The Ideal Woman

Jane Austen: Her Life

by Park Honan
St. Martin's, 452 pp., $24.95

As a practicing novelist, Jane Austen achieved recognition only late in her short life. Her first published book, Sense and Sensibility, though composed in epistolary form under the title Elinor and Marianne as early as 1795–1796, was not actually published until 1811, when its author was thirty-six years old and had only six more years to live. Yet when she made her debut in print, Miss Austen was hardly a novice; she had been writing jokes, parodies, and burlesques since the age of thirteen or thereabouts; more recently she had written stories for her sister, her brothers (when they happened to be on hand), and for visiting members of her extended family—nieces, cousins, sisters-in-law. Her public success was therefore in the nature of a family triumph; her kinfolk far and near rejoiced in it, and several of the young people, impressed with the idea that it must be easy to write an entertaining, popular novel (the unspoken undertone was “if even Aunt Jane can do it”), brought budding manuscripts of their own for her comment and encouragement.

As always, she was more gentle and considerate of young persons than of their dignified, or perhaps only pretentious, elders. But to her niece Anna, now married to the Reverend Benjamin Lefroy, she imparted a few words of golden wisdom, no less useful to literary biographers than to aspiring novelists. “You describe a sweet place,” were Aunt Jane’s carefully chosen words, “but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked.” Would that she had been on hand to convey this gentle admonition to Professor Park Honan, whose 452-page biography of Jane Austen is minute to a degree.

The biographer has, in fact, much less “raw material” in the career of Jane Austen than literary biographers usually dispose of. Her formal academic education was very slight, though of course that makes her early, untutored explorations in literature of the very greatest interest; apart from some ephemeral flirtations, she had only two brief, preliminary encounters with members of the opposite sex, both broken off abruptly and in one case thankfully. She never lived apart from her parents, never traveled further from her native Hampshire than Bath or Kent, never strayed from the stiff Toryism and conventional Anglicanism in which she had been trained. As Sir Walter Scott remarked, her art is an art of limitation and precision, the very opposite of the “big bow-wow strain” in which he worked.

Hers was a very quiet life indeed; and the biographer has, not unnaturally, been led to stray from the severe, solitary figure of his central subject and wander the genealogical bypaths of her extended family. These are more intricate and numerous than would readily be believed; and the biographer, knowing every twist and byway of them, spares his reader little. The novelist’s mother, Cassandra, was a member of the numerous Leigh tribe, her father of the no less prolific Austen clan; the intertwined families of Bigg and Wither, the Knights, the Walthrops, and the…

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