I’ve been researching and writing about “Austen and Ambition” for a few years, ever since JASNA Eastern Pennsylvania invited me to speak to their Region in 2015. I chose the topic because I liked the symmetry and alliteration of the words “Austen” and “ambition,” and because I had been reading Jane Austen’s letters and thinking about her ambitions for her literary career. Back in January of 2013 I wrote here about the combination of confidence and dissatisfaction in Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra when Pride and Prejudice was published. (See “Jane Austen’s ‘Darling Child’ meets the World.”)
I’ve long been interested in the way she described that novel as her “own darling Child” and said of Sense and Sensibility that “I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child” (April 25, 1811). In her letter of January 29, 1813, she seems torn between insisting that she’s happy with Pride and Prejudice, and joking about what’s wrong with it, and the fact that the book is now available to readers appears to make her nervous about what people will think of that “darling Child.”
Although she uses the word “ambition” only once in her letters in relation to herself — “I wore my Aunt’s gown & handkercheif, & my hair was at least tidy, which was all my ambition” (November 20, 1800) — Jane Austen was interested in what her readers thought of her novels and, as several of her biographers have suggested, she was keenly aware of the relationship between her own writing and that of both her contemporaries and her predecessors. While her family insisted that she was not ambitious — her nephew James-Edward Austen-Leigh wrote in his 1870 Memoir that “in public she turned away from any allusion to the character of an authoress” — she was in fact very interested in the way her novels were received by the public and she was even more interested in creating art that would endure.
As I worked on the paper I wrote for JASNA Eastern Pennsylvania, I thought a great deal about what it means to be ambitious, in life and in art, and I got more and more interested in the controversial question of whether ambition is a virtue or a vice. The lively discussion with the JASNA members and guests who attended my talk in Philadelphia in June of 2015 made me even more excited about exploring this topic further. It was such a pleasure to discuss Austen’s life and works with clever, well-informed people who know the novels so well.
I’m currently in the process of deciding what shape my new work on Austen and ambition will take (essays, blog posts, perhaps a book), but I do know that I’ll continue to write about this topic for a while. I’ve been thinking about ambition in relation to L.M. Montgomery’s heroine Anne Shirley as well (see “Anne Shirley’s Ambitions”), so I’ll be writing about Montgomery, and perhaps also Edith Wharton, alongside my work on Austen.
Wharton’s anti-heroine Undine Spragg offers a good example of self-centred ambition that focuses purely on status. In The Custom of the Country, Undine is always in pursuit of “something still better beyond.” (I’ve written quite a bit about Undine, and if you’re interested, you can find those blog posts collected here: “The Custom of the Country at 100.”) When is it a good thing to look for that something “better beyond,” and when is that kind of striving dangerous and destructive of happiness? In the talk I gave in Philadelphia, I mentioned Undine in relation to the biblical injunction to “be content with such things as ye have” (Hebrews 13:5).
As I continue to explore Austen and ambition, I’ll gather links to the relevant essays and blog posts here. Thank you very much for reading, and for being part of this project! I don’t know yet just how ambitious this project will be, but I’ll be sure to keep you posted as my plans take shape. As I mentioned in the blog post I wrote called “Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified,” I hope my own ambition to continue to find “good company and a great deal of conversation” will be gratified. I love talking about Austen (and Montgomery and Wharton and other writers) online and in person.
Essays and Blog Posts about Ambition:
Austen and Ambition (a post I wrote just after my June 2015 Philadelphia trip)
Anne Shirley’s Ambitions (Anne to Marilla: “I’m just as ambitious as ever. Only, I’ve changed the object of my ambitions.”)
“Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified” (on the launch of this “Austen and Ambition” page)
“‘Nothing against Her, but Her Husband & Her Conscience’: Jane Austen’s Lady Susan in Edith Wharton’s Old New York” (my JASNA 2012 AGM talk, published in Persuasions On-Line 33.1)
Quotations about Ambition:
“Her only fault was an unbounded ambition.” (Caroline Simpson in Jane Austen’s Jack and Alice)
“You have no ambition, I well know. Your wishes are all moderate.” (Mrs. Dashwood to Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 17)
“Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified.” (Lady Catherine to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 56)
“She desired nothing better herself. Till you chose to turn her into a friend, her mind had no distaste for her own set, nor any ambition beyond it. She was as happy as possible with the Martins in the summer. She had no sense of superiority then. If she has it now, you have given it. You have been no friend to Harriet Smith, Emma.” (Mr. Knightley in Emma, Chapter 8)
“To be finding herself, perhaps within three days, transported to Mansfield, was an image of the greatest felicity, but it would have been a material drawback to be owing such felicity to persons in whose feelings and conduct, at the present moment, she saw so much to condemn: the sister’s feelings, the brother’s conduct, her cold-hearted ambition, his thoughtless vanity.” (Fanny Price’s response to a letter from Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, Chapter 45)
“Your father and mother seem so totally free from all those ambitious feelings which have led to so much misconduct and misery, both in young and old.” (Anne Elliot praises Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove in Persuasion, Chapter 22)
“You think it is all for ambition, then? — And, upon my word, there are some things that seem very like it. I cannot forget, that, when she first knew what my father would do for them, she seemed quite disappointed that it was not more. I never was so deceived in anyone’s character in my life before.” (Catherine Morland reassesses Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, Chapter 25)
“I wore my Aunt’s gown & handkercheif, & my hair was at least tidy, which was all my ambition.” (Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, November 20, 1800)