A Piece of Single Blessedness

John Burrows

  • Jane Austen: Her Life by Park Honan
    Weidenfeld, 452 pp, £16.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 297 79217 2

The publication of three substantial biographies of Jane Austen within a decade smacks of excess. But, compared with Lord David Cecil’s A Portrait of Jane Austen (1979) and John Halperin’s The Life of Jane Austen (1984), the work under review is in so many ways the best that it deserves to make its mark. The three authors, moreover, approach their subject (or subjects) from quite different directions and differ greatly in their concepts of literary biography.

The biographical study of Jane Austen began in a succession of family memoirs, culminating in the standard life (1913) by W. and R.A. Austen-Leigh.[*] The chief additions, for many years, were Elizabeth Jenkins’s Jane Austen (1938); the concise but illuminating early chapters of Mary Lascelles’s Jane Austen and Her Art (1939); and R.W. Chapman’s close work on the documents, first published in notes to his unrivalled edition of the novels and his edition of the Letters and amplified in his Jane Austen: Facts and Problems (1948). The ensuing forty years have seen many studies of facets of Jane Austen’s life and background. To the extent – and it is a considerable extent – that this recent work has added to our knowledge, each of the new biographers could make a prima facie case for a substantial new treatment of the subject. But what sort of treatment might it be?

The first problem of the literary biographer is one shared with other biographers and historians. Even if the documentary record were complete, it would make only a glimmer in the great darkness of all the unrecorded things we cannot know about the past: all the lost conversations of an articulate family like the Austens are a striking case in point. And, whether the documentary evidence is as sparse as it is for Shakespeare or as voluminous as it is for Sir Walter Scott, it can never be complete. Although some were destroyed and others censored by Cassandra Austen, we have many of the letters that Jane Austen wrote to this sister and a few she wrote to others. It is unlikely that any large body of the letters she received will be recovered. Through the generosity of the present owners and the energy of modern scholars, we have increasing access to letters exchanged among other members of her family and her circle of acquaintance. Those of Eliza de Feuillide and Fanny Knight (and the latter’s diaries), to which Park Honan draws attention, are of particular interest; and others like them may yet be found. The discovery of the play Sir Charles Grandison, or The Happy Man, the work of Jane Austen and her niece Anna, suggests that there may even yet be additions to the small body of literary manuscripts. There, at present, the documentary record ends; and the biographer must constantly allow for its deficiencies.

A second problem looks simple enough but can never be resolved. Why write a Life of Smith or Mrs Jones, and why should it be read? The Rousseauistic answer is that any life (especially mine, but even yours perhaps) is of interest if it can evoke a tear; and the reading public has been told, chiefly in autobiographies, how many a tender branch was warped. There is a case, often less egotistical, for writing family memoirs. And, from a larger historical interest (if no longer in the hope that, by emulating what we read, we, too, may make our lives sublime), there is a widely accepted case for portraying the lives of people of notable achievement.

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[*] James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen (1870) has just been reprinted by Century, with an iconoclastic introduction by Fay Weldon (235 pp., £4.95, October 1987, 0 7126 1702 7).