Woman in Love

Brigid Brophy

  • The Life of Jane Austen by John Halperin
    Harvester, 400 pp, December 1984, ISBN 0 7108 0518 7

Two voices are there of Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University John Halperin, whose rank and area of operation are, by what strikes me as a publishing solecism in a book that solicits a general readership, placed in apposition to his name on the title-page. The first voice is scarcely of the deep, but it utters some common sense. The other, which predominates, is the voice of Mr Collins. Long driven to that conclusion, I came upon Professor Halperin himself, some three hundred pages into his book, pronouncing that the Rev. James Stanier Clarke, the librarian to the Prince Regent who transmitted to Jane Austen his employer’s permission (in the sense of command) for her to dedicate her next novel to the Prince, ‘must have convinced Jane that Mr Collins had come to life.’ Well, that one deutero-Collins should recognise another when he sees him seems only fair; and in the notion that one of Jane Austen’s inventions turned into real life he pays a tiny fragment of recompense for the gross injustice he does her in his indeed gross book.

His foreword declares Jane Austen ‘possibly the greatest of the English novelists’. Muffled by the ‘possibly’ and the ‘English’, it is not a very ringing declaration. When he comes down to supposed certainties, he will go no further than ‘certainly the first great woman writer in English’, an assertion in which he has pusillanimously so broadened the ground that he does injustice to Aphra Behn. He repeats the assertion with its concomitant injustice in his Chapter Four. Yet when I had finished his book I wondered what he was praising Jane Austen, albeit in squeaks, for, since the book pivots on the assumption that she was incapable of inventing a house, let alone a human.

Apart from citing without disapprobation two of my observations about Jane Austen, the professor’s common-sensible voice displays, chiefly, negative virtues. He is not under the illusion that Jane Austen’s oeuvre constitutes the Country Diary of a Regency Lady. Indeed, although she did not publish her first book until two years after the Regency was established, he repeatedly describes her as a Georgian. That may be justified if the implication is that her intellect was formed early in her life, but to establish the point would take a deal more exploration of the discernible intellectual influences than the professor provides. It would take more than exploration to explain the professor’s remark that by 1801 the ‘London smart set had followed the Prince Regent’s example’ of holidaying in Brighton, since at that date he was still the Prince of Wales.

Though her intellect was formed early, Jane Austen’s mind was not quick to put up the shutters. The professor’s highest virtue is to point to the many instances that show her pains to keep informed and up-to-date about current events. Laudably, he is no Janeite. He never speaks of his subject as ‘Miss Austen’, that facetious, would-be ‘period’ locution which, although it was the only recourse for near-contemporaries ignorant of her family situation, is, on the pens of latterday admirers who know her to have been the second unmarried daughter, a period solecism and one which, as her letters demonstrate, she took care to avoid and avert.

True, the professor often calls her ‘Jane’. This he interchanges, however, with ‘Jane Austen’ and ‘the novelist’, once using all three within ten lines. No principle that I can detect determines his choice except the one attributed to mid-19th-century sports reporters, of eschewing whichever two you have used the most recently. Syntactically, he is sometimes suspect. ‘She was perhaps less “affectionate” than open-minded; having high standards, her affections were not easily bestowed.’ I’m not sure that affections can have standards, though clearly she could. When he writes ‘this far’, I am dead sure that ‘this’ is not an adverb. Self-contradictorily, however, he seems to believe that a word cannot be an adverb unless it ends in -ly. There seems no other reason for him to write ‘overly’, a North American usage I always find overly ripe.

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