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 Lefroys mingle in the mazy profusion of a tropical rain forest.1 Many of the people one learns to recognize under their baptismal names acquire also a nickname or a title; they lose or gain spouses; they move about; they are referred to, as a family, under the name of their residence, and the residences themselves have family trees. Consider, for example, Jane Austen’s introduction to the estate of her brother Edward (who would become Edward Knight in 1812 to gratify the imperious will of his aunt Catherine Knight, nee Knatchbull). Edward’s estate at Godmersham in Kent, we learn from Honan’s account, was a harmonious structure—and then:
Whatever accounted for this harmony the very land of the “estate” had come down from the monasteries to the Knights, by virtue of Kentish Astyns and Austens. John Austen, who married Elizabeth Weller, had had a sister named Jane Austen who had married Stephen Stringer; their daughter Hannah Stringer married William Monke, and this couple in turn had had a daughter who married Thomas May (formerly Brodnax), who, on succeeding to the estates at Rawmere in Sussex belonging to his mother’s cousin, had with his newly acquired wealth built Godmersham Park.
The continual presence of half-identifiable kinfolk and acquaintances—as bewildering as a swarm of hiving bees—is the more disfiguring because Honan is capable of sketching a vividly realized landscape, the pattern of a rural ball, or a plain yet tasteful country residence. Perhaps, for severe judges, he sometimes expands too largely about Regency taste in general, the naval career of Lord Nelson, or the endearing character of George III—matters which enter less than directly into the actual life of Jane Austen. But a background must be painted, Honan writes with a light touch, and indeed Jane Austen, without ever pontificating about it, was a sharp and knowing critic of society, with a much larger view than she has been generally credited with having. It is the constant intrusion of trivial relatives or acquaintances who never become anything more than names on a page that really strikes a reader as excessive. The poor lady is not even allowed to die in peace without a pastry cook from the house across the street intruding—for no reason at all that appears at the time, but apparently because ten pages and some years later, he was bothered by people asking him about the exact house where Jane Austen died.
The very best of Honan’s allusive, almost stereoscopic writing is found in the first section of the book; it is an imaginary journey by little Frank Austen, leaving his midshipman’s training in Southampton for a brief visit home at his parents’ (and his sister’s) house at Steventon. Leaving the training ship where a Captain Dashwood cut a figure, Frank’s coach rolls, with the little cadet clinging to the outside, through the village of Wickham and past the estate of the arrogant Mr. James Darcy, up a highway reverberant with the names of places and characters in Jane Austen’s novels. Such allusive interweaving of the achieved fictions with the developing biography will doubtless be one of the appreciated features of the new account. There is a special private pleasure in recognizing a touch of eighteenth-century Hampshire as something—if only a name—that one knew before in the novels. Adepts of Jane Austen’s fictions, who are likely to know the six major volumes by heart, will be tickled by the passing, allusive points, dusted in with a feather touch; less committed Janeites may be baffled and occasionally irked by jokes that they would like to be let in on.
Honan’s new biography has had predecessors; a substantial critical biography by John Halperin was published only four years ago and reviewed in these pages by John Bayley.2 It proposed to supplant a 1939 critical biography by Elizabeth Jenkins, which has in turn superseded the Life and Letters of W. and R.A. Austen-Leigh (1913). By themselves the two latest biographies supply over 800 pages of information about a life which was painfully short and, so far as her family and early memorialists could see, almost devoid of memorable incident. It is true that of late a great deal of new detail about Jane Austen’s circumstances has been brought to light; it is also true that critical opinion has divided widely—not so much over the merits of the novels, which are admitted to be major achievements in themselves and of vital importance for the future of fiction, but over the tone and quality of their feeling. This difference comes out in Halperin’s and Honan’s sharply contrasting treatment of the Juvenilia.
These are three notebooks, comprising about 90,000 words of brief sketches, parodies, jokes, and embryonic fictions. These were unpublished until long after Jane Austen’s death. Their interest is twofold. Halperin treats them as psychological documents, remarkably cold and bitterly ironic, cruel and detached—quite exceptional imaginings to be produced by a girl between fourteen and eighteen years of age, whose entire life had been spent in a quiet rural rectory. Honan, without denying the sharpness of the youthful jokes and actually characterizing the story “Lady Susan” as subversively antisocial, is more interested in the developing techniques of Jane Austen’s storytelling. He does not emphasize Lady Susan as a type of the heartless, self-centered mother, or the frequent and rather self-satisfied bitchiness of the young ladies in these stories. The two biographies certainly do not contradict each other with regard to the Juvenilia, but they present differently colored accounts.
