Not-So-Plain Jane

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 4 1997 3:30 AM

Not-So-Plain Jane

Two new biographies richly complicate Austen's life.

Jane Austen: A Life
By David Nokes
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 512 pages; $35

Jane Austen: A Biography
By Claire Tomalin
Knopf; 352 pages; $27.50

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We know virtually all there is to know about Jane Austen's life, and at least on the surface, it's pretty tame stuff. She was born in 1775, in a tiny town in Hampshire. As a young woman she went to a few balls. She flirted with one dashing boy, but she had no dowry to speak of and his parents got worried and made him move away. Later she agreed to marry a very tall, very ugly younger man, but she changed her mind the next morning. Beginning in her late 20s, while packed into a snug cottage with her mother, her sister, and a pockmarked spinster friend, she revised some juvenilia and wrote a series of freakishly perfect novels. Then she got sick, we now think of Addison's disease, and died at the unfair age of 41.

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Given the material, it's not surprising that Jane Austen should now be seen as literature's beloved old maid: modest, retiring, more comfortable darning socks by the fire than out in the big bad world, something of a gossip but basically sweet. But two new biographies argue that while the outline of Austen's life is pretty much what we thought, posterity has colored it in all wrong, and Austen's own relatives are largely to blame. First there was her overprotective older sister, Cassandra. After Jane died Cassandra burned several years' worth of letters, and edited all the zest out of what remained. A half-century later, Austen's great-nephew wrote a classically priggish memoir that cast Jane as the perfect Victorian lady, a superwoman of piety and self-denial. Perversely, it wasn't until this crude sanitization that Austen's popularity really took off. Even today, when Austen's biggest fans meet to re-create country quadrilles and to go over the changing fashions in bonnets, they're dealing with this cleaned up, adorable, and essentially false Jane.

If these two books got together, their offspring would be a near-perfect biography. As it is, each is flawed but useful. Claire Tomalin has written a smart, terse, mildly feminist summary of every fact in Austen's life she could get her hands on. David Nokes has made a bold, provocative, and sometimes messy attempt to write Austen's life as if it were a novel whose outcome we didn't already know--"a biography written forwards," he emphatically declares in the introduction, which unfolds "as it was experienced at the time, not with the knowingness of hindsight." Though less original and not as fully realized, these books reminded me of a pair of recent literary appreciations: Hermione Lee's mammoth biography of Virginia Woolf, and Alain de Botton's idiosyncratic, obsessive How Proust Can Change Your Life. All four books share a playful disregard for the rules that usually govern high-minded "intellectual" biographies. They move beyond overarching Freudian thematizing. Most of all, they share an almost fetishistic desire to re-create a writer's life sight by sight and smell by smell. So we learn that baby Jane drank from her mother's breast (before being farmed out to a nurse with the eye-catchingly contemporary name of Movie); that, while growing up, she may have tasted spicy Indian condiments shipped to Hampshire by her Uncle Tysoe Saul Hancock, who was stationed in Calcutta with the East India Co.; and that she probably began to menstruate at the age of 15 or 16.

Her family looms large--much more than is usual in a writer's biography--because she never managed to win independence from it. Little information survives about her parents. But how much does this matter? We've been reminded in recent years--by people as disparate as Frank Sulloway and Robert Bly--that siblings can be just as crucial as parents in determining a person's development, and the brilliant, loyal, competitive Austen clan is a perfect example. Nokes, anachronistically but suggestively applying 20th-century standards of family unity, argues that Jane was traumatized by a separation from two of her six brothers. Luckless, mentally challenged George was packed off to a home and never mentioned again. On a brighter but no less arbitrary note, childless aristocrats picked genial Edward as their heir; he changed his name and became a snobbish landowner, kind to his less glamorous siblings but also condescending. The brothers left behind were the cleverest, which was just as well, because among them, they had next to no money. Stiff James, the oldest, wanted to be a writer (he ended up a curate) and spurred Jane to compete. Charming, flaky Henry started a bank that eventually went belly up; Tomalin brilliantly places him in the volatile context of Regency London, a magnet for striving nouveaux riches hustlers. Brave Frank and Charles went to sea, writing to Jane from the West Indies and China and other places that the quaint fantasy author has been assumed to know nothing about. And how's this for exoticism: Jane was nearly as close as a sister to her cousin Eliza, who was probably the illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings, the governor-general of India. His trial, on charges of corruption and cruelty, was the most gossiped-about scandal of the day.

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T hese brothers, and not parents, were the people Jane depended on for survival once it became clear she wouldn't marry. They were solicitous. Henry helped her publish, and Frank and Edward made sure she had a roof overhead. But they had total power over her, deciding where she lived, how big an allowance she got, and when and where she could travel. Meanwhile, for companionship and reaction to her work she was utterly dependent on Cassandra. Their love for each other ran deep. A few years ago, the scholar Terry Castle even suggested in an attention-grabbing essay in the London Review of Books that it was more than sisterly. This is a cheap, ludicrous claim, and I'm happy to say that both Nokes and Tomalin, for all their determination to explore the hidden Austen, basically ignore it. Still, Cassandra may be the most frustrating sibling in literary history. Nokes, in particular, believes that for all her very real devotion, Cassandra was something of an underminer, constantly urging Jane to hide her identity as an author. Her "plump, dumpy" watercolor portrait of Jane shows an unremarkable woman utterly lacking in energy. And after Jane died, Cassandra stressed her goodness more than her wit or her bitter eye for human failings. With perfectly good intentions, she ended up stifling "the restless spirit of the woman who said of herself: 'If I am a wild beast, I cannot help it. It is not my own fault.' "

Cassandra is also responsible for destroying the letters that would fill us in on the crucial period in 1801, when the family moved from the country to the fashionable spa town of Bath. Family legend has it that Jane fainted away when she heard of the move, terrified of leaving all that was dear to her for such a den of iniquity. By this point Austen had three rough drafts of novels under her belt, but all she wrote during the Bath years was The Watsons, a stiff fragment of a novel that she never returned to. Her silence has always been attributed to a deep depression. Nokes points out that our source for her fainting is unreliable--70 years later, a niece who wasn't alive at the time thought she remembered hearing something to that effect. What if Jane was tougher than this? What if she had found Bath stimulating? What if she had failed to write there not because she was desolate and dried up but because, for a few active years, she actually had a life? There is simply no evidence, Nokes writes, "that Jane Austen considered the curtailment of her former literary pastimes, in favour of visits to the Pump Room, the Assembly Rooms, Sydney Gardens or the theatre, as any form of sacrifice." We'll never know if Nokes is right--in the end, the record on Austen is just too scanty to go beyond speculation. But it's a sobering idea. One does always have the sense with Austen that she values equilibrium and happiness over suffering. She was a born writer, but she wasn't pretentious enough to regard writing as her only possible destiny. It's sad to imagine her returning to her manuscripts a few years later in a state of irritable, impoverished resignation. It's especially sad to think that we might not have these happiest of novels if it weren't for her lowered hopes.

Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate.

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