Simplicity

Marilyn Butler

  • Jane Austen : A Life by David Nokes
    Fourth Estate, 578 pp, £20.00, September 1997, ISBN 1 85702 419 2
  • Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
    Viking, 341 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 670 86528 1

Do we need another Life of Jane Austen? Biographies of this writer come at regular intervals, confirming a rather dull story of Southern English family life. For the first century at least, the main qualification for the task was to be a relative – Henry Austen, ‘Biographical Notice’ to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), the Rev. J.E. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen (1870) and W. and R.A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters (1913). These pioneers had two main messages to convey: that the author was a very domestic woman, and that outside her family she had no profound attachments or interests. Subsequent biographers rightly complain that this puts a damper on the exercise. But the nine hundred new pages on Austen’s life do not, in the event, significantly change what is still a family record.

How can the Nineties reader, so often resistant to history, gain access to this most secretive and parochial of writers? Claire Tomalin’s publishers credit her with discovering an Austen who is the heroine of a modern story, one of a family of meritocrats struggling to get ahead in a competitive, money-driven society. At it happens, much academic work on the Romantic writers, Austen included, has been obsessed with money for over a decade now. Edward Copeland’s Women Writing about Money (1995) gets more thoroughly into the topic than a biographer can, and David Nokes provides even more insights than Tomalin into (say) Austen and legacy-hunting. In fact Tomalin’s considerable strengths are surely of another kind – to do with her modern, matter-of-fact tone of voice and her narrowed focus on Jane Austen as the story’s heroine. If anything she plays down her family and still more her society, at any rate as direct material for the novels, in favour of an Austen who is essentially solitary. Tomalin tells each well-known incident of the life, and instantly follows up with Austen’s response. Or, rather, with what we might feel in such circumstances, a response couched in the language and shaped by the attitudes of today.

After her mother had breast-fed her for three months, how did the newest Austen take being parted from that breast, to be spoon-fed by a foster mother in the village? At two, did the scream on being taken away from her foster mother and village family? How did she react to being packed off to two fairly unsatisfactory boarding schools, at seven and nine? Or to the news, abruptly delivered to her at the age of 25, that her father was retiring from his country parish and moving with his wife and two daughters to the fashionable resort of Bath?

Tomalin neatly uses these conventional but intensitive parental ‘ejections’ of Jane from childhood on to explain the withdrawn, self-protective manner of the adult woman. They were ‘frightening and unpleasant experiences over which she had no control and which required periods of recovery; they helped to form the “whimsical girl”, almost always well defended when it came so showing emotion.’ Tomalin’s Jane was reticent and unopinionated in company, even in family gatherings. She participated, but protected her privacy, while she joked in her letters, enjoyed acting, invented stories for children, and played children’s games. She had several longstanding women friends who corresponded, and she wrote to all her siblings except George, her mentally retarded older brother. But, Tomalin thinks, the reserve may not have been breached even in the unrecorded conversations and letters, many afterwards destroyed, which passed between Jane and her closest friend, her sister Cassandra.

Nokes virtually omits the novels from his story. Tomalin makes more use of them than most biographers, and indeed relies on them for her boldest innovation, a reconstruction of Austen’s inner life. Here Tomalin makes some risky moves. Arbitrarily chosen characters from the novels – Lady Susan, Marianne Dashwood, Mary Crawford – speak for their author’s repressed desires. Unsupported guesses, strategically placed in the story, take the weight of the biographer’s argument. Of Austen’s first months in Bath, Tomalin remarks: ‘Jane was schooled to keep up appearances, even if she was screaming inside her head.’ Austen stays put or moves without audible protest, as though serving a long term of house-arrest. The world she makes in her novels stands out by contrast at open and animate, indicating its function, Tomalin thinks, in Austen’s fantasy-life:

As a child recovering from the school years, she found the power to entertain her family with her writing. Through her writing, she was developing a world of imagination in which she controlled everything that happened. She went on to create young women somewhat like herself, but whose perceptions and judgments were shown to matter; who were able to influence their own fates significantly, and who could even give their parents good advice. Her delight in this work is obvious.

