By David Nokes
Farrar Straus Giroux. 578 pp. $35

Go to the first chapter of "Jane Austen: A Life"

JANE AUSTEN: A Biography
By Claire Tomalin
Knopf. 352 pp. $27.50 (Forthcoming in November)

Go to the first chapter of "Jane Austen: A Biography"

Go to Chapter One

A Romantic Classic

By Joan Aiken
Sunday, October 26, 1997; Page X01
The Washington Post

Two new biographies of Jane Austen, almost simultaneously. What a feast for Austen addicts! Furthermore, both books possess many virtues, and are highly readable. They are also as different, one from the other, as two books covering the same time-span and making use of the same material can very well be. Little new information is provided, but new insights are given on existing facts. One book adopts the severely factual, the other the slightly fictional, approach.

Claire Tomalin, while sticking firmly to facts, never lets her readers forget that what she describes is the 18th century, over 200 years distant, in its opinions and habits, from our own viewpoint. On the 16th of December 1775, Gilbert White, in his Hampshire parsonage, noted, "Fog, sun, sweet day." On that same day, in another Hampshire parsonage, about 20 miles distant, Jane Austen was born. Claire Tomalin offers a vivid description of the hard winter weeks that followed at Steventon -- snowdrifts to the tops of the gates, birds at the kitchen door for crumbs, hares venturing into the gardens, while "Mrs. Austen lay upstairs in the four-poster, warmly bundled under her feather-beds" and little Jane could not be taken out for a church christening by her father, George, until April 5.

David Nokes has a very different opening to the Austen story: He takes us first to India, to the isolated and melancholy outpost of Tysoe Saul Hancock, husband of George Austen's sister Philadelphia, and official father of Jane Austen's cousin Eliza. In fact Eliza, who subsequently married the Comte de Feuillide, was believed by many to be the daughter of Warren Hastings, governor-general of India, later impeached for corruption and acquitted at a famous trial. Hastings was a friend and connection of the Austen family, and his young son was cared for by Jane Austen's parents, who took in pupils and boarders to eke out George Austen's meager clerical stipend.

On visits to Steventon, Eliza Hancock, clever and sophisticated and some years older than her cousin Jane, flirted with Jane's elder brothers, took part in Austen family theatricals, was a decided literary influence on Jane, and is supposed by many critics and biographers to be the original of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Hitherto biographers have been wary or tactful about Eliza Hancock's parentage, but, since Warren Hastings took continual interest in Eliza and gave her several handsome presents of money, his connection with her is now generally accepted, and certainly by both the present biographers.

A second "family secret" hitherto little mentioned is the existence of Jane Austen's brother George, 10 years older than Jane, who "never learned to speak" and was boarded out for the rest of his life in another Hampshire village along with Thomas Leigh, Mrs. Austen's mentally defective brother. This George Austen (perhaps the origin of "poor Richard" Musgrave in Persuasion) long survived his sister Jane and lived on into his seventies. David Nokes devotes an indignant last chapter to "poor George" and contrasts the Austen family's ruthless jettisoning of him -- apart from payment of a small, regular fee for his upkeep -- with their family's rather sickening adulation, after Jane's death, of their "dear angel" Aunt Jane -- whose propensity for satire and malice was almost entirely played down, while her simple religious beliefs were elevated into near-canonization.

Concluding her biography, Claire Tomalin looks back over Jane Austen's life to debate which of the many roles Austen played in her short career best represents her -- brilliant child, affectionate sister, dutiful daughter, loving aunt, social butterfly, teenage flirt, dedicated author -- and selects, as her own personal choice, the adult writer who, for her own amusement, transcribed comments on her books by people she knew (no computers, no photocopiers in those days) and chuckled over them in private. Tomalin observes: "This is my favourite image of Jane Austen, laughing at the opinions of the world. It is lucky she had so much laughter in her; today, the volume of opinions has swelled to something so huge that they could be laughed at for ever."