Historically, this points to the erratic record of literary opinion about Jane Austen and her novels. During her life, she enjoyed a distinct but modest success; but her printings were small, and though her first two novels went into second editions, they were not very generously noticed by the reviewers. Mass audiences for novels lay in the future; they were created by lending libraries, steampowered printing presses, improved public literacy, and serial publication. Such developments impinged on the mind of Jane Austen no more than did railroads, telegraphs, and steamships. Her world was the world of the small village, of a few intimate “good” families, of social codes as solidly established as gentlemen’s estates. Late in the nineteenth century, this milieu of Jane Austen’s, being far removed from the gross developments of mechanized capitalism, began to take on a nostalgic coloring; hence the widespread phenomenon of “dear Janeism.” Twentieth-century reactions against a sentimentalized and prettified Jane Austen were prompt and vociferous, but mostly critical rather than biographical; from an original emphasis on the purity of her art and the severity of her moral standards, they moved out gradually to an assault on her sexual timidity, her chilly and sarcastic disposition.
Halperin’s biography, though remote indeed from the extremes of anti-Jane opinion, was formed in good part by the new realism; he gave a largely psychological view and therefore on the whole did full justice to her life and work as a career of spiritual warfare. Honan, without going back to the arch nostalgia of the dear-Jane era, gives a more social and therefore a considerably softer view of her character and her fictions.
On the other hand, in dealing with her relations with men, Honan cannot avoid indicating—what was clear from the novels—that she took a chilly and remote vantage, preferring to look on them as uncles, elder brothers, or at most domestic conveniences, to be toned down as much as possible. Her brothers, whom she saw only intermittently, were all right as long as she saw them only intermittently; an extended stay with her brother Frank proved exasperating.
As for her two suitors, we are told of Tom Lefroy that
you could make of him what you wanted, and that was his lovely charm. He seemed superficially to be a malleable dummy, since he had been dutiful all his life…. Jane responded to his stupid silences; she admired his conservative air. She had much in common with him in outlook.
Fortunately, his mother took alarm at the lack of money on both sides, and removed him to Ireland; after a pang or two Jane Austen ceased to regret him. The other admirer, Harris Wither, represented a more immediate but a much briefer peril. Though ungainly, afflicted with a bad speech impediment, rude, and six years younger than Jane Austen, he stood to inherit many acres, and for the evening of December 2, 1802, they were engaged. Next morning, at her initiative and to her intense embarrassment, she was free again. The tone in which these two episodes are recited is thoroughly uneasy—as if some of Jane Austen’s distaste for intimacy had rubbed off on her biographer. (Why that italicizing “seemed” if not to intimate that under the fresh face of a young law student some ravening terror lurked?) It is not infrequent for Janeites to cherish her spinsterhood as jealously as if she were a long and painfully undernourished bonsai plant.
As between severe, stoic Jane Austen and assertive, flippant Jane Austen, popular opinion has not hesitated to prefer the more colorful of the two. Pride and Prejudice must have a hundred times more readers than Emma, a thousand times more than Mansfield Park; and from a twentieth-century perspective, popular opinion seems increasingly to have the right of it. Elizabeth Bennet Darcy has, and can be trusted to retain, a gust of the flighty; she once got her petticoats muddy, and a girl of that character promises to shake her husband at least occasionally out of his cigar-store-Indian posture.
Enthusiasts for Emma Woodhouse claim some of the same distinction for her, but it is on the basis of her follies and self-recriminations in the first part of the book; as she gains in discretion throughout the novel, she hardens into a plaster-of-Paris stiffness, and as Mrs. George Knightley she will be a dragon. Indeed, Emma was badly at fault in disdaining the humble farmer Robert Martin as a potential spouse for her protégée Harriet Smith. The terms in which she cuts him out are pretty bad; but even worse are the terms at the end of the novel on which she lets him in. As the bastard child of an aristocrat, Harriet, even though poor and stupid, would be a conceivable mate for Mr. Elton the vicar or even for Mr. Frank Churchill, who may some day inherit a considerable fortune. But when she is found to be only a tradesman’s illegitimate daughter, that qualification, added to dullness and poverty, exactly suits her to be the wife of an intelligent young tenant farmer. Emma’s complacent condescensions at the end of the story, being exactly those of Highbury society at large, are worse than her highflying but basically childish snobbery at the beginning.
