Blame it on Dr. Eaves.
He’s the answer to the question, why would a 21st Century man, who has spent most of his career in computers, business, and aviation, explore the “what ifs” in the life of a literary woman from two hundred years earlier?
Dr. Duncan Eaves was my cherubic 18th Century literature instructor, who could joyfully recite long stretches of Pope’s heroic couplets or convince his students, by good humor alone, that it was worth the effort to finish Samuel Richardson’s tedious novel Pamela.
Dr. Eaves was a world expert in 18th Century literature, and Jane Austen was the bookend of his course. He and another wonderful instructor at my school, Dr. Ben Kimpel, wrote the definitive biography of Richardson, usually considered the first English novelist, and Dr. Eaves edited an edition of Pamela.
Dr. Eaves eschewed the usual Jane Austen reads, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, for Emma, which he considered much the superior work.
At this same time, in a class on modern poetry, I read a poem—by Anne Sexton or Maxine Kumin, I believe—that described what life would have been like for Romeo and Juliet had they not “escaped” with a romantic death: squalling babies, money hassles, etc. I had just gotten married and had a child, was struggling financially, and knew, even at 21, that courtship and marriage were radically different things.
The situation led to animated exchanges with Dr. Eaves about Austen. My view was that she was a brilliant but superficial writer—almost by definition—because courtship did not lend itself to investigation of the deepest feelings of the heart or the substance of life. Her books, I told Dr. Eaves, ended where they should have begun: with marriage.
Dr. Eaves told me to come back and read Austen every ten years or so. As I gained experience, he said, I would see more of life woven into the fabric of her work and less of the comedy of manners. Over time, his prediction came true. Austen pushed the bounds of convention, and likely her own sense of propriety, by addressing substantive issues obliquely—premarital sex and the slave trade, to mention two.
Even the delightful Emma, with its breezily misguided protagonist, manages to provide “perfect happiness” for a scandalous situation, which is the fact of Harriet’s illegitimacy. Interestingly enough, her being a “natural” daughter turns out not to be nearly as important as whether her father was a gentleman, as Emma supposes, or a tradesman, as turns out to be the case.
Novels in Austen’s day often addressed the question of a lady’s virtue before marriage but never seriously addressed other matters of consequence, before or after the wedding. Austen’s secondary characters are the ones involved in dubious—thus consequential—activities, and she often leaves open the question of future happiness for them. The main characters, however, skip off gaily into the future.
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen is my solution to the questions that began decades ago at university. I wanted to bring the more serious issues of her day out of the background and into the light, as part of the protagonist’s own experiences.
I also wanted to see how a woman of Austen’s intelligence, passion, and independence would respond when she must directly address those issues. The answer was to throw the female lead into the exciting, chaotic maelstrom that was the Georgian-Regency era.