Jane Austen: A Life
Jane Austen: A Life
At the beginning of Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen there is a pretty sketch map of Hampshire, showing the contours of the fields and woodland, and the great houses within reach of Steventon Rectory, where Jane grew up. There is Oakley Hall and Hackwood Park, Freefolk Priors, Laverstoke House, The Vyne. The imaginative reader cannot help looking into this map, rather than looking at it, visualizing in three dimensions its impeccable greenness, order, propriety. As Jane Austen wrote, of a prospect she describes in Emma, “It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright without being oppressive.”
But in Austen’s work, an idyll is always to be interrupted. Andrew Davies, who turned Pride and Prejudice into a recent and wildly successful series for BBC TV, began his story with just such a landscape, and the irruption into it of two galloping, masculine figures, who reined in their horses only to gaze down at a bijou mansion with the dewy-eyed pride of prospective ownership. It was a breathless, ebullient start, and many people puzzled over why he had preferred it to the book’s famous opening lines: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Speaking to an audience at the Royal Society of Literature in 1996, Davies said simply that he had wanted to demonstrate this: “It is a man’s decision that sets the story going.”
It is hard to think that Jane Austen would have quarreled with him. Within her stories, individual samples of masculinity may be bumbling, inept, malicious, or ridiculous. But biological status marks them out as the decision-makers, whereas women must struggle for social and moral agency. The men set the standards to which women must rise. It is the men who have economic power; they have command of the outside world, the post horses and the ships, the trading companies and the banks, the weaponry and the wars. Eliza Chute, a neighbor of Jane’s, described her situation like this:
Mr. Chute…seemed to think it strange that I should absent myself for four & twenty hours when he is at home, tho’ it appears in the natural order of things that he should quit me for business or pleasure, such is the difference between husbands & wives. The latter are sort of tame animals, whom the men always expect to find at home ready to receive them: the former are lords of the creation free to go where they please.
Women have dominion over their drawing rooms. They take a turn about the room, they progress sedately from the hearthside to the pianoforte. Unless men arrange a conveyance and an escort, their world is limited to the distance they can cover on foot. Jane Austen does not write about rich women who can order up a carriage, or about working women who must go out in all weathers and not mind about how they look. She writes about women of limited means who must mind about their appearance very much. Bad weather keeps them indoors, their little boots inadequate for the rutted lanes. They stay under the eyes of their families. If these families, through pride or plenty, free them from household tasks, they draw, make music, embroider, read sermons, and hatch schemes for marrying off their acquaintances. If, like Jane herself, their circumstances are more pinched, they make light meals and darn stockings, and worry over the prospect of becoming a governess.
So must a biography of Jane Aus-ten be confined to hearthside observations? A biography called Jane Austen, Obstinate Heart, 1 published in Spring 1997, by Valerie Grosvenor Myer, rivets our attention to the matter of Jane’s cut-price hair-dos and futile attempts to economize when buying a muslin veil. We attend at the myriad social humiliations of a young and pretty woman without a penny of her own, and see her wither into celibate spite, sneering at her married neighbors and their obstetric difficulties and cracking jokes about the deaths of newborn babies. A pleasant woman? Clearly not. But certainly one grounded in reality. Auden put it like this:
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass,
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of “brass,”
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Perhaps Jane did believe that the iron laws that govern nations govern the delicate negotiations of the heart. At any rate, all modern biographers want to pull her away from the context of the “three or four families in a country village” that she recommended as a subject for fiction. It is interesting to see the different ways in which Tomalin and Nokes go about doing that, but it may be as well to look first at what an Austen biographer is up against.
Jane Austen came from a scribbling family, who loved theatricals and impromptu verses. They did not disapprove of her writing—they cheered her on. Her father tried to help her get a publisher, and her brother Henry actually did so. But after her death, they were anxious to guard her reputation, and this guardianship took the form of emphasizing her conduct as a dutiful member of her family, rather than as an artist. If she kept a diary, it was destroyed. Her sister Cassandra preserved few of the letters she had received. A niece destroyed most of those that had been kept by a brother. A biographical note by Henry, written soon after her death, described Jane’s life as “not by any means a life of event.”
Men do not know what are the events of women’s lives. A reader of Jane Austen’s should have known that. But a memoir by Jane’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh picked up the family theme: “Of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crises ever broke the smooth current of its course.” As both Nokes and Tomalin show, this is quite untrue; besides, non-writers would not know exactly what, in a writer’s life, a crisis looks like.