As for Mansfield Park, hardly anyone has been able to accept mousy little Fanny Price and her starchy cousin Edmund as more than clogs and impediments to the flashy Crawfords and fleshly Bertram girls. It is almost as if the richness of the human comedy in this richly comic novel squeezed the embodiments of virtue quite out the back door, where even those who approve of their principles cannot doubt that their flat, contrived placing at the end of the fiction (like marionettes introduced to voice a moral) is a sin against Jane Austen’s art. In her fiction she set great stock by liveliness, but we do her no favor by implying that she invariably achieved it. Her closing pages are almost always bad. She summarizes the terminal action, cutting hastily through the veil of fictional personalities, and turns away, almost in alarm, from the spectacle of a happily consummated marriage; her concluding spousals sometimes have all the passionate warmth of a corporate merger.
Between Honan’s and Halperin’s portraits of Jane Austen, the question of which is the better likeness ought to, but does not, admit of an easy answer. Honan dismisses his predecessor curtly enough; his book “shows little fresh research and is very inaccurate,” and perhaps that should settle it. Certainly Honan, with the help of other recent researchers, has looked into a vast quantity of recently uncovered materials. These include an indefinite number of new letters from Jane Austen herself, as well as many letters, journals, documents, manuscripts, notebooks, and unpublished materials by her relatives, her friends, and their descendants. But it is not easy to know, nor does Honan try to say, in what specific ways these researches have changed the actual image of Jane Austen. He has widened, he says, the traditional scope of a biography by including many peripheral figures; that might well have the effect of diffusing psychic conflicts that were Jane Austen’s own.
One thing is sure: all the documentary evidence that exists now, or ever will exist, is radically distorted and incomplete. For whatever documents Jane Austen left behind, in whatever form, were meticulously sifted through, mostly by sister Cassandra, and many—a great many, nobody knows how many—were destroyed to prevent publication. What was in them nobody knows, but given the bias of the censors, it’s no rash guess that the first items to meet the fire must have been those that clashed most sharply with the image of an ideal woman—one who, “faultless herself, as nearly as human nature can be, always sought in the faults of others something to excuse, to forgive, or to forget.”
These saintly words were not penned till 1913, but the sentiments were those of the family from the moment of Jane Austen’s death. They represent the kind of pious fraud that genteel families of the late nineteenth century thought not only excusable but obligatory. In comparing several different episodes of Jane Austen’s life in the two different accounts, I have not found significant differences; rather than inaccuracy, I felt Halperin’s major fault was uninspired paraphrase. But I cannot feel easy with Honan’s procedure of following (no doubt accurately) documentary evidence that is known to have been radically doctored from the beginning—and then reaching a conclusion not very far from that which guided the original censors in their work of selection and deletion.
Without wanting to make too much of it, let me point to the strange case of the suitor at Sidmouth. Jane and Cassandra Austen met him at the Devon seaside resort in the spring of 1801; he was an eligible and attractive young clergyman. Both sisters were enthusiastic about him, and he apparently about Jane. They parted at the end of their vacation amid many plans to meet next year in the same place, and some implications of matrimonial intentions. Instead, after a few months’ separation, a letter arrived saying that he was dead. We do not know his name or that of his curacy; we do not know if he really died, or if he had encountered a prettier face, a bigger fortune, or just a case of cold feet. What we do know is that from May 1801 to September 1804 there is a most unusual gap in the correspondence of Jane Austen: no letters at all. This is pretty powerful evidence of something, most likely of Cassandra’s censorship. Halperin invites the reader to think about the matter; Honan dismisses the whole affair as a trivial flirtation, quickly and gladly forgotten: the nameless young man “showed the best taste by loving very briefly.” About the gap in the correspondence he says nothing (perhaps he has found something to fill it, but he does not indicate what). That the pain of such a disappointment could cut deep and last long in a woman on the verge of penurious spinsterhood—might even have entered into the awful Harris Withers muddle of a year and a half later—the new biography does not allow us to guess.
One obvious test of the two biographies might lie in the novels themselves. Is Sense and Sensibility the dour, embittered wasteland that Halperin describes or the much more playful, Mozartean comedy that Honan represents? (He does allow that it is the darkest of the comedies, but his prevailing description of it is light and lighthearted.) Each reader will decide for himself; but the process is not without its perils. For reviewing one Jane Austen novel leads insidiously to rereading another—till one is so absorbed in the books themselves that the problems of the biographers fade into the distance.
August 18, 1988