The voice on the page, Jocelyn Harris

Was Jane Austen a plagiarist? Jocelyn Harris investigates.

Creative writers present their texts as singularly their own. Readers, in return for what Coleridge called the willing suspension of disbelief, expect to be delighted and surprised by their freshness. But if writers incorporate other voices without acknowledgement, the contract shatters, and readers inevitably protest.

Both here and in Britain, the problem has been especially acute in books not required to follow academic protocol about citation. Kathryn Sutherland, who holds the Oxford Chair of Bibliography and Textual Criticism once occupied by Don McKenzie, angrily called it “identity theft” when Claire Harman failed adequately to acknowledge her Jane Austen’s Textual Lives from Aeschylus to Bollywood (2005) in the popular Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (2009). As Tom Keymer declared in the Times Literary Supplement, “Acknowledgement should always be complete and specific, and this applies to popular as well as scholarly appropriations” .

I myself drew blood in the correspondence pages of the same journal when I said the editors of The Later Manuscripts of Jane Austen (2009) failed sufficiently to acknowledge their sources. As I wrote there:

It would have been easy enough to acknowledge editorial and critical predecessors. As teachers, we require students to name the sources of their ideas. As academics, we strive to do the same. This protocol is a matter of courtesy, it aids enquiry, and it demonstrates the originality on which our reputations and our careers depend. I fail to understand why it should be different for scholarly editors.


The shift from print to digital communication makes cutting and pasting all too easy, says Sutherland. But when writers borrow material without significant changes, copyright and intellectual property rights are undermined. I agree with her that we look in great writers for “the imprint of the voice on the page” (The Badger Online, 21/3/09). If authors no longer speak in their own voice, they throw away their most precious asset, the very thing for which they are read and valued.

So how do great writers use their sources? Jane Austen, for one, plundered the whole range of English literature from Chaucer to Scott. Literature was to her as the classical writers to Henry Fielding, a rich common where every person with a tenement in Parnassus has the right to fatten his muse (Tom Jones). Despite Northrop Frye’s pronouncement in Anatomy of Criticism that “poetry can only be made out of other poems, novels out of other novels”, Austen ranged far beyond fiction. Henry Austen reported that she read very extensively in history and belles-lettres, and her memory was extremely tenacious, but actually, she drew on almost all genres. So what did she make of her spoils, and in what spirit?

Austen lifted numerous ideas from her favourite novel, Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison. Dismantling, modifying and recombining his characters and episodes, she merged them into new contexts within her novels. According to James Austen-Leigh and Henry, her knowledge of Richardson was such as no one again is likely to acquire, and the wedding day of Richardson’s Harriet Byron was as well remembered as if she had been a living friend.

Austen would re-write that scene of welcoming a bride to her new home not once but four times. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood visits Allenham alone with Willoughby, to whom she is not even engaged, and they go all over a house he will inherit from an old lady not yet dead; in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, having refused Mr Darcy, visits his handsome house and feels that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something; in Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram exults at Sotherton even though her engagement to the owner, Mr Rushworth, is hateful to her; and in Persuasion, Anne Elliot resists marrying a man she dislikes, her cousin Mr Elliot, even though he would take her back to Kellynch, her beloved home.

Austen also appropriated A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Emma, transporting Shakepeare’s confusion of midsummer loves to Regency England. Here she creates what John Dryden called in Dramatick Poesie an imitation, or

the Endeavour of a later Poet to write like one who has written before him on the same subject: that is, not to Translate his words, or to be Confin’d to his Sense, but only to set him as a Pattern, and to write, as he supposes, that Authour would have done, had he liv’d in our Age, and in our Country.


Nearly 200 years after Emma was published, it was brilliantly imitated by the movie Clueless, where high school students in southern California re-enact Austen’s story in their own language, place, and time. Thus adaptors both admire and swerve away from revered predecessors. As in the trope about the battle between the classical ancients and the 18th century moderns, they acknowledge they are dwarves on the shoulders of giants, but see further for being dwarves on the shoulders of giants.

Austen also appropriates through parody. In “Jack and Alice”, she mocks Grandison’s improbable beauty, intelligence, easy manners, majesty and sweetness by Mr Charles Johnson’s praise of himself:

I look upon myself to be Sir a perfect Beauty – where would you see a finer figure or a more charming face. Then, sir I imagine my Manners & Address to be of the most polished kind; there is a certain elegance, a peculiar sweetness in them that I never saw equalled & cannot describe . . . I expect nothing more in my wife than my wife will find in me – Perfection.


And if Richardson solemnly lists all his hero’s dancing partners, Mrs Bennet’s attempt to do the same for Charles Bingley makes Mr Bennet cry out, “if he had had any compassion for me . . . he would not have danced half so much! For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh! that he had strained his ancle in the first dance!” (Pride and Prejudice).

Austen’s confident appropriations challenge Harold Bloom’s Freudian notion about the anxiety of influence, which he applies anachronistically to all writers. Taking whatever she wanted from print culture, she made found materials her own. Sometimes she signals her intent, as when Emma quotes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but other references remain unacknowledged, such as the theme of death and restoration from The Winter’s Tale pervading Persuasion. Sometimes again, she simply gestures to another text, without developing it through repetition and transformation. But almost always, as Susan Ford argues of the correspondence, Austen “turns and pieces narrative scraps into coherence”.

This playful alteration of matter recurs in the fiction, where Austen found and exchanged elements from books as well as life, transforming them into new, coherent wholes.

One notable exception is the conclusion to Persuasion, which Austen had no time to revise. Here lies revealed her initial selecting, disassembling and recombining. Readers complain about the unexpected revelation of Mr Elliot’s villainy, but it is a bricolage of fragments from Smollett, Mary Robinson, Othello, The Winter’s Tale and Grandison, assembled for revision. Such borrowings are easy to spot, because of the change from realism to melodrama, showing to telling, and consistency to inconsistency: Mrs Smith, a minor character, suddenly plays a major role, and even though for her own advantage she had urged her friend Anne to marry the treacherous Mr Elliot, Captain and Mrs Wentworth still love her at the end.

The Romantics are much to blame for insisting that writers should be completely original, for adaptation in all its forms – allusion, pastiche, parody, imitation, intertextuality and post-modern re-fashioning – is a legitimate creative practice from antiquity to the present day. And if readers are active rather than passive consumers of texts, as Michel de Certeau argues in The Practice of Everyday Life, so too writers will inevitably poach from other writers.

Austen’s appropriations signify neither plagiarism, nor lack of imagination, nor anxious submission to “influence,” but a conversation – sometimes easy, sometimes competitive – with predecessors and peers. Her rewriting results in what Lawrence Jones called in Thomas Hardy an “idiosyncratic mode of regard” or “the personal, idiosyncratic quality” of the work, “the strong sense of a distinctive ‘implied author’ behind the fictional world”. Austen’s books are indeed made out of other books, but she makes them entirely her own.


Jocelyn Harris is emeritus professor at the University of Otago. Her most recent book, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, appeared in 2007. 


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