Jane Austen’s novels present English country gentry of the early nineteenth century in such tartly intelligent and witty terms that her subjects are both particular to their time and place and universally human. She has never lacked for readers since Sense and Sensibilityfirst appeared in 1811. Born in 1775, Austen died in 1817, having completed six novels, of which four had been published at the time of her death.
The events of her life, as measured against the turbulent backdrop of history, were slight. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars all raged as she lived, as one of eight children in a country parsonage, and as she circulated in her familiar social circle. Never married, she became “dear Aunt Jane” to a lively brood of nieces and nephews. After her death, her family cherished her memory as that of a veritable saint, a devoted daughter and sister who was witty and wise, unfailingly kind, and almost too good to be true.
David Nokes, in Jane Austen: A Life, attempts to prove that “too good to be true” is not good enough for Jane Austen. Instead of a bland, angelic maiden aunt, she was a woman of wit and temper, often sharp-tongued, and at times profoundly discontented with her lot in life. Nokes uses a broad perspective to explore the family in which Austen lived and the wider world to which they belonged. The book begins with a vignette centered on a distant relative by marriage, one Tysoe Saul Hancock, a surgeon general in English colonial India. His wife, the beautiful Philadelphia Austen, was the sister of George Austen, Jane’s father.
The story of the Hancocks carries the tang of scandal. Philadelphia’s only daughter was rumored to be the child of Warren Hastings, later governor of India, rather than Hancock’s own. The luxuries that Hancock provided for his wife in England, from his post in the East, were an integral element in her place in the Austen family. Letters exchanged by the Hancocks are among Nokes’s primary sources for the early years of George Austen’s marriage to Cassandra Leigh. Hancock even wrote from India to deplore the reckless rate at which the Austen family grew.
As deeply rooted as the Austens were in English country life, they also were connected with the exotic and corrupt world of the English colonial system. Two of Jane’s brothers served as naval officers in the Napoleonic Wars, thus heightening the family involvement in the greater world. A third brother would marry Philadelphia’s daughter Eliza, after the execution of her first husband, a French count, during the French Revolution.
Jane Austen’s clergyman father, George, was never rich and was imprudent enough to sire a large family. His wife, Cassandra Leigh, was a clever woman, given to expressing herself in verse. She bore six sons and two daughters. Of her sons, one would be adopted by wealthy relatives and live out his days in financial ease. Another would follow his father as a clergyman. Two became naval heroes. The fifth, Eliza Hancock’s husband, was a banker. The sixth son was an idiot, one of the family secrets that Nokes explores. Cassandra Leigh’s family had already faced the sad circumstance of a mentally handicapped son, her brother, who had been permanently boarded with a farmer near the family home. When her own son proved to be similarly impaired, he was placed along with his uncle. Nokes maintains that this hidden brother provided Jane Austen with at least one character, the dead Dick Musgrove ofPersuasion (1818), an object of pity and interest only to his overly sentimental, often ridiculous mother. The perceivable impact on Austen’s life and family relationships of her own brother’s condition seems minimal.
The other, ambitious Austen sons were able to pursue various careers, but more limited avenues were open to the Austen daughters, Cassandra (the older) and Jane. Women of their day and class could plan on dependency of one kind or another, as a wife and mother, as a governess in a wealthy family, as a teacher in a school, or as a poor relation in the home of relatives. Cassandra was devoutly religious and serious in character. After the death of her fiancé, a young chaplain in the Royal Navy, she seemed content in her role of family caregiver.
Jane Austen, devotedly fond of her older sister, was less humble in her aspirations. She hated being poor; she valued money and the independence it could buy, as well as the frivolous luxuries and pleasures Cassandra scorned. It was a perpetual frustration to Jane to never have much disposable income, and she made many bitter jokes about her penniless condition. She envied the estate to which her brother Edward, adopted by wealthy relatives, fell heir. She rejected the possibility of teaching, as a...
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