It’s pity that this Big Idea, the organising principle of Tomalin’s book, nowadays comes almost too readily to hand in writing any artist’s life. A highly stylised genre doesn’t necessarily express a particular writer’s inner life: how can it, when the features of plot and character Tomalin lists are standard in classic comedy, romance and fairy tale? Tomalin’s psychoanalytic use of the novels reduces the effect of the letters, where Austen at least speaks for herself. The comedies take the Life over, by virtue of the idealised spirit of comedy, not the toughness, irony and frequent cynicism that more particularly characterise Austen’s writing. This pleasing, polished book goes some way towards a mixed mode – fictionalised memoir or biographical novel.

Where Tomalin turns into a novelist by stealth, Nokes formally borrows some narrative devices from fiction. He invents letters, for instance, based apparently on real sources, so that different characters can tell the story among themselves. In come tales the family censored: the probable adultery of Jane Austen’s aunt, Eliza Hancock, with Warren Hastings, and the family’s secretive shutting away of her brother George. Nokes has not really uncovered new witnesses, except for the farmer Francis Cullum, of Monk Sherborne, Hampshire, who was for many years George’s carer. But the principle of telling a story ‘forwards’, without the massive intervention of later editors, and in effect from below, as in the manner of much modern social history, symbolically opens up the airless Austen house-holds to the surrounding countryside and the great world. Eliza de Feuillide, née Hancock, brings in whiffs of British India and of France in the dying days of the Ancien Régime. Jane’s sailor-brother Captain Frank Austen reports in the Patrick O’Brian style on the high point of his naval career when, off St Domingo on 6 February 1806, his ship Canopus gave a French three-decker ‘a tickling which knocked all his sticks away’.

Where there’s insufficient material Nokes returns to standard literary history, through the moves between historical rigour and historical fiction sometimes jar. The historian in him intervenes to good effect on the fourth of Tomalin’s evictions, the Austens’ removal at the end of 1800 to Bath. The family view, accepted by most editors and biographers, is that Jane hated leaving her childhood home. In one version, she fainted when told, a shaky anecdote which has fostered the image of a country gentlewoman, modestly content with her usual lot. Nokes remarks that, with just one surviving letter between September 1796 and autumn 1798, and only five from Bath during her residence there in 1801-06, we can’t know how she responded to resort life. On the contrary: when the series of letters becomes more complete, her tone has changed, reflecting her greater, more diverse social experience, including theatre, music, conversation – and, Nokes should have added, books available from well-stocked lending libraries. That social and cultural immersion must have been an invaluable experience for a novelist of manners, a fair trade-off even if Bath’s busy round took her from the writing she wanted to do.

From the beginning of 1805, when the Rev. George Austen died, the letters are plentiful and Nokes’s thorough text-based method comes into its own. He is good on the cramped four years spent on the move or at Southampton, when money was a more pressing problem than at any other period in Austen’s lifetime. From this point until Austen’s death in 1817 Nokes provides a most valuable commentary on the letters, keeping up the story’s momentum through different episodes and relationships, while discreetly opening lines to the novels. A good example is the spirited disagreement between Jane and Cassandra on the merits or demerits of the Rev. George Moore, who in 1806 married Harriot Bridges of Kent, a sister-in-law of Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight. Moore, Jane points out, is heartily disliked in Kent: when he next appeared in church after the wedding the congregation sang the funeral hymn rather than the nuptial psalm. Jane teases Cassandra for her determination, like Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, to think uniformly well of people.

With the move to Chawton, Austen’s sustained period of mature writing begins. Nokes sifts the letters for early signs of the novels, and puts together an account of the process of publication in which he manages to isolate the contributions of various family members. His exploration of the hitherto obscure roles of Cassandra and of James, the eldest brother, is one of his best discoveries.

In the years in which Jane was at last getting published, Cassandra can already be seen as a family watchdog. When Sense and Sensibility emerged in 1811, Cassandra begged everyone to keep Jane’s authorship secret. Fifteen months later, in January 1813, while Jane excitedly awaited her favourite, Pride and Prejudice, Cassandra removed herself, so keep an engagement with James and Mary at Steventon Rectory. Nokes detects in the letter Jane sent after her not only disappointment at ‘an absence of that frank and open joy she had hoped for’, but a conciliatory tone, as though she had put Cassandra in an awkward spot: ‘it might be unpleasant to you to be in the neighbourhood at the first burst of the business.’ Nokes offers no explanation, but by including this strange remark invites our curiosity.

