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.

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