The Jane Austen industry has indeed expanded to phenomenal dimensions. Busloads of American admirers travel hundreds of miles each year across southern England, from Lyme Regis to Winchester, from Kent to Bath, from Surrey to Oxford, tracking Austen's real and fictional journeyings; international conferences discuss every tiny aspect of her work, from needlework to landscape gardening; all her completed novels have been adapted for both large and small screen, and rare is the video store that does not stock two or even three different versions of Austen works; while sequels, prequels, and spinoffs of the novels continue to proliferate -- I believe there are now at least 40 in existence -- and have become in themselves subjects for dissertations and doctoral theses.

What makes Jane Austen so irresistible? Why is the need to re-enter Austen country so urgent that the reading public will snap up any number of continuations, imitations and critical studies -- anything, any opportunity to set foot again in that enchanted land? Neither Trollope nor the Brontes nor Dickens exerts the same fascination. Is it because she wrote only six books, and they are so perfect?

And yet they are not quite perfect. Tomalin points out a few flaws. She suggests that the character of Marianne, in Sense and Sensibility, which began as "a sometimes crude portrait of a self-indulgent sixteen-year-old," becomes altered as the writer's appreciation of her character grows, as she develops the portrait and traces out her history. And the repulsive pairs of sisters in Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, the Bingley ladies and the Bertram girls, are little more than outlines, left over from early drafts; they do not compare with Austen's real villainesses, Mrs. Norris, Lucy Steele, Mrs. John Dashwood.

Any student of Austen's life cannot help being shocked and startled at the almost unbelievable fact that Pride and Prejudice, written when the author was aged 20, was not published until 17 years later, when she was 37. What went wrong? What happened? Why did the creator of three accomplished, delightful and (as it later turned out) best-selling novels -- Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey -- why did she allow them to remain in her desk, unpublished, for all that time? She knew that they were funny and brilliant. What failure of confidence hindered her from making a determined effort to get them into print?

David Nokes has an interesting theory here. Most critics, hitherto, have taken the view that the move to Bath from Steventon, and her father's death, were such traumatic episodes in Austen's life that it took her 10 years to recover. Both Nokes and Tomalin cast doubt on the tale that Jane Austen "fainted away" when Mrs. Austen abruptly announced that the family were to move to Bath. Distressed, yes; fainted, no. Jane was not given to fainting. The myth crept in, by unreliable family sources. Nevertheless, those 10 unproductive years did go by, until Mrs. Austen, with her daughters, moved into the cottage in Chawton where the last three novels were swiftly written. Nokes suggests, reasonably, plausibly enough that, while in Bath, Jane Austen enjoyed such an active, interesting, varied existence that she had no need to write: "Happiness may be just as destructive of literary dedication as unhappiness." It was not until they settled in the tiny village of Chawton, where there was nothing to do but write, that she resumed her literary output.

This is an ingenious explanation, but to me it just won't wash. A writer, an eager, vocational writer such as Jane Austen, is not going to be prevented by mere lack of time from getting on with her next book. We know that at Chawton she rose early to practice the piano, and probably put in a writing stint at that time also. We know that when an idea struck her, she would get up, run across the room and jot it down, then return to her seat, laughing to herself. We know that she wrote on scraps of paper and hid them under the blotter. We know that she saved every scroll and scrap of her early work, despite the frequent migrations from one lodging to another. To me a more possible explanation -- though almost amounting to Gothic fantasy, I grant -- is that there was another book, written at Bath in depression and grief, and that it was lost, or she liked it so little she decided to destroy it. But that she was having such a good time in Bath she had no leisure for literary composition -- no, a thousand times no! It is only needful to read the description of Anne Elliot's arrival at Bath with Lady Russell ("the extensive buildings, smoking in rain") and her entry into the house in Camden Place ("Oh! when shall I leave you again?") to understand how Austen hated the city.

