Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 19, 2016

Jane Austen was autistic?

Jane AustenI was reading an interesting New Yorker article that was reviewing a new book on the history of autism.

In the article, they spoke about how much has changed even in recent years about our understanding of autism.

There was also a short section on famous artists, musicians and authors we now believe may have been autistic. The list provided included Beethoven and Mozart, Isaac Newton, Emily Dickensen, Virginia Woolf, and, one of my all-time favorites, Jane Austen.

I’m not sure how much I believe in posthumous diagnosis on conditions they hadn’t even known existed at the time. We do understand that Jane Austen had an older brother, George Austen, who was believed to have been either mentally or physically disabled, and he was cared for by the family. One researcher claims that the classic, Pride & Prejudice, has many characters who are autistic – including the haughty romantic lead Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Although any diagnosis of people who lived centuries ago should be taken with a grain of salt, I suppose I’m most surprised by the inclusion of Austen on that list included in the New Yorker article. That’s because  Austen’s strength as an author was her acute observation of society and social interactions between all the different levels of her contemporary society. I suppose her feat would be even more impressive if she were able to do achieve such accuracy despite a condition that created difficulties for her in reading the subtle clues of societal interactions and emotions.

An interesting parlor game, at best. Still, it’s nice to see one of my favorite authors still making headlines…



  1. I would rather not believe it.

    • Jane fan, too, Ishita? We’ll have lots to discuss when we meet up in Rome one day. : )

      • Yes I know it’s exciting to imagine a meetup with you. Hope I can meet you very soon. Even if for a short while. Any email I can get in touch with you?

  2. Interesting article but I too find it hard to believe. She was the first author to use ‘free indirect discourse’ which means showing so much empathy that the author is actually inside the character’s head, thinking his/her thoughts. I don’t know enough about autism but I have read that that was something most autistic people find very difficult/impossible.

    • Excellent points, Susan. I find it hard to believe,too … but still nice to see Austen is being brought into contemporary discussions 200 years after she wrote!

  3. Interesting but like you I find Austen’s observations of people and life in general so precise that it tends to oppose the definition of autism. But there are many levels of autism. We are only uncovering the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mental health. What’s normality anyway? One thing is sure is that many creative people don’t respond to the established criteria of ‘normality.’ And it’s probably good. If the list of names you provide us in your post is exact, aren’t we glad these people had some form of autism? I will look for the article. Thanks, Kimberly.

    • Agree, Evelyne. Thank goodness Michelangelo, VanGogh and Beethoven weren’t ‘normal’ – by the strict interpretation of the word – yet bring us such joy centuries later.But I still can’t believe that Austen, such an astute observer of emotion, could possibly have been autistic. I didn’t bat an eye about the other artists on the list, however. But it’s true we still have much to learn.

  4. It’s far more likely she knew autistic people and that’s why some of her characters have traits that could put them on the spectrum.

    • True, Suzan, Austen does portray a wide range of characters in a very sympathetic way. But I’ll be hard-pressed to admit that one of our most beloved romantic heroes, Fitzwilliam Darcy, wasn’t simply arrogant and proud … and in need of a good lesson from Lizzie. Claiming he was autistic seems to me simply a good way for a researcher to grab headlines. : ) Happy reading!

  5. Name-dropping to gain credibility.

    • Haha. To be fair, it’s a pretty well-known name to drop…

  6. The posted comments seem to reflect an understanding of only the stereotypical male presentation of autism. When a woman is autistic, particularly if it is not severe and her intelligence is great enough, symptoms are frequently hidden and her years of acting help her to better integrate into society as an adult. As an autistic female, I continuously observe the interactions of others around me and, when alone, ruminate over said interactions and their outcomes. Hopefully I can incorporate what I learn into my own dealings with people so that I am less likely to offend or confuse, but I am not always successful. Therefore I personally consider it to be no quandary when someone postulates that Jane Austen might have been autistic, and yet wrote such keen, insightful commentary on the gentry of her day through the relationships of her characters.

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