Jane’s niece Caroline praised her satin stitch, but had nothing to say about her dialogue. James Edward, again, was sure she had behaved “without any self-seeking or craving after applause.” What they willed to posterity was a bowdlerized life. Her great-nephew Lord Brabourne was sure that “no malice” ever “lurked beneath” Jane Austen’s wit.
Later biographers conspired with the family censors. Nokes quotes Elizabeth Jenkins: “Family disagreements, to say nothing of family quarrels, were unknown to them.” If that were true, what a very strange family they would have been. One can easily understand the process by which the writer became, as Henry James said, “everybody’s dear Jane.” Her admirers snuggle up and pat her on the head. Because she dramatizes the matter of female submission she was seen as herself submissive. Her work was appropriated for social conservatism. It indulged a long sentimentality about a more orderly world, a world of decorum, grace.
Jane’s portrait has not helped her. There is only one authenticated likeness, a sketch by Cassandra of a woman with a tidy cap, full cheeks, and a small mouth that might signal reserve, or self-control, or a repressed impulse to laugh or shout. It might, indeed, signal anything at all. Family members thought it was not a very good likeness. There is another watercolor by Cassandra, in which Jane has her back to the viewer.
So here are the roots of contradiction: in the absence of diaries, in the scarcity of letters, in the paucity of firsthand observation, in the anxiety of family and the glibness of commentators. Walter Scott praised her, but it was for naturalism; that is always a backhanded, self-limiting compliment for one author to pay to another. Henry James called her work “instinctive and charming”; yet it is clear that the novels are the product of craft and artifice. Mid-century critics protest at her narrow focus, at her concentration on a narrow social band, and on the constant subject of marriage: How can one extrapolate from such littleness, and arrive at art?
Yet, though Austen sits comfortably within her social order, she is always testing out its assumptions. Her characters have to negotiate a course of social and moral obstacles. Success is not predetermined. It must arise from the exercise of private judgment, and that judgment must frequently be set against what seems safe or advisable. Jane Austen has a capacity for doubleness, for ambiguity, both in her writing and, it seems, in her life. Fay Weldon has cautioned: “She is not a gentle writer. Do not be misled; she is not ignorant, merely discreet; not innocent, merely graceful.”
Jane Austen belonged to a large family and to a large extended family. Any biography, within a few pages, leaves the reader floundering knee-deep in cousins. The starting point must, then, be well-chosen. Tomalin and Nokes opt for very different beginnings: one frozen and vigilant, the other flamboyant and unexpected.
Tomalin begins in the winter of 1775, with Cassandra Austen awaiting the birth of her seventh child. By November 11 that year the leaves were off the trees, and by the end of the month it was dark at three in the afternoon. The expected child did not arrive. December came, and the ponds iced over. Edward Austen joked that he and his wife had “in old age grown such bad reckoners.” Jane—“she is to be Jenny,” her father wrote—appeared on December 16, “a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion.”
Cassy was three. Her life would not be happy. She would become engaged to a young man who died before they could marry, and she would join her sister in spinsterhood. She survived Jane, whom she described as “the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure.” The fortunes of Jane’s brothers were various. One was a clergyman. Two made distinguished careers in the navy. Henry was a banker, and became a clergyman after that career failed. Edward was adopted by wealthy and childless relations, and became a landowner in Kent. George was mentally retarded, and was left with a local family who already cared for an unfortunate uncle. The family paid for him, but did not visit him.
It was Mrs. Austen’s policy to breastfeed her children for about three months, then place them in a village household until they were three years old or thereabouts. Claire Tomalin wonders if this may the worst possible recipe for a child’s psychological health. A handover at birth might be preferable, before mother and child bond. To break the bond at three months, and then to break another…. Today, we would foresee disaster. Unless George was a casualty, no disaster seems to have occurred. Physically, the regime seems to have been admirable. The little Austens fortified their immune systems with their mother’s milk, and then grubbed around on the earth floors of the cottages, among the livestock, and grew hardy. None of them died in childhood, and it was unusual to rear so large a family without casualties. It doesn’t become us to criticize Mrs. Austen’s regime, and Claire Tomalin does not. She wonders, though, at its effects on Jane’s character. At seven, Jane was sent to a boarding school, where she almost died of a fever unreported to her parents until the last minute. A little later, she was not reluctant to go away again, to another school. From an early age she appears tough, self-sufficient, jaunty. She was not anxious, as long as she was with Cassy.