JANE AUSTEN: Her Life

By Park Honan

St. Martin's. 448 pp. $24.95

WHAT? Not another biography of me?" one can almost hear Kipling's Jane exclaim, from her place in heaven between Miguel, William, Captain Wentworth, and the Three Archangels. "Surely those writers could find some better Employment for their Abilities?"

Nonetheless, into what might have been seen as a saturated market, Professor Park Honan has contributed a long and interesting book, with enough new material to have made it well worth his and the reader's time and trouble. No wildly dramatic revelations are made; there are no unexpected disclosures about Aunt Leigh-Perrot's shoplifting or the Sidmouth romance, nor any great quantity of new material about Jane herself; yet extensive researches into Austen, Leigh, and Knight papers have yielded a quantity of related and absorbing facts and anecdotes about family connections, stretching backward to ancestors, sideways to collaterals, and forward to descendants.

"Nobody else before the eighteenth century had robbed England on such a scale as Mrs. Austen's great-uncle," Park Honan states, for example, and gives details of how James Brydges had feathered his nest by supplying inferior goods to troops in the Spanish wars, and was handsomely rewarded by being created first Duke of Chandos. He acquired land on the outskirts of Bath, hired the architect John Wood to develop it, and thus helped make Bath the fashionable city it had become by Jane Austen's day.

Other family gossip includes the story of how cousin Eliza's husband the Comte de Feuillide pretended to be his own valet when imprisoned during the French Terror. (It didn't save him from the guillotine, and prevented his wife from inheriting anything later.) We hear, also, the involvements whereby the son-in-law of Mrs. Lefroy's brother Egerton Brydges ultimately married Wordsworth's daughter Dora, after the death of his first wife Jemima Brydges. And there is the fascinating tale of how dislikable Fanny Knatchbull's step-daughter by her husband's first wife, Mary Dorothea, eloped with Fanny's own younger brother Edward Knight, to the scandal and consternation of the family and how the guilty pair, on their return from Gretna, were kindly received by their aunt Cassandra, causing a fatal breach between her and Fanny. (This happened in 1826, nine years after Jane's death -- what a pity! She would have been hugely entertained at such a true-life enactment of the Wickham and Lydia story.) According to Park Honan it was this episode which led to the angry Fanny's snobbish condemnation of her two aunts as unrefined and "very much below par as to good society."

There is the account of Mrs. Austen buying black bombazine in anticipation of George III's death. "It will be cheaper now than when the poor King is actually dead," she told Mary Lloyd in June 1811. The King did not die until 1820. PROFESSOR Honan has a theory as to why Crosby, the publisher who accepted Northanger Abbey in its first version as Susan in 1803, never published it. Also on his list was The Mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs. Radcliffe, and since Susan was an unabashed send-up of the Udolpho Gothic romance school, Crosby, as Honan says, "was not about to cut his own throat" by bringing out a novel that guyed one of his best sellers.

What else do we learn from this book? Honan is minutely knowledgeable about the niceties of Bath addresses, which streets were fashionable, which allowable, which would not do; and he is equally well informed about the Nelsoniana trade in cheap souvenirs which blossomed after the Battle of the Nile, flooding the market with pink velvet mameluke caps and porcelain Nelson mugs.

Such a wealth of knowledge about what was going on all around Jane Austen makes credible Professor Honan's rebuttal of the familiar assertion that, in her stories, she ignored public events. On the contrary, he argues, her inherited Tory outlook, reinforced by the opinions of her father and brothers, could be found, implicit, in all her work and became visibly firmer and more entrenched later in her life.

