Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, so it seems like a good time for a post distinguishing the English Jane Austen with the American Jane Goodwin Austin.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged” that every article about Jane Austen has to include that phrase somewhere (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. I was trying to come up with Austin Power jokes, though, so it could have been worse).
The English Jane Austen was born in 1775 and published some of the best-known and most critically acclaimed novels in all of literature. Pride and Prejudice (1813) is probably her most famous novel, although my personal favorite is Persuasion, which was published in 1818 after her death a year earlier.
Austen’s novels are complex. She not only had an arresting command of language but also insights into the human psyche that put her ahead of her time. Her reputation was modest in her lifetime, but seventy or so years after her death, she was being “rediscovered” and praised as a genius.
Her reputation now is probably at its highest point. I have several friends today who would consider themselves to be hard-core “Janeites.” Austen’s story lines have even permeated popular culture; it’s becoming difficult to count the number of spinoffs and fan-fictions, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
So you can imagine how many times over my years of research on the American author Jane Goodwin Austin that I’ve stumbled across a reference to “Jane Austin” in an archive or a database, only to discover that, in fact, it was a misspelling and a reference to the English Austen.
A mistake like that even made headlines back in 2014, when a Miss America pageant member misspelled Austen’s name in her talent portion. Jane Goodwin Austin was mentioned briefly in articles covering the faux pas, but that’s one of the very few times my Google alert for her name has actually provided a hit.
The American Jane Goodwin Austin was born in Massachusetts in 1831, after the English Austen had already died. Although she was a popular writer in her own time (enough that at one point, she traveled to Prince Edward Island so she could have a break from fans), her work is forgotten today.
Jane Goodwin Austin does not deserve to be forgotten, and that’s largely the impetus behind my research and writing. But I’ll be the first to admit that her writing is not at the same level of the English Austen’s.
Whereas Austen was a meticulous writer and ended up only publishing four novels in her lifetime (two were published posthumously and one manuscript was not completed), Jane G. Austin wrote quickly and in a less polished style. Depending on how you characterize her work, she wrote close to 30 novels and published 75+ short stories. Austen was a master of subtlety and focused more on developing her characters than her plots; Austin relies heavily on her plots, and her characters tend to be flatter.
But both writers have had an enormous impact on popular culture. Austen’s novels have stood the test of time and continue to be read, debated, and reimagined. Austin’s work has influenced a lot of what we think we know about Pilgrims, and by extension, then, about early America and American identity. But her role in shaping those stories has been lost.