Steventon was a small community that had known Jane all her life, and James too – along with his second wife Mary Lloyd, whom Jane Austen disliked for her unkindness to her stepdaughter Anna and her meanness over money. A common reason why an author’s friend or relative dislikes a novel is that they suspect they appear in it. Suppose that James and Mary had already taken personally (say) the glorious second chapter of Sense and Sensibility, in which the mean-minded Fanny Dashwood talks her husband out of volunteering £5000 for his stepmother and stepsisters, in favour of an occasional bird for their table. After the death, in 1805, of the Rev. George Austen, the sons of the family had indeed debated what they would do for their mother and sisters. Their wives were not openly involved. In letters of 1806 and 1807, however, Jane wrote tartly that Mary complained of poverty, and that James’s views too often reflected Mary’s.

If no one at Steventon had discovered Jane’s authorship of Sense and Sensibility, James and Mary must have begun to relax. With the appearance of Pride and Prejudice, the problem returned. What if someone in possession of the secret connected Mr Collins’s obsequious visits after Sunday service to his patroness Lady Catherine de Burgh with James’s weekly attendance on his patrons, Mr and Mrs Chute? If some identifications spring to mind even now, from our reading of the culled letters, far more would have occurred to anyone who knew the Austens and their circle, whether in the country or in Bath – and a Bath anecdote involving public personalities might be picked out by reviewers or newspapers. Could this be the main reason for the severe cuts Cassandra made shortly before her death (or much sooner), especially to the letters written in the Bath years of vigorous socialising? When her brother Henry named Jane in his Biographical Notice introducing her posthumous novels set in Bath, Peruasion and Northanger Abbey, he neccessitated Cassandra’s cull of the Bath letters.

Between 1796 and 1805, both Cassandra and Jane had more than one prospect of marriage – topics neither wanted to see made public property. Jane’s fame threatened Cassandra’s privacy as well as her own. Given the conventions of the time, it seems harsh to put Cassandra’s caution down to envy, possessiveness or eventually craziness, as Nokes hints in his conclusion. When it came to keeping the paparazzi out, senior family members closed ranks and stayed loyal to Jane, each in his or her own way. The media were to be kept at bay. This was bound to be awkward when your sister was part of the media.

Both these biographers are highly skilled: Tomalin in telling a story that comes alive, Nokes in mining the letters for their bearing on Austen’s career. If in the end they leave some readers frustrated, it’s because of their connivance with other Janeites in isolating, provincialising and domesticating this sophisticated writer. For example, they avoid mention of modern books, theories, inspired guesses – from Terry Castle’s bravura essay on Jane’s intimacy with Cassandra in this journal in 1995, to Family Fortunes (1987), a suggestive work of social history by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, which shows how many wives, sisters and daughters, especially from clergy and military families, were writing at this time. Worse, they fill in her reading as a girl but afterwards cut her off from intellectual intercourse with her contemporaries, though we know that Austen carried on reading their books. She had still greater access to ideas through journals and reviews – the latter were probably more serious, informative and wide-ranging around 1800 than in any earlier period, or than any general-reader periodicals today.

This omission, which has gradually become accepted practice in Lives of writers, is profoundly anti-intellectual. Popular narrative art is formulaic; creativity for a novelist is often reactivity. Austen’s juvenilia prove she was sparked off by other writers’ books; so does Northanger Abbey, originally written in 1798-99, which establishes Austen’s Bath as an obsessively bookish world. Tomalin’s version of Austen thinking about her writing has too much of the autist to ring true: ‘Austen depended very little on fresh scenes and new acquaintance; her work was done in her head, when she began to see the possibility of a certain situation and set of characters.’

