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.

Jane’s school days were short and irregular. Back at Steventon, her father kept a small school for boys. She was, Tomalin reminds us, brought up in an atmosphere of turbulent masculinity, of camaraderie and (controlled, clerical) wildness. Her earliest writings show a scathing sense of humor. Many of Jane Austen’s readers want to identify her with the tomboyish Catherine Morland described in the early pages of Northanger Abbey. Claire Tomalin is one of these. She is in difficulties, then, when she comes to the first description of Jane, given by a female relation when Jane was twelve years old. Phila Walter said that Jane was “not at all pretty,” that she was “whimsical and affected,” that she was “very like her brother Henry,” and that she was “very prim.”

Claire Tomalin has so firmly fixed in her mind her own version of Jane that this description brings about the book’s only implausible passage. She declares that it means the more or less the opposite of what it does. Phila must have found Jane unfeminine, she says, as she compared her to her brother; and she disliked Jane because she found her threatening. But to say that a sister and brother are alike is the small change of family conversation; it is not to impugn the masculinity of one or the femininity of the other. Tomalin, reacting against two centuries of mincing Jane-ites, cannot accept a Jane who was “prim”—but it is not a strange thing for a twelve-year-old to be. And it may be that a little affectation is necessary, early in life, if you are to make a specialty of skewering it a few years on. “…Perhaps she made jokes Phila found disconcerting,” Tomalin suggests, “or laughed in the wrong places….” Maybe. Or maybe she was just young and shy and acutely self-conscious. Shyness does not preclude strength of character.

Claire Tomalin’s sensitive, intuitive reading of character is best employed when she comes to discuss Jane’s early reading and what it may have meant for her development as a novelist. Her father did not censor her reading. Perhaps it did not occur to him to do so. She read female authors such as Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth. She admired Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas, and Cowper was her favorite poet. She was familiar with Tristram Shandy, and there are throwaway lines in her early writing that remind one of Sterne’s casual surrealism. Most important of all, Tomalin claims, was Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, which has a strong-minded heroine, much discussion of love and marriage, and, Tomalin says, “gives detailed accounts of maternal drunkenness and paternal adultery, and lays out the correct attitude to adopt towards a father’s mistress and illegitimate half-brothers.” Jane’s memory was tenacious, her brother Henry said. But, Tomalin says, “she appreciated, took what was useful to her, and kept her own voice and imaginative ground clear.” Jane Austen’s early reading is no doubt the subject of a hundred theses, but that last half-sentence should be appended to all of them. She kept her ground clear; she was unlike other writers before or since.

Tomalin’s commentary on the novels themselves is measured, deeply felt, and full of insight. She traces in Sense and Sensibility the process by which the younger and giddier sister, Marianne, becomes briefly a tragic figure of real stature. The plot is schematic, but there are scenes—and Tomalin picks them out—which have “the surprisingness of art that has lifted entirely away from pattern and precept.” She writes perceptively on Mansfield Park, and points out that Jane Austen herself may have been ambivalent about Fanny Price, whose moral certainties many readers have found easy to dislike. “…Pictures of perfection…make me sick and wicked…,” Jane wrote. Tomalin’s reading of Pride and Prejudice may be too cozy; this “warm story” ripples with social insecurity, with class division and condescension. It is true that the Bennets’ household runs on comfortable lines, but Austen makes explicit, again and again, that after Mr. Bennet’s death his wife and daughters will lose their home. Since none of them has the means of making a living, they will be poor relations, dependent for survival on Mrs. Bennet’s brother; it is not just desirable but essential that one of the sisters marry a rich man.

Lizzie does so, but we know it is a fairy tale. The reality is the dark bargain struck by Lizzie’s friend Charlotte Lucas, her youth traded to the odious Mr. Collins in return for an income and a roof. Tomalin decides that it is “impossible to imagine Darcy inflicting a yearly baby on Lizzie,” and Jane Austen, who was fond of finishing her plots off the page, seems to have decided that they would be very happy. But Mr. Collins in the matrimonial bed is not an object we like to contemplate. Jane Austen is often pronounced “anti-romantic,” but a sharp turn of expression and skepticism about human motives is not quite enough to earn the label. Lizzie Bennet will never marry a man she cannot love, and for this attitude she is bounteously rewarded. Charlotte, who says, “I am not romantic, you know. I never was,” is punished by marriage to a man whose every utterance excites laughter or embarrassment.