Both biographers take with a considerable degree of seriousness Jane Austen's short-lived passage with the Irish Tom Lefroy, nephew of the Austens' friend and neighbor Mrs. Lefroy, who probably gave rise to the character of Mrs. Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice, warning Elizabeth against a rash partiality for Wickham. In old age, Lefroy admitted that he had been in love with Jane Austen; she never saw him again after that Christmas flirtation. But, like Bingley with Jane Bennet, he probably lingered in her memory as the most amiable man of her acquaintance.

Both these writers are inclined to dispute, or at least downplay, the currently accepted estimate of Jane Austen's near-perfect relationship with her sister Cassandra. Was Cassandra such a wit, such a paragon? We have only Jane's word for it, in such letters as have survived. Cassandra outlived her younger sister by 28 years, she had plenty of time to destroy documents, and she did so unhesitatingly. David Nokes feels that Eliza Hancock may have been a greater literary influence than Cassandra: She had lived in France, read French literature, may have introduced Jane to Les liaisons dangereuses or discussed it with her. Nokes also pays great attention to Jane Austen's early reading, notably Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, and to her own juvenile writings, so astonishingly precocious and so ferociously full of sudden death, drunkenness, adultery, murder and abandoned children -- themes that went backstage or were modified and civilized in her adult works.

What genetic explosion made Jane Austen the writer she was? Claire Tomalin has a charming comment on Emma, which, she says, "like a string quartet or a sonata . . . grows in the mind with each new encounter." It is extremely tempting to make comparisons between Jane Austen and Mozart. Both were unbelievably precocious, both died young, both were the product of families whose other members had already manifested the same talent in a lesser degree. Jane Austen's brothers all displayed literary ability, and so did her nephews and nieces. Most important of all, her mother, that somewhat enigmatic figure, had a remarkable gift for knocking off comic verse. Very often the frustrated ambition of a mother seems to sink underground and result in a creative child. Perhaps Mrs. Austen felt all her long life -- she lived to 87 -- that she, too, could have written a novel, as soon as she was a little more at leisure.

Both these biographies convey, very strongly, the constant shortage of money, the straits, the struggles, the shifts and contrivances that the emerging middle-classes were going through at that time. Country gentlemen, on the fringes of the aristocracy, had more children than they could provide for; the sons must scramble somehow to college and then into the navy or the church; the daughters must find themselves husbands. Mrs. Bennett's agitation over her five unwed daughters was no literary invention, it was drawn straight from life.

Both books, too, provide a rich vein of information about the large entangled family network, the Leighs, Austens, Lloyds, Knatchbulls, Bridges and Palmers. (Claire Tomalin provides a family tree: very useful.) In fact there is almost more material than one can assimilate; why do biographies grow longer and longer? Especially incongruous, too when the subject is a writer whose output was so spare, who so rigorously "lop't and crop't" her own work. But that is an ungrateful comment; many readers, I know, will be happy to remain in Austen country as long as possible, to the very last footnote.

I have to find fault with David Nokes over his habit of imagining thought-processes for the characters in his narrative: "Eliza . . . thought with envy of the life of a young girl scribbling fantastical adventures in the security of an English country rectory" or "She wondered if her young cousin had ever caught sight of the letter in which she had confessed that her own marriage 'was much less from my own judgement than that of those whose councils and opinions I am most bound to follow.' " Such uncalled-for excursions into the minds of his subjects tend to give a spurious air to the narrative which does an injustice to the biographer's diligent research.

Which of these engrossing books would I take to a desert island? I would take Tomalin's -- because I prefer my biography straight, I prefer to make my own guesses about the mental activities of historical characters, and not have them dealt out to me, ready-made. But there is much food for thought in both biographies. In fact, of course, when it came to the point, I would take Pride and Prejudice to that desert island, and re-read it for the 523rd time.

Joan Aiken has just finished "The Youngest Miss Ward," a Jane Austen spinoff.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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