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.

Stylistically, he is at his most infuriating when his needle keeps jumping back a groove or gets stuck in one he can’t escape. He is subject to a nervous tic of writing ‘as we have seen’ when all he can properly mean is ‘as I have already asserted’. In a more frequent tic, he interrupts himself to tap his ruler on the blackboard and bid his readers ‘remember’. ‘The Austens, remember, had six boys and two girls.’ Seventeen pages on, the tic is active again. ‘Jane, remember, was hard at work on Emma now.’

His opening chapter, a flash-forward to Jane Austen’s death, is afflicted by a repetitive mannerism that reads like sarcasm, though one cannot be sure, since he is not adept at making his emotional intentions plain. ‘Hardwick suggests that the lady’s knowledge of unpleasantness was’ something or other. Frederic Harrison found ‘the lady in question’ something else. ‘Perhaps the lady was one person with intimates and another person at other times.’ By the time he has got Jane Austen buried, with a memorial tablet that fails to mention the fact that ‘the lady wrote novels,’ I believed I must be reading a biography of Hamlet’s mother.

Insensitive to words in general, Professor Halperin has apparently not noticed that a word sometimes changes its meaning. Without saying that ‘candid’ has virtually reversed its meaning since, he quotes Elinor’s speech in Sense and Sensibility, ‘it is my wish to be candid in my judgment of everybody,’ and comments: ‘Again the emphasis on judging others.’ Well, no: virtually the opposite, actually. I wonder what characteristic he supposes to be incarnate in the name Candide. Given such crassness about a major change, it is no surprise that he is deaf to a changed timbre. Towards the end of the book, his ‘the lady’ mannerism recurs in a new variation. Now he simply writes ‘lady’ or ‘gentleman’ in contexts where modern English, unless you are calling attention to the queue-jumping of the person behind you, requires ‘woman’ or ‘man’. The ‘Austen ladies’ do not attend a wedding; Jane Austen’s niece marries a baronet ‘shortly after the gentleman inherited his title’. Professor Halperin, who prefaces his text with a family tree showing Jane Austen’s aristocratic forebears (with a second tier showing her aristocratic descendants, whose relevance is harder to divine unless he is making without stating some argument about genetics), might with advantage have adopted Jane Austen’s vocabulary. She was too well-bred and also, in this connection, too modern to write ‘lady’ and ‘gentleman’ where she meant ‘woman’ and ‘man’. Indeed, his own quotations from her letters and novels demonstrate the point, sometimes in the same sentence with his own Victorian middle-class usage, as when he discountenances an early date for the composition of Pride and Prejudice on the grounds that a 21-year-old Jane Austen would not speak of Charlotte Lucas, aged 27, ‘as “a young woman”, whereas a lady in her thirties could easily do so’.

Authors cannot be held to blame for the boasts of their blurbs. Still, the claim that the professor’s is ‘the first comprehensive critical biography of Jane Austen for half a century’ is presumably licensed by his remark that the ‘last’ detailed critical biography dates from 1938. In the interim (which I make a bit short of half a century) he sees ‘coffee-table picture-books’ and some studies that make ‘the biographical attempt’, of which he judges ‘the most underrated’ Joan Rees’s and ‘the most overrated that by David Cecil’. After this apparent jettisoning of pusillanimity, readers are in for a shock when they turn to the notes which, with divisions to indicate roughly which section of the text they refer to, are clumped in read-straight-on format at the end of the volume. There you find the professor’s confession that his account of Chawton, where the Austen women or ladies lived after the death of the paterfamilias, is a borrowing from David Cecil.

