Jane Austen
Jane Austen; drawing by David Levine

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 love Jane Austen, or fear and dislike her, it is difficult to imagine ourselves back into the actual insecurity of her existence. We can no longer see her as leading a life in which she didn’t know what was to become of her, and was in constant fear of ending up dependent, despised, and in the way. And it is this predicament which Halperin’s brash manner vividly restores to us, on its daily basis.

Eternity has changed her into herself, as Mallarmé would say, but Halperin ruthlessly puts her back among the contingencies, the fears and hopes of uncharted existence. How did she get on with her mother, for instance? It is obvious to Halperin that she got on badly, and once he shows us this we see that it must have been so, though the point has not been made by any biographer with such cogency before. A daughter living at home (elder sister Cassandra was frequently away, staying with the Godmersham branch of the family and helping at her sister-in-law’s many confinements) and daily exposed to the whims of a lively, tiresome, hypochondriac mother, who was to survive her by many years—how could it have been otherwise? Of course there was affection; and the mother’s fussy hypochondria was probably cunningly transposed and immortalized in the sympathetic figure of Emma’s father. Mrs. Austen was one of those genial, sociable creatures who always put themselves first; Jane was dutiful, sweet-natured, and sharp: her “cheerful disposition” must have had a lot to put up with, as anyone else’s would have done. Particularly at Bath, which Mrs. Austen seems to have enjoyed as much as her daughters disliked it, and where social life was both exigent and screamingly dull.

Jane loved her clever, amiable father, and when he died suddenly in Bath wrote to her brother Frank that the corpse “preserves the sweet, bencvolent smile which always distinguished him.” This tenderness is very exact, as Halperin says, though it is no doubt what all nice kind girls feel about nice kind fathers. His death in 1805 (one of her brothers at sea narrowly missed, taking part in the battle of Trafalgar the same year) was a low-water mark in their fortunes, though as Jane’s letters twice rather sharply indicate her mother took it very well. Four years earlier, when the family had been on holiday, probably at Sidmouth, a young clergyman staying with his physician brother had appeared to fall in love with Jane, and she to return his feelings. The holiday ended without a proposal however, though tradition tells that the two families made plans to meet again. Some time later the doctor wrote that his brother had died. Had Jane written to him in the meantime? We don’t know. Had he taken fright and gone to ground? Halperin is inclined to believe that something of the kind may have happened, and that posterity has romanticized and tidied up the enigmatic episode.


The next year occurred what he calls “yet another bizarre incident in the history of Jane Austen’s ‘love’ life,” a description that does indeed enable us to see it more accurately as well as more vividly. Cassandra and Jane were staying at Manydown, the home of old friends, the affluent Bigg Wither family. It was near Steventon, where Jane’s father had been parson. Jane, nearly twenty-seven, was proposed to by Harris Bigg Wither, just twenty-one and preparing to enter the Church. Another parson, but a much better catch financially—he could have given Jane a good establishment and a landsome house. She accepted the young fellow, but after what must have been a night of appalling strain and indecision, changed her mind in the morning. Did elder sister Cassandra, herself still unmarried, and like Jane to remain so, influence the decision? The girls had always been close and were to become closer, till Jane died in Cassandra’s arms. Young Bigg Wither, says Halperin, was “a recluse who stammered and had a mean temper”—she was not in love with him and was never likely to be. The embarrassment was smoothed over as much as possible. But it must have been a brutal situation, and unhelped in fact by Jane knowing in theory how to deal with it. Had she not coolly and brilliantly done so when she was writing Pride and Prejudice nearly five years before? (Halperin is of the school that believes that novel was her first—the one offered by her father to a publisher who declined it sight unseen, preferring to bring out the ever popular Mrs. Radcliffe.)

Halperin’s treatment draws attention to the sharp difference between life and art: in life the artist gets just as bothered and upset as the rest of us, and just as ready to discard his theoretically superior knowledge, values, and principles. Jane knew she knew one married for “intelligent love”; in their various ways all her heroines do. Like her mother she was unmaternal, but her mother had brought up a large cheerful happy family (except for one deaf, retarded little boy, who was boarded out at a cottage and not spoken of again), and she might well have done the same. The “second trilogy”—Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion—would certainly not have got written if she had. Her own niece, with literary ambitions and encouragement from her aunt, finally burned her own unpublished novel manuscripts after years of marriage. So much of the buried tension in the later novels—and on publication Jane thought of them all as her children—comes from the knowledge and pondering of two kinds of life, between which she both did and did not make a choice. A contemporary version of the same kind of choices and deprivations, trench humor and tears, can be read in Barbara Pym’s superb diaries. Let us be thankful, all the same, that Jane Austen did not keep one.

Halperin’s admirable sense of the minutiae of the Austen ménage, the alarms and tranquilities, the things to drink and to eat (“You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me”), and the grim amusement over things that can nonetheless be enjoyed (“We are to have a tiny party here tonight. I hate tiny parties—they force one into constant exertion”) lead him also to some unexpected and penetrating critical judgments. He points out the marked contrast between Jane Austen and many other creative artists, those for whom “adversity is a catalyst, the grain of sand in the ovster…in her, adversity blanketed energy and aspiration; she wrote only when she was relatively content and secure.” The importance of the point is open to misunderstanding. Of course she was not like Dostoevsky, composing with maximum speed and vigor when most overwhelmed with financial and domestic problems. During her “dark” period at Bath and later at Southampton, before they were able to settle into the house at Chawton, Jane Austen composed nothing but The Watsons, the beginnings of a novel which she soon gave up and never afterward resumed work on.


