What did Jane do?

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Jane AustenBy David NokesFourth Estate #163;20Jane Austen By Claire + TomalinViking #163;20Along with the Spice Girls and the spread of DIY + superstores, the renewed popularity of Jane Austen is one of the remarkable + cultural phenomena of these pre-millennial years. Emma Woodhouse has hit + Hollywood, Mr Darcy has starred on the cover of the Radio Times, prequels and + sequels have leapt aboard the Austen bandwagon, while paperbacks of her novels + outsell just about every rival, save for the magnificent Bridget Jones's Diary,+ whose plot and leading male faithfully reflect Bridget's adoration for + Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy.Austen's novels have always been exceptionally + popular classics but the current mania for the Bennets and co. is + unprecendeted. The reasons for this are not difficult to find. The elegance + and sharp wit of her writing are perennially appealing, and there is + undoubtedly a nostalgic appeal in her version of the domestic pastoral - all + those manors and dances and bonnets. But, as I am sure Bridget Jones would + point out with squirming fervour, all the present fuss and bother about dear + Jane derive from one unlikely source - Andrew Davies, who sexed up Pride and + Prejudice for his TV adaptation and provided Mr Darcy, aka Colin Firth, with + the opportunity to emerge from the lake and win the decade's wet shirt + contest.The latest consequence of Darcymania is that we now have not one but + two new major biographies of the Nineties' favourite author. Proving that there+ is as yet no decline in Austen's popularity, Claire Tomalin's biography had + to be reprinted before publication. The omens for the subject herself are very + encouraging too, for both Tomalin and Nokes have acquired excellent track + records as assiduous and accomplished biographers.So far, fine and dandy, but + there is one awful drawback - the subject. Jane Austen offers her biographers + the level of excitement and promise that would be felt by a wheatfarmer who has+ inherited one of the drier parts of the Gobi desert. Tomalin and Nokes have + to contend with four problems: one, Austen's fiction is resolutely fictional + and can rarely be inspected for autobiographical clues; two, the source + material for her life is often scanty because members of her family destroyed + many of her letters; three, those letters that have survived are so full of her+ michievous wit and irony that interpreting them is a tricky business; four, + Jane's life was not only pretty short (she died in 1817 at the age of 42) but + extremely short on incident.Both Tomalin and Nokes would disagree with that + last judgement. Nokes provides 572 pages of text to prove otherwise, and the + more concise Tomalin (292 pages) an epigraph from two of Jane's great-nephews. + "The uneventful nature of the author's life . . . has been a good deal + exaggerated." And granted, both biographies are crammed with drama and + melodrama. The only trouble is that the dramas and melodramas feature everyone + but Jane. Her brothers Frank and Charles roam the high seas, fighting the + French and capturing treasure; her possibly kleptomaniacal aunt is accused of + theft and threatened with transportation; her eldest brother Edward is adopted + by a rich couple and inherits their magnificent estate in Kent; her aunt + Philadelphia spurns her husband and gads about with the governor-general of + Bengal, who is probably the father of her daughter Eliza, who in turn marries a+ dodgy French aristocrat (soon to be guillotined) and then Jane's brother + Henry, whose career in banking sees him make and lose a fortune. And what of + Jane? Let's just say that it comes as a real highlight when the mutton she + serves to a guest turns out to be slightly underdone.The following constitutes + a fairly comprehensive summary of the important events in Jane Austen's life: + 1775 - is born. 1783 - suffers from life-threatening fever. 1796 - is chatted + up by Tom Lefroy, but his family whisk him off before the little romance can + prosper. 1800 - is upset when her parents announce they will move from the + family home in the Hampshire village of Steventon. 1802 - accepts, then + immediately declines proposal of marriage from gawky, gormless Harris + Bigg-Wither. 1805 - may or may not have received and declined another proposal + of marriage, from Edward Bridges. 1817 - dies. Of course, among all this heady+ activity, she did happen to write six masterpieces, but there isn't much that+ can be said about her authorship, beyond quoting from a few letters Jane wrote+ to her beloved sister Cassandra and describing her difficulties finding a + publisher.Despite the efforts of the authors, the truth that emerges from both + books conforms depressingly to received opinion about Jane. As the dutiful + daughter of a struggling parson, she was really condemned to genteel passivity.+ Her only hope of changing her lot - or rather, having it changed for her - was+ to find a husband, which explains why she initially said yes to the hapless + Harris Bigg-Wither. This grim reality also lends terrible pathos to the + behaviour Nokes describes when she was in her late thirties; she would often + joke about wanting to marry some fictional hero and flirted heart-rendingly + with her brother's handsome young apothecary. To all intents and purposes, + especially those of biographers, life remained something that happened around + her, and on just a few occasions, to her. The result is that for both Tomalin + and Nokes context has to be all, so both provide many detailed accounts of the + affairs of her aunts and brothers and cousins and uncles. This approach is very+ understandable - not only do these affairs offer something to write about, + they were of pressing importance to Jane herself,particularly after her father + died and she found herself moved around from relative to relative, hoping for a+ legacy or gift that might bring with it some measure of security. + Unfortunately, this eminently justifiable attention to the bank balances and + bequests of everyone in the Austen family tree does not make for a riveting + narrative. In a valiant effort to spice things up, Nokes pays greater attention+ to the racy goings-on of Jane's relatives. So much so that Jane herself + doesn't appear until page 51. Admirably restraining himself from speculating + about Jane's life, Nokes compensates by indulging in flights of fancy about the+ more active members of his cast. His fictional re-creations about the likes of+ cousin Eliza and brother Henry are bold efforts to enliven proceedings but + read like second-division schlockbusters, and usually strike the fey, skittish + note often to be heard in his narrative. (The topic of young girls entering the+ world is judged to be "that most delicious of all subjects" , and, six pages + later, after Jane resolves to buy a straw hat - making that a real red-letter + day - Nokes infers that she felt "a most delicious guilt".)Tomalin copes with + the lack of information or event by speculating when she can, and it is a mark + of her great ability that her "surelys" and "might haves" usually prefix + persuasive guesswork. When she can't reasonably speculate, she refuses to do + so. Thus Tomalin accepts that, thanks to a series of contradictory descriptions+ and the existence of just one inept sketch by Cassandra, we really don't know + what Jane Austen looked like. Significantly, and in one of the few notable + differences between the two accounts, Nokes chooses to accept Eliza's gush that+ Jane and Cassandra were "two of the prettiest girls in England", and indeed + the Jane that emerges from his portrait is a bit of a minx, addicted to + flirting and happy to regard writing as something to do if there weren't any + parties to go to.It's a thought-provoking interpretation but I prefer Tomalin's+ Austen - a much more marginalised figure, not quite an outsider but definitely+ not the protagonist in anyone's life, including her own. That's why we know + almost as little about her as we do about Shakespeare. As Tomalin bravely + confesses, Jane Austen remains "as elusive as a cloud in the night sky". We'll + have to rest content with the novels - and the films and the TV serials and the+ videos and Mr Darcy's new found status as the Sean Connery of Eng. Lit.

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