“My Jane Austen Novel”: Literary Tradition in McEwan’s Atonement

In his 2001 novel Atonement, Ian McEwan presents a story brimming with allusions to other literary works. Briony Tallis, her elder sister Cecelia, and their childhood friend Robbie Turner are characters all heavily influenced by British literature. Robbie and Cecelia both studied literature at Cambridge, and Briony is an aspiring author. Briony is a thirteen year old girl, who grapples with what she thinks makes good fiction. She tries throughout Atonement to reconcile her own views with those of the “great” literary works of the past. McEwan’s use of literary allusions, specifically to Jane Austen and her works, shows that all novels and ideas are affected by their predecessors. McEwan alludes to Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park the most heavily, but there are subtle references to all Jane Austen’s novels. Ian McEwan also draws a parallel between Jane Austen and Briony Tallis.

Briony Tallis is much like Jane Austen in both her temperament and the particulars of her life. Jane Austen was a writer from a young age, much like Briony. Austen is described as having always known she wanted to be a writer and wrote extensively in her youth. Both women wrote plays in their youth and Austen was known to put on plays with her family members to entertain guests. Briony’s The Trail of Arabella is written and performed much in the same fashion as Jane Austen’s juvenile plays. Jane Austen had an older sister Cassandra, who was much like the character Cecelia in Atonement. Their names both begin with the letter C and Cassandra’s fiancé died before they could ever marry, much like how Robbie dies at the battle of Dunkirk before he and Cecelia could ever reunite. Austen was known to be close to her sister because they were the two sisters in a large family. This mirrors Cecelia and Briony’s relationship at the beginning of the novel. Jane Austen was also quite close to her older brother Henry Austen, who later became her literary agent. Austen was like Briony in the regard that both women remained unmarried. They both came of age at a time when England was at war. In Austen’s life the English fought in the American Revolution and in the Napoleonic Wars. The majority of Briony’s youth is during World War II. Both women were concerned with what it means to write a novel, and they both questioned traditional gender and social class roles.

Another major characteristic that Jane Austen and Briony Tallis shared in common was that they had trouble getting published. Jane Austen first tried to publish her work First Impressions, which later became Pride and Prejudice, in 1797 but it was not published until 1813, and that was only after the success of her published novel Sense and Sensibility. Briony has similar problems getting published in the novel. Her first novella, Two Figures by a Fountain, was rejected by a publisher in the part three of the novel. One of the reasons the publisher decides not to publish the story is because Briony was, “an unknown writer”. Austen faced this same problem when she went to publish her first novel Sense and Sensibility and her brother ended up paying for the novel to be published by Thomas Egerton of the Military Library publishing house. Two of Jane Austen’s novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, were published after her death in 1817. Briony said that her final novel Atonement was not to be published until after her death because her editor would not publish the novel until after Lola and Paul Marshall had died. Her editor said, “publication equals litigation”, meaning that once the novel was published everyone would know Paul, not Robbie, raped Lola.

The Jane Austen novel most alluded to in Atonement is Northanger Abbey. It was the first novel Austen completed but it was the last of her novels that was published, much like how Briony has been writing Atonement throughout her life and her last novel. Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a young woman who is obsessed with gothic novels and allows her vivid imagination to run wild. She wrongly accuses General Tilney of killing his wife and later realizes her mistake. Ian McEwan said in an interview, “For many, many years I’ve been thinking how I might devise a hero or heroine who could echo that process in Catherine Morland, but then go a step further and look at, not the crime, but the   process of atonement, and do it in writing—do it through storytelling, I should say” (Wells 102); Atonement is the novel that developed from McEwan’s desire.  Briony, much like Catherine Morland, wrongly accuses a man of a crime he did not commit. Unlike in Northanger Abbey, the innocent man goes to jail and Briony seeks to atone for her sin throughout her life. While in Northanger Abbey there is a happy ending for Catherine Morland and no one is hurt by her accusations, Briony has to write the novel Atonement to give Cecelia and Robbie a happy ending and Robbie’s life is ruined by Briony’s accusations.

Other then the plot similarities there are several allusions to Northanger Abbey. The epigraph at the beginning of the novel is from the point in Northanger Abbey when Catherine tells Mr. Tilney of her suspicions about his father. The Tallis home is turned into a hotel called the Tilney Hotel by the end of the novel. The name is another allusion to Northanger Abbey, where the General Tilney is the man Catherine wrongly accuses and she ends up marrying Mr. Tilney, his son. The architecture of the Tallis home is described as a “lead-paned baronial Gothic” (McEwan 23). The allusion to the gothic architecture is a very subtle allusion to Northanger Abbey, where Catherine is obsessed with the gothic style novel. Northanger Abbey is considered a satire on gothic novels and Austen questions what makes a good novel and what makes a good protagonist by showing the exaggerated and grandiose vision of fiction and life presented in gothic novels. McEwan is questioning what it means to write a novel through Briony. He also uses the motifs of various genres and allusions to other literary works like Austen did in Northanger Abbey to show that all novels are affected by and modify the works that came before. Northanger Abbey and Atonement both focus on the difference between fiction and reality. Austen warns readers to not mistake fiction as reality and McEwan uses the revelation that Briony, as the author of Atonement, gave Robbie and Cecelia a fake happy ending to prove the point that fiction does not necessarily reflect reality.