Why was that? Emma Watson, with “a lively Eye, a sweet smile, and an open countenance” seems a promisingly spontaneous character, and the other persons and situation might have shaped up well too. But what has gone wrong is something to do with the tone, which Jane must have recognized and looked back on with dislike.Into The Watsons she was putting directly all the fears and frustrations she was feeling at the time: the family’s comparative poverty; her fear of increasing poverty, and the cold or careless patronage that went with it; the “dreadful mortifications of unequal Society,” the insolence of young men who disregard intelligent young women, the knowledge that “it is very bad to grow old & be poor & laughed at.” Short as it is, the fragment of The Watsons is full of resentment and bitterness, feelings given their head because they were being felt in full measure at the time of writing.

This is not the case with the “first trilogy”—Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey—and Halperin is surely wrong to suggest that the latter in particular is full of “bitter irony.” He claims that it is the work of “a caustic, disappointed woman,” and that “in Catherine’s early failures with men, we may perceive the novelist’s.” Maybe so, but Jane Austen has taken great care, as it seems she could not do when she came to start on The Watsons, to metamorphose such experience into a delicious and Mozartian humor. Halperin for once completely misunderstands the tone of the passage he quotes in support of his argument: “She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility; without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient.” “What heartbreaking disappointment lies behind those words,” Halperin says, but they afford the clearest possible case of the author having her fun, indulging in the kind of deadpan humor she enjoyed. Real disappointment is a world away from this sort of virtuosity.

Since Jane Eyre we have regarded the explosion of strong feelings in a novel, particularly perhaps a woman’s novel, to be a sign of authenticity and power. But “Such is my fate, O Reader” would have seemed to Jane Austen a formula for bad workmanship as well as bad taste. Emma Woodhouse may sit musing on “the difference of woman’s destiny,” but these things must be obliquely approached; far better to have a heroine like her, “handsome, clever, and rich,” or a gracious country estate, like Mansfield Park, a heroine and a setting where sharpness can be exercised and sadness revealed with tranquility and elegance.

Jane Austen’s instinct was right for herself, and perhaps right, in a more profound sense, for the novel. The light is the best foil for the dark: boredom, misery, and despair are revealed the more sharply and effectively through a surface of serenity, comedy, and good humor. Doing it the other way around is far more difficult, as many powerful and sincere novelists have found to their cost; indeed a true double picture cannot be achieved by such direct means at all, and it is significant that the novelists of our time who have really managed to learn from Jane Austen (itself a rare feat) are those with the surest instinct for this lesson. Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, all learned it in their different ways.

This double focus is the real clue to Jane Austen, to her life as to her art; and it is her art that makes a clear case of what must be, after all, a fairly universal situation. When an aunt gives the wrong advice, or a tiresome old woman is thoughtlessly snubbed, we apprehend with piercing clarity the dual nature of things, the heaven and hell in which we simultaneously live. The crack in the teacup opens, as Auden writes, a lane to the land of the dead. Jane Austen would have laughed at this view of her novels, or found it tasteless and incomprehensible, which is why the modern criticism of her novels often seems unreal in relation to their actual world. Walton Litz rightly says that her dilemma is “an epitome of the dilemma faced by the free spirit in a limited world,” but that does not indicate what her art is doing in practical terms, which is to make the savagery and monotony of ordinary life delightful to read about. It is deeply misleading to say there is a “real” Jane Austen, quite unlike the delightful Jane who, as Henry James dryly observed, was so much to everyone’s advantage.

Halperin’s achievement is to imply nothing of the sort, while at the same time suggesting with considerable vividness what it must actually have felt to live like Jane Austen, and even to die like her at forty-one of adrenal tuberculosis, a disease now easily controlled by cortisone. His biography is admirably complemented by George Holbert Tucker’s history of the Austen family, a labor of love more traditionally accomplished and clearly set out so that the reader can follow the fortunes of each relation in turn. It contains a long and detailed account of what must have been the most dramatic event among the Austen relatives—the arrest and trial of Jane’s rich and formidable aunt, Mrs. Leigh Perrot, on a charge of shoplifting in Bath. Clearly she had been blackmailed by an unscrupulous shopkeeper—she was found not guilty—but had the verdict gone against her she would have been transported to Botany Bay, and the youthful Jane, who had volunteered to stay with her in prison—an offer gratefully declined—would have had a convict among her relations.

It is unlikely she would have used the incident for “copy.” Though she loved jaunts and visits she had no impulse to widen the scope of her experience or to bring new aspects of society into her art. She excused herself from attending a grand party at her sister-in-law’s to meet Madame de Staël, and that may have been not only from shyness but from an instinct to avoid anything resembling competition. Had she lived another twenty-eight years, like her elder sister, the pair would no doubt have grown contentedly old together in Chawton. How many more novels would have been written? Would there have been a falling-off in her powers? No way to tell, but there is a certain fitness about the fact that her life and work had the same sort of pattern, the same tragic completeness, as those of her Romantic contemporaries, Keats, Shelley, and Byron, about whom, insofar as she knew of them, she registered little beyond amusement.

This Issue

May 9, 1985