What did Jane do?

Jane Austen, By David Nokes, Fourth Estate Pounds 20, Jane Austen. By Claire Tomalin, Pounds 20

Austen may be a cultural superstar, but she's not an easy subject for biography. Harry Ritchie reads two new books about her uneventful, if productive, life.

Along 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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