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.

The difficulty, at its most intractable in this third case, lies in the causal gap between ‘personality’ and ‘achievement’. The very concept of individual personality is contestable. It is chimeric even to seek a definitive reckoning of an achievement. And it is unwise to put much weight on such bridges as Lord David Cecil’s remark that ‘Jane Austen the author and Jane Austen the woman were essentially of a piece.’ For every serious biographer, the tasks of interpreting a defective record and recovering a personality are compounded by these conceptual uncertainties. The literary biographer must also recognise that, while the writer’s works form an essential part of the record and are the heart of the achievement, they rarely afford much direct evidence: if there is an autobiographical element in every work of fiction, the biographer must nevertheless allow for distancing and displacement. While these remarks suggest that literary biography is a difficult art, they are not offered as a counsel of despair: they indicate, rather, that the biographer must know what he is about and that, like all of us, he must exercise his judgment.

Lord David Cecil was much too seasoned a biographical campaigner to advance, in march-step, across a shaky bridge. While a lifelong admiration for Jane Austen’s novels makes his point of departure, he writes briefly of the achievement and only broadly relates the novels to the author’s life. He wished, he says, to add to his knowledge of the woman and her times. The book is stylishly written, lavishly presented, and almost brotherly in tone. It shows, at least by implication, why Lord David rejoiced in Jane Austen’s novels while he had to struggle to appreciate those of the Brontës. But, on matters of fact, it takes little advantage of the new information of the last forty years. On points of interpretation, it finds Jane Austen too easy to defend. The occasional asperity of her letters reflects an 18th century comic realism. A mark of strained relations shows that someone else was hard to please. And, though Jane Austen may not have dwelt in the best of all possible worlds, it was a more congenial corner of a more congenial world than most. Even a reader who leans towards opinions like these must regret the absence of a more closely reasoned case.

The more so when such a reader turns to John Halperin’s Gothic psychodrama. Halperin’s point of departure also lies in Jane Austen’s novels. But, unlike Lord David, he never really leaves them: The Life of Jane Austen is chiefly a work of psychological criticism and its general tone is easy to exemplify. Sense and Sensibility is ‘bleak and black and nasty’, with ‘terrible lapses’ and an ‘awful ending’; but it ‘just misses being a masterpiece’. While Jane Austen’s comic ironies are put to strange uses, the word is freely used: ‘irony, bitter irony, is the mode of Northanger Abbey,’ which is ‘the work of a caustic, disappointed woman’. ‘What heartbreaking disappointment lies behind’ the narrator’s comment that Catherine ‘had reached the age of 17, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility; without having inspired one real passion ...’ Halperin, then, finds no difficulty in translating the comments of Jane Austen’s narrators and even the opinions of her less amiable characters into a picture of her psyche. When he turns to the Letters and the other documentary evidence, it is mainly in quest of fuel for the same lurid fires of neurasthenia, paranoia, bitter sibling rivalry and a mounting sexual desperation. He regards the family memoirs as a pious attempt to conceal these personal shortcomings and, though he has strong views on some points of fact, he has little to say of recent scholarship.

By comparison with this, Park Honan’s biography is a very sober piece of work. It benefits, first of all, from its little sketches of late 18th-century and Regency England: of national politics; of social and economic conditions in Hampshire; of life in Southampton, Bath and London, and in the fleet at sea. A historian might wish for a more complete account and even an amateur may cavil at some points of detail. But what is offered is well-managed. It is presented on an appropriate scale. And if, at times, it reads like Smollett, it adds something that has been wanting: Jane Austen’s various biographers have had more to say of the kind of England that an All worthy or an Emily St Aubert would have wished to live in

Within this framework, Honan writes well and more fully than anyone else has done of Jane Austen’s family and friends. He is often indebted, it is true, to those who have traced out an intricate set of personal relationships and made documents available. But he deals responsibly with the evidence and takes proper account of the context in which an event or a comment should be understood. He is the first, I believe, to draw attention to some curious dealings between Captain Francis Austen and the directors of the East India Company and he notes that Austen’s career did not suffer thereby: yet he recognises that the Admiralty and the Company then cooperated in a manner that might later have been thought improper. He deals fairly with the trial of Jane Leigh Perrot, Jane Austen’s aunt, allowing for the conflicting possibilities that (as her counsel supposed) she gave way to kleptomania and that (as the family maintained) she was the victim of attempted blackmail: he thus resists the opposing prejudices to which other biographers have yielded. It is widely known that Mary Russell Mitford told how a friend had described Jane Austen, in her later years, as ‘the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of “single blessedness” that ever existed’. Miss Mitford’s comment that ‘the friend from whom I received it is truth itself; but her family connexions must render her disagreeable to Miss Austen’ is not always noted. Honan not only quotes the whole but identifies Miss Mitford’s friend as the sister-in-law of one who was, even then, engaged in a bitter law-suit with Jane Austen’s brother. Neither lady, perhaps, saw the other at her most amiable.

If Honan were as devout an Anglican as Charles Austen, he might have made more sense of the ‘defensive congratulations’ that attended Charles’s marriage to his deceased wife’s sister. In 1820 such unions did not contravene the law of the land (as they were soon afterwards to do): but canon law was against him, and he seems fortunate to have known a willing clergyman. If Honan were an Australian, he might have found some extenuation for a remark that troubles him and others: he writes sternly of the way in which Fanny Knight, in old age, betrayed the memory of her aunts. But if Fanny became arrogant from worldly success, she may also have been made ultra-genteel by unhappy events. Her husband’s half-brother is the subject of Colin Roderick’s John Knatchbull: From Quarter-deck to Gallows (Sydney, 1963), a title which only hints at a lifelong series of crimes that ended in Sydney in 1844. How can a biography ever be definitive?