One consequence of their avoidance of printed sources is that key personalities (in Austen’s case, her sister Cassandra and her cousin Eliza de Feuillide) are promoted like soap-opera characters, and given far too big a role. Cassandra acts in both biographies as a foil to her more talented sister; the exotic Eliza is built up, as if we can’t otherwise account for Austen’s (relatively limited) portrayals of sophistication, ambition, sexuality or rebelliousness. After Eliza’s French husband was guillotined in 1794 she visited Steventon, talked of the theatre and private theatricals, and flirted with two of Austen’s older brothers, James and Henry. Both biographers give Eliza the credit of shaping Austen’s imagination and fantasy-life in late adolescence, partly as a glamorous, independent older woman, partly because she reappeared when Jane had put aside her teenage burlesque writings (1788-93) and was about to begin the first versions of her adult novels (from 1795). Most excitingly, it’s Eliza, in the right place at the right time, who immediately inspired Austen to create the seductive widow Lady Susan, the heroine of her only surviving novel in letters. If indeed Austen wrote this in 1794-95, we might have here what every biographer looks for: a clue to Austen’s desires, ideals and attitudes from young womanhood on, a thread, moreover, leading into the writing.

What neither biographer acknowledges is that facts about Lady Susan are hard to come by. It first appeared with other unpublished pieces in 1871, appended to the second edition of J.E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen. The family supposed the work originated about 1704. It made sense, since the writing seemed mature, to put it between the juvenilia of her mid-teens, mostly written before 1792, and two epistolary novels begun in 1795, the future Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Modern scholars also pencil in a Lady Susan draft in 1794. The only surviving manuscript is, however, a fair copy written by Austen on paper watermarked 1805.

Nokes hardens these guesses into a confidently dated story. The Rev. George Austen gave his daughter a small mahogany writing-desk on her 19th birthday, 16 December 1794. Nokes announces that Lady Susan was the first work she wrote at this desk. Later he pinpoints the circumstances in which she took it out again – in 1805, soon after her father died on 21 January and before the spring, when she finally put it away. Less hard and fast, Tomalin brings the work into her psychodrama at the same emotive points – Eliza’s visit as a widow, George Austen’s death. Yet we don’t know that there was a draft in the 1790s, or indeed a fair copy in 1805. All that the hallmark in the paper tells us is that Austen did not make her fair copy before 1805.

But how soon after? There’s good reason to think Austen’s fair copy was not written between 1805 and May 1809. She is unlikely to have copied out a new work called Lady Susan at a time when she still hoped to see another novel called Susan – the future Northanger Abbey, which in 1803 she sold to the London firm of Crosby. In April 1809, shortly before the move to Chawton, where she would have time to write, Austen sent a letter to Crosby asking him to publish Susan as he was contracted to do. She even threatened, if he did not, to place it elsewhere. Crosby reminded her that he had the copyright, and warned her not to publish unless she bought the novel back for the ten pounds he had paid her for it. For the time being she could not or would not spare the money. But from May 1809, when she learnt that Susan would not appear, she was free to turn to a Lady Susan. It’s not unreasonable to suppose she wrote it in the same years as her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1810-11, when she was 35 – the age of Lady Susan.

It’s still apprentice work, but closer to the mature novels. And the new date makes more obvious what the text quietly shows – Lady Susan is an adaptation from another writer’s work. The main plot, involving an unscrupulous woman visitor to an English country house, imitates Maria Edgeworth’s epistolary novel Leonora (1806).

In Edgeworth the Lady Susan character is Lady Olivia, a sophisticated Englishwoman long domiciled in France, who has separated from her husband, acquired a lover and left her daughter while she visits an old schoolfriend in England. Though advised that she is a ‘coquette’, Leonora and her husband take her in, and thus save her reputation. Olivia soon begins a campaign to seduce her hostess’s husband, partly as a test of her power, partly (she later explains) from a perverse wish to revenge herself on the too virtuous Leonora. Olivia succeeds, and when expelled from the house draws her lover after her. The revenge motif appears to derive from Madame de Merteuil, the brilliant villainess of Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), which Edgeworth is known to have read. Its repetition in the main plot of Lady Susan, along with a number of words and phrases, several of the minor plots just given, and the main pairs of correspondents, provide the basic evidence to link the two texts. The connection was pointed out by an American scholar, Abby Louise Tallmadge, in the TLS (4 January 1934). Since then Austenians, beginning with Frank Bradbrook (N&Q, 1954), have preferred to think that Austen must have read Les Liaisons dangereuses or been told about it by (who else?) her cousin Eliza.

