The Life of Jane Austen
by John Halperin
Johns Hopkins University Press, 399 pp., $25.00
A Goodly Heritage: A History of Jane Austen’s Family
by George Holbert Tucker
Carcanet New Press, 238 pp., $18.50
In one of Barbara Pym’s novels a young man has occasion to find himself marveling “at the sharpness of even the nicest women.” The sharpest are also the nicest. Even the nicest are sharp. The comment is loaded with cunning and we can take it either way. Jane Austen would have endorsed it instantly, and with amusement. She would have been amused, too, by the way her critics tend to divide into those who emphasize how sharp she was, and those who loyally proclaim how nice she was. No doubt she was both, and in the highest degree, in her art as in her life, “biting of tongue but tender of heart,” as Virginia Woolf put it.
Critics are not required to marry the author they criticize, but many of Jane Austen’s now write as if they had either proposed and been rejected, or had thought better of it. After the sickly adulation of “dear Jane” in the nineteenth century, a domestic charmer and helpmate comparable to the author of Cranford, came what Professor Halperin engagingly refers to as “the bitchmonster” of our own time. The letters between her and her elder sister, which had once seemed so cosy and delightful, gave E.M. Forster the horrors and made him think of the cackling of a pair of harpies. Harold Nicolson and H.W. Garrod attacked her dreadful sexlessness and her deprecation of masculinity. D.W. Harding proclaimed her the mistress of a virulent literary mode—”regulated hatred.” The honeymoon was definitely over.
Halperin’s publishers claim on the dust jacket that his biography “revises forever our understanding of the woman and the novels she wrote.” In a curious way the claim is not unjustified. Halperin’s great merit as a biographer is that he is the most unlikely spouse imaginable for Jane Austen. He resembles the lover of Vinnie, the heroine of Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs, whom she comes to love because he is in every way so unlike herself. Halperin teases his Jane as he admires her, and by being so completely from another world does indeed make us see her in a different way. He takes her right out of the incestuous love or hate embrace in which Janeites and anti-Janeites have concealed her so long. That is quite an achievement.
I like his style too, which is a bit like that of Miss Bates, full of details and exclamations and quotes from the letters. Cassandra has been suffering at Godmersham from Mrs. Stent, who was in fact probably the original of Miss Bates. “Poor Mrs. Stent!” wrote Jane in reply. “It has been her lot to be always in the way; but we must be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs. Stents ourselves, unequal to anything and unwelcome to everybody.” Halperin comments that this was “a jolly thought: she was nearing thirty.” A jolly thought indeed, and it conveys the actual predicament of the two sisters. Whether we …