Throsby gives details of the Byron poems that were frequently quoted from in commonplace books of the period.Google Scholar
  37. 26.
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  38. 27.
    Deresiewicz, Austen and the Romantic Poets, p. 146. Todd argues for the contemporary significance of literature inspired by the Battle of Waterloo for the genesis of Persuasion. See her ‘Introduction’ to Jane Austen, Persuasion, ed. by Janet Todd and Antje Blank (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006). In addition, David Nokes associates the completion of Emma with Napoleon’s previous escape from Elba and conflates the success of these endeavours: ‘By the end of March, when the French Emperor resumed power in Paris, she had finished the book’ (Austen: A Life, p. 459).Google Scholar
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    The extent to which Byron was influenced by and departed from the eighteenth-century libertinism of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses is the subject of Jonathan Gross’s essay ‘Epistolatory Engagements: Byron, Annabella, and the Politics of 1813’, in Contemporary Studies on Lord Byron, ed. by William D. Brewer (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001), pp. 17–36.Google Scholar
  40. 30.
    Kenneth L. Moler argues that the figure of Mr Darcy incorporates and critiques aspects of a character-type from Samuel Richardson’s and Fanny Burney’s fiction. See Moler, ‘Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen’s “Patrician Hero”’, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 7:3 (1967), pp. 491–508.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 31.
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    Michael Kramp, Disciplining Love: Austen and the Modern Man (Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2007). Criticism that has previously argued for a renewed focus on masculinities in Austen’s fiction includes: Claudia L. Johnson’s ‘Afterword’, entitled ‘Remaking English Manhood in Emma’, in Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s: Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 191–203;Google Scholar
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    The novel was revised and completed in 1803; it was published posthumously in 1818 with Persuasion. See ‘Jane Austen and the Northanger Novelists’ for a discussion of the ‘horrid’ books that Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland, in Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide, ed. by Douglass H. Thomson, Jack G. Voller, and Frederick S. Frank (London: Greenwood Press, 2002).Google Scholar
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    The formative fragment ‘Catharine, or the Bower’, Austen’s prototype for Northanger Abbey (and Sense and Sensibility in some respects), stages a conversation over Charlotte Smith’s novels that reveals the heroine’s indiscriminate reading habits as well as the superficial pronouncements of her friend, Camilla Stanley, an early version of Isabella Thorpe. Their exchange offers a foretaste of the fraught subject of women writers, women readers, and genre in Northanger Abbey, although this Catherine is quick to rebuff a young woman who ‘professed a love of Books without Reading’. John Thorpe, Isabella’s brother, is a revision of Camilla’s thoughtless yet entertaining brother, Edward Stanley. See Jane Austen, Juvenilia, ed. by Peter Sabor (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), p. 248.Google Scholar
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© Sarah Wootton 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah Wootton
    • 1
  1. 1.Durham UniversityUK

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