Not ‘Everybody’s Dear Jane’

Jane Austen: A Life

by Claire Tomalin
Knopf, 341 pp., $27.50

Jane Austen: A Life

by David Nokes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 578 pp., $35.00

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…

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