Like Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Claire Tomalin has thought carefully about Jane’s peculiar position in society. Jane’s experience of the high life came when she visited her Kent connections, the wealthy family who had adopted her brother Edward and made him their heir. Claire Tomalin suggests that Jane’s personal discomfort may have benefited her as a writer: “No one observes the manner of a higher social class with more fascination than the person who feels [she does] not quite belong within the magic circle.” But Tomalin’s social analysis does not stop at this level. She sees a deeper unease. We are accustomed to think of the society Jane describes as stable and cohesive, a society of stolid country gentlemen on their stolid mounts, of wives who are always “breeding”—to employ the brutal term that women then used about each other. We think of them rooted in the landscape, year after unchanging year. Not so, Claire Tomalin says. She has looked at the antecedents of the Steventon neighbors, and finds them

a fluid, arbitrary group, families who merely happened to be where they were at that particular time, some floating in on new money, others floating out on their failure to keep hold of old.

Jane was not, either, a stay-at-home. When she was twenty-five, her mother and father abruptly announced their decision to leave Steventon. They sold off everything—including Jane’s piano and chest of drawers—and towed her off to Bath to live in lodgings. Once her unmarried status was agreed on, she was in demand as general nurse, caretaker, childminder, and all-around useful person. Traveling was unpredictable and exhausting, and she did plenty of it. She never had a home of her own, or even a room. Possibly she would have thought it strange to want one.

And yet, this was a world of settled complacency. William Chute, owner of the opulent and beautiful house called The Vyne, sat in Parliament for thirty years and never spoke once. Change and stasis…there is antagonism in the Austen landscape, a great, possibly explosive containment. This containment is not exciting enough for David Nokes. He chooses to begin his life of Jane perversely far from Steventon, with a male connection of hers:

It is the rainy season in the Sunderbunds…. The livid orange sun is striking over this dismal region of fetid salt-flats, swamp and jungle…. It is three years since he last saw his wife…. Toil and disease have wasted his body…. He keeps her miniature portrait on the folding-table in front of him. It shows a slim, elegant woman with large dark eyes and flowing lustrous hair….

The woman in the portrait is Jane’s aunt Philadelphia, who had gone out to India to catch a husband. She caught a respectable man called Tysoe Saul Hancock, but her daughter Eliza was alleged to be the daughter of Warren Hastings. Hastings settled å£10,000 on her, and so she became Jane’s rich Cousin Eliza. As a young girl, she went to France, and married a man she suspected of being a comte, and who suspected her of being a richer woman than she actually was. The bridegroom was not an aristocrat, just a landowner. Most of the land he owned was swamp. His life’s work was to throw the peasants off and drain it. He never got far with this project. The Revolution caught up with him, and cut his head off. Eliza became a romantic exile, and after prolonged and sophisticated flirtation married one of Jane’s brothers. Eliza was not only beautiful, mysterious, and adventurous, she was also witty. She was novel in herself. David Nokes is excessively interested in her. It is hard not to be.

Indeed, he never shows much disposition to settle down with Jane. He is keen to demonstrate there was not much tranquility in her corner of England.

Hardship and illness, harsh weather and poor harvests, rural poverty and rural crime were as much a part of everyday life as the sound of the weathercock creaking in the wind. A typical charge-list for the county assizes reveals cases of highway-robbery near Wickham, attempted murder in Bedhampton, rape at Fareham, burglaries at Froyle, house-breaking at Alverstoke, sodomy in Winchester, and bestiality on the Isle of Wight.

All true, surely. But if any of us were to make a study of a typical charge sheet for our locality, would we venture out of doors? Bestiality on the Isle of Wight probably did not affect Jane so closely.

David Nokes wants to write a different kind of biography; to clear some ground between himself and his predecessors. This is not easy, because early in 1997 Park Honan republished his Jane Austen: Her Life,2 first out ten years ago and now reissued with new material. It is, as Honan says in his foreword, “acknowledged to be the most complete, realistic life of Jane Austen.” It is also a “life and times” book, capacious, vivid, and judicious. It is also a very conventional biography. David Nokes proposes less conventional terms.

Often the most beguiling of literary forms, biography may also be the most complacent…. In a sense, a biography is like a novel written backwards; taking as its starting point the well-known achievements of its subjects’ maturity and tracing back the hints of inspiration which brought those great works into being. Blessed with the comfortable benefits of hindsight, a biographer may be tempted to describe the steady progress of genius from earliest childhood glimmerings to full adult brilliancy.

As if, in other words, the success were preordained, or at least foretold: not subject to accident, to chance. One sees the difficulty. Life, as Nokes says, is lived forward. Jane at fifteen doesn’t know what she will be at thirty-five. How does this perception help a writer? It helps a historical novelist a good deal, if he is writing about a real person before his or her days of fame. That person is in a way a “pre-character,” not yet seen by the world, and by an authorial sleight of hand which refuses hindsight a novelist can create a sense of possibility which corresponds to the possibilities of real life. But when a biographer tries the same trick, the result can be vaguely embarrassing. Nokes wishes to rescue Jane Austen from a frozen portrait in which she is “saintly and serene.” But few discriminating readers of her work can ever have believed her to be so. The work he has set himself has been done, and his biography is accordingly strenuous, flamboyant, and unnecessarily argumentative.