It is more deeply shocking that he has adopted, without critical inquiry, David Cecil’s view that Jane Austen’s ‘musical taste was probably on the lowbrow side’. He shows not a sign of having read Patrick Piggott’s charming book The Innocent Diversion, of 1979, which establishes, from the sheet music she owned and copied, that Jane Austen was a highly proficient keyboard performer and identifies, as by Daniel Gottlieb Steilbelt, the noisy pianoforte music Marianne Dashwood plays during Elinor’s secret conversation with Lucy Steele. Jane Austen’s feelings about music were certainly ambivalent and often they dismay Mr Piggott. My surmise is that she often found music too moving to bear. For an informed discussion or indeed a discussion at all you will search this critical biography in vain, finding only a complaint that she shows no sign of knowing that she lived in the age of ‘Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven’. I do not believe that the parallels Robert Wallace draws, in Jane Austen and Mozart (1983), between her fictional and his orchestral structures can be sustained in the detail Mr Wallace proposes, but he does indicate how small an opportunity Jane Austen had to know the composers Professor Halperin names, whom he names with our, not her, century’s eye to what constitutes a great name, and how many then esteemed composers she did know, of whom Professor Halperin gives no evidence of having heard.

Recent books on Jane Austen, says the professor, who manages to ignore a couple of the most interesting of them, include few genuine attempts at a ‘full-dress’ life. When I read this in his foreword I wondered what would make a life ‘full-dress’. When I emerged from his presumably full-dress volume I knew the correct sartorial answer: padding. It can be only a determination to bulk the thing out to the point where it can be presented as the first ‘full-dress’ attempt for fifty years that prompts him to waste vast space in asking questions to which, confessedly, no answer can be given. Did Jane Austen’s feelings on leaving Steventon, he demands, ‘resemble those of Marianne Dashwood upon leaving Norland – or those of Anne Elliot upon leaving Kellynch’? To this he gravely replies: ‘We shall never know.’ Reaching Jane Austen’s death for the second time round, he breaks into a snowstorm of questions about whether this memory or that passed through her dying thoughts, prefacing his inquiries by ‘we of course shall never know.’ He ends by frankly adopting the tone, though none, alas, of the techniques, of fiction. Jane Austen died in the arms of her sister Cassandra. The professor’s final insult takes the form: ‘Surely some portion of her last earthly thoughts must have been of Cassandra ... Cassandra in whose arms she lay cradled; Cassandra; Cassandra.’ Never has great novelist been so despitefully used.

His handiest method for mopping up space appears at the beginning of Chapter Two, which, with allowance made for the preview of the deathbed, is really the beginning of his text. After a misleadingly Dickensian cadence, ‘The best of times and the worst of times, certainly’, he whirls into one of those travelogues about Mumbo-Jumbo, land of contrasts. He introduces readers to the age Jane Austen was born into: ‘The age of Rowlandson and the age of Gainsborough’, an age of ‘militant patriotism’ and of ‘laxity and licence’, etc, etc. It is no doubt this rubbish that makes the blurb feel entitled to speak of Professor Halperin’s ‘command of the contemporary background’. I should have more trust in his command did he not write of the age ‘of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)’. She in fact vindicated the rights of woman, by way of counterpart, I have always assumed, to Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which he had published in the year before. I should have more trust that the error was the printer’s and not the author’s were it not repeated in the next chapter and in the index.

In truth, the publishers would have done more serviceably to print on the title-page the professor’s disqualifications for writing such a book, though even with the large page-size his padding has made necessary there might not have been room. Having perhaps misheard the adage that all autobiographies are fiction, he assumes that all fiction is autobiography. He speaks of a talkative real-life acquaintance of Jane Austen’s as ‘the future Miss Bates’, quite as though a marriage were arranged. Noting that someone has pointed out that the fictional Rosings and Hunsford parsonage are ‘almost perfect fits’ for the real-life Chevening Park and its parsonage, he associates Pride and Prejudice in both topography and date with Jane Austen’s known visits to the real-life area. There are contexts where a novelist needs specific information, as Jane Austen did before correcting her Mansfield Park allusion to Government House in Gibraltar into an allusion to the Commissioner’s house. For many novelists there are also, however, contexts where the specific impedes invention and what is needed is generic information, an averaging-out of many specifics, a background (of a kind Jane Austen was certainly in a position to possess on the subject of parsonages) against which one can invent convincingly. By pursuing his literal-minded transpositions from real life into fiction, the professor obliterates Jane Austen’s imagination. His is a book from which you would never guess she had one.