Mansfield Park, for instance, written at a time when wheat prices were falling, industrial and commercial habits changing, "takes a graver, more worried and conservative view of the land and society than {her} earlier novels do." Visiting the village poor with soup and linen, traveling between Bath, Hampshire, Kent, London, and Southampton, spending time at rich Edward's mansion in Kent or with Henry at his rooms in Henrietta Street, WC2, Jane Austen, Honan suggests, was in continual touch with public affairs. African slavery, for instance, he finds symbolized by Sir Thomas Bertram's insensitivity (a touch far-fetched this, perhaps?); and the reader is reminded that Jane Austen's father had been principal trustee of the Antigua Plantation owned by James Langford Nibbs of St. John's College, Oxford. Nibbs, like Sir Thomas, took a scapegrace son to Antigua to remove him from undesirable associates.

Along with such general, but interesting and relevant material, Honan has acquired, in his researches, a few small but genuinely new reports of Jane Austen herself: one, for example, culled from the reminiscences of Charlotte-Maria Middleton, who recalled, "She was a most kind & enjoyable person to Children but somewhat stiff & cold to strangers" -- thus refuting a recent theory that Jane Austen detested children, based, apparently, on the fact that Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility contain a couple of references to spoiled brats who have been over-indulged by silly parents.

There may be an outcry from feminists concerning the emphasis laid by Honan, to me convincingly, on the probable influence exerted over Jane Austen's early work by her elder brothers. He devotes a whole chapter to The Loiterer, the weekly periodical which, launched by James and Henry while they were at Oxford, ran for 60 issues from 1789 to 1790. It was modeled on Addison's essay style, written mainly by James, and satirized the Whig attitudes of the day. There could be little doubt that 13-year-old Jane read and admired it and adopted its tone in some of her juvenilia; it is possible that she contributed a letter over the penname "Sophia Sentiment" expostulating because the journal contained no sentimental fiction. In view of the important roles given in her novels to elder brothers -- Knightley and Edmund Bertram behave as brothers up to the penultimate chapters, and Henry Tilney was almost certainly based on Henry Austen -- it must be agreed that here Honan has a strong and valid point (it is only surprising that no advanced critic has yet endowed Jane Austen with a suppressed incest motive). Family affection was such a hugely important area of her life -- the warm and lively relations with brothers made such a strong foundation for the male portraits, both sympathetic and unsympathetic, in the novels -- that it is interesting to be given more detailed accounts of these brothers. A special family tree devoted to their marriages and offspring shows that they provided Jane with 24 nieces and nephews; great-nieces and nephews ran into the 70s.

It may seem churlish to find fault with a book that has yielded genuinely new information and considerable entertainment, but I have to take issue with Honan on two counts. The first is his habit of extending guesswork about the interior processes of these people into firm assertions. "Her awareness of her own estranging uniqueness quickened her love for her nieces." "In the Navy Frank tried to control his feelings, though his sister Jane never found him dull-hearted; now he might sense those feelings welling up uncontrollably {as he returned home on leave}." Plain facts are so much more acceptable without this kind of fictionalized speculation -- and sufficient facts have been supplied so that there seems no need for it.

That is a matter of personal preference -- some readers like their biography fictionalized -- but my second complaint relates to occasional lapses in style which seem downright astonishing coming from a scholar who has studied, presumably for years, one of the most elegant practitioners in the whole of English literature. Sometimes Park Honan's sentences suggest the desperation of a person in the last stages of a house-move who, having begun by packing neatly, now realizes that he can't get everything into his containers and starts cramming socks in among the cheese and books in with the shoe polish. Such sentences have an extraordinary uneasiness and lack of connection. "The visitors probably shouted 'Aunt Jane' and hugged Mrs. Austen nearly to death, if they did not damage her bonnet-strings too." "If the door was vital, it was the vigilance of older women that left her secure so that her imagination and recollections were free to interact." "Freezing in her cold attic room where Aunt Norris prohibits a fire, Fanny has her travel books, her Scott and her Crabbe, and becomes a useful house-slave." "As comic as his unctuousness was, she gladly accepted his invitation to see Carlton House." Honan's editors should have been tougher with him and smoothed out these constructions; they have done him a disservice by this omission, and made the book harder to read. ::

Joan Aiken is the author of many novels with historical settings, including "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" and "Dido and Pa."