Overall the picture is of a closely knit and mutually reliant family with many connections among the gentry and lesser nobility. While the sons married, and pursued their several careers, the bonds among them, their parents and their spinster sisters did not weaken. Honan gives Mrs Austen a better hearing than some others, notably Geoffrey Grigson, have done: the hypochondria is recognised but it is balanced by much evidence of good humour and good sense. James’s Mary and Edward’s Elizabeth figure more fully than in most accounts, and emerge the worse for it. James’s gravity, Edward’s conventionality, Henry’s volatility, Frank’s unremitting practicality and Charles’s gentleness are firmly rendered. The nephews and nieces include some spoilt children and some charming ones. (Edward’s son George may not have wished to be fixed in life and death with the nickname ‘Itty Dordy’: repetition makes it one of Honan’s occasional gaucheries.) And Cassandra, as always, remains a central figure. The whole record is material for a social historian rather than a psychiatrist: it would be unlikely to attract wide interest were it not for the genius of the younger sister.

If Jane Austen’s personality were Honan’s subject, his biography would be a little colourless, especially early on. Here again, he shows his respect for the limits of the available evidence. He gives a full account of the known events of her life and makes useful additions to that knowledge. But the surviving letters offer few intimate disclosures: there could be few matters of lasting personal importance on which Jane’s opinions were not already well-known to Cassandra, and Cassandra, no more willing than Jane to have such things widely known, destroyed some letters and cut passages from others. Honan is at his best, once more, when he reminds us of a context. Many of Jane Austen’s more outrageous witticisms come together, as he points out, shortly after the death of Thomas Fowle: Cassandra, he suggests, may have needed a sort of epistolary shock treatment. When Honan enters upon psychological speculation, however, the results are mostly conventional. The shy girl is ill at ease with strangers, finds security in her family, and sets about becoming the family entertainer. The young novelist, who took no advantage of opportunities to meet her more eminent contemporaries, is seen as deliberately avoiding them. The mature novelist, in her brief period of fame, is intent on remaining herself. The woman writer, having no room of her own, creates her own imaginative space and guards it jealously. I summarise, of course: but we do not know much of Jane Austen’s inner life, and Honan shows little interest in psychological complexities, much less in colourful inventions.

Prompted by Jane Austen, a far subtler psychologist than he, he now and again reads from the novels into the personality – an approach that is adopted, in fact, by almost all of Jane Austen’s biographers when they consider why she refused Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal of marriage on the morning after she had accepted it. The heart of Honan’s explanation is that, in a long vigil, she came to think that an acceptance would amount to a self-interested interference in other people’s lives, the act of just such an ‘imaginist’ as Emma Woodhouse would afterwards become. Given that her putative victims all seem to have approved of the projected marriage, I am more convinced by Lord David Cecil’s association between Jane Austen’s refusal, the evidence of a brief but deep attachment to a man who had died a year or so before, and Anne Elliot’s poignant claim that women love longest ‘when existence or when hope is gone’. If Honan’s speculation is at fault, he quickly returns to firm ground by showing how little effect the episode was to have on the close and lasting friendship between the Austen sisters and Bigg-Withers’s three sisters.

But Honan usually works from the life towards the novels, and his true subject lies in what David Lodge describes, on the dust-jacket, as ‘the total matrix ... out of which the novels were generated’. He seldom insists on the direct causal linkage that I questioned earlier but he offers well-judged hypotheses. His account of Mansfield Park makes an excellent specimen.

The critical interpretation of that novel has been obstructed by the belief that Jane Austen said she would take ‘ordination’ as its subject, The real meaning of her remark was proposed by Charles Edge, in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1961), and by Hugh Brogan and others in the correspondence columns of the Times Literary Supplement in December 1968 and January 1969. (The case is also argued and Edge’s evidence extended in an unpublished Appendix of my doctoral thesis, University of London, 1967.) To consider the date of Jane Austen’s comment or to see the manuscript of her letter – a facsimile is on display at Jane Austen’s house at Chawton – is to be convinced that Edge was right. Halperin, unfortunately, preserves the older reading and seems not to have heard of an alternative. But the recognition of the case in Honan’s biography should give it lasting currency.

Honan’s account of Mansfield Park begins with Jane Austen’s known political opinions, especially her fear that the social values of the Tory gentry were being eroded in a time of instability. His work on the documents reinforces Walton Liu’s idea that memories of Eliza de Feuillide and glimpses of a new generation of London Whigs may have contributed to the making of the Crawfords and of the Bertram girls. The baronet owner of Cottesbrooke, a Northamptonshire estate long since proposed as an original of Mansfield Park, is now identified as one of Henry Austen’s friends. Family records refer to an Antiguan plantation for which Jane Austen’s father was trustee and to which the owner took a wastrel son. As for the literary background, Honan places a just emphasis on Hannah More’s Coelebs and, of course, on Lovers’ Vows. His most interesting addition is Fanny Price, a ‘meekly firm’ heroine in Crabbe’s Parish Register: Crabbe’s heroine resists the proposals of ‘an amorous knight’ and, assisted by his unexpected altruism, marries one ‘who to the yielding maid had vow’d his truth’.

No quantity of such evidence can give us Mansfield Park but it is a reminder that the novel is not a timeless urn. Set in Honan’s carefully-marshalled context, Fanny, especially, acquires emblematic value as a voice of ‘the inward life’ and as an agent of amelioration where amelioration is much needed. Honan’s Jane Austen is neither a desperate neurotic nor a contented Tory but a splendid comic ironist. Her ideal biographer, perhaps, will write as subtly as she: but Honan will stand us in good stead for many years to come.

[*] 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).