Austen refers to Edgeworth in several novels, especially to her tales and novels of middle to high society published between 1801 and 1812, beginning with Belinda (1801). In addition to Olivia, an important model for Lady Susan is Mrs Beaumont, the devious protagonist of Edgeworth’s tale ‘Manoeuvring’, from the successful collection, Tales of Fashionable Life (June 1809). This energetic widow plans to marry off her daughter to a rich baronet she doesn’t love. When the plan fails, she makes the best of the situation, as she thinks, by marrying the baronet herself. Edgeworth’s plot becomes the basis of a secondary action in the later letters of Lady Susan. Austen draws attention to her source by echoing not just the story but Mrs Beaumont’s cunning conversational moves, and by twice using the unusual word ‘manoeuvring’ for Susan’s manipulative behaviour. The OED gives its standard 18th-century use as a technical term applied to the movement of ships, and Edgeworth’s tale as the earliest recorded case of its application to social behaviour.

Thanks to the notable success of Tales of Fashionable Life, which appeared in two three-volume sets in 1809 and 1812, Edge-worth commanded more attention than any other novelist in the prestigious journals. Competitors appearing on the scene about this time were likely to target her. Hannah More does so with a first novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809), that is as much involved in social criticism and political economy as Edgeworth’s writing, but from an Evangelical perspective. Scott presents Waverley in 1814 as a Scottish novel prompted by Edgeworth’s Irish ones. At the point when she becomes determined to publish, Austen, too, obeys the rules of the literary marketplace. She studies the opposition’s successful features; the result, Lady Susan, is a modified but identifiable Edgeworthian comedy of highlife manners.

Edgeworth was noted for portraying women of all classes, and child protagonists too, as articulate and self-reliant. Tomalin is right to say Austen endows her heroines with versions of these characteristics, but this was no different from what Edgeworth, and others too, were already doing. In Lady Olivia and Mrs Beaumont, two of the most negative of Edgeworth’s intellectuals, Austen picks out appalling women who qualify as comic (Olivia only barely) by their excess and because in the end they overreach themselves. Austen surely expects us to find her Lady Susan appalling, but in the comic mode. That means punishment would be out of keeping: a check to her scheming – i.e. allowing her daughter to escape – is just about right. Austen’s craft keeps pace step by step with Edgeworth’s – the plot, the self-conscious stylishness, and the reader’s pleasure in resourcefulness, however amoral.

Austen’s cull from two Edgeworth tales importantly distances her from her rival. She plays down the features in Edgeworth that proclaim the author a clever woman. Edgeworth’s reviewers admired her bookish, reflective narrative style, which later helped shape George Eliot’s. In these two stories literary quotation is dense. Olivia introduces into Leonora cross-references to Kant, Voltaire, many travel writers and recent fiction by French and English women, including Staël, Wollstonecraft, Genlis and Helen Maria Williams. Mrs Beaumont in Manoeuvring deploys Rousseau and Bacon on cunning in both public and private life, with special reference to the passage in Emile on teaching girls to use guile. Without their sources, the characters in Austen’s adaptation lose their intellectuality.

Again, the two Edgeworth stories have a political, wartime background. Multilingual allusions help to construct a cultural contrast between Catholic France and Protestant England, drawing on writers, ideas and public figures over two hundred years of sporadic warfare. This material must have appealed to Austen, as the sister of two sailors, yet her changes remove all traces of a national drama on a real-world stage.

Austen, who in the 1790s had used books in her writing, now in restarting her professional career apparently resolved not to. She also left out teaching, preaching, reflecting and taking sides on public issues. Raising issues was what ambitious contemporary women writers currently did. Lady Susan, indeed a milestone for Austen, shows her making this crucial aesthetic choice. Apparently she doesn’t arrive at her outstanding technique – which is what domestic biography cannot explain – in rural isolation or somehow naturally, by making realistic sketches of country life, or by acting out her unacted desires. Confidence, assertiveness and control don’t describe her artistic signature. She seems to find herself as a writer by exercising taste against her contemporaries, in fact by realising the late 18th century’s highest aesthetic value, simplicity. The simple and natural, the ultimate in style, appears when the artist learns to leave out most of what she knows, and what her rivals know. Austen the writer’s special quality is, after all, what observers of Austen the woman noticed – her reticence.