Nokes wants a Jane who is wild and satirical—which her juvenilia show her to be. Both biographers pay proper attention to early writings, especially “Lady Susan,” a narrative about a predatory woman which Tomalin suggests may owe something to what exciting Cousin Eliza had told her about Les Liaisons dangereuses. Tomalin and most other biographers date a seeming ten-year silence in Jane’s writing to her family’s departure for Bath: the disruption, the loss of her home and possessions. David Nokes prefers to believe that Jane—shabby and sharp-witted as she was—enjoyed Bath, as if she saw it through the eyes of the teenaged Catherine Morland, heroine of Northanger Abbey, and that is why she stopped writing. This seems unlikely, and yet he does well to run to earth the legend that Jane “fainted” when her parents told her of their decision to leave Steventon. The first mention of such a severe reaction occurs in 1913, he says, in Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, by William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. From there, the story gets passed on from one commentator to another, till it becomes oh-poor-Jane gospel.

It’s easy to understand Nokes’s irritation. It’s less easy to sympathize with his reading of some of Jane’s letters between the news of the decision to go to Bath and the actual departure. “There is something interesting in the bustle of going away….” The letters can be read as evidence of excitement and pleasure, or as the comments of someone who is making the best of what is inevitable. Jane often warns, in her novels, that communications which are true may not be the whole truth.

Besides, the question of the gap in her writings may be a non-question. We know very little of how she wrote, or how she revised, or what she destroyed. A ten-year silence on the page may not be a ten-year silence in the head.

David Nokes has a habit of losing Jane. He likes to describe the exciting things other members of her family are doing. And she isn’t born until page 51. Then suddenly there is an intimacy: he knows what is in Jane’s mind when she is writing. He describes her tussles with the manuscript of Persuasion. “She lay awake in the darkness, searching in her mind for ways to improve those final chapters…. Suddenly it all came to her.” The reader’s objection is not that this is unrealistic. It is that it is presumptuous on the one hand and, on the other, not worth saying. “Suddenly it all came to her” is not great insight for someone setting up to describe the creative process. It may, of course, be the best anyone can do.

Nokes’s biography is stuffed with detail that blunts the edges of his arguments. Tomalin is more discriminating. She is not merely an attentive reader, she is a good listener. She can live with Jane’s silences. These silences pose a problem,

because it is hard to know how much they are real silences, how much the effect of Cassandra’s scissors. Her silence about poli-tics is famous…. After her death, a niece, trying to recall what opinions she had expressed on public events, was unable to think of “any word or expression” relating to them…. Politics were of the masculine world, apart…. Women’s rights were another question on which she kept quiet…. If she is not silent about religion, she is quiet…. No one prays in her novels….

Tomalin listens to her silences and respects them. For many years of Jane’s life, England was at war, but Jane’s soldiers are for breaking hearts, not breaking heads. They are seen through the eyes of giddy little girls with no apprehension of death, and no idea of the reasoning behind the regimental mottoes. There is no reason to assume that Jane, a member of a bustling and worldly family, was unconcerned or ill-informed about larger issues. But she limits herself to the women’s story; her men, and the world they inhabit, are seen as if through a mirror. Their outlines are clear and their likeness is true, but the world behind the glass can only be observed; one cannot step through the glass. Another kind of silence was forced on her, a denial of self; in her lifetime, Jane Austen chose to write anonymously. To do otherwise would have been to attract the wrong kind of attention. A contemporary writer, Mary Brunton, said, “I would sooner exhibit as a rope dancer.”

By reason of her silences, Jane Austen defies cheap psychology and trite formulation. The contradictions in her life and work are fertile, and when her biographers disagree—as they must do—the ordinary reader should applaud. Hearth and home may be her subject, but her method is never static. Lionel Trilling, in his essay “Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen,” quotes an anonymous critic from the North British Review of 1870:

She contemplates virtues, not as fixed quantities, or as definable qualities, but as continual struggles and conquests, as progressive states of mind, advancing by repulsing their contraries, or losing ground by being overcome.

It is Claire Tomalin’s biography, scholarly yet empathic, that best captures this sense of struggle, of flux, of striving against limitation, and its contrary: the struggle to subdue a nature to what society ordains it must be. She has listened hard enough to hear what may be Jane’s first written words, inscribed in a tiny hand inside a story book: “Mothers angry father’s gone out.” She is the finest and most disinterested of biographers, because in her pages she has given Jane Austen her liberty and freed us, Jane’s readers and hers, to enjoy the lie of the land and the cut of a uniform, and “sopha conversations” and “the glow worms in the lane.”

This Issue

February 5, 1998