Disorientated about fiction at large, he is irrecoverably adrift when the fiction is couched in the Classical mode. He writes bearably, though not brilliantly, about people and incidents in Jane Austen’s books but does not mention their structure except to misread her mercifully (to the reader) swift conclusions as ‘botched’ endings. Failing to understand the proportions of the novels, he wishes in every case for a final ‘scene’ instead of a withdrawal to the distance. Clearly he supposes that a Jane Austen novel could without detriment go on, episode added to episode, like a soap opera.

Having, in his Collins persona, fantasies of being an investigative journalist, he burrows, in the letters and in the fictions he has misread as autobiographical, for traces of Jane Austen’s love life, with the assiduity of a pop paper doing the same to royalty. He suspects that the absence of final ‘scenes’ in the novels reflects her jealousy of the happiness of her marrying characters, though he records and accepts, on rather distant family evidence, that she decided not to marry at least one suitor and though he accepts (as how could he not, on the strength of her explicit metaphor that she could no more forget her first-published novel ‘than a mother can forget her sucking child’?) that Jane Austen’s novels had for her the psychological value of children.

Having fantasies also of being a Great Detective, he suspects the Austen family of a cover-up because they described Jane Austen as sweet-natured and, though relying implicitly on her recollection of the chronology of Jane Austen’s compositions, he accuses Cassandra Austen of censorship because she was seen to destroy an unknown number of her sister’s letters after her death. However, he himself advances the reasonable hypothesis that what Cassandra, not dishonourably, destroyed referred to the death of her own fiancé, and points out that what seem gaps in the sequence of the letters may reflect the fact that the sisters had no need to write to one another unless they were apart.

He is vulnerable to catch-phrases. A pair of sisters has only to cross Jane Austen’s real life or her oeuvre, and he invokes ‘sibling rivalry’. At his umpteenth mention, he calls it ‘our old friend’. Since he succeeds in making none of his cases, it is only our old red herring, another space-using statement of what might or equally might not be so. Indefatigably philistine, he sneers: ‘Emma, of all English novels, was dedicated to George IV, of all English monarchs,’ heedless that the man who picked out Jane Austen and who commissioned Brighton Pavilion had an eye and a taste unrivalled among English monarchs since Charles I or possibly ever.

Arguing himself more or less out of his belief that there is a crime to be investigated, he changes from detective into preacher, pronouncing comminations on Jane Austen for ‘malice’, accusing her of lack of feeling and denouncing her on the grounds that she ended Mansfield Park in a ‘paroxysm of rage’. He is disabled as a commentator on the major novels by his blindness to Classicism. He is particularly inept at things Jane Austen is particularly good at. He has a poor ear for irony. He is stone tone deaf to both satire and nonsense, which incapacitates him as a commentator on the juvenile literary work and on many of the adult letters. Though he rightly insists that Jane Austen was not some sort of spinster dormouse, he seems to have a curiously spinsterish experience of life himself. Jane Austen’s dislike of slammed doors he considers ‘neurasthenic’. Clearly, he has met no children. He finds it odd of her to link ‘little children with dirt and litter’. In fact, he can have met scarcely anyone at all, since he never considers that Jane Austen’s accounts of people she met are more likely to be justified than to be malicious. Evidently, he himself lives on air. He judges it ‘unappealing’ that money ‘is virtually the only thing that gets talked about in’ Sense and Sensibility. That is not true (the narrative talks as well as the characters) and would not be a reproach to a novel if it were.

Still, it is the scent of a love life, even more than the suspicion of a moral depravity, that truly excites him. When Jane Austen, writing in her nonsense vein, reports to her sister that Mr Haden (the medical man through whom she came into touch with the Prince Regent) is ‘without the least spice of an Apothecary. – He is perhaps the only Person not an Apothecary hereabouts,’ the ineffable deutero-Collins comments: ‘This sounds like a woman in love.’