Another novel that heavily influenced Atonement is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. It is the story of Fanny Price and her experiences while living at her Aunt and Uncle’s summer home, Mansfield Park. The Tallis Home is much like Mansfield Park in that the Tallis children and children at Mansfield Park have little adult supervision and they also lack a strong father figure. Sir Thomas Bertram is not very involved in the lives of his children or niece for much of their youth, but once he comes back from a long holiday he takes control and becomes a stern disciplinarian. Mr. Tallis is not very involved in his children’s lives, but once Lola is raped he is the one who is called to handle it and he is the one who makes all the big decisions for the family. Both men are considered the head of their families, but they are both very impersonal and do not know their own children, leading them to make bad decisions. Lady Bertram is also quite similar to Emily Tallis. Both women are supposed to be the maternal presence in the children’s lives, but both women neglect that duty because of illness or pure laziness. Both women complain of depilating headaches and use that as an excuse to not parent their wards. The children at Mansfield Park and the Tallis Home have little adult supervision and are left to their own devices. The Quincy children are also in the same situation as Fanny, being sent to live with a neglectful aunt and their cousins because their parents are not in the position to properly take care of them. The children of both households end up trying to produce a play for their amusement, but in both cases the play is never completed because of the tension that arises from the production.

The influences of Jane Austen’s other works are less noticeable but still predominate throughout the novel. The theme of class differences is present in all of Austen’s novels and in Atonement.  Like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Robbie and Cecelia are from different social classes and this causes difficulties in their fledging relationship. Robbie is always aware that he is indebted to Cecelia’s family and that he is below Cecelia, much like how Elizabeth is constantly aware that Darcy is expected to be with someone of his social station because of his wealth. The relationship between Robbie and Cecelia is also reminiscent of the relationship between Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightly. Both couples were friends from childhood and did not know how to act once they developed deeper feelings for each other. They both interacted stiltedly with each other and do not know how to express their new romantic interests.

The misreading of intentions is also a common theme in Austen’s works and Atonement Briony misconstrues Robbie’s intention toward Cecelia and Cecelia and Robbie misunderstands each other’s intentions. This theme is present in the romantic relationships in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma. In all these novels one or both parties in the relationship misjudges the other person or their feelings. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Edward Farris both love each other, but they also both think that their affections are not returned and Marianne thinks Mr. Willoughby will marry her but in the end he is betrothed to another. The motif of letters is present in many of Austen’s novels and they are used in Atonement. In Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, the lovers communicate their true feelings through letters. Letters are used to allow the reader a glimpse inside the characters mind and to see their motives. In Atonement letters are the only way for Cecelia and Robbie to communicate while Robbie is away at war and in jail. Their letters are also the one thing Briony cannot alter to suit her purpose, making them the one thing the reader is certain is the truth.

Ian McEwan uses allusions to Jane Austen’s life and works to show that all art is influenced by the work that came before it and that good literature should build upon the ideas presented by its predecessors. In his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, TS Elliot argues that, “ No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists” (Elliot 1). He is arguing that all great art must acknowledge what has come before and yet have its own original and enlightening perspective. McEwan pays homage to one of the greatest British writers, but he also has his own viewpoint on issues like love, social classes, and war. While McEwan referred to Atonement as his “Jane Austen Novel” in his notebook, he also said, “I didn’t have Northanger Abbey or even Mansfield Park specifically in mind, but I did have a notion of a country house and of some discrepancies beneath the civilized surface” (Wells 102). McEwan admits to being influenced by Jane Austen and other great British authors, but he also makes something unique and relevant to contemporary times as well.

Works Cited

Elliot. T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent. T.S. Elliot. 1921. The Sacred Wood; Essays on Poetry and Criticism.” Tradition and the Individual Talent. T.S. Elliot. 1921. The Sacred Wood; Essays on Poetry and Criticism. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

McEwan, Ian. Atonement: A Novel. New York: N.A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002. Print.

Wells, Juliette. “Shades of Austen in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 30 (2008): 101-12. Jasna.org. 20